Tom Smith

If you’re hiking in bear country, your best defense against an attack is a can of spray — not a gun — according to a new study out of Brigham Young University.

BYU biologist Tom Smith and his colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of bear-human conflicts in Alaska for the study, which appears in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

They found no statistical difference in the outcome (no injury or fatality) when they compared those who used a gun in an aggressive encounter to those who had firearms but didn’t use them.

“It really isn’t about the kind of gun you carry; it’s about how you carry yourself,” says Smith, who has researched bears for 20 years. “We need to respect an animal that could potentially take our lives.”

Why Firearms Aren't Foolproof When Faced With a Bear

The study is particularly significant given a 2010 law that allows people to carry guns in national parks. As a result, more people are arming themselves than ever before. But, Smith says, “Guns, for most people, are not their best option.”

The researchers point out that using firearms in bear encounters is challenging even for experts because of the need for split-second deployment and dead-on accuracy. “Once a bear charges, the odds of a successful outcome are seven times less likely, regardless of whether or not you have a firearm,” says co-author Randy T. Larsen, a professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU.

The Merits of Special Bear Pepper Spray

Instead, the researchers suggest carrying a nonlethal deterrent, like bear spray. “It’s much easier to deploy, less cumbersome and its success rate in these situations is higher than guns,” Smith says. In a 2008 study, Smith found that bear spray effectively stopped aggressive bear encounters in 92 percent of the cases.

Bear spray is a liquid pepper solution that comes in a can and sells for about $35. The hissing sound and sight of the spray cloud are often enough to scare away a bear. And the burning caused by the red pepper juice will usually stop a bear from attacking.

Above all, Smith says, hikers need to follow conventional wisdom by trekking in groups, avoiding areas of poor visibility and minimizing the amount of noise they make.

“If you act appropriately and you carry bear spray, you are much better off than just blundering into bear country with a large firearm,” he says.