The unique places in which we fly fish, or hike for that matter, add as much to the overall experience of fly fishing as anything except maybe the actual fish themselves. Unique wildlife for many of us is a huge bonus in these locations. Bears, by virtue of their rarity, awesomeness, and lethal potential are among the most exciting wildlife to see on a given trip. While experiencing bears is amazing, there is always the chance that a mistake might be made in bear country, as careful as a person may be. For this reason, some deterrent is a comfort if a bear becomes aggressive or even if you’ll simply be hiking around in bear country. At night, electrical wires are available to place around tents, and generally intelligent conduct towards bears is assumed in all cases. Guns have been a staple for folks traveling in bear country. For others, bear spray is the most convenient and practical, if not effective, protection from an aggressive bear. As convenient as bear spray is to carry and perhaps dispense, it is often far from easy to transport across borders and with all forms of transportation. It is quite a bit easier to transport a gun in these instances, in fact. Buying and transporting bear spray is not like buying a can of soup. There are all sorts of laws and precautions that could potentially make life difficult on an otherwise amazing trip. This article helps you get ahead of the game with bear spray, so that you can concentrate on enjoying your outdoor experience.
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND THE LIMITS OF BEAR SPRAY
The first line of defense against a bear is to practice proper bear conduct. Familiarize yourself with the proper way to act around bears and even the specific species/type, e.g., inland grizzly, coastal brown bear, and black. Learn as much about bears and bear spray as you can before you go, since there are people who have spent decades around bears, who can be valuable resources. Jim Johnson, owner of the Naknek River Camp in Alaska, has learned some valuable lessons over the years. He has learned that bear spray is very effective when needed. In thousands of bear encounters with his guides and guests, bear spray has only been used a half dozen times or so. In every case, the spray has performed beautifully. Johnson recommends that you become very familiar with how the specific canister works. How does the safety work, and how do you get it out of the holster etc.? He almost always carries bear spray in any wild place (not just Alaska) that might have bears since it is very light and can make all the difference in the world. In addition, when he is walking through very dense grass or in a situation where he might come upon a bear at close range, he will actually walk with his canister in hand because in the unlucky moment that you encounter a bear, you will not have a chance of pulling the canister out of the holster. He learned this lesson by coming around a corner only to have a humongous brown bear charge him and two people he was with. They both took off running while he stayed put. He learned how fast a charge can happen, and how he had no time at all to pull out his spray. You don’t have to be paranoid; just use the proper technique for the conditions. He has encountered hundreds of “charging bears” over the years, which can mean a bear rushing toward a salmon that you don’t see or for any other reason that you don’t see. Follow proper bear etiquette at all times and walk in as large a group as possible (bears become bolder the fewer amount of people in your group according to Johnson), and understand the function and limits of your bear spray.
BEAR SPRAY: NO FLYING INVOLVED
Tons of national parks and wild places in the United States and Canada are within driving distance. Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, etc. all have plenty of bears along with the incredible outdoor experience. If you intend to use bear spray and will not be flying, then your life is a lot easier, and I encourage you to bring your spray. I know people who regularly hike and fish within Yellowstone who take no bear spray at all. The odds that you’ll be safe in the park are very high, but bison, moose, wolves, black bears, and grizzly bears all pose real dangers if not treated with the respect they deserve. I personally feel so much more confident carrying a smallish canister of bear spray in these environments, and this might be enough to keep my cool in an encounter. Here are your options for transporting bear spray into these wild places.
1) Purchase it from the store and transport it in the car.
Simply drive to the nearest store and purchase your bear spray of choice and then store it in a safe place where it will do little damage if it dispenses by accident. Plenty of stores stock bear spray such as REI, Black Ovis, and Cabela’s. You can also order bear spray through the mail although many retailers will only ship to the lower 48 states. Transporting bear spray over the Canadian border is legal according to this 2020 memorandum (print out section 23.c on page 12), and the current website says nothing of the illegality of pepper spray meant for bears. It specifically mentions the illigality of pepper spray meant for humans though. I make no promises as to what they will do at the border, however, since that is their prerogative. Just make sure to let them know, and make sure that it is clearly marked as bear spray. You can call this number for any inquiries you might have: 1-800-731-4000.
2) Purchase it from a store near the destination.
Rather than purchasing the spray from a store or in the mail, simply locate a store near your destination and purchase bear spray there. You risk them not having the spray in stock when you go this route, but you don’t have to drive around with bear spray in the car. For the record, I’ve driven across the entire country with bear spray in a plastic bag. This does not guarantee that the spray will not get a leak while in your car, however, so transport the spray at your own risk, which should be minimal if the car is not baking hot. The main concern is making sure that the canister does not get hot. I keep mine in a plastic bag in case the canister leeks, but there are also more permanent containers for storage while traveling.
3) Rent it.
Another option is to rent spray near the destination to which you’re traveling. Rental places are found near Glacier, Yellowstone, and Alaska. In this case, you don’t have to bother with the spray when you’re done with your trip. If you are in the outdoors a lot, I would recommend just getting a can of the spray vs. renting it. I feel more comfortable with the spray for both large animals and dangerous humans. Otherwise, just bring the bear spray back to the rental store. See below for some renting options.
BEAR SPRAY: FLYING INVOLVED (SHIPPING BEAR SPRAY?)
Places like Alaska, Russia, and places in Canada are some of the most common spots to carry bear spray. The problem is that you need to fly to these destinations with both major commercial flights and smaller connecting flights, not to mention small beaver style planes. Like with hand grenades, but not as obviously, bear spray, or basically any self-defense spray for that matter, is prohibited on flights by the TSA, although I have had some tell me you could transport around 4 ounces. You do not want this going off at 30,000 feet. As stated above, you are allowed to have a very small amount on some flights, but this is usual way too small an amount to protect you against bears. For this reason, you need to look for other options if you like having some sort of spray protection when you’re hiking around with large predators.
1) Rent, purchase, or borrow from a location at or near your destination.
The first option is to rent it like you would even if you weren’t flying to the location. The problem here is that there are only so many places that rent bear spray. If you’re flying to a remote lodge or you’re going to be in a remote national park or wilderness area, there is no guarantee that you’ll even have the option to rent bear spray. The second option is to buy the bear spray rather than rent it. This will give you more options, say for instance, if you are flying into Anchorage and then driving somewhere to fish, say the Kenai River. However, this does not work if you are flying on a smaller flight to another part of Alaska, say King Salmon. In this case, the same restrictions apply as with a larger commercial flight. The third and best option if you are at a lodge is to borrow some bear spray from your lodge. Most lodges keep extra canisters of bear spray around for guides and some guests who would feel more comfortable with a can of bear spray, particularly when hiking into the bush with thick grass. They can lend you the bear spray and show you how to use it. If you make reservations before they ship all of there supplies up, they also might be able to throw in an extra canister for you, but ask them to be sure. To be honest, many lodges prefer that their guests not carry bear spray unless they have some solid experience with the animals, since they will more likely spray themselves or someone else before they spray a bear. These lodges let the guides carry the bear spray, but if you know yourself and would feel more comfortable, make arrangements to get yourself some bear spray. Besides these three options, there is one other main way.
BEAR SPRAY RENTALS
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
GRAND TETON/JACKSON HOLE
2) Purchase and have it sent to your future destination.
A theoretically cheap option is to ship bear spray up to your destination. Why would you want to do this? 1) There is no place close to where you will be that offers bear spray to rent, buy, or borrow. 2) You want to save money by shipping your bear spray, which can cost around $50 dollars per canister. In most cases with this option, the ground shipping is the same as if this were a box full of gumdrops, i.e., it’s more or less the same price regardless of its contents. You can choose one way or two way shipping, and see below for some details on shipping. After your trip, you can choose to ship it home, or dispose of it properly, and make sure that you are shipping it to as close to your final destination as possible. Otherwise, you may ship or send it for nothing if you have to take another plane after retrieving the spray. An exception is with bear spray and fly outs on smaller beaver style planes, since they can usually place the spray outside of the plane. However, ALWAYS make sure to tell the pilot so that he can place the bear spray on the outside of the plane. You don’t want to kill everybody on the plane when your bear spray goes off inside of the very small cabin. If you decide not to take your bear spray home, simply find an open area and empty the container. You can use this as a practice session with bear spray. The folks at UDAP recommend that once the container is empty, simply throw it away, but do not throw it away if the container is not empty. You can also give it away to your hosts at a lodge, to other hikers, or to game wardens within a park. In certain parks like Yellowstone, you will also find areas to dispose of your spray.
Hopefully the information in this article will make your life a lot easier when transporting bear spray. There are a lot of easy options, so choose the one that works for you. Just because you’ve never had a close encounter with a bear does not mean you won’t. Even someone like Jack Hanna, who has been associated with one of the most famous zoos in America, had to use his bear spray while hiking in Glacier. It worked beautifully for him as it should for you. Don’t let transporting bear spray be an obstacle to having a safe and amazing trip!
A NOTE ON SHIPPING BEAR SPRAY
A note on shipping bear spray. You are responsible for complying with the regulations established with the Department of Transportation. I have had two UPS agents tell me that you cannot ship bear spray unless you have been certified in hazmat safety. However, I have had a PHMSA agent tell me that this letter clarifies that “private individuals” do not need to be certified. Mail carriers will not help you prepare your package for transportation. They will only take a properly labeled package and ship it standard ground. The official documentation is tedious and took me over an hour and a half to put all together with the guidance of a PHMSA agent. If you decide to ship your bear spray, here is the documentation by which you must comply in order to send a legal package. I am by no means a lawyer but supply this to save you time, although you are responsible for what you end up shipping. I would suggest finding alternatives to shipping, since it is so time-consuming. Following are the steps on which I was instructed. Good luck, and have fun on your adventure!