Several years ago I spent a couple of weeks camping in Alaska with about thirteen other guys, nine of which were teenagers. The Alaska part was great, but I don’t recommend making a long trip like that with a bunch of adolescent boys. The testosterone levels in the short bus we traveled in often reached the point where we had to stop and air out the vehicle for a few hours before we could continue.As a result of that trip, people often ask me questions about how to survive in the Wilderness of Alaska. OK, that’s only happened a couple of times, but it surprised me that it happened at all. It’s not like I’m an expert or anything. I think I told those people the surest way to survive in the Alaskan wilds is not to leave your hotel room.Backpacker magazine, on the other hand, has people claiming to be experts about stuff like that. I get emails from Backpacker about every five minutes, full of articles about how to make camp food, and splint broken necks, and bandage blisters, and cross raging streamlets, etc. I’m often tempted to tell Backpacker to quit sending me the emails, but sometimes these articles are entertaining. By which I mean really stupid.For example, the most recent Backpacker newsletter contains an article called ‘Escape Plan: Use Bear Spray Safely.’ I clicked on the link, even though I know how to use bear spray safely. I always make sure there aren’t any zoo employees around, and then I hose down the bears across that moat thing. That’s the smart way to do it, so they can’t get to you. Because if you hit a bear with that stuff on open ground, he’s going to think it’s an appetizer, and come eat you.And before I get a bunch of angry, spittle-flecked emails from people who think bear spray is the thing to use while camping or hiking in wilderness country, to disuade the bruins from attacking, let me just point out one tiny little flaw in your plan. You are an idiot. And I say that with the greatest respect.I really mean that respect part, because I don’t think I’ve got the backbone to go into bear country with nothing for protection except a can of pressurized condiments. Anyone who does that, as far as I’m concerned, is either very brave, or doesn’t really have a firm grasp of the situation.Yes, I know, you’re going to tell me your uncle Wilbur was hiking in Colorado, and a bear came along, and uncle Wilbur sprayed him with the habanero/cayenne/jalapeno super deluxe spray that has been proven to remove the skin of a cape buffalo, and the bear ran off wimpering like a dog trying to pass a peach seed. Fine. Good. I know that’s happened. But I think the bear probably wasn’t all that hungry or angry or interested to begin with.My belief is that if you use that stuff on a bear that’s been in hibernation for several months, or a mother with cubs, or a boar that got up on the wrong side of the cave, all it will do is make the bear more aggressive. And then you’re nothing but an entrée.Plus, pepper spray has a range of about 30 feet. Personally, I think that’s just a little too close to be to a bear, unless there are large diameter bars between me and him, or if I’m looking through the sights of a big gun. A bear can cross 30 feet in about two seconds.Not only that, but the wind is a factor with bear spray. If a bear is attacking, or looks like he might be thinking about attacking, I’ve got better things to do than lick a finger and judge the wind direction. Like panic, for one. If the bear spray blows back in your face, not only are you still in danger from the bear, you can’t even see what he’s doing. And I’ve experienced a lot of things in fifty years, but I have yet to see a bullet blown backward by a breeze.But getting back to the insane advice from Backpacker magazine, the comments, as usual, were the best part. One fellow said, “Every person should always carry two large cans of bear spray, and a .44 magnum.” Personally, I carry a .22. It’s lighter, and you can shoot your buddy in the foot and run.Of course, the .44 mag guy was blasted pretty good by the bear huggers, but he’ll probably still be around later, after his detractors have become fertilizer. Any gun is preferrable to spray, and the bigger the better. Some of the folks in Alaska told me they carry .45 ACP pistols, some .454 Casulls, and some shotguns. I never met an Alaska resident who carried a can of bear spray.If you’re not comfortable with guns, and you insist on camping in bear country, by all means, take some pepper spray. It might work. I can’t say, because on my trip to Alaska, the bears never got that close to us. The testosterone level in that bus was just too high . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who never goes into bear country without several pairs of clean underwear. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org