If you google “things you need to know before visiting Glacier National Park,” the first link that appears includes a reminder that you’re in grizzly bear country.
Entering the park, the signs are everywhere: “Bear Country: All Wildlife Is Dangerous Do Not Approach Or Feed.”
My wife and I were on the fence about buying bear spray, but talked ourselves into it after overhearing a conversation a forest ranger had with a local convenience store owner.
Store owner: Busy lately?
Ranger: Actually, yes. We’ve had quite a few bear sightings. I always tell people to carry bear spray. You pay for life insurance, and this is a form of insurance.
Store owner: I’ve been hiking this area for 30 years and always carry it with me.
So, we bought a can. I shopped around a bit and found one for $45, which seemed like a bargain given the prices of “higher-end” options. It came with a holster that I could fasten to my jeans, making the can, in theory, easily accessible at a moment’s notice.
A pun-laden manual that came with the spray — “Bear Safety Tips: Bear in Mind the Information — recommended testing it before hiking.
“Test fire downward,” the manual states. “Outside pointed safely away. Contents may travel and/or linger longer than expected. Using a quick half-second burst will increase safety and confidence with this product.”
A footnote in the manual explained that exposing your eyes to the spray could cause “irreversible damage.”
Given that the odds of me accidentally spraying into the wind and subsequently blinding myself were much greater than getting attacked by an actual bear, I skipped the practice test.
Instead, in an empty parking lot, I practiced pulling the can from the holster and firing at an imaginary beast until I got comfortable with the maneuver.
And so, spray can in tow, we went into the wilderness. We didn’t encounter any bears on that hike … or any other in the park. That’s the norm, of course, as sighting are rare and attacks even rarer.
I know it’s a “form of insurance,” as the ranger put it, but I couldn’t help but think I had wasted my money. If a bear charges you in the wild, the spray might not even help. The bear spray manual clearly states that more than once.
(“Although nothing is 100 percent guaranteed effective,” the manual says, “here are some tips that might prove to be useful in an encounter.)
Here’s a tip that might prove useful when considering whether to buy bear spray: if you’re not comfortable practicing because you’re afraid you might shoot yourself in the face, take your chances in bear country without it.