By Tony Barthel
If you want to start a controversy in any RV social media group, bring up the topic of self-defense. You will get passionate responses from all sides about what’s best and why. Recently I had a chance to speak with several people about the use of bear and pepper sprays for self-defense, as well as firearms.
What are they?
Bear spray, pepper spray and muzzle spray are all essentially created from oleoresin capsicum, which is the “hot” in things like cayenne pepper.
Because pepper spray is a product derived from hot peppers, it is nonlethal but it certainly can disable a predator without killing them. The effects of pepper spray wear off in about half an hour. It is legal to use in all 50 states, although the specifics of its use vary by jurisdiction.
With the recent conflicts across the U.S., we’ve seen the effects of pepper spray on humans. It causes temporary blindness, nausea, burning sensations, inability to breathe temporarily and other bothersome symptoms.
Human pepper sprays come in a very wide number of forms and concentrations. They are essentially unregulated, so purchasing them from a reputable company is wise. There are gels, sprays and streams. The form factor for the sprayer itself varies tremendously.
While human pepper spray is powerful, bear spray is even more so. It is designed to give you more space between yourself and the bear, so it can spray further. While human pepper spray is about 1.33 percent capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, bear spray is 2 percent.
Bear spray for self-defense?
Are we advocating the use of bear spray? Not at all. In fact, several readers brought up the question of being charged with an assault for using bear spray on a human. But in searching the Internet for this, there was no evidence of that.
Another important aspect of bear spray is that it is an agricultural product; in this case, a pesticide. It is regulated by the EPA and every product that calls itself bear spray needs to go through their regulatory processes. Every can of bear spray must have an EPA registration number displayed on the container.
But since it’s a pesticide, it is not intended for use for personal protection.
Yet, according to attorney Vitaliy Kertchen of Tacoma, Washington, via the website AVVO.com, “Regarding use of pepper spray, you can use it so long as its use is reasonable and necessary (like all use of force in self-defense). Once you raise self-defense, the prosecutor must disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Still, cans of bear spray do protect their manufacturer by advising to use the product for its “intended purposes only.”
I spoke with bear expert Steve Searles for my own podcast about bear safety and bear spray. He recommends carrying bear spray for the people in his inner circle.
Is it legal to carry bear spray?
It is legal to carry bear spray, particularly if you’re going to be traveling where you might encounter bears. There are no rules about crossing state lines with bear spray. It can be purchased even in Hawaii, New York, or Massachusetts, where standard pepper sprays are illegal unless bought locally by certified firearms dealers or pharmacists. In Canada, while legal for use against bears, bear spray is a prohibited weapon if intended to be used against humans.
And what about wasp spray for self-defense?
Another tool we’ve heard advocated is wasp spray. According to Nicole Robbins, SABRE Quality Assurance and Safety Manager: “The amount of active ingredients in the spray (according to the label) are 0.04% to 0.06%; the compound is typically ‘pyrethrin or pyrethroids, which come from a species of chrysanthemum plant.” This active ingredient is meant to disrupt a wasp’s nervous system.
“Independent testing concludes that wasp spray is ‘minimally’ irritating to human eyes, so how could it be expected to incapacitate a goal-oriented attacker?”
In a previous article, Do You Hate Guns, we heard from Mike Sherman, a retired law enforcement officer, on the use of firearms for self-protection. In speaking further with Mike for this article, he said, “As a retired cop, I always defer to my training and knowledge…. I became proficient in the use of a firearm, and I know it has a conclusion that is absolute. But my training and experience is not applicable to the general public, so trying to get them to understand the need for training and practice can be difficult.
“One thing I know to be a fact is that a handgun is just about the best defense over anything else because if one is lucky enough to get off a couple of shots to the upper torso and/or skull, the threat is eliminated. The results are usually immediate. So I advocate most people learn to shoot a gun….become familiar with it, use it as a last resort.”
However, there are significant laws about carrying firearms that an owner should be familiar with. The book “Traveler’s Guide to the Firearm Laws of the 50 States” is also a good reference.
Furthermore, for anyone who does choose to carry, and I am someone who does, one of the most important things to do is to become proficient in the use of that firearm through training and education. It can indeed be a permanent solution to a problem but one that can lead to significant legal ramifications. If you shoot someone you’re going to deal with the courts almost invariably and it can get expensive if it’s not clearly self-defense.
Remember, too, that RVs are very flimsy, wobbly boxes and even a small-caliber bullet can travel through several RVs before it ultimately stops.
How do you stay safe, then?
There is no single answer to this. But a podcast interview with former law enforcement officer Ginny Craven leaves you with these thoughts:
- Be vigilant – be aware of alternate routes.
- Know where you are – be able to describe your exact location to a dispatcher.
- Have a place where you write the name of the place you are camping including the address and site number. Also, know what county you are in.
- Evaluate your surroundings when you arrive and be aware of what’s going on and what’s around you.
- Pay attention to your instincts.
- Use the buddy system – know where your fellow campers are.
- Perhaps find out the channel a campground is using on their own walkie-talkies and be able to contact them in an emergency.
- Don’t be isolated. But if you’re alone – don’t invite others into your RV.
In summary regarding self-defense
Occasionally we read about tragedies that our fellow RVers experience at the hands of another individual or even due to an unfortunate interaction with wildlife.
Being aware and cognizant of your surroundings is always good advice. Whether you choose to carry some form of protection with you and what that form of protection is, is totally your decision. Whatever you choose, it’s best to be aware of rules and regulations regarding its use and be aware of how to operate it properly so that the effects you desire are the ones you achieve.
Perhaps it’s best to stick with pepper spray for humans, bear spray for bears, and wasp spray for, well, wasps…
Your polite and respectful comments are welcome.
I have read 4 stories over the last year about bears and bear spray…the bears won in each case. So don’t risk your life on bear spray alone.
I backpack in Yellowstone, where I do carry bear spray- as it is grizzly country. I found at least one place in California (The Emigrant Wilderness) where we found out bear spray is illegal. I backpacked there a couple years ago- and of course they only have black bears there- and apparently have had no problems. I had no problem with this policy as I do not consider black bears to be a threat.
I downloaded the StateLines app you suggested because you see the Carry” laws. I did and it cost me $5 but nowhere does it mention gun carry. It’s not a very useful app for RV travelers. Am I missing something.
I just checked the app and that functionality isn’t there. I have contacted the developer to see if I was in error or if that was pulled or what but I sincerely apologize for the misinformation. I have also taken it out of the article. Heck, I’d even be willing to send you $5 as I don’t want you to have wasted your money.
Dont Tread On Me…
I started using Google Maps a number of years ago prior to traveling to Philly via the railroad and then having to walk a few blocks to my destination. I wanted to ensure that I went the right way to avoid wasting time and any other unnecessary nastiness and by doing this bit of recon I not only got where I needed to go but actually felt like I had been there before. I now use it whenever I travel and especially anyplace new so I know my way in and more importantly out (and other exit routes, especially when natural disasters are a heightened risk (floods, landslides, protests etc)).
Personal experience with bear spray. Accidentally discharged in my RV unbeknownst to me after hitting a bump. At first I thought I was having a heart attack and if you have ever had the fear of not being able to breathe imagine not wanting to breathe and preferring death. I was able to pull over and noticed the can on the floor by the side door and some orange liquid and was at least relieved to know what killed me. At least a half hour before I was able to continue. Great article and comments especially taking it all very serious as this is life changing stuff.
I had a can of bear pepper spray Inside a compartment on the inside of my driver’s door on my pick up. I had the door open and was standing outside of the pick up with my boot on the floor board as I was lacing up the boot. My elbow hit the trigger on the pepper spray and I got blasted in the face with the spray. It was a very unpleasant experience, I had a hard time breathing, started coughing and my face and eyes were burning with pain. Fortunately I had a couple bottles of water to wash over my eyes. I was pretty incapacitated for several minutes. I went home instead of going to work. I took a shower which caused more pain as it reactivated the pepper. I was pretty much out of action until the following morning. I don’t know why the safety mechanism on the pepper spray was missing. I am a believer in the effectiveness of the spray.
I recently found an alternative manufactured by Kimber America, who manufacture top notch firearms. The have what is known as a peeper blaster. It fires a small blast of goo made of capsicum. It is held and fired like a small pistol with two shots in it. It will disable an attacker for 45 minutes. Check it out Lot easier to carry than a bear spray and is just as bad
Kimber rocks! Pepper blaster may be good but in an amped up situation (28 years as an LEO in CA) most peeps adrenaline will make them miss. A stream or fog of potent OC a safer bet for the vast majority.
Bear spray concentrations of Oleoresin Capsicum are actually lower than the pepper spray carried by police and for civilian self defense. https://www.bushcraftpro.com/bear-spray-vs-pepper-spray/
Very true but for the vast majority of the populace, in an adrenaline pumping situation, most will have trouble with the stream. The fog of bear spray is a no miss situation for the most part, enough time for someone to run or resort to a different weapon.
One thing you failed to mention would be the Byrna system. They claim to be legal in all States and appear to be a good alternative to a firearm.
It’s a pepper-spray “paintball” pistol driven by CO2, and while I can’t speak for Tony, *I* wouldn’t recommend it. If you live in an anti-defense, pro-criminal state like I do, it may be better than nothing… but not much better.
Limited effect, limited range, limited ammo, greater potential for dead-CO2 cartridge. So, much worse for defense IMHO.
It’s still “potentially” lethal, so still a legal liability for you to be prosecuted.
It LOOKS like a pistol, and could make police react very badly towards you.
Users of this probably won’t get the same extensive training as CCW, as to when/how/why to use it… so I would “expect” less competent/more dangerous usage.
Excellent article, so thanks to the author writing and RVT for publishing his safety advice.
(As a several decades personal defense instructor), I’ll second/expand a few points:
1) If you’re serious about stopping a lethal threat, lethal force IS the best option. That means a firearm and PLENTY of training in the mechanics of HOW, the mindset of WHY, and what to do when the smoke clears and sirens finally arrive.
2) If you search your soul and know you really couldn’t drop the hammer no matter what, know that and take more evasive actions than defensive ones. Know yourself.
3) Wasp spray: absolutely not. I’ve sprayed myself by accident while taking down nests and it’s mildly annoying, not remotely effective stopping me from continuing anything I wanted to do.
4) Pepper spray: legally the best tool after clear words, but can be totally ineffective against people on certain drugs, and may even escalate your problem if you fail to REALLY hit an attacker.
4b) ALSO: you have to be very careful using pepper in enclosed spaces like cars, RVs, bathrooms, etc — many put out enough “cloud” spray that you gas yourself. Car jackers laugh when the driver gasses themselve worse than what they spritz out the window.
5) USE THE WEAPON AT HAND. Even though I advise a sidearm for most people who are willing, it may not be in reach when you need it. Don’t get defensive tunnel vision! In class, I use the example of a woman cooking at home — throw the pot of boiling water, follow through with the cast iron pot itself, and the glass bowl. Never mind the knives unless you’re really good hand-to-hand, maybe not even then.
5b) I teach Realtors to carry EasyOff because it “Removes stubborn cling-on scum.”
5c) If bear spray is the first can in reach, USE it. You didn’t have time when brutally attacked to call your assailant’s lawyer for their approval.
(Continued again. This is annoying.)
6) Whatever you use, USE it until the threat is REALLY over, not delayed for a fresh attack. Talk nice first, try to (!)realistically(!) avoid, but once you actually swing/draw/spray/whatever, you KEEP FIGHTING UNTIL THE THREAT CANNOT CONTINUE THEIR ATTACK.
7) When is the time for 6? If your assailant wants to move you outside, sure. Put you in the car, STOP THEM. If the bear lets you back away, great. Backs you towards a wall or charges, STOP THEM. The instant you begin losing the advantage is the time to act, and do so all-in.
8) Air horns – I carry a manual one (with a plunger I can hit against my leg, not compressed gas that’s always leaked empty when you most need it).
9) Flashlight – I carry one with (I think?) an XP170 LED head — about 5000lm by my estimate if a “blinding bright” T6 tactical light is 800lm. This ACTUALLY turns night into noon-sun, and has a strobe mode NO ONE can stand to look towards. It also signals location just by aiming the light column upward.
If that couple on the Padre Island National Seashore that perished in a shallow grave in the dunes had read this, they might be alive today. I have bear spray and a fire arm, I’d rather try to convince a panel of 12 that I was innocent and protecting myself than end up in a shallow grave. This has raised my awareness. It is so easy to let your guard down and become complacent. There are evil people out there that look normal. Oh , what is scary is that I was camping on the PINS that year, could have been me if they had decided to hit someone a month earlier. Thank you Tony.
Good advice. Thanks!
As a former letter carrier who has used postal service supplied dog spray for protection from dogs, try to be upwind from the target. If it blows back on you, it will burn and not be comfortable at all.
If after the travel restrictions are lifted if you plan to travel to Canada or Mexico from the USA do not bring any Pepper, Bear Spray or Mace with you it will be confiscated. You can purchase it in those countries but not bring it in.
And firearms, although you can’t purchase them.
Incorrect. You can bring bear spray back and forth into and out of Canada. It just has to be labeled for bears. I believe it might even need to have a picture of a bear on the can.
Having the science information behind the different sprays and a reminder about all of the different laws that could come in to play for both sprays and especially firearms, is a good way to help a person make an informed decision no matter what it is. Thank you. Always appreciate reminders and ideas for safety.
Good article. I’m a retired with 30 years in law enforcement, military veteran and competitive shooter while in the Army. I agree 100% that if you are going to carry a weapon(gun) of any sort you MUST practice and be proficient as well as being informed of the laws you are traveling in. The Air Horn suggestion is useful and one I can attest to and it works well with humans, dogs and bear! I have all three; firearm, bear spray and air horn in my RV and a riot baton near the door. Another item we have inside is a bright hand held light(1000 lumen). Some of you may think “over kill”, but the right tool for the right situation.
Thank you for your service and sharing your strategy. BTW, at least here in California, civilians carrying a baton is a felony. So I carry FOX FIVE point THREE pepper spray on my belt wherever I go (primarily if another dog attacks my Siberian Husky).
No surprise that an old wood baton is illegal in California. I use mine as a tire thumper. Looks like I’ll be stopping at the border!
Baseball bats are legal. Especially when carried with a ball and glove. Just sayin’.
Amen brother! That Fox is great stuff! I too was an LEO for 30ish years! As a lifelong CA, off duty I couldn’t carry my expandable asp while hiking with my puppers. I did use the snot out of my expandable hiking pole. Sharp on one end, hard cork ball on the other, almost as effective as my asp. Between my voice, demeanor, pepper spray, hiking stick and S&W Shield 9mm, I’m ready for travel anywhere. Since I fled CA immediately upon retiring (as did 25 other retiring cops from our county I know) to Montana, it’s all about the Marlin 45-70 for big brownies while I fish :^)
I worked for DHS for a number of years. We used Wasp Spray as our first line of defense. I don’t know of any testing that has been done on humans, but that is what we used.
Lots of Montana newbies are all hat, no cattle.
I know a Sheriff in our town that has told me many stories about trying to arrest a drug high bad guy. Many are not affected by pepper spray at all and a few weren’t stopped by Tazers as well. Do not think that if you have pepper spray you’ll be safe. It’s going to depend on if the bad guy is high or not. Of course depending if the guy was smoking a joint or crystal meth going to be the factor with the crazy meter. Choose your defense wisely.
Unfortunately you’re absolutely right, if someone is out of their minds or under the influence of some of these more potent hallucinogens your options to stop them are limited.
Excellent article Tony, I am a lifelong competitive shooter and supporter of 2A.
That said, one must practice regularly to maintain proficiency. Simply buying a gun, perhaps shooting it once, won’t do anything.
One app I’ve found helpful while traveling is the Concealed Carry App – CCW Laws. It keeps up to date with the various laws, providing the necessary information to legally & safely transport my firearms.
If one isn’t willing to take the time to practice, don’t take a gun.
Thank you, Pete.
Even though I’m an NRA member these states that allow conceal carry without a permit scare the heck out of me. That is a serious responsibility. Not something to be taken lightly.
My wife and I have CC permits where we attended classes and qualified at a range.
As a resident of one of those states that scare you so much I can tell you that there’s less to be afraid of here than in a state where no one is allowed to have a weapon. Oh and by the way most mass shootings take place in “no gun” zones for good reason. The shooters don’t need to worry about being stopped by someone who carries concealed.