A friend travelled to Alaska last summer, and took several guided trips in areas with large brown bear populations. In each case, according to his report, the guides were armed only with bear spray. On one of the trips, to Admiralty Island, my friend said that the guides were rangers. (He did not say about the other trips.)

The guiding companies or, in the case of Admiralty Island, the Park Service, must be confident that they can protect their clients with bear spray alone. A client mauled by a brown bear on a guided trip under the explicit protection of the company or the Park Service would make for very bad publicity. Tourism is important to the economy of Southeast Alaska. See KTOO Public Media, Report shows economic impact of tourism in Southeast.

What are the reasons for their confidence? I can think of several possible reasons or combinations of reasons:

(1) The tourists are taken to places where brown bears have become acclimated to people. This doesn't mean that the bears are tame; they are still wild and dangerous. However, they see people as a normal, harmless part of their environment.

(2) Bears are much more wary about a group of people -- say 4 to 8 people -- than one or two hikers, and the guides keep the people together.

(3) People don't smell yummy. They smell somewhere between yecch and meh

(4) The tourists are taken to places where the bears have an abundance of food.

(5) The bears do not associate people with food.

In other words, are the guides relying on managing the pre-encounter situations to prevent encounters ?

Another possibility:

(1) There is a backup guide/ranger with a gun out of sight of the tourists.

An answer specific to protecting tourists on guided tours in Alaska would be ideal. A more general answer about protecting clients who are on a guided tour against brown bears would also be useful.

  • 2
    I'm 100% sure I'd rather have lead bear spray, there was a guy mauled my a Brown Bear (Grizzly) not far from here who sprayed a whole can of bear spray and it did nothing. The bear ran right through it, mauled him, then came back later and mauled him a second time (probably because it was upset about the lingering spray sting). This is him right after he got mauled; all bloodied and flesh hanging off his arm: youtube.com/watch?v=tK609rbSBLs
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 23:36
  • If the guides aren't law enforcement, they might not be allowed to carry lead bear spray Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 23:39
  • @CharlieBrumbaugh Everyone I know carries a shotgun or .45-70 for bear protection with the exception of being in parks where they are restricted. I work with a guy who killed a Grizzly with a .22 once, but it was a very well placed shot to the head. You don't have to be law enforcement to carry a gun in the woods for protection.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 19:10
  • 1
    @ShemSeger What I meant was that it might not be possible for non-law enforcement Park employees to carry firearms. "There are two types of rangers, those with law enforcement powers such as Anderson, and interpretive rangers who have some of the same responsibilities but don’t carry guns, wear body armor or confront killers." washingtonpost.com/politics/… Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 19:27
  • 1
    @ab2 My experience is with Grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains. Alaskan Brown Bears (Kodiaks) are different. I wouldn't trust them to behave the same, they're know to waltz right up to fishermen and take their catches, then come back for more. Also, this movie was a part of my teenage childhood: imdb.com/title/tt0119051. Hence why I'd bring a gun to unfamiliar bear country.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 19:01

3 Answers 3


This is only a partial answer, and I don't feel comfortable citing the following source without permission.

I e-mailed a highly condensed version of my question to a reputable guiding company specializing in small group trips and custom charters in Southeast Alaska. This is the reply:

A trip into bear country is not without risk! The first and most important element of avoiding a bad bear encounter is the guide. Our guides have years of experience around coastal brown bears and they're constantly assessing the situation to put the group's safety first.

At Pack Creek (link added), we think bear spray to be an appropriate tool for deterring contact with a bear, particularly at a location where bears are accustomed to seeing people. Bear spray is statistically more effective than firearms. At locations where bears are not accustomed to seeing people, we may consider a firearm in addition to bear spray (emphasis added).

On custom trips, this company says, on their website, that they provide

professional wilderness guide with years of experience in bear country, and equipped with a bear protection firearm and canister of bear spray, a first aid kit, and marine radio. (Emphasis added.)

Note that these trips are day trips; if clients want to stay overnight, they sleep offshore on a chartered vessel.

In a recent example, near Sitka on a hike along a salmon stream, bear spray might or might not have been "enough". The case near Sitka, which does not involve the source quoted above, is reported here. There were about 20 tourists in a group, with a guide at the front and at the back. The guide at the front was attacked, and either did not have bear spray or did not have time to deploy her spray. (Accounts differ.) The guide at the rear rushed to her rescue and drove off the bear with his spray. The guide at the front was seriously but not fatally injured.


There are a number of circumstances where bear spray is at a disadvantage to firearms including environmental factors like wind, rain and cold temperatures.

Know the product! Winds, rain, snow, freezing temperatures and age of the product all play a role in the effectiveness of bear spray. If it’s expired, properly dispose of it according to manufacturer's recommendations and replace.


Also be aware that extreme heat or cold may affect the performance of the product. Canisters have been known to explode if left in a vehicle in summer. Each canister also has an expiration date.


Like a strong wind, hard rain requires a forceful spray to compensate for the elements.


Sometimes bear spray won't stop the bear or even cause the bear to react.

A lone female grizzly bear reportedly surprised a man hunting elk at Big Creek north of Gardiner on Oct. 28. The hunter reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks that he came upon the bear feeding on a carcass in the brush and that the bear charged him. The hunter said he first used bear spray to deter the attack then shot the bear in self defense.

The second incident was reported on Oct. 31 by a group of elk hunters who said they came upon and surprised a female grizzly bear with two young bears at Johnson Lake near West Yellowstone. The hunters said they first used bear spray on the charging bear but, as the bear continued to approach, they reportedly shot the bear in self defense.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Brad Benter, who has experience with spraying several bears that barely responded, describes spray as “better than nothing,” but warns people need to be aware it might not work very well.

Twice, Benter said, he has sprayed bears in the face from as close as six feet and solicited only a minimal reaction. In one case, he said, the bear backed away from the weatherport into which it had been peering. In the other, the bear just ignored the spray.

In neither of those cases did the spray spark aggression, but “it wasn’t like the bears went away,” Benter said.


During a recent interview with TIME, Orr described how he first spotted the grizzly bear and her cubs while he was hiking through Madison Valley to scout for elk. The next thing he knew, she was charging full speed at him, he said.He used his bear spray, which generally deters aggressive bears, but the grizzly jumped on top of him, biting his head and arms before walking back into the woods.

The Montana native says he then got up and began to jog back to his car, which was about three miles away. Ten minutes later, she was back, he said. This time, she bit his arm and shoulder before standing on top of him to make sure he was no longer a threat. Orr eventually managed to get up and hike out the rest of the way to his car.


When people talk about bear spray being more effective in studies they are usually referring to this one Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska and yet,

In Tom Smith’s bear-spray research, just 10 of 72 bear-spray incidents involved charging bears. Most incidents involved curious or non-aggressive bears. In contrast, his gun study examined bear attacks only.


People will say that in the study the people who used bear spray were uninjured compared to the people who used firearms, but since people have been seriously injured while using bear spray, it seems that the data is incomplete.

To put bear attacks in perspective, you are far more likely to be stabbed/robbed/murdered/raped by the two legged creatures you encounter and yet lots of people don't carry weapons to prepare for that eventuality. So I am not sure that I would say that the guides don't carry firearms because they are confident of not needing the them.


They might be confident to carry bear spray because it is the better and safer option than carrying a gun.

This was discussed a bunch of times on TGO already, one example of it can be found in this answer here, which cites sources claiming that bear spray shows 98% effectiveness in deterring grizzly attacks in Alaska, whereas bringing a gun did not show nearly as good results.

  • That study really isn't a good comparison to gun uses, and has a number of problems including the small sample size of aggressive bears. Bear spray does fail, and has done so in cases where guns ended up saving the day. Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 15:53

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