Bear spray: Three proper carrying methods

Our Brooks Range trips start next week, so both clients and guides are in the final stages of their preparations. One question that hit my inbox this morning was:

What is your recommended method of carrying bear spray?

This is a great question to ask before a trip, because your options may be limited or sub-optimal if they’re not considered until at the trailhead.


Methods to properly carry bear spray should (in order of priority):

  1. Reduce or eliminate the risk of the spray being dropped and lost;
  2. Keep the spray easily accessible;
  3. Not interfere with basic mechanics, like walking, buckling your hipbelt, and moving your head.


I don’t think there is a single best way to carry bear spray, as it depends on factors like:

  • The design, size, and features of your backpack (e.g. daypack versus multi-day pack, traditional shoulder pack versus waist pack);
  • The chances of you needing it, which is a factor of where you are (i.e. bear density, visibility) and whether you are solo or in a group.

So select a method that works for you.

Recommended methods of carrying bear spray

I recommend carrying your bear spray using one of these methods:

  1. On a shoulder strap,
  2. On a hipbelt, or
  3. In a side pocket.

Method 1: Shoulder strap

On a shoulder strap, the spray is easy to keep track of and easy to access. It’s more “in the way” here, but it’s not intolerable.

To carry bear spray on a shoulder strap, your backpack will need either:

  1. Good: Fixed elasticized loops with cinch locks;
  2. Better: Aftermarket pocket;
  3. Best: Permanently attached pocket.

Method 2: Hipbelt

Some brands of bear spray (including but not limited to UDAP) come with a holster that can be threaded through the hipbelt. Like with the shoulder strap, in this location the spray is easy to keep track of and easy to access. But it can mildly interfere with your stride, and the holster can slide off the hipbelt when you’re putting on or taking off the pack.

On the hipbelt

Method 3: Side pocket

The side pocket can be a poor choice for carrying bear spray:

  1. Many backpackers lack the dexterity to easily access these pockets, and
  2. Many side pockets are poorly designed and inherently difficult to access.

Moreover, it’s difficult to keep track of the bear spray when it’s in a side pocket — if it were “stolen” by brush or if it slipped out while scrambling or crawling, you might not notice that it’s gone until it’s too late. So, if you use this method, I highly recommend installing a tether using accessory cord. Attach this tether to the spray using a bowline or figure-8, and to your shoulder strap using a girth hitch.

The chief benefit of storing bear spray in a side pocket is that it’s completely out of the way. If you’re not in prime grizzly habitat, if you have expansive views, or if you’re in a large group, it’s reasonable to let your guard down some.

In a side pocket. If you use this method, I strongly recommend using a tether made out of accessory cord.

Cold weather considerations

Reader Bill offered some tips about carrying spray in colder temperatures:

Tom Smith and colleagues published results of experiments in “An Investigation of Factors Influencing Bear Spray Performance” (free from ResearchGate). They document canister pressure-head vs. temperature. Bear spray functions at low temperatures but with diminishing effectiveness as temperature cools.

I live and recreate in occupied grizzly range and when temperatures are below 50 deg F, I transport the canister next to my skin, either in a pants pocket or from a holster attached to a short paracord lanyard inside the front of shirt or jacket, sized so that the canister is easily reachable (above pack sternum strap). Carrying in pants pocket makes it really handy to grab when I want to carry in my hand as when vision is limited such as in timber or brush, crest of hill, or bend in trail.

And I always carry a spare canister in a holster attached to the front of my pack, adhering to the oft heard principal (at least in the GYE) of “one for the bear and one to get back to the car”.

Have questions about carrying bear spray? Or do prefer another method? Leave a comment.

Posted in , on June 8, 2021


  1. Chris FormyDuval on June 8, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    I usually place holster on pants belt or waistpack belt, on left left side for right handed draw.

  2. Ray on June 8, 2021 at 11:02 pm

    Very useful, esp. since I was hunted down by a bear once. No fun for sure.

    Is there a particular type or brand of bear spray you can recommend?


    • Andrew Skurka on June 9, 2021 at 9:33 am

      The best bear spray is the one that’s in your hands!

      Thankfully I’ve never had to use it, and definitely not twice so I could commpare. I think you’ll have to rely on manufacturer specs, but I’m uncertain how valuable they are or if they’re apples-to-apples.

      • Ray on June 9, 2021 at 11:08 am

        Haw! I thought that when I met the bear. Fortunately a log sized branch was near me so I held it above my head and firmly suggested the bear leave. It was a stand off for a few minutes so I was very fortunate it changed its mind. One of the scariest moments of my life!

        Thanks for all your tips and such — I bought your new book yesterday and am looking forward to diving into it.

        Hike on!

  3. Jay C on June 9, 2021 at 12:03 pm

    When I carry bear spray, besides how easy it is to access (and lose/drop), the other thing I worry about is how likely it is I would fall onto it and either break the head off the container or rupture it.

    Not directly related to your post, but do you and your clients carry something to wash your hands etc if you use the spray? That stuff is a mess to deal with post spray, some from backspray & drips get on my hands the few times I have used it.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 10, 2021 at 11:17 am

      I’ve had one accidental discharge, for a split-second, and it ruined his pants. Even after letting the pants sit in soapy water for a night, he couldn’t get that chemical out of them.

      We don’t bring anything specific for post-use. I think the hope is that we don’t need to use it. And if we do, you’ll be happy that you’re still alive afterwards and need to clean up somehow.

  4. Matt J on June 19, 2021 at 9:34 am

    On the HMG packs I’ve found that the UDAP holster fits perfectly, almost too perfectly, between the belt pockets and the bag itself. It’s easy to grab from there and doesn’t interfere with anything. And while it’s out of the way you still feel it a little to know that it’s still there.

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