Warning: Do Not Spray Yourself with Bear Spray
Our hiking columnist recently suffered a painful accident while traversing the Continental Divide Trail
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Outside’s Trail Magic hiking columnist Grayson Haver Currin is attempting to bag the triple crown of hiking. He’s already thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, with one more to go: the Continental Divide Trail. He’ll share notes from the field as he walks with his wife for the rest of the year. Here’s his second file, just after they finished hiking through Glacier National Park. Tune in on Outside’s Instagram to follow his journey.
How I wish I could regale you with the heroic tale of the first and only time I have used bear spray.
Picture this: I’m 1,200 miles into my southbound hike of the Continental Divide Trail, having just entered Wyoming after crisscrossing the serrated Montana-Idaho border at least 300 times. I’m in Yellowstone National Park, prime real estate for both grizzly bears and unprepared tourists. As I twist down switchbacks, bound for Old Faithful and an evermore faithful cup of coffee, I spy an unwitting family of four below me, agog at some hydrothermal seep but oblivious to the fact that they’ve stepped between a grizzly cub and its brawny, brown, beautiful mother.
Seeing the scene unfurl from above, I drop my pack, push the plastic safety clip off the “UDAP Pepper Power Magnum” (what a name!) I’ve carried since leaving Canada, and race ahead, diving like a short stop gloving a would-be single, landing between the family and the colossal guardian the second they spot her. When the cloud of orange goo that is bear spray clears, mother and cub have vanished, and all humans are present and hale. They treat my tramily (yes, my trail family) to an overpriced dinner at the Old Faithful Inn. We pose together before I hike on, a newly minted god of the woods.
Alas, I am not a paladin of bear spray. I am, instead, the dolt who accidentally coated himself in the stuff several hundred miles south of grizzly territory, then spent the 60 hours between the canister explosion and the next available bathtub whining incessantly about how much it still hurt.
For the next three days, bear spray—super-concentrated and turbocharged pepper spray, made to hit its target from 30 feet away—ravaged or at least annoyed most every organ system of my body. My skin ached like a solar flare. My lungs squawked and spasmed in shallow coughs, like I’d smoked a bowl of pure ghost pepper resin. My lips stung and my eyes poured tears, though they’d been spared a direct hit. Because it landed on and leeched through my plastic food bags and water bottle, my digestive system remained at a roiling boil. My privates created a public health crisis. It all made me as irritable as that aforementioned mother bear. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, bear spray has never killed anyone. During my ordeal, however, I occasionally wished the sun would simply swallow me, since I felt like I was being broiled alive by it, anyway.
Lest you consider me an idiot who should be forever barred from leaving the house, I should offer some context. (If you still consider me an idiot who should be forever barred from leaving the house after reading on, that’s fair, too. I’ve my own doubts.) In mid-June, two weeks before heading for the CDT’s northern terminus, I realized I’d never meet all my deadlines before the hike began. I bought a refurbished MacBook Air (three pounds, OK?) and a beautiful Dyneema sleeve (a few grams) to stow it safely from rain. Many mornings, I wake at 3 A.M. and write for three hours in the tent, as I’m doing now. I relish the contemplative stillness, before the day’s many-miles-per-hour marathon begins.
By early August, I’d met most of my deadlines and began looking forward to a little more sleep. But then, famed guitar player Robbie Robertson—a songwriter responsible for at least a half-dozen of rock’s best songs—died. When the great British magazine MOJO asked me to memorialize him, I couldn’t resist. I squeezed a half-dozen interviews into every town day and, again beginning at 3 A.M., wrote much of the piece the day it was due in a cheap Wyoming hotel room. My wife, Tina, and I hitchhiked three hours back to trail, hiked 20 miles into the Great Divide Basin, and made camp beneath a nearly full moon on the banks of the gentle Sweetwater River. I finished the last paragraph after nodding off twice, missing a 7 A.M. London deadline by only 15 minutes.
Rest was fitful. I knew that, across the Atlantic, a trusted editor was toying with text that needed to head to the printing press in a day. And I also knew that I needed to be awake in five hours to begin a 40-mile push through the arid, windy basin if I were to make camp along a creek clotted with cow shit by nightfall. I awoke in a delirious daze, then, stuffing everything into my pack pell-mell, as though I hadn’t done it the same way for two months. I needed to move.
In my sleepless haste, I hadn’t noticed that the bear canister’s safety mechanism—that is, an inch-long piece of plastic attached to string, nestle above the bear spray’s trigger—had inexplicably fallen off. I was hoping to drop the canister off at home one state south. I did notice it, however, when I crammed my cookpot into my pack alongside the can, inadvertently jamming the trigger down and unleashing a jet of beastly, blaze-orange venom. I pulled back as soon as I recognized the calamity, but the deed was already done. A quarter of the canister’s contents now covered my thighs and forearms, while another quarter oozed down my backpack and onto several days of snacks. The ejected contents had missed my eyes and mouth altogether, and half the can remained mercifully unspent. Still, I was soaked.
I immediately poured bottles of the Sweetwater on my legs, arms, and backpack, scrubbing with a bandana until the orange had ostensibly disappeared. I cursed and sputtered for a few minutes, but I seemed mostly OK—a mild skin irritation, as if I’d tried to exfoliate with a butter knife. But here’s the thing about Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin: There is no shade, and very little water. The moment I marched out of camp, the morning began to bake the bear spray into me. And every attempt to use sunscreen not only slathered my legs more with the bilious villain but also covered my hands, which I was able to wash only once.
That’s how the real terror began. Remember when you learned how many times per day you touch your face at the start of the pandemic and were told by earnest health officials not to do that? By the afternoon, my face felt like an archipelago of volcanoes, all oozing lava. Peeing became punishment for original sin. And though eating food “lightly spiced” with bear spray stung only a little, it instantly turned my stomach into a Yellowstone mudpot, a malaise that lasted for the better part of a week. For the last half of a 40-mile day, I just stopped snacking. By the time I climbed into my sleeping bag after dusk, I was as ornery as a hornet while my body howled as if beset by a nest of them.
I wish I could say everything was fine when I woke up on idyllic creekside banks. Nah: During the night, I’d reflexively tucked my cold hands into the warmest place they could find, only to be jolted awake at 4 A.M. by the sort of burning a first-year college kid who never had the benefit of sex education must know well. This sort of thing endured for days. Indeed, when I finally got to a bathtub where I could scrub and soak and soak and scrub my backpack, the capsaicin left Tin and me coughing and wheezing in the next room.
Even days after all that soaking and scrubbing, Tina used a hiking pole that had been stuffed in my bag during the eruption. She paid little mind to the orange stain on the handle. That night in the tent, 30 minutes after she put lotion on her face, her brows began to sting, as if doused in grain alcohol. She turned red, tears involuntarily trickling from her now-puffy eyes. By that point, she’d heard me complain for nearly a week. Hadn’t she, I wondered, already suffered enough?
Bear spray is intended as an instant fix to an attack. Use it incorrectly, and it starts to feel like a chronic health condition. Five minutes after spraying myself with bear spray, I felt mostly fine; five days after spraying myself with bear spray, I wondered for what deed I was owed such wicked and obvious divine retribution.
Because this is the internet in 2023, some folks will read this anecdote and take it as absurd testimony that no one should carry bear spray at all. One faction will almost certainly be those who instead favor packing pistols, because there’s no guarantee that bear spray will stop an ursine assailant. (And because guns never accidentally discharge, yeah?) And the other faction will almost certainly be those who pack at most an air horn, because they hope to do an animal just living its life no harm, temporary it may be. If it’s too tough for you, why inflict it on another creature?
Both perspectives are opposing sides of the same extremist coin, and neither interest me as viable or reasonable. I may live to regret this while actually dying, but I am not going to kill animal for defending its turf and possible progeny from a supposed interloper. At least for me, that’s the potential cost of my outdoors pleasure. But I am, in no way, above momentarily turning back a bear with non-lethal force, so that I can make room and time for my escape. I’ll be very scared for a spell. The bear will be very uncomfortable for a spell. We’ll both presumably live another day.
As I ponder this happy outcome, with the bear and me returning to our respective lives and lairs, I can’t help but tear up a little bit. No, wait: I’ve only rubbed my eyes again, and I’ve still got a trace of bear spray—something you should absolutely have but something you should never spray on yourself—on my god damn hands.