Bear Spray and 14ers: Is It Critical or Overkill?

If you’re heading out to climb a fourteener, you might be wondering about norms when it comes to bear spray and fourteeners. Are bears common on these trails, and is bear kill necessary to protect you? Or is it a waste of weight and money that you are unlikely to ever use? Here’s everything you need to know about bear spray and 14ers. 

If you just want the short answer though, no, you do not need bear spray on a fourteener. Keep reading to learn why that is.

First, What is Bear Spray?

If you’ve never heard of bear spray, it’s essentially a very strong type of pepper spray used as a defensive weapon against bears and other large predators. Bear spray can be a pain to buy and transport as it is not allowed on many planes and trains unless checked away. It also expires eventually so you can’t reuse a bottle forever. In a worst-case situation, you can misuse the spray and end up hurting yourself rather than the bear. However, when used properly they can be a lifesaver. What’s the connection between bear spray and 14ers though?

You Typically Do Not Need Bear Spray on a Colorado Fourteener or Thirteener

There are three big reasons you do not need bear spray when hiking or climbing a fourteener. It’s too high for black bears, too busy in the summer, and black bears are simply not aggressive enough to attack in most situations. Here is a complete explanation about bear spray and 14ers.

Fourteeners are Too High for Black Bears

Black bears, the only type of bear found in Colorado, usually range between 6,000 and 9,800 feet in elevation. While some trailheads fall just below this upper limit, the vast majority of fourteener trails are entirely above the range of black bears. While it is possible for a rare sighting, bears usually stick to lower elevations and are rarely found above the tree line. This makes attacks around fourteeners extremely rare.

Fourteeners are Too Busy for Black Bears

Bears also avoid fourteener trails because of how busy they’ve become over the past several decades. Bears are creatures of solitude and do not typically visit high-traffic areas. You are far more likely to see a black bear on a quiet trail that is rarely hiked than on a busy fourteener hiking trail.

Black Bears Are Not Typically Aggressive

While the Grizzly bear can be an aggressive and violent animal, the black bear found in Colorado are relatively calm. They usually do not go after humans unless they believe their young are in danger or out of extreme hunger or need. There have only been four recorded black bear deaths in Colorado since 1971, so an attack is rare anywhere. It’s nearly impossible above their range where black bears are rarely, if ever, found.

Why Not Bring the Bear Spray Anyway?

If you already have bear spray, and you do not mind the extra weight, you may choose to bring it anyway. Just keep in mind that you may regret the choice at 13,500 feet when you feel every ounce of weight in your pack. No one has ever been killed by a bear while climbing a fourteener – but many people have died of dehydration, fatigue, or exhaustion. I highly recommend leaving your bear spray and other defensive weapons at home, as the weight will likely cause you more problems than any protection they provide.

When is Bear Spray a Good Idea in the Mountains?

If you plan to spend your time hiking and camping below 9,800 feet then bear spray is a much better idea. This is the typical habitat of black bears, and it is relatively common for them to investigate camping and hiking areas – especially those that are not super busy. If you don’t want to see any bears, stick to more popular trails and campgrounds and keep your food stored safely away from them. Bear spray should always be a last line of defense rather than your only protection. Start with good food storage practices – this is the best defense of all.

Interestingly enough, studies show that bear spray is extremely effective when used to deter a bear attack. In 90% of situations, the spray effectively scared away the bear, compared to 76% for hunting rifles.  If you’re choosing between carrying a gun versus spray, the spray is more effective and a smaller risk to you and the bear. I recommend it – unless you’re talking about bear spray and 14ers. Then it’s probably unnecessary.

Bear Spray and 14ers: Now You Know!

As you can see, bear spray just isn’t necessary for most fourteener situations. They just add extra weight to your pack without offering any protection. I highly recommend leaving them back at your basecamp, as black bears are not aggressive and avoid fourteeners due to the elevation and large crowds. If you choose to hike at elevations lower than 9,800 feet then bear spray may be a good idea for you. Make sure you practice how to use it in advance!

Bear Spray and 14ers: Additional Resources

Looking for more information about bear spray and 14ers? I found these articles and resources helpful while I was writing this article. Share a comment below if you have another link to suggest related to bear spray and 14ers and it might get added in my next regular update. Safe travels on the trail!

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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