Does Expired Bear Spray Work?


Seeing expiration dates on things like a gallon of milk or package of hamburger makes sense but why would bear spray or other outdoor gear have an expiration date? Most important, for something like bear spray does it still work after that expiration date?

Considering that this is used to defend against a potentially life-threatening mauling, it’s not the type of thing you want to take chances with.

In some cases expired bear spray will still work within a few months of the expiration date. However, this is incredibly risky and it is always heavily advised to only use bear spray prior to expiration. The expiration date tells you when the aerosol delivery system begins to break down, making the bear spray useless in short order.

There are some stories of bear spray still working past expiration, but that is a gamble no one should take. The potency of the spray remains even after expiration, but that’s not what you need to worry about.

Ranger using bear spray
NPS / Neal Herbert

Like this short blog post from Counter Assault (one of only four FDA approved bear spray producers) mentions, it’s the aerosol delivery system that will give out. This is true of every aerosol-based product.

If there’s one you might be betting your life on, like bear spray, there’s very good reason why you shouldn’t take that chance. Don’t be done in by bad accelerant.

What Should You Do with Bear Spray about to Expire?

I’ve lived in Alaska, so I understand living in an environment where you actually would be on top of details like the expiration date on your bear spray. Even up there, winter is only for so long.

So what should you do with bear spray that’s about to expire or maybe just expired by a day or two?

There’s actually a very good solution: use it for practice.

You never want to rely on expired bear spray when out in bear country. Every single day that passes by past that expiration mark is another degree of decay and potential failure from the aerosol delivery system.

While bear spray won’t go from fully effective to non-delivery in one day, that decay process is going to start around the time of that expiration date. Do you really want bear spray at only half or quarter strength when an angry grizzly charges?

So when you have a can hitting that expiration date you should do two things:

  • #1 Order a new can (or two) of bear spray
  • #2 Practice using it with the nearly expired can

As a safety precaution you should always look at using safety goggles and a mask when you do this, just in case there is an issue.

But since you have a can that is on its last legs, get used to drawing the can from a holster, pulling the safety pin, and letting out a spray cloud. Practicing good form when it doesn’t matter makes it much easier to keep calm when an overly curious or aggressive bear is thrown in the mix.

Practice having to quickly but calmly draw it, pull the pin, and spray accordingly while watching the wind.

What Is the Shelf Life of Bear Spray?

The shelf life of your normal can of bear spray will be three to four years from the time of manufacturing. The effectiveness of the spray itself isn’t the issue. If the can explodes and covers you…well you’re in for a very bad time.

The issue is that the spray delivery system breaks down which then makes it unreliable.

And unreliable is one adjective you never want when an angry bear is charging.

Generally the expiration date should be about the time that the aerosol is likely to start breaking down. There shouldn’t be absolute failure right away, but it will start degrading over time and continue to do so.

In other words, it will keep getting less and less effective out of the can.

Stick with Proven Bear Spray Brands

Keep in mind that at least in the U.S. there are only four bear sprays that are FDA approved. Even a year or two ago these would have made up around 98% of choices you would find anywhere for bear spray.

Unfortunately a flood of imitation pepper sprays online at places like Amazon.com are advertising as bear spray but appear to be dropshipped knock offs. These are NOT FDA-approved and properly tested and vetted, so I would not recommend using any of them.

The four tested & approved brands (once again, in the US, Canada may have its own standards and regulations):

Dangers of Expired Bear Spray

The biggest danger is that the bear spray doesn’t work effectively. Its distance might be cut down in half, causing a bear to get dangerously close. This could even up the likelihood of injury of incident with a bear getting close enough to do damage.

There can also be even worse if the accelerant in the spray fails completely.

Even beyond this, there are other issues that can occasionally happen when using bear spray that is past its expiration date.

So why not chance it for a month or two until the season is over?

Well about that…

A Cautionary Tale on Expired Bear Spray

While expired bear spray can work, especially if the due date isn’t that far over, there are plenty reasons why you shouldn’t. This is a true story from a good friend of mine from the Alaska days. Since John Doe is so common, we’ll just call him Mike.

I know, original. Stick with me here.

Mike was involved with geological camps searching the vast wilderness of Alaska for mineral deposits. In this case, he was one of those geologists who worked for major companies searching for new gold deposits. Very cool, but simply a detail to explain why he was out in the middle of nowhere.

Mike had some questions about some shady details, not the least of which was the fact that his can of bear spray had a slight dent and was over a year past expiration.

While in the middle of nowhere around camp in Alaska, he had an over-eager bear charge him. Long story short, the bear spray didn’t immediately begin spraying so he open palm hit the can.

The can “exploded.” The bear was incredibly unhappy. Mike was incredibly unhappy, on the ground coughing, choking, eyes burning from the concentrated burst of capsaicin in his face, nose, mouth, and anywhere that could basically feel burning.

Mike’s main two takeaway lessons: Trust the gut on never taking a job with a shady employer & Never use expired bear spray.

Always Need to Have Bear Spray Ready

Summary

So at the end of the day, does expired bear spray really work? As the earlier answer indicates, bear spray that is close to expiration is probably fine. There are even first hand stories of some old bear spray working months or even a year after the expiration date. Still, no question this is playing with fire.

The accelerant could break down, the active ingredient could eventually become unstable, just don’t take the chance. Make sure your bear spray is fully up to date and under the expiration date!

Sources

While this article isn’t about the effectiveness of bear spray (it’s not up for debate – it is the better option for the overwhelming majority of people), here are sources pointing out the effectiveness of bear spray as a deterrent.

Efficacy of Bear Spray in Alaska

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Bullets vs. Bear Spray Study

Bear Spray or Bullets – Island News

Outdoor Shane

There's nothing I love more than the great outdoors, but being big on exploring, traveling, off-grid survival, and having survived venomous spider and snake bites - I'm a firm believer that you can enjoy more of the outdoors by being aware and prepared for the dangers you could find there. Hope you enjoy this site and don't let fear keep you from exploring the natural world!

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