Why Use a Refill Device for Practice Bear Spray Canisters? Practice Makes Perfect!

Bear spray can save lives. Practicing with inert bear spray gives people in bear country a safe way to train for a potential charge. The dilemma is the cost of buying multiple cans of inert bear spray (ranging from $15-$25 per can). Now, there’s a device that can be assembled to refill the training bear spray cans.

“At the June 2016 IBA (International Association for Bear Research and Management) Conference I refilled 40 cans in an hour,” said John Gookin, the inventor of the bear spray refill device. The practice spray area proved a popular event, and shows the potential for training high numbers of people.

Gookin, an educator for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), said his background in plumbing when in the Marine Corps, gave him the idea for the refill device. He teamed up with longtime bear biologist Tom Smith (professor of wildlife science at Brigham Young University) and BYU graduate student Alison Williams to publish “A Device for refilling practice bear spray” that appeared in the journal Human-Wildlife Interactions, June of 2014. While some bear spray refill machines are in service, there is high potential to build more and share them.

At the top of the device is the water intake. The air intake on the right side.
At the top of the device is the water intake. The air intake on the right side.

Danielle Oyler, the new Bear Safety Education Coordinator for southwest Montana, has plans to oversee building of at least one of the devices. Since April of this year, her program has spent $1,000 on practice bear spray and she plans to procure another $1500 of the inert cans this year. She’ll be saving the cans for refills.

“It’s so important that we have the inert training spray available for our public events and to train people who work and live in bear country,” says Oyler. “Pulling the bear spray out of the holster, removing the safety, aiming the spray, and pressing the trigger takes practice.”

A popular feature of the new traveling Bear Aware trailer is a simulation of a charging bear. The silhouette on a metal track is released from a series of rubber bands and shoots forward at the rate of a rushing bear (twice as fast as a human sprinter). A volunteer faces the charging bear and has a chance to spray the inert can. Oyler said that she’s seen people fumble with the safety or forget it’s on.

Tom Smith, the lead author of the paper, has worked in bear country for decades, He emphasizes that practicing with expired bear spray is a hazardous alternative.

“We once tried it for practice and people 100 yards away started coughing and choking,” Smith said.

Smith is an ardent advocate of using bear spray over firearms. He’s an instructor in both bear spray and NRA-certified in firearms. His research shows that bear spray can have a higher success rate in avoiding bear encounters than firearms. He’s convinced that when people practice, they will have a higher willingness to pull out the bear spray and use it effectively.

Both Counter Assault and UDAP sell inert bear spray for practice and have donated cans for trainings. Saving and then refilling the inert bear spray cans is both a form of recycling and a way to expand the training, purchase and use of real bear spray.

Gookin encourages agencies and others to build the refill devices as instructed in his paper. He stresses that the refills are not the same as what comes in the inert cans. They are refilled with water and don’t make a fog cloud, but are excellent for rehearsing the quick draw.

“Refilling is cheap and once you have the system down, it’s not very hard,” Gookin said.

If questions on building the device, contact John Gookin at: John_Gookin@nols.edu

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