Mountain Lions: How To Avoid Them When Hiking

[Staying safe on the trail]
Author: Michael POWER

A day out on the trail shouldn’t be ruined by fears of mountain lions. While these intimidating creatures have attacked people in the past, the rarity of such incidents makes them a non-threat to the average hiker. Even experienced professionals have logged thousands of hours outdoors without so much as spotting a single big cat.

That being said, it’s important to remain aware and plan for any potential encounters, especially if you’re in an area known for sightings. Understanding mountain lion behavior, as well as how to spot one and what to do if one draws near, is essential knowledge for any hiker.

In this guide, we’ll give you all the information you need about mountain lions and how they relate to human activity. We’ll start with an overview of the mountain lion and its behavior, then move onto the practical advice you need to stay safe.

Mountain Lions: Habitat and Behavior

Mountain lions - also known as pumas, cougars, panthers, or catamounts - live mostly in the Western United States, with a range spanning from Colorado to California, as well as Western Canada and all of Mexico (except Mexico City). A small population, about 200 or so, live in Florida as well.

You may hear of an occasional sighting further east in states such as Minnesota or Missouri, possibly a result of an escape from a private zoo. One cougar was even shot and killed in the city limits of Chicago! Whatever the origin of these unlucky wandering cougars, the actual outdoor range for mountain lions is primarily forests, deserts, mountains, and open areas in the western states. These also happen to be the places most people go for outdoor activities.

Despite their fearsome reputation, mountain lions are shy and prefer to avoid humans. A carnivore and an ambush predator, they’ll eat small game such as raccoons and rabbits as well as larger prey such as deer and horses. Since humans walk on two legs and don’t exhibit prey behavior, we usually don’t look like a meal to them.

The mountain lion is the largest of the North American cats and comes from the same family as the common house cat. As such, it has some behaviors similar to our pets, including a powerful leap, a fast sprint, and a dislike of water, although they can swim. They’re solitary creatures and generally want to be left alone.

Avoiding An Attack

A mountain lion will only risk attacking a human if it’s near extreme starvation, or if the creature has become accustomed to humans, which is unlikely. They will also fight back if cornered, which means you should never chase or antagonize a mountain lion.

Most mountain lion avoidance is based around common sense. While you probably already do most of the following, keep these tips in mind for future trips.

  • Avoid hiking solo. Try to go with a partner or group. Mountain lions and other predators are far less likely to attack if it’s not a one-on-one encounter.
  • Make your presence known. Human speech causes predatory animals to flee, even at a great distance. Singing or wearing a bell can also scare mountain lions away.
  • Hike during daylight hours. Mountain lions are nocturnal, meaning they’re more active from dusk to dawn. Daytime sightings, while recorded, are extremely rare.
  • Stay on the trail during your hike. Mountain lion territory is off in the wilderness.
  • When picking a campsite, avoid thick brush, cliffs, and animal tracks. Stay somewhere known to be safe.
  • Keep up on local alerts from the park rangers and Fish and Wildlife Office. A recent cougar sighting means you should exercise greater caution.
  • While many people enjoy hiking with their pets, a mountain lion may see a dog as prey. Keep your pets on leash and don’t leave pet food on the trail or outside your campsite.
  • We don’t want to discourage you from bringing your dog on a hike. In fact, an intelligent pooch can alert you to nearby threats and perhaps scare them away, as has happened in the past. A mountain lion is unlikely to attack a dog and human together, as it will see them as a greater threat. A dog off-leash is more at risk.
  • Do not approach kittens. Any animal mother will attack if her babies are threatened.
  • Keep your kids close and tell them what to do if they see a mountain lion. Don’t let children wander off or lag behind on the trail.
  • If you see a mountain lion, be careful on the rest of your hike and report the sighting when you get the chance.

Signs of Mountain Lion Activity

Knowing if a mountain lion lives nearby can be tricky. They have a range of up to 30 miles and travel up to 15 miles in a single night, so a paw print could mean the animal is already far away. There are, however, a few signs that extra caution should be taken while out on a hike.

If you see deer, sheep, or other larger prey animals on the trail, know that a mountain lion may have spotted them too. A dead animal can draw mountain lions as well. The cats don’t care if they killed the animal or not, and may return to eat the carcass later.

Mountain lion tracks don’t necessarily mean the animal will return, and assessing the freshness of a paw print is difficult. In any case, just seeing an imprint means the animal was there at some point recently. A mountain lion paw print looks similar to a dog’s, 2 inches tall by 4 inches wide, with a top toe that sticks out in front of the others. A dog’s paw print has toes that are level. Mountain lion tracks will also have claw marks while a dog’s will not. There are exceptions to this rule.

Don’t rely on trying to find mountain lion tracks. They move softly and will likely only leave prints in the snow. On hard-packed earth or gravel trails, their paws won’t leave a mark. Regardless, it’s a good idea to look up a picture of a paw print just to know what one looks like.

Mountain lions use trees as scratching posts, just like house cats. Long deep scratches running parallel down a tree are likely from a mountain lion. The marks will be 4 to 8 feet off the ground and won’t remove much bark from the tree.

Mountain lion droppings are fairly large - about the size of a dog’s. Their scat will often have animal fur and even bone visible within the stool. Dogs don’t eat bones, which differentiates their stool. Fresh droppings are warm and moist. Dry poop means it’s old, and the mountain lion is probably long gone.

One particularly frightening sign of a nearby mountain lion is their mating call. Often compared to a child crying or a person screaming in pain, these eerie sounds are likely the origin of many ghost stories and legends told in Western regions. The chilling effect is somewhat lessened when you realize it’s just a male cougar whining for a female.

Outside of mating season, mountain lions make little vocal noise. They may purr, meow, and chirp, but the sounds are difficult to hear compared to similar species.

Stopping An Attack

If a mountain lion sees you, it will probably flee. If it doesn’t, it may stop and start sizing you up to see if you’re prey. When this happens, action is necessary to avoid trouble.

The number one rule of avoiding an attack is DO NOT RUN AWAY. Don’t turn your back to the mountain lion. Only prey flee. Standing up to the animal shows you are not worth the trouble of attacking. Running is pointless anyway, as a mountain lion can reach a top speed of 50 mph if it decides to chase you.

Instead of running, make yourself look large. Open your jacket, wave your arms, lift your pack or trekking poles - anything you can do to make yourself look bigger will help. If you have an air horn or other noise-maker, give it a blast and watch the mountain lion scamper off. Bear spray is also an effective solution, and works the same way on cougars as it does on grizzlies.

Some outdated guides will tell you to avoid eye contact. This is a myth; looking the animal in the eyes can, in fact, show that you’re not afraid.

You shouldn’t go so far as to threaten the creature. Don’t move toward it or try to start a fight. Just show that you are no easy mark, and the mountain lion will make the correct decision to flee.

What To Do When Attacked

If the mountain lion is not deterred by your waving and shouting, you’ll have to fight back. Pick up a stick or a rock or your hiking poles or anything you can use as a weapon. Give the mountain lion a hard hit to the head, preferably near the eyes. Typical prey don’t fight back like this, and even a brief fight will teach the animal you’re not worth the effort.

Other people have survived mountain lion attacks. One woman was able to defend herself with nothing more than a fountain pen; anything you can use as a weapon will give you an edge on the animal. If you’re empty-handed, you can try choking its neck if you can get behind it.

A mountain lion attacking two or more people is hopeless if the humans know to fight back. The big cat can only fight one person at a time. If your companion is attacked, fight the animal off until it runs away.

What Gear to Bring

Bear spray is the quickest and easiest deterrent to an attacking mountain lion. Bring a can if you want peace of mind. You can clip it to your pack so it’s ready to use when needed.

For deterrence, especially if the mountain lion has spotted you, an air horn can work well to scare the animal away. You can buy one at any hardware store. Trekking poles also work well to make yourself seem much larger.

The One Thing To Avoid

Because you’re taller than the typical prey, a mountain lion won’t attack you when it sees you standing. If you crouch or sit, you make yourself look smaller, which activates the cougar’s animal instinct.

Many of the rare cases of mountain lion fatalities involve humans crouching before they were attacked. While you shouldn’t avoid ever sitting down or crouching just because of this, stay vigilant when you’re taking a rest, especially if you suspect a mountain lion nearby.

Staying Smart On The Trail

Mountain lions are fearsome creatures. They have big paws with claws and are among the largest predators living in the North American wilderness. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take precautions to avoid them.

Knowing how to spot, avoid, and fight back against mountain lions gives you the peace of mind needed to enjoy the outdoors. While they’re nothing to take lightly, mountain lions are rarely threatening toward humans. In the past 100 years, there have been less than 24 fatal cougar attacks on humans. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. The statistically tiny chance of a mountain lion attack shouldn’t deter you from enjoying the outdoors in whichever way you prefer.

If you hear about a mountain lion attack, keep in mind that these sorts of stories make for eye-catching news articles. The incident probably occurred far from you and is an anomaly, not a sign of greater danger. Bees cause far more deaths, but they don’t make for exciting newspaper headlines.

The next time you’re out hiking, try not to be too concerned about encountering a mountain lion. Take whatever precautions you think are necessary, then go out and enjoy the trail. With a bit of pre-planning and knowledge, we can coexist with wildlife peacefully.