mountain lion
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
September 4, 2020 ·  4 min read

How to survive a mountain lion encounter

In the last couple of years, there have been a handful of stories that have hit the news about mountain lion attacks. There was a deadly attack outside Seattle in May 2018, and another in Oregon a few months later. In February 2019 a jogger in Colorado killed a cougar with his bare hands in self-defense, and the mom who saved her son from a cougar on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada [1].

While this cluster of cases makes it seem as though cougar attacks are a common threat, the truth is, they are exceptionally rare. In fact, in the last one hundred years, only 125 attacks have been reported, and less than two dozen of them were fatal [2].

If you still think that sounds like a lot, consider bees, wasps, and hornets kill about sixty people every year [2].

Still, while the likelihood of experiencing a cougar attack remains extremely low, if you’re heading out for a hike in cougar country, it is important to know what to look for, and what to do in order to survive an attack should one happen.

Read: Navy Seal Explains How to Survive If You Are Being Drowned

What to Do if you Encounter a Mountain Lion

Cathryn Hoyt, a park ranger at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas says that one of the most common misconceptions that people have surrounding mountain lion encounters is that you should curl up into the fetal position and protect your neck.

According to Hoyt, however, this is all wrong, Instead, you should fight back.

“Kick, and scream, and punch, and gouge, and do whatever you can,” she says [2].

She also recommends using whatever tools are available to help your cause, whether that be a pocket knife, trekking poles, or even a backpack.

Don’t Run

The other common response most people automatically go to in their minds when they think of a mountain lion attack is to try to run away. Again, Hoyt says this is incorrect, because it makes you appear more like prey- and there’s absolutely no way you can outrun a mountain lion.

These big cats can bound up to forty feet, leap fifteen feet, climb trees, and sprint up to fifty miles per hour. Not even the world’s fastest sprinters can outpace them. Instead, your best chance at survival is to stand your ground, make yourself look as big and intimidating as possible, and make direct eye contact with the animal. Speak loudly and firmly at it, and slowly back away.

Stay Calm

If the mountain lion still does not go away after that, Hoyt says the next step is to throw things at it, like rocks or branches, as this will make you seem like more trouble than you’re worth. Above all else, Hoyt says the most important thing to remember is to remain calm. Your level-headedness is an advantage, and if you lose your cool you lose the upper hand.

Mountain lions prefer to stay away from hikers, so even sightings are rare. Typically, a cat that is going after humans is either too old and frail or too young to go after its usual prey, so they’re hungry and desperate.

For this reason, small children make good targets as they are easier prey for the animal, so whenever you are hiking with a child you should keep them close at all times. Always have them in arms reach, and if you do spot a mountain lion, pick them up to keep them from running [2].

Avoid Escalation

The best way to prevent a mountain lion attack is to prevent a situation from escalating in the first place. Ideally, this means spotting the animal early enough.

This can be difficult, however, because these elusive cats are not easy to spot or track. Their dens are usually high up in cliffs or rock faces, and for the most part they prefer to stay hidden. For this reason, it is unlikely that you will stumble across a home, but if you do see footprints or hear rustling in the bushes, you should remain alert and move on quickly, without running.

Again, mountain lions typically prefer to stay away from humans, however they will become aggressive if they have something to protect. 

When a mountain lion kills an animal, they bury it in the ground and come back to feed off of it over the next several days. They will be very protective over their food, says Hoyt, so for this reason if you come across the carcass of an animal while you’re out hiking you should leave that area immediately [2].

In Summary

To recap, here are the steps to preventing or surviving an encounter with a mountain lion:

  1. Avoid escalation– know what to look for in order to spot a mountain lion early, and steer clear of areas that may pose a risk.
  2. Don’t run– keep any children close to you, and if you spot a cat, pick them up to prevent them from trying to run away.
  3. Make yourself big and intimidating– look them in the eye, and use a loud deliberate voice as you slowly back away.
  4. Throw things at it– if you must, throw rocks and sticks at the animal to make yourself seem like too much trouble.
  5. Fight back– if it does come down to it, fight back with everything you have, and whatever weapons you have.

Always remember that when you’re spending time outdoors, you must respect nature and wildlife- after all, you are on their turf. Remain vigilant at all times, and be aware of both the risks of the area you’re in, as well as the appropriate reactions in the event of an encounter.

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