What To Do If You See A Mountain Lion On The Trail

Whether you’re thru-hiking one of America’s great trails or going for a day hike, if you cross paths with a mountain lion you’ll wish you knew exactly what you’re meant to do! Our guide covers everything you need to know.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Kieran James Cunningham
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The mountain lion is a strong, beautiful, and elusive creature. But, like bears, you don’t want to encounter them on your outdoor adventures…at least, that is, not up close and personal!

The mountain lion, otherwise known as the puma concolor, can be found in many areas of the United States, though the highest numbers are found in Colorado and Southern California.

Encounters with this wild animal are rare – the mountain lion’s hunting instincts are to lie and wait for prey at night, stalk, then pounce when the moment is right. In most cases, this isn’t when there are any humans around to foil their attack.

Even though mountain lion attacks are even rarer than sightings, doesn’t mean we should be complacent. As anyone who has survived an encounter will tell you, spending a few minutes learning mountain lion etiquette is well worth it!

Mountain lion in the snow
Incredibly beautiful, yet dangerous, creatures.

1. Tread Carefully

Prevention is always better than cure. As when hiking in bear country, when you’re hiking in mountain lion habitat, vigilance is key. Make noise (talk in a loud voice), keep your wits about you, and keep an eye on the trail ahead. 

Mountain lion sightings are rare. They will know you are there far before you even notice them. However, if you do catch a glimpse of one, then you should be careful and keep your children and pets close. 

Signs of mountain lions in the area might include carcasses of deer, as well as scratch marks, cat tracks, or piles of pine needles, leaves, grass, or dirt. As with bears, if you come across an infant (a kitten), be aware – the mother is around and probably watching you. 

Stay on the trail and avoid bringing pets. If you do, keep them on their leash. Of course, we’re not standard mountain lion prey; however, if you do come across these signs, gather closely with your group, pick up a big stick, and prepare your bear spray . . . you may need them! 

mountain lion tracks and a human shoe
Keep an eye out for mountain lion tracks on the trail.

2. Back Away (But Don’t Run!)

We hate to say it, but you simply can’t run from a lion. If you run, you’ll trigger the mountain lion’s instinct to pursue its prey…at speed!

For those wondering: ‘how fast can a mountain lion run?’ The short answer is much faster than you. Quantified, biologists surmise mountain lions can run 50 miles per hour. For reference, Mr. Bolt’s top recorded speed was 27.78 mph!

With running ruled out, what to do when you see a mountain lion? Well, if you’re aware of one in the vicinity, try re-routing to move away from its area. 

However, if you’re dealing with a mountain lion encounter, then the situation changes a bit. Stay calm. Don’t panic. 

Mountain lion jumping between rocks
Even the fastest runners are no match for a mountain lion so always back away!

First things first: never approach a mountain lion. It is extremely rare that they will attack. They’ll want to avoid confrontation. Instead, whilst maintaining eye contact, back away slowly, trying to put as much distance between yourself and the cat as possible. If that fails…

3. Make Yourself Big

When backing away and maintaining eye contact, you want to show the beast who is boss without provoking them too much. Stand upright, raise and wave your arms slowly, and speak firmly. If you’ve got that stick, raise it. A jacket? Open it wide – you want to get as big as possible. 

Whatever you do, do not bend down in any circumstance or turn away. Remember, stand upright. 

If you have small children or animals, try to lift them up in a way where you’re still standing upright. At all costs, avoid crouching, as this may trigger a pounce. A person squatting or bending over may cause the lion to think you’re a four-legged prey animal. This is exactly what you don’t want to do. 

We’re not natural prey, right? Let’s keep it that way! 

Mountain lion on the prowl
Avoid crouching as this may trigger a lion’s pounce response.

4. Make Some Noise!

Now, speak slowly and firmly in a loud voice. This big cat doesn’t speak your language; however, it will register tone and volume. If the mountain lion moves or acts aggressively, then wave your arms around, make loud noises, and bang any object (that walking stick) you might be holding on rocks or trees, always remembering not to crouch down or bend. 

You’re trying to convince your potential aggressor that you’re not wildlife or its usual dinner. Deer and other animals wouldn’t throw a rock, water bottle, or stick, would they? Remain standing. We’re aiming for it to recognize standing humans. 

5. Maintain Eye Contact

Keep maintaining eye contact and stay calm. This will keep you standing upright, prevent you from bending down, and will protect your head and neck in case of a quick pounce. Mountain lions are not used to being stared at for a lengthy period of time, and the foreign sight can be daunting and intimidating to them, which might lead to them backing off.

6. Throw Rocks or Sticks

A mountain lion attacking you is probably something from your worst nightmare. However, if it continues to act aggressively, then you’ve got to challenge it. Start throwing stones or whatever you have on you. Yell, wave your arms around – do anything to convince it you’re not an animal of prey and scare it. 

Always remember the golden rule – don’t crouch down or bend to make yourself look like prey.

Hopefully, you still have that bear spray in your hands. At this point, you’d better hope the wind is on your side, too. If the mountain lion continues to act aggressively and you can no longer throw objects, wait until you are within fifteen feet of the animal and then spray it with bear spray.

Hiker carrying bear spray in a holster attached to his bags hip strap
Keep your bear spray within reach!

7. Fight

Now, if you’re at this stage, you’re no longer wondering whether this wild animal is going to dart off or not. Your adrenaline is surely pumping, you’re probably standing on your toes and manically waving your arms, and throwing stones at the animal. 

We hate to say it, but you’re facing an extremely dangerous situation. Ever heard the expression, ‘take matters into your own hands’? Well, if you haven’t, you’ll surely be exemplary, for the only way to fight off your foe at this point is with your bare hands or any object you can find.

Now you don’t need to be Usain Bolt; you need to be Chuck Norris…

Mountain lion standing on a rock
You are not a mountain lion’s usual prey so staying tall should do the trick.

What To Do If You See A Mountain Lion On The Trail

Coming face to face with the elusive puma concolor is a scary thing, and an experience we don’t wish for anyone. Although they’ll try to avoid confrontation and run away, there is a slim chance that you have to stand your guard and shoo it away . . . or, worse, fight it with your bare hands.

Remember, if you see one, report it to your National Park Service. 

If you enjoyed this post, then feel free to share it with your friends or with any hiker bound for the trail! If you have any comments or questions, please drop them in the box below.

Last update on 2024-05-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Alexandre Marceau is a French-Canadian writer, editor and keen mountaineer based in Edinburgh, UK.

During his undergrad in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, at the confluence of the Saint-François and Massawippi Rivers, he discovered that literary timelines, much like veins, carry the timeless stories that shape the regional identities of place. As a result, in 2019, he co-founded yolk, a Canadian literary journal for which he serves as Fiction Editor.

Alexandre’s work has appeared in various journals, newspapers and websites in Canada and Scotland, and he is the Creatives Editor for the Scottish Mountaineering Press. His time is divided between climbing, trail-running, snowboarding and writing.

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