What to Do if you See a Mountain Lion While Hiking

Mountain Lions (also known a cougars or pumas) are a commonly feared animal to encounter while hiking. They can be very aggressive if threatened, and because of their stealth you likely won’t ever see one until you’re already in danger of an attack. But, if you know what you lookout for you’ll be better prepared on when to expect a mountain lion while hiking, and what to do in an encounter. 

The best approach to handling a mountain lion while hiking is to look out for signs, like scat, prints, and other marks that a mountain lion is around. Should you see a mountain lion on the trail hold your ground and do not run or bend over. Back away slowly speaking loudly and make yourself look as big as possible.  Be prepared to fight back if necessary. 

Although it may be very uncommon to encounter a mountain lion while hiking, it’s always good to be prepared just in case.  Let’s discuss how to identify signs of a mountain lion while hiking, as well as how to protect yourself in an encounter should you run into one in the woods.  

a mountain lion perched on the side of a large rock in the woods. An example of a mountain lion while hiking encounter

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Will Mountain Lions Attack Hikers?

Mountain lions are incredibly elusive creatures. I have personally never seen one while hiking, and even the most avid hikers won’t ever see one at all, even after a lifetime of hiking. 

But, just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Luckily though, mountain lions really don’t want to attack humans. We’re not their typical prey source and we can fight back pretty well when we need to, so mountain lions typically avoid us while we’re hiking. 

However, if a mountain lion mistakes a hiker for prey it is likely to attack that hiker. And should it attack you while you’re hiking, it’s an extremely dangerous, and life threatening situation.

So, you’ll want to be on the lookout for mountain lions while hiking in order to identify when they might be around and be prepared for an attack should one occur. 

How Can I Tell if a Mountain Lion is Around While Hiking?

You’re extremely unlikely to see a mountain lion while hiking. They like to hide out and have a natural camouflage that will hide them from your eyes while hiking.

You’ll likely only ever see one if you’re actively being attacked. And since we don’t really want to wait until an attack happens to be aware one is around, it’s good to know the signs of a mountain lion so you can determine if one may be in the area where you’re hiking. 

To identify if a mountain lion is around while hiking you’ll want to look for any of the following signs: 

  • Scat (aka poop): We’re really looking for fresh scat here, as old, dried up scat would mean that a mountain lion was in the area days or even weeks ago – which isn’t really a danger for you. But fresh scat is a great indication a mountain lion is nearby. Mountain lion scat will be as large as a human’s, and often have lots of hair in it. 
  • Tracks: It can be difficult to tell the difference between a dog’s track and a mountain lion track, as you’re looking for a paw print around 2″ tall and 4″ wide. But a mountain lion will generally have one toe that’s sticking out above the others. 
  • Dead animals: Seeing a dead deer or coyote (or any other larger animal) is a good sign a mountain lion is around. 

If you see any of these be more aware of your surroundings and maybe have that safety gear even more accessible than normal, just in case. 

Mountain Lion Scat

Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ 

What Do I Do if I See a Mountain Lion While Hiking?

If you see a mountain lion while hiking, you likely only have a minute or two to make yourself look dangerous before an attack happens. So, what you do NOT want to do is look like prey. This includes not running, turning your back to the mountain lion, or crouching down. All of these activities make you look like prey and an easy target for the cougar. 

Instead, you’ll want to make yourself as big as possible and make a lot of noise. This could be yelling, or talking loudly and angrily, blowing an emergency whistle, banging metal water bottles together, or using hiking poles to look larger. Whatever resources you have with you that are loud and large, use them to make as much noise as possible and to make yourself look as big as possible. 

Additionally, you can throw objects as well – like a water bottle or a rock. Just be careful to not bend down to pick up a rock or other object to throw. Crouching down will make you seem like prey. Remain standing and throw whatever objects you have within easy reach without bending over. 

Upclose portrait of a mountain lion with it's mouth open and teeth protruding from the mouth

What Do I Do if a Mountain Lion Attacks?

If all of your preventative techniques didn’t work and the mountain has decided to attack you then you’ll need to fight back. As the determination period for the mountain lion to attack or not will likely happen within a minute or two – while you’re making yourself big and loud you’ll want to also be pulling out your safety gear to protect yourself. 

I personally always carry bear spray and knife with me on hikes to protect myself from any type of attack. As soon as the mountain lion heads towards you be prepared to spray them. And if they get close enough to use their claws or teeth be prepared to fight back with whatever you have. I’ll always have my knife, but hiking poles can also be useful weapons to stab if necessary. 

As soon as a mountain lion attacks you, you’re now in a fight for your life. So, be fully prepared to protect yourself and fight back as hard as you can if you ever find yourself in this situation. 

Hopefully you’ve found all the information you need about what to do if you encounter a mountain lion while hiking. Even though encounters and attacks are extremely rare, they do occasionally occur. Prepare yourself by knowing what signs to lookout for while hiking and how to scare away a mountain lion or fight back in an attack so you can keep yourself safe on the trail. 

Want to know what to do in other animal encounters? Check out our articles on bears, bobcats, snakes, scorpions, or ticks

If you want more hiking recommendations please check out our hiking tips page, or check out any of the articles below. 

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