Larry's Tips for Hiking Safety in Cougar Country
Do you think that trophy-hunting of Mountain Lions should be legal?
The mountain biker
Back in the early 2000s, I was hiking with friends on the Clementine Lake loop in Northern California's Gold Country near Auburn. During a rest stop, we met a woman who was mountain-biking alone. In my inimitably charming way, I expressed concern for her safety. I told her that earlier in the day, we had seen a mountain lion who was sporting a blue T-shirt. She didn't think that my tall tale was the least bit funny. Nevertheless it underscores the most important principles of personal safety in cougar country.
The top two safety rules
You do not want to be attacked by a Mountain Lion! The big cat's preferred method of killing prey is to attack the neck -- for example, biting into the neck, which can cause asphyxiation, or sever the spinal cord. Or breaking the neck with a paw strike. And yes, they are strong enough to do that. These are definitely not fun ways to go.
Even if you successfully fight off a Mountain Lion, you are at risk for a serious infectious disease from the deep scratches. Example: Cat-scratch Disease.
When hiking in Cougar Country, please exercise reasonable caution. Unfortunately, common sense is not always available when we need it the most. Hence this hub. Let's start with the top two safety rules.
First, do not hike (or bike) alone. If all of your human friends are busy when you want to go hiking, arrange to borrow your neighbor's dog. Even a little terrier will bark a heads-up warning if he smells a mountain lion. Since cougars are ambush predators, they're less likely to attack a rock-throwing human and a barking dog. I've hiked in the Northern Sierra foothills with my neighbor's family's Border Collie mix as my only companion. And I've always felt safe with Gurr at my side. (Yes, that's his real name.)
Many years ago, some friends hiked up the short Silver Creek trail, near Icehouse Road. One of the men spotted a mountain lion while they were eating lunch. Apparently the big cat did not hear them, because the noise of the rushing water drowned out what little noise they were making. The fellow jumped up and said, "Look, there's a mountain lion!" Then the cougar ran away from the small group of hikers. So much for the king of the jungle!
If you must hike alone, stick to the popular trails. This is especially important in the Northern Sierra foothills. If you hike cross-country there, you may run afoul of armed and paranoid 'farmers', who are surreptitiously growing California's biggest cash crop on government land. That happened to an acquaintance of mine, who was leading a hike at the time. Fortunately, he was able to talk his way out of the situation. Nobody was hurt, and everyone had a story to tell their future grandchildren.
Another disadvantage of bushwhacking in the Northern Sierra foothills is Toxicodendron diversilobum. The urushiol in this plant can leave an itchy rash. If you're hiking above 4000 feet (1300m) or so, you probably won't run into it.
Getting back to the main topic . . . Noisy hikers scare away deer, which is an ice cream species for Mountain Lions. From a cougar's perspective, a horde of people in one small area ruins the deer-hunting prospects there, and it creates an incentive for the mountain lion to move on to a deer-rich area with fewer people.
If you are injured, the next hiker on the popular trail may be only a few minutes away. And that hiker could give you some assistance, and call for a rescue team.
Second, walking is safer than going fast. Zooming downhill on a dirt trail on your mountain bike gives a great adrenaline rush, but it may turn out to be your last. It will trigger a chase reflex if a big cat is nearby. Ditto for running. In 1994, a cougar killed Barbara Schoener when she was trail-running near Auburn. If Ms Schoener had followed both safety rules, her tragic death would have been avoided.
Unconventional and tongue-in-cheek suggestions
These suggestions apply more to people who choose to day-hike alone, than to those who hike in small groups.
1. Wear a full-sized backpack with an external frame, rather than a smaller rucksack. Why? Big cats prefer to attack the necks of their victims. Sometimes the big cats bite down on the neck, in order to asphyxiate their prey. The external frame of a Kelty, or other similar backpack, extends well above the neck. And that will prevent this type of neck attack.
Put two rolls of paper towels into the backpack. This will give a little padding in case the mountain lion knocks you over. Put your lunch, water, and rain-gear under the rolls of paper towels.
2. At other times, a mountain lion will try to break the prey's neck with a paw strike to the head. Wear a late-19th-Century top hat. A big cat attempting a head strike may miss your head, and knock off the hat instead. The top hat will also make you appear to be taller and bigger to a cougar.
If you do not have a top hat handy, an ordinary hiking hat will add a small safety factor. A paw strike to the head will be more of a glancing blow if you're wearing a hiking hat, because the blow will knock off the hat.
Another option is to wear a bicycle helmet. This will cushion the blow from a direct head strike.
3. Wear forestry boots with logger heels, like the excellent ones made by Whites Boots. They will also make you look slightly taller.
This boot design gives a bit of extra traction when you must step onto a log that has fallen across the trail. And the high tops are partial protection against rattlesnakes.
When I was younger, I worked several seasons for the Forest Service. One of my co-workers on the trail crew unwittingly disturbed a rattlesnake. The rattler's strike hit the fellow's boot top, rather than his leg. He was fortunate to have avoided an extremely painful snakebite.
4. Wear a full mask with a human face painted on it, on the back of your head. A mountain lion behind you will think that you see him, and this may prevent an ambush. People who live in tiger country in India, and on the island of Sumatra, use this approach.
5. Eat a hamburger for breakfast. The big cat will smell you--and will smell what you've eaten recently--before he sees you. If you smell like a carnivore, the cougar will size you up as a tough customer, and will be more inclined to leave you alone.
6. And last, but not least, wear Chain Mail. This will protect your torso from from deep scratches, and from the harmful bacteria, associated with these scratches. True, Chain Mail is heavy. But the extra weight will enhance your hiking workout.
By the way, the top hat suggestion is not compatible with the Kelty suggestion. This backpack will knock off your top hat. A large external-frame backpack is only recommended with hiking hats that have very narrow brims.
In the second section of an earlier hub, I described Larry Fu, a 21st Century 'martial art', in which you use your hiking pole as a weapon against a mountain lion.
However this only applies when you come across a solo hiker who's being mauled. Larry Fu could save the life of the other hiker, but your hiking pole is not all that great for self-defense.
What about a firearm?
A well-chosen firearm could enable you to defend against a Grizzly Bear attack in Alaska. (Notwithstanding our state flag, these beasties are locally extinct in California.) But in this case, you'll get some advance warning.
A mountain lion ambush is a different kettle of fish. You won't know about the attack until you've been knocked to the ground, assuming that you're still conscious.
If you choose to be armed, a snub-nose Double Action Only revolver is better than a semi-auto for two reasons. After the big cat, jumps you, you'll just want to point and shoot. In that moment of panic, you don't want to think about fumbling with a manual safety on an autoloader.
Second, you need to be able to do a one-handed defense, in case the other arm is pinned down or broken. Depending on the type of semi-auto, you may need to rack the slide before firing, and that's a two-handed operation.
A Double Action Only revolver has no external hammer to snag on your clothing, so that you'll get a slightly faster draw. That's also the reason why a snubbie is better than the 4-inch barrel length (just over 10cm), which is more common for holster carry.
An adult cougar is approximately the same size as an adult human; so a .38 Special should be adequate for close-quarters defense. The cartridge I recommend is a frangible Glaser Safety Slug. You won't need a large hunting handgun, like the one Clint Eastwood carried in his Dirty Harry movies.
A first shot to the torso may or may not humanely kill the attacking Mountain Lion. Be mentally prepared for a double-tap.
That said, a German Shepherd Dog as a hiking companion in mountain lion country would give me a much greater sense of security than a sidearm ever could. Even so, if I had a concealed carry permit, I'd be tempted to 'pack heat', in case the big cat managed to jump Man's Best Friend.
What about pepper spray? The experts say that it can deter grizzly bears, who mainly want to defend their territories.
In wilderness areas, during daylight hours, under normal circumstances,, black bears are as scared of you, as you are of them. And yes, Yosemite Valley is a different ball of wax.
Here in the Lower 48,The Griz is locally extinct, except for parts of Montana, Wyoming, and possibly Idaho.
The bottom line is that pepper spray is not particularly effective against ambush predators, like mountain lions. Here in Northern California, it's not worth carrying.
What about carrying a hunting knife as a self-defense weapon, while you're hiking in cougar country? Forget the fact that mountain lions are ambush predators.
Suppose that a cougar decides to engage you in single combat. How many sharp weapons do you have? How many big, sharp weapons does the cougar have? Sorry, my friend. You are hopelessly out-gunned. Even in that simplified, unrealistic scenario.
I want you to be safe while hiking in Cougar Country. Your first priority should be the basic safety rules. Depending on national and local laws, your second priority should be either a big protective dog, or a revolver. Or both!
Are you afraid of mountain lions?
No, I'm not serious about this one.
The chemical nepetalactone in Catnip is an insect repellant, and it's available online for this purpose. Nepetalactone is also a recreational chemical for many house cats. I'm assuming that it works for cougars as well.
Just before the hike, and at two-hour intervals during the hike, apply nepetalactone solution to the exposed areas of your skin. Any mountain lion who wants to eat you will need to fight off the ones who are trying to mate with you!
By the way, nepetalactone does not work for Aussies. They need to smear some toothpaste behind their ears instead. :)