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Larry's Tips for Hiking Safety in Cougar Country

Updated on October 12, 2016

Do you think that trophy-hunting of Mountain Lions should be legal?

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This mountain lion photo has got to be one of the all-time top contenders in the category of "Don't try this at home."
This mountain lion photo has got to be one of the all-time top contenders in the category of "Don't try this at home." | Source

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.


If you see a maijuana plant while hiking cross-country in California, turn around immediately, and go back the way you came.
If you see a maijuana plant while hiking cross-country in California, turn around immediately, and go back the way you came. | Source
In cougar country, mountain biking in a group is much safer than going solo.
In cougar country, mountain biking in a group is much safer than going solo. | Source
Colorful Poison Oak leaves
Colorful Poison Oak leaves | Source

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.


Kelty Backpack with external frame
Kelty Backpack with external frame | Source
Top hat
Top hat | Source
Western diamondback rattlesnake, another reason not to bushwhack in California.
Western diamondback rattlesnake, another reason not to bushwhack in California. | Source
New Zealand hamburger
New Zealand hamburger | Source
Historical re-enactment showing a Roman soldier, wearing Chain Mail.
Historical re-enactment showing a Roman soldier, wearing Chain Mail.

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.


Ruger LCR
Ruger LCR
Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood | Source
German Shepherd Dog
German Shepherd Dog | Source

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?

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Catnip
Catnip | Source

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. :)


Comments

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    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      23 months ago from Northern California

      Hi Mr Hirsch. Thanks for sharing your real-life experience.

    • profile image

      S. Hirsch 

      24 months ago

      For the commenter who didn't know that there ARE cougars in So. Cal, I am certain that there are, having had a fairly close encounter while in company of another hiker while walking at 7,500 feet in San Bernardino National Forest. We rounded a protruding ridge and the trail switched back into a small valley...and saw a large dead 4-point buck lying 20 feet off our trail. It had tooth or claw wounds on its neck, and we were both concerned because it had just been killed, as evidenced by the still liquid blood oozing from the wounds. Uncoagulated blood indicated that the kill occurred within 10-20 minutes, so we figured the cougar hid in the boulders or bushes when it heard us approaching, and was watching us to see if we would try to steal his dinner. I told my GF not to move toward the deer, and to pick up the big stick nearby, as I did the same and also grabbed a couple of good-sized stones. We looked around but couldn't see into the bushes past the deer. This supports Larry's comments about traveling in two-animal (or more) groups to deter mtn Lions. I told my GF to carry the club and continue at a slow pace up the trail, and I would cover her six by watching back at the deer until we got several hundred yards away from the kill site. We figured that the mtn lion had less interest in us than in his food and would not follow us very far. No problem thereafter. Interesting experience! After that, I decided to carry a pistol.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      3 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Suhail,

      Thanks for stopping by. Sorry it took so long to to get back with you. (Computer problems.)

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      5 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      I read this article late, but better late than never.

      I liked it immensely as it addresses my kind directly. I hike alone and for company, I have my dog. I am already touching bear country in my hikes. Very soon I will enter cougar country (we have confirmed 500 pumas / cougars / mountain lions in Ontario). I would like to do that in the company of at least two, and preferably 4 large size livestock guardian or personal guard dogs.

      Your article highlights many other suggestions for safety. I am willing to take all the care, but will not take a firearm. I may regret it, but I think a bear or cougar repellent, if there is anything like that for the latter, may just do it.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi MissDoolittle. Thanks for stopping by.

    • MissDoolittle profile image

      MissDoolittle 

      6 years ago from Sussex, UK

      Hi Larry,

      Wow the only thing you have to watch out for here in the UK when hiking is people crossing your path!

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Will. It's nice to hear from you again.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Hi Larry,

      When I was a kid in Iowa, farmers used a .22 to the brain to kill hogs and cows for food, but I agree that it should be a centerfire round to be sure it's quick.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi sgbrown. Thanks for stopping by, and for the share.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      6 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      This is very interesting and good advice! I can't believe that anyone would go jogging, running, biking, etc. alone in "cougar country". Sounds to me like they are taking a big risk. I do take a .380 when I go walking in the country. We don't have any cougars here, that I know of, but there have been rumors and I am not taking any chances! We do have some wild hogs in this area, so I am prepared if one happens to charge me. Rattlesnakes will die! Great hub, I really enjoyed it! Voted up and sharing! :)

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      A hiking friend has some acreage in out in Shingle Springs. She tells me that every once in a while, a mountain lion will attack livestock or pets near her.

      The kitty cat problem is a bit bigger than it used to be, because of a ballot measure that we voted on. The two choices were: keep cougar hunting 100% legal, or outlaw it entirely, except when one of them gets too close for comfort.

      The traditional trophy hunting method was to use dogs to tree the big cat, and then the mighty hunter would shoot it with a .22, in order to minimize damage to the pelt. In my book, causing an animal to bleed to death in a tree, while the dogs are barking their heads off, is not humane.

      I would like to have been given a third alternative: Any firearm used on a cougar must also be legal to use on a deer.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      By the way Larry, I was staying in Coloma at the time, and that same Cougar was known to have roamed the camp where I had my RV. I never saw her though.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Will. Thanks for stopping by.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I agree. In lion country, take a dog and a DAO revolver. They never jam and all you have to do is pull the trigger. If you are in bear country, carry at least a .357 Mag., and avoid the bear if at all possible. Steer very wide of a sow with cubs.

      As Larry pointed out, lions are ambushers and they don't like resistance, so fight as hard as you can. If there are two of you, the lion will probably leave rather than take on two people.

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