A Trail Runner’s Guide to Mountain-Lion Encounters

Should you worry about being attacked by a mountain lion on your next trail run? No. Definitely not. The odds of winning the Western States 100 cougar trophy are better than being attacked by one. (Mountain lions have more names than whiskers. Some of the most commonly used ones are cougar, puma, and panther.) There have been about 150 documented mountain-lion attacks and about 20 fatalities in the United States and Canada since 1890. Dogs kill more people annually. And, as far as I can tell, only six of the mountain-lion attacks involved runners. Two of these runners were killed.

Now, if you’re a worrier like me and your email and social media have been filled with news of that Colorado trail runner’s attack in February, then your brain has likely translated those statistics to: Runners have been attacked and killed by mountain lions since 1890! Moveover, that’s just documented attacks. How many more haven’t been recorded?

So let’s break down your risk based on where you’re running and racing. And then we can talk about how to mitigate that risk and what to do in the very unlikely event a mountain lion decides you look tastier than anything else around. The goal of this article is to address your parents’ worries that you’ll be attacked by a mountain lion while you’re out trail running–and maybe your concerns too.

I won’t address the mountain lion’s important relationship to the ecosystems they live in, their reduced habitat due to human encroachment, their innate value, or their awesomeness. To read more about that, please check out the resources on the Mountain Lion Foundation’s website.

Oh, and one more thing, this article is focused on North American mountain-lion populations. Mountain lions live in South America, too, where they are usually called puma. They are the same species, but their behaviors around humans are different.

Yep, that’s a mountain lion.

Where Mountain Lions Live

You’re probably more likely to get into the Hardrock 100–and win it–than to see a mountain lion east of the Mississippi River. There are no mountain lions in Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, and Prince Edward Island.

In fact, east of the Rocky Mountains, the only breeding mountain-lion populations are in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida. That’s not to say there aren’t other mountain lions wandering around east of the Rockies. They’re just few and far between. Take a look at the map below to see how many mountain-lion sightings there were in 2017 outside their established range.

A map showing mountain-lion range in green and mountain-lion sightings outside of their known range in 2017 in grey circles. Image is a screenshot from the Cougar Network’s interactive map.

As a bonus, check out the interactive version of the above map created by the Cougar Network, a non-profit that tracks expanding cougar populations, to see the exact locations of these sightings or to explore data from other years.

Mountain-lion populations are rebounding after being extirpated in the Midwest and eastern United States in the last century. They’re returning to old habitats and, also, populating new areas. This recovery, combined with suburban sprawl, increases the likelihood of sightings and encounters.

A map showing confirmed mountain-lion sightings from 1990 to 2017 outside of their known range. Image: Cougar Network

A chart showing where you should and should not see mountain lions in North America. Image: Liza Howard

What to Do If You Come Face-To-Face with a Mountain Lion

That’s all well and good, you’re thinking, but what should I do in the unlikely event I do come face-to-face with a mountain lion? The answer is simple–at least in theory–don’t act like prey. That’s your goal. Ask yourself, What would a mouse do in a face off with a house cat? Then do the opposite.

A mouse is small. Don’t be small.

I know, I know, trail runners are generally fairly small people.

The author looking small (as usual). Photo: Liza Howard

Instead, make yourself look as big as possible. And if you’re running with a buddy, get close together and seem like an even bigger creature.

The author giving her best impression of big. Photo: Liza Howard

Henry Hobbs (left) and Joe Prusaitis practicing looking bigger together. Photo: Liza Howard

A mouse is quiet. Don’t be quiet.

Yell at the mountain lion. Holler whatever comes to mind. Yelling “mountain lion!” might attract some help as well as scaring the lion off.  But “I am not a mouse!” could work as well as anything if you say it loudly and sternly.

A mouse squeaks in fear. Don’t squeak.

This sounds like easy advice, but I think I’d likely scream in a mouse-like way if I ever rounded a corner on the trail and came face-to-face with a mountain lion.

Even if you come face-to-face with this mountain lion, don’t squeak.

A mouse tries to run to safety. Don’t try to run to safety.

I don’t care how well your training is going, you won’t outrun a mountain lion. Also, anybody who owns a house cat knows how cats love to chase things that are moving away from them. Basically, if you run, it’s game on!

Dr. Paul Beier, who verified and detailed all the fatal and non-fatal mountain lion attacks in the U.S. and Canada between 1890 and 1990, found only one person who had actually escaped by “panicked flight.” “In that case, a 16-year-old boy fled after encountering a cougar at 25 feet. The cougar was gaining ground rapidly when the boy’s boot fell off and the cougar attacked and ate the boot. This story was supported by the presence of boot fragments in the stomach of the cougar when it was shot an hour later.”

So, no running! (Unless you’re running in loose, tasty boots.)

A mouse is defenseless. Don’t be defenseless.

Pick up a big stick and wave it around. Throw rocks at the cat. Mountain lions aren’t looking for a good fight.

Ryan Yedlinsky looking like too much trouble. Photo: Liza Howard

Mice freeze. Don’t freeze. And don’t play dead.

An attack in 1990 in Glacier National Park, Montana, chronicled by Dr. Beier, provides and arresting illustration of the foolishness of playing dead. “A nine-year-old boy said that he had been advised to play dead if he ever encountered a wild animal. When a cougar pounced on him as he was walking out of a lake, he followed this advice. However, the cougar continued to bite him and drag him away until his father kicked gravel at the cougar. The cougar then rushed at his seven-year-old sister; she did not play dead but screamed, causing the cougar to turn and run.”

A house cat playing with a very unfortunate mouse. Photo: Jamain (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In fact, don’t turn your back on the mountain lion either. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, “The best way to ensure that both you and the lion may leave safely is for you to back away slowly while continuing to look as big and intimidating as possible, leaving the lion avenues of escape.”

“You have to assess the situation to know when to start backing away,” says Korinna Domingo, a conservation specialist with the foundation. “You need to establish that you’re not prey before you start backing away, especially if the mountain lion is exhibiting stalking behavior. Basically, the steps are: I see you. I’m not prey. Now I’m backing away.”

What to Do If You’re Attacked by a Mountain Lion

If the mountain lion decides you’re easy prey and attacks, fight back.

I was surprised at all the accounts of people successfully fighting off mountain lions with sticks, rocks, random outdoor gear, and their hands. Tom Chester, Linda Lewis, and Helen McGinnis list the details of most of the attacks since 1890 on their websites. (I’d like to apologize to my husband for reading most of these out loud before bed last night.)

During one attack north of Las Vegas, Nevada in 1991, a female research biologist was saved by her co-workers beating the lion with their cameras.

Travis Kauffman, the Colorado trail runner who was attacked on February 4th of this year, used sticks, rocks, and his hands and feet to save himself from the mountain lion. Travis was on a 12- to 15-mile run that started in Lory State Park outside Fort Collins, Colorado. He ran through Lory into Horsetooth Mountain Park to do some hill training. Shortly after he made it to the top of Towers Road, he heard pine needles rustle behind him. He turned his head and saw a mountain lion about 10 feet away. In an interview with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Travis said his “heart sank into his stomach.” (I bet it did!)

Then, Travis did everything right. He did not act like a mouse. “I threw my arms up and started yelling.” The cat kept approaching anyway. It lunged and latched onto his wrist and clawed at his face. Travis continued to do all the right things. He picked up sticks with his other hands and tried to stab the mountain lion. He aimed for the throat. Unfortunately, the sticks weren’t strong and broke. So Travis grabbed a rock and tried to bash the mountain lion’s head. The cat still had Travis’s left wrist in its mouth, which made it difficult for Travis to hit the cat’s head with much force. Travis eventually got his right leg close to his left wrist and was ultimately able to step on the cat’s neck and suffocate it.

Travis flew down the trail and away from the cat. He ran into another trail runner about two miles down the trail. That runner turned and ran back down the trail with Travis. The two met up with another pair of trail runners, who, along with the first runner, helped get Travis to the hospital and collected his car from the parking lot.

Travis did everything right. He was attacked and he fought back. I asked Lynn Cullins, Executive Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, about criticism Travis had received because the mountain that attacked him was probably three to four months old and weighted 35 to 40 pounds. She did not equivocate: “If attacked, fight back. People who fight back, live. It’s not appropriate for us to second guess somebody’s behavior in a mountain-lion attack.”

How to Decrease Your Risk of Being Attacked

If you run where mountain lions live, you can decrease the risk of meeting up with one by taking these actions:

  • Run with someone – You’re less likely to be attacked, and you’ll have help if you are. Travis Kauffman says he’ll be running with a buddy from here out.
  • Make noise, so you don’t surprise the mountain lion – Mountain lions, like bears, hate surprises. Talk to your running buddy while you run. Lynn Cullins suggests clapping as you round blind corners. (Or just keep talking loudly.)
  • Be alert and make noise before you squat down to go to the bathroom – You look less like a human and more like prey when you’re squatting. The position also exposes your neck and the back of your head. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, “[T]his is where a lion will target an attack.”
  • Don’t run with unleashed dogs – A frightened or aggressive dog might lead to an encounter rather than prevent one. A mountain lion might chase your dog and your dog might lead the mountain lion back to you.
  • Don’t run with earbuds – Travis Kauffman attributes his success at fighting off the mountain lion to not wearing earbuds. “And one of the things I was really glad I did was turn my head [when I heard a noise behind me] and I couldn’t have done that if I had earbuds in.” You need to be aware of the noises in the environment around you when you’re trail running.
  • Wear bright, contrasting pieces of clothing that break up your silhouette – According to Lynn Cullins, the less your clothes make your outline look like a deer, the better.
  • Carry bear spray – Bear spray works on mountain lions too. But its usefulness depends on how quickly you can access and deploy it. The spray needs to be in front of your body in a quick-access holster or up front on your hydration pack. If you can’t pull it out quickly, it’s useless. If you decide to carry bear spray, practice deploying and spraying an inert training spray canister first. They’re inexpensive and the experience is invaluable.
  • Be especially vigilant at dawn and dusk – Mountain lions are more active during conditions of low light.
  • Don’t check out dead animals in the brush – (Duh!) This is how mountain lions store their food and they will not take kindly to you fiddling with it.

Three Things to Remember About Trail Running with Mountain Lions

  1. Your chances of encountering a mountain lion are probably less than getting into Hardrock your first try.
  2. If you come face-to-face with a mountain lion, don’t act like a mouse.
  3. If a mountain lion attacks, fight back!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever seen a mountain lion while trail running or hiking?
  • Have you ever had a close encounter with a mountain lion while trail running or hiking? Can you explain what happened?
  • If you live where mountain lions do, what precautions if any do you to take to mitigate the risk of an encounter?
Liza Howard

is a longtime ultrarunner who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, coaches, directs the non-profit Band of Runners, and drives her kids around in a minivan.

There are 30 comments

  1. Paul

    Nice article. I run in mountain lion territory (I’ve never seen one) and this could save my life. Thanks for writing it. Sadly, mountain lions are dying here as certain rodenticides make there way up the food chain.

    I’d love a similar article on snakes. I see plenty of those and I’m sure most are harmless.

  2. Sarah Lavender Smith

    I love Liza’s writing & knowledge. I’ve never encountered a mountain lion in 25 years of running & hiking trails in CA and CO, but the fear haunts me. I appreciate empowering articles like this. My new trick when solo on trail in cougar and bear country is to listen to a podcast (less obnoxious than music) with the speaker on, on my phone in hydration pack pocket. That way my ears are open but it’s like an ongoing conversation to alert animals to my presence.

    1. Will Thomas

      This is exactly what I do Sarah (and lots of times its your voice joining me). I mostly travel off trail in the Olympic mountains and get to witness signs of cougars on an almost weekly basis, yet hardly ever get to glimpse them in person.

  3. Liza

    That’s a great idea, Sarah! Podcast voices definitely seem less intrusive and maybe more useful than music. And thanks for the kind words.

  4. Anon

    About 15 years ago, i took a dawn run by myself up the Arroyo Seco in the San Gabriel mountains. An hour or so into the run, (a mile or 2 past Oakwild) the trail, which up to that point had run along beside the stream on the canyon side, rounded a bend and dipped down to cross the stream. As i rounded the bend, about a hour past daybreak, there was a large mountain lion at the stream. I recall that it looked at me, then bounded up the trail like a giant jack rabbit, fortunately away from me up trail! – and was gone in a flash. I backed up, turned around an went back the way I had come.

    1. Liza

      Whew! The Mountain Lion Foundation folks said sometimes a mountain lion will try to run past you if it doesn’t have an easy exit. Glad this one went the opposite direction.

  5. Olaf

    I will be racing the Tahoe Rim Trail this summer. I am from The Netherlands, Europe where recently wolves has been seen since many years. Actually close to where I always run. Besides ticks we don’t have to fear for wild animals here. Thanks for the article and the info.just like them I don’t want to be surprised either.

    1. Liza

      Honestly, does anybody like surprises? :) That’s interesting about the wolves in Europe. I hope you ave a great race at Tahoe, Olaf!

  6. Doug K

    as the RMNP ranger told us at the campfire program, you may not have seen a mountain lion, but a mountain lion has seen you..

    saw one in Olympic NP, crossing a road as we drove along. Never seen one while on foot, though have found fresh deer meat and bones a couple of times. We left those areas quickly and noisily. The one time I had my two small boys with me, carried one and held the other by the hand until we got to the car.. that’s the most spooked I have been.

  7. Matt G

    In early April of last year, I was running up Black Mountain in the south bay area at about 6pm. As I was descending, I rounded a corner and saw a mountain lion, not moving, with one paw on the single track trail about 20 feet ahead of me. I was able to stop quickly, keeping about 15 feet between us. I immediately raised my arms and started to slowly back up. The mountain lion starts slowly moving toward me. I start yelling, and luckily it stopped where it was. I managed to keep backing up until it was well out of sight and go back the way I had came, getting in a little more vert than intended. I managed to remain calm in the moment somehow but was freaking out as I ran back.

    In reporting the incident to the park rangers, they said they get ~100 sightings per year at this park alone. This mountain lion in particular is not afraid nor aggressive toward humans, even taking down deer while people were around. The rangers recommended throwing things(I had a water bottle in my hand) at the mountain lion should it have continued to advance, rather than bending over to pick anything up which would make you look small, even if only briefly.

  8. Rick

    Now you got me wanting to see a mountain lion out on the trail. What if I try “Here kitty kitty, can I scratch your ears”, then I get shredded and become the next statistic?

  9. Michael Basuini

    I had a mountain lion encounter at night in Folsom CA, the Mountain Lion was stalking me, circling me- however I was able to scare it off by yelling loudly and sternly at it, and waving my arms in the air. I saw the lion turn away and run off and I continued on my way in the opposite direction.

  10. Olga

    6 mountain lions encounters. Six. 3 last summer within 4 days of each other, 2 on the last 2 nights. There’s a reason my name is “Cat magnet”. And, oh, yes, from the very first time (San Diego 100, 2013) I happened to do the right thing. Let’s keep fingers crossed it will continue to work for me.
    P.s. after first getting into Hardrock, I had 7 “no” in the lottery. I say my odds are so opposite of your prediction…

  11. Andy McP

    I frequently run In Boulder, and cat tracks are a frequent sight in the area, especially in the winter when you can see them in the fresh snow, I have not seen a cat in Boulder, but have had the sense of being watched many times coupled with lots of fresh prints in the snow!
    I did have a cat encounter in the mountains outside Leadville where we were hiking through a willow that had a creek running through it, and to one side is a rock band. We rounded a corner on the trail and my hiking partner stopped abruptly, his headlight when he looked up illuminated two glowing eyes about 10ft above the trail just 20 ft in front of us. We cranked up the lights and sure enough it was a big mountain lion, crouched and staring at us. We yelled and caused a ruckus, but it didn’t budge so we had a very scary backup as we made our way through the willows that we could not see anything around us in! Once it was done it was a pretty cool experience.
    I talked to a wildlife biologist from CSU who has devoted her studies to mountain lions, and she laughingly said “you may not see them, but they see you”

  12. Sharon

    Thanks for the article. I run in the mountains of Colorado mostly. I read every article about mountain lions like I’m training for a siting. In a panic, I don’t want to forget what to do. They are beautiful creatures!

  13. Valerie

    In all my years of running in the Bay Area hills my worst nightmare came true. As I came up a hill (just a mile from the trailhead), a mountain lion was standing on the trail in front of me, not 25 ft away. It was just staring at me. But right away it broke eye contact and slowly sauntered away. I knew it wasn’t in the least interested in me so I continued with my run down a different trail. It was a beautiful sighting even though I’ve often had nightmares of encounters before long runs.

  14. Jer

    Great article Liza. Also recommend reading “Beast in the Garden” by David Baron. It is Colorado front range focused, but applicable info for any big cat encounter and a great historical overview of man vs cat. I have had a handful of encounters over the years, but never a scary one. Lots more wolf and bear encounters. Every predator I’ve encountered ran away at top speed. I have a healthy fear of moose, bees and snakes, which have no innate fear of man.

    1. Liza Howard

      Thanks, Jer. I will definitely take a look at that book. I’ve only seen a dead mountain lion. It was in the Gila Wilderness years ago. Agreed about moose.

  15. shigs

    love big cats…my dog (on leash) and I came across one last summer crossing our path about 20 yards ahead (front range in CO)…just looked at us and took off quickly enough for us not to even get to feel scared. I had seen prints in the mud and snow over the past year in that area and was pretty excited to actually get a real life glimpse. After that I set up some cameras where I’d seen tracks to see if I could get a picture or video. A few months ago I got these.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/L1L3T9r8PvDN5n8x6

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/PJE6SHu3FSg2dnwH9

    Since then i’ve gotten bobcats and maybe a lynx (see below) in the same area on the camera. I love to think these guys are all healthy and co-existing in the same habitat.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/Yf82BT5QeQVuFZ5XA

    I respect the fact that these animals have dominion over their habitat and that I have been allowed to pass through so many times, fortunately without having to use the tools this article provides. Along with podcasts I tend to be pretty loud with my poles when I’m in this area to make sure I’m not sneaking up on anyone.

  16. Sabrina

    Liza, I used these instructions to scare off a wild turkey today (mostly the BE BIG and don’t act like prey instructions). They translated well, and your timing for this article was impeccable.

  17. Lightning

    I’ve had around a half dozen encounters, and I like that I had them. Here are copies of some posts I’ve made at Letsrun. I probably have more write ups on mtbr. I recall that, someone on one of those sites saw the same lion kits near IBM/Santa Teresa Park in the same time frame in the ’90s:

    (2004 post) An adult mountain lion leapt across the trail in front of me at dusk about 10 years ago. I was on the New Almaden Trail in Almaden Quicksilver park, San Jose, CA. I also had numerous sightings of mountain lion cubs in the late 1990s before I moved to AK. Three sightings within a week, probably of the same kit, were near the IBM Almaden Research center off the trail that leads from the end of Camden Ave to Fortini Rd, and also nearby on Via Santa Teresa. I also had at least one other sighting of a kit in Quicksilver Park. Bobcats are much more common see in the area, so it was cool to be able to see mountain lions. I think I spent more time running those trails in the 1990s than anyone, so I probably spotted more of the elusive animals than most.

    (2018 post about event maybe 10 years earlier)
    I’ve probably told this one before here in an old thread, but, with my first dog, we had a really close encounter in Quicksilver Park. My dog was running a bit ahead of me going up a steep hill. I noticed something, and turned my head to the right, and a full grown mountain lion was coming up behind me and to my right, focused on my dog (ignoring me completely). I could only watch as it moved past me (almost within arms reach) and towards my dog, because it happened so quickly. My dog turned her head to see it, with a no-big-deal look to her face “hi kitty!”, and the cougar angled away from her at the last moment, and continued ahead and into the bushes. So my dog probably wouldn’t have provided any protection from a cougar, except maybe as a distraction or maybe possible help after an attack. Cougars, if they really wanted to take runners down, could do so. Many of them live in close proximity to people in CA and see them all the time, yet there are very few attacks on runners, hikers, and mountain bikers, so they obviously choose not to attack people. It’s the deranged ones that do, kind of like the deranged people that kill people.

  18. Sylwia D.

    I came across a mountain lion yesterday when out on a trail run. I surprised him/ her as I came quietly from a round a blind corner. It crouched down and slowly retreated into the bushes. The encounter happened at around 6.45 AM in a fairly dark park of the canyon in San Vicente Mountain Park.

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