Hikers often ask each other, “Ever seen a cougar in the wild?” because they’ve never encountered one, and they wonder if others have. The most common answer is, “No, have you?”
Cougar sightings are rare. Yet cougars are prevalent. And cougar/hiker near misses are common. If you hike frequently, you’ve surely come close to a cougar without realizing it, because they’re wary, cunning, stealthy.
But don’t assume you’ll never encounter a cougar. They’re out there and can be dangerous. Be as wary of them as they are of you. Here’s what you need to know.
Sometimes referred to as a puma, mountain lion, or panther, the cougar is an enormous, graceful cat. An adult male can reach the size of a big human: 80 kilos (175 pounds), and 2.4 meters (8 feet) long, including a 1-meter (3-foot) tail. In the mountains of western Canada, they tend to be a tawny grey.
Nocturnal, secretive, solitary creatures, cougars come together only to mate. Each cat establishes a territory of 200 to 280 square kilometers (125 to 175 square miles). They favour dense forest that provides cover while hunting. They also hide among rock outcroppings and in steep canyons.
Habitat loss and aggressive predator-control programs have severely limited the range of this mysterious animal that once lived throughout North America. Still, cougars are not considered endangered or threatened. Cougars appear to be thriving throughout western North America.
Cougars are carnivores. They eat everything from mice to elk, but prefer deer. They occasionally stalk people, but rarely attack them. In folklore, cougars are called ghost cats or ghost walkers, and for good reason. They’re very shy and typically avoid human contact. Nevertheless, cougars have attacked solo hikers and lone cross-country skiers.
Cougar sightings and encounters are increasing, but it’s uncertain whether that’s due to a larger cougar population or the growing number of people visiting the wilderness. If you’re lucky enough to see a cougar, treasure the experience—cautiously, because they’re unpredictable.
Never hike alone in areas of known cougar sightings. Keep children close to you; pick them up if you see fresh cougar scat or tracks. Never approach a cougar, especially a feeding one.
Never flee from a cougar, or even turn your back on it. Sudden movement might trigger an instinctive attack. Avert your gaze and speak to it in a calm, soothing voice. Hold your ground or back away slowly. Always give the animal a way out. If a cougar approaches, spread your arms, open your jacket, do anything you can to enlarge your image. If it acts aggressively, wave your arms, shout, throw rocks or sticks. If attacked, fight back. Don’t play dead.