Camping and hiking with mountain lions isn’t something most Americans have to deal with on a regular basis. However, if you’re hiking or camping out west or in Florida, you could potentially run into one.
Unfortunately, how this encounter will end is often anyone’s guess. Experts describe mountain lion behavior as “unpredictable”, which can make encountering one, kind of scary.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps you can take to protect both you and the mountain lion during these encounters. In this post, we’ll go over these steps as well as general mountain lion characteristics so that you’ll know what to do if you ever do meet a lion out in the backcountry.
General Mountain Lion Characteristics
Mountain lions go by many names. Panthers, cougars, pumas, painters, and catamounts are all just mountain lions by different names.
These animals can be light brown, tan or even light gray. They can weigh over 200 pounds and can be as long as 9 feet, including their tail. This puts them at about three feet longer than the American bobcat. It also makes them four to five times heavier than them as well.
These animals are highly adaptable and can live in forests, deserts, swamps, and of course, mountains. They once roamed all of North America but were almost hunted to extinction.
These days,mountain lions are a protected species in some parts of the country and hunting them is forbidden. In other areas of the country, they’re plentiful and hunting them is perfectly legal.
The mountain lion is a great hunter and will often stalk its prey for a while before actually attacking. When it does attack, it will usually attack from the rear so that its prey does not see it coming. Once it pounces, it will attempt to deliver a lethal bite to the spinal cord of its prey.
In fact, on the rare occasion that a hiker is attacked, it’s often from the rear. I’ve read accounts where backpackers were leaped upon from above and the only thing that saved them was the fact that the mountain lion bit into their backpack rather than their neck.
Which States Have Mountain Lions
If you’re on the east coast and you’re not living in Florida, you probably won’t have to worry about mountain lions. At least not yet anyway.
The reason I say “not yet”, is that mountain lions do travel and there are some organizations that are pushing to reintroduce them into eastern states to help reduce deer populations. Also, some states have put limits or banned mountain lion hunting altogether so mountain lion populations are bound to grow in the years to come.
In fact, Reuters reports that a mountain lion was tracked moving from South Dakota all the way to Connecticut. Shortly after it arrived, however, it was accidentally run over.
Here is a breakdown of the mountain lion populations of each state from A to Z.
Alabama – According to the extension of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities, the last known mountain lion in Alabama was killed by a hunter in 1958. Since then, there have been many unconfirmed sightings that researchers have considered to be false.
Alaska – Alaska supposedly does not have a local population of mountain lions and it’s possible for residents to confuse the much smaller lynx with the mountain lion. However, there are confirmed reports of mountain lions being caught in traps or shot by hunters as recently as the late ’90s. Also, mountain lions are known to inhabit neighboring Canadian provinces so it isn’t that unlikely that Alaska could have mountain lions living within its borders.
Regardless of whether or not there are current breeding populations of mountain lions in Alaska now, many researchers feel that it’s only a matter of time before there are. Remember, Alaska still contains a lot of wilderness areas and many large game animals that mountain lions could easily hunt for food.
Arizona – Arizona does have mountain lions and lots of them. The Arizona Game and Fish Department estimates that there are somewhere between 2,000 and 2,700 mountain lions living within its borders.
Their research also suggested that the mountain lion population of Arizona is growing. This is despite the fact that it’s perfectly legal to hunt them.
Arkansas – The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confirmed that a mountain lion was killed in Arkansas in 2014. They did DNA tests and determined that it came from either Wyoming or Sout Dakota. More recently, they’ve had confirmed sightings of mountain lions on trail cameras within Arkansas.
California – Not only are mountain lion populations flourishing in California, but the animal is often making the news. In fact, just this morning, (January 21, 2020), NBC is reporting that a 3-year old was attacked by a mountain lion in a California park in Orange County.
Unfortunately, these types of occurrences are happening more and more. California does not allow mountain lion hunting and the population is said to be between 4,000 to 6,000.
Even still, you’re unlikely to be attacked by a mountain lion in California. It’s been reported that only 17 people have been attacked by mountain lions in the state over the past 34 years.
Colorado – Mountain lions can be found in Colorado and mountain lion attacks are on the rise in these areas as well. Colorado Parks & Wildlife estimate there to be between 3,000 to 7,000 mountain lions within the state.
Connecticut – As we mentioned earlier, a mountain lion was run over in Connecticut not that long ago. It had traveled over 1,500 miles to get there.
People also report spotting them on a frequent basis. In fact, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection receives between 50 and 100 reports of mountain lion sightings each year.
Even so, there isn’t any credible evidence suggesting that mountain lions are currently living in Connecticut. If you’re looking to avoid them while hiking and camping, Connecticut is as good a place as any.
Delaware – It surprised me to find that there have been confirmed mountain lion sightings in the state of Delaware. They believe these mountain lions to be escaped pets rather than animals that have migrated to the area, so you’re extremely unlikely to ever encounter them.
Florida – Florida is home to the Florida panther, which incidentally is just another name for a mountain lion. This being said, the Florida panther population isn’t that big. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission estimates that their population is somewhere between 120 to 230 panthers.
These panthers are mostly reported to be living in the Southwestern areas of the state but could migrate as time goes by. The reason for this is that the Florida panther is a protected animal so its population is likely to grow.
Georgia – The Georgia Department of Natural Resources states that there have only been three confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Georgia over the past 25 years. 2008 was the last sighting and it was determined that it was probably an illegal pet that escaped its captivity. They were able to do this by testing it for parasites after a deer hunter killed it.
Hawaii – The only place you might find a mountain lion in Hawaii would be at the zoo.
Idaho – Mountain lions can be found throughout the entire state of Idaho. In fact, they sometimes kill people’s pets or wander into people’s back yards. There have also been a few attacks on humans but fortunately, none of them resulted in a fatality.
The number of actual lions is not tracked by anyone so it’s impossible for me to speculate on how many there actually are. However, if people are seeing them in their backyards, it’s likely that campers and hikers in Idaho will have a higher chance of encountering one than people living in other parts of the country.
Illinois – The Department of Natural Resources in Illinois states that there isn’t any evidence to suggest that there is an established population of mountain lions living within the state. There have been numerous sightings of mountain lions but none of them have been scientifically confirmed and it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter even a migratory mountain lion in Illinois at this time.
Indiana – Indiana does not have mountain lions. Many people have reported sighting them but none were ever confirmed. Southern Indiana does have bobcats that are sometimes mistaken for mountain lions.
Iowa – There have been some sightings of mountain lions in Iowa. The Department of Natural Resources believes that they migrated in from neighboring states. Their official stance is that “mountain lions are by no means common in Iowa”.
Kansas – Mountain lions do turn up in Kansas from time-to-time. Researchers believe that they are migrating there from South Dakota and western Nebraska.
Kentucky – The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources states that there isn’t any evidence of wild mountain lions residing in the state of Kentucky. Recently, there have been many unconfirmed sightings of mountain lions within the state, which officials believe is the result of the bobcat moving back into the area.
Louisiana – The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries verified a mountain lion sighting back in 2016 and a mountain lion was even killed in the state back in 2008. Neither of these mountain lions was said to be native of the state.
However, this does not mean that you might not run into a mountain lion in Louisiana. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fish says that a mountain lion could migrate there from the west as Louisiana does have good habitats for mountain lions.
Maine – Maine has not had any confirmed mountain lion sightings in over 80 years. This being said, it’s entirely possible that they could eventually migrate back into the state from Canada.
Maryland – There have been many sightings of mountain lions and a lot of debate about the existence of mountain lions in Maryland. This is especially true of western Maryland. Nevertheless, there haven’t been any confirmed sightings of the animal within the state’s borders.
Massachusetts – The state of Massachusetts does not have a breeding population of mountain lions and according to Mass.gov, there have only been two verified mountain lions within the state in recent years. One was verified by DNA testing animal scat found near a beaver carcass and the other was a verified photo.
Michigan – The Department of Natural Resources states that there have been 41 confirmed mountain lion sightings in the past 12 years. These animals have all been said to have migrated in from other states.
Minnesota – The Minnesota DNR states that mountain lions have been sighted in Minnesota but that there isn’t any evidence of breeding populations within the state. They believe most of these animals have come from the west, although they could come from Canada as well.
Mississippi – The state of Mississippi is not a place where you’re likely to encounter mountain lions. There have been confirmed sightings in neighboring states but as of the time of this writing, I was unable to find any confirmed mountain lion sightings in Mississippi.
Missouri – The Missouri Department of Conservation has documented 79 confirmed reports of mountain lions in the state. This includes data going as far back as 1994.
Some of these reports consist of mountain lions that were killed by vehicles or hunters. In one case, a farmer actually captured the animal in a large cage-type trap.
DNA evidence was done on these animals and all of them were confirmed to be wild. The state believes they migrated to the area from neighboring states.
Montana – Montana is said to have a lot of mountain lions and the hunting quotas for them are higher than most other states that allow mountain lion hunting. The state’s Fish Wildlife and Parks Department believe there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 mountain lions living in Montana.
Nebraska – There are three separate areas of Nebraska with confirmed breeding populations of mountain lions. At least one of these areas has over 60 mountain lions.
Although the state does allow limited hunting of the animals, the Nebraska Game & Parks Department feels that the population will only continue to grow as mountain lions from other states continue to migrate to the area.
Nevada – The Nevada Department of Wildlife believes there to be between 2,500 to 3,500 mountain lions living within the state of Nevada. These mountain lions are mostly found in the areas of juniper, pinion pine, mountain mahogany, mountain brush, and ponderosa pine.
New Hampshire – New Hampshire Fish and Game has not found any physical evidence of mountain lions within the state. Many sightings have been investigated but none have turned up valid yet.
New Jersey – While there have been a few unconfirmed sightings of mountain lions in New Jersey, there haven’t been any actual mountain lions or even confirmed sightings in almost 150 years.
New Mexico – New Mexico is said to be the home of 3,000 to 4,500 mountain lions.
New York – The state of New York receives a few reported sightings each year but none of them have turned out to be valid. Some mountain lion conservationist groups have advocated reintroducing them into the Adirondacks but there aren’t any state plans for doing so.
North Carolina – North Carolina’s mountain lion population is said to have died out around the year 1900. There isn’t any evidence of mountain lions currently living in North Carolina.
North Dakota – Mountain lions do reside in North Dakota. The North Dakota State Game & Fish Department believes them to mostly reside in a small section of western North Dakota but they have been sighted throughout the state.
Population studies done by the state show that there may be less than 50 mountain lions living within the state. With high state hunting quotas, this number probably isn’t going to go up any time soon.
Ohio – Ohio doesn’t have any confirmed wild mountain lions living within its borders. However, over the years a number of pet mountain lions have escaped and subsequently been killed.
These animals were determined to have been former pets as they had previously been declawed. Until recent years, licensing of exotic wild animals was not required in Ohio so it’s certainly possible that there are more out there.
Oklahoma – Oklahoma is not said to have a resident mountain lion population but they do have confirmed sightings from time-to-time. These sightings are usually up in the Panhandle and they’re rare. In the past 17 years, there have only been 29 confirmed mountain lion sightings within the state.
Oregon – According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are more than 6,000 mountain lions living in Oregon. These animals can be found throughout the state, but you’re more likely to encounter them in the Blue or Cascade Mountains.
Pennsylvania – Pennsylvanians are constantly debating whether or not mountain lions live in the state. There have been sightings all over the place but they never seem to be validated.
The last time a mountain lion was killed in Pennsylvania was in 1967 and it was said to be a pet that had gotten loose. A confirmed mountain lion attack on a dog occurred in Lancaster County in 2004. They tested hair samples and measured paw prints to make this confirmation.
Unfortunately, this mountain lion was never found. These animals generally only live about 10 years in the wild though, so it would probably be deceased at this point anyway.
Rhode Island – Like most of the eastern states, Rhode Island has had many unconfirmed mountain lion sightings. This being said, I couldn’t find any information on any confirmed sightings, even of former pets.
South Carolina – South Carolina has not had any confirmed mountain lion sightings.
South Dakota – South Dakota is home to mountain lions. They believe to have about 300 of them living mostly in the southwestern part of the state.
The state does allow hunting so it’s unlikely to have a very large mountain lion population anytime soon.
Tennessee – Mountain lions have recently had a resurgence in Tennessee and there have been many confirmed sightings over the past five years. In fact, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recently stated that “mountain lions are back in Tennesee”.
This is a big shift as these animals were said to have gone extinct in this area back in the early 1900s. Many believe that these new sightings are the result of migration from other states and only time will tell if they establish breeding populations.
It is illegal to hunt mountain lions in Tennessee and the penalty is pretty severe. A person could go to jail over it, so it’s unlikely that these animals will be actively hunted in the state. This could result in their numbers increasing pretty rapidly.
Texas – Mountain lions are in Texas and there have been sightings throughout the state. Nobody knows exactly how many live in Texas, but you’re more likely to find them in the western and southern areas of Texas.
Utah – Utah is home to about 2,700 mountain lions. Biologists have found that this population grows at about 14% a year.
For this reason, Utah issues many hunting permits each year. This has kept the mountain lion population relatively stable from year-to-year.
Vermont – Vermont’s Fish & Wildlife Department states that there aren’t any mountain lions in Vermont and that they haven’t seen any evidence of them in over 100 years. Of course, this hasn’t stopped people from reporting that they’ve seen them.
Virginia – There aren’t any confirmed mountain lion sightings in Virginia but many people have claimed to have seen them. Even the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries doesn’t discount the fact that there could be mountain lions living in Virginia.
The mountain lion has already moved back into Tennesee, so it stands to reason that it could be moving back into neighboring Virginia as well. If there are mountain lions in Virginia, you’ll most likely spot them in the Shenandoah National Park as that is where most of the sightings seem to have originated.
Washington – The state of Washington is estimated to have about 2,000 mountain lions living within its borders. These animals tend to live in the western part of the state.
While fatal mountain lion attacks are rare, there have been some within this state over the past few years.
West Virginia – There have been many unconfirmed mountain lion sightings along the Blue Ridge Mountains. This being said, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has not found any valid signs of mountain lions living there.
Wisconsin – Mountain lion sightings in Wisconsin are rare but there have been confirmed sightings within this state. The first one in recent history was in 2008 and many more have been reported since. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources asks residents to report any mountain lion sightings on their website.
Wyoming – Wyoming doesn’t publish estimated population numbers of mountain lions but some organizations believe the number to be around 2,000. You can find Wyoming’s mountain lions all throughout the state but places like Yellowstone and Teton are likely to hold more of these animals than other parts of the state.
What States Have the Most Mountain Lions
The states with the highest number of mountain lions include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Steps to Take Before Venturing Into Mountain Lion Territory
People who are planning to camp in or hike through mountain lion territory should take extra precautions. Firstly, avoid hiking at night as well as the hours just after dawn and just before dusk. This is when mountain lions are actively hunting for food and they could accidentally mistake you for a meal.
Also, try not to go hiking or camping by yourself in mountain lion country. Mountain lions are much more likely to attack you when you’re by yourself. On top of this, it’s much easier to fight off a mountain lion when you have people to help you do so.
If you do decide to hike alone, be sure to be noisy about it. This will reduce your chances of accidentally sneaking up on a mountain lion. Some people strap on noisy gear or sing to themselves. Others wear bear bells but there have been questions as to whether or not these bells work.
Some people theorize that the bells have been used so much that bears and cougars have gotten used to them and are now tuning them out like they would any other natural sound. Worse yet, others believe that the sound of the bell might actually make mountain lions and bears curious enough to come to check you out.
Consider packing some bear spray with you as well. Bear spray isn’t just for bears. It can be used against wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and even people.
Hiking poles or walking sticks could be good items to bring along as well. Use them to make yourself look bigger by waving them about or as a weapon of last resort.
Also, make plans for dealing with your food and cleaning up your campsite. Food safety rules apply to mountain lions just as much as they apply to bears.
What to Do if You Encounter a Mountain Lion
If you encounter a mountain lion, take the encounter seriously but try not to panic. On the off chance that the mountain lion hasn’t spotted you yet, alter your route so that it never does.
Most likely though, the mountain lion will have spotted you long before you’ve spotted it. In this case, you’ll want to let the mountain lion know that you aren’t a good meal option.
Make yourself look larger than you are by standing tall, unzipping your jacket and waving your arms. Talk to the mountain lion and maintain eye contact. Never turn your back on the animal and never let them out of your site.
Children and small animals will look tempting to the mountain lion so pick them up and carry them, but try not to bend down too far when doing so, (more on this later). In fact, it may be a good idea to keep kids and pets out of mountain lion territory altogether. While a large aggressive dog could deter a mountain lion, a small one might do the exact opposite.
Also, don’t even think about approaching a mountain lion or attempting to walk by one. Either stand your ground or back away slowly without taking your eyes off of them. A mountain lion can run at speeds of up to 40 mph and they can do horizontal leaps of up to 40 feet so retreat really isn’t an option.
Watch the video below to see for yourself.
If the mountain lion starts walking towards you, yell at them, wave your arms, and even throw stuff at them if you have to. You want to look as big, mean, and aggressive as possible. Look dangerous enough and you could scare them off without incident.
Most mountain lions try to stay away from humans. Encounter a mountain lion twice during your hike or camping trip and it’s probably stalking you and you should be prepared for an attack.
It might seem like an impossible task, but if the mountain lion does decide to attack you, aggressively fight back with everything you have.
Mountain lions aren’t used to their prey fighting back and they aren’t ashamed to call it quits when you do. In fact, most mountain lion attacks on adults have not ended in a human fatality.
What Not to Do During a Mountain Lion Encounter
Never bend down. Even if it’s to pick up something to throw at them.
Researchers have found that this triggers a pounce response. Not only this, but it will put you in an inferior fighting position as your head and neck is easier to attack when you’re crouching versus standing.
Don’t ever run. You’ll trigger an attack response and you won’t get very far anyway.
After your encounter, don’t continue on as if nothing happened. You need to contact the authorities immediately so that they can warn others.
Just because the mountain lion decided not to attack you, it doesn’t mean that it won’t attack the next person. A hiker with small children might hear your story and decide to take another trail that day so your warning could end up saving a life.
I had a lot of fun researching and writing this post and I hope you enjoyed reading it. I also hope it serves as a warning for you to be extremely vigilant when hiking or camping in mountain lion country.
You don’t necessarily have to fear these animals, but you do have to respect them. Fail to do so and you could end up in the fight of your life.