Friday, April 12, 2013

How to Not Get Eaten (Mountain Lion and Bear Safety)

For my trail loving friends who are planning your first trips into mountain lion and bear country...
I lived in Ohio until I was 22. The scariest animals I ever had to worry about on the Ohio trails were coyotes, and they weren’t very scary. For 22 years I was more worried about getting sprayed by a skunk then getting eaten. Thus, when I first started exploring Colorado alone I was completely terrified of mountain lions and bears.  It did not help that on my solo trip to California that I had a bear circle my tent one night, nearly got ran over by a bear while running down a mountain, and then saw a bear on my first trail run after officially moving to Chaffee County. It really didn’t help that a guy at an outdoor store told me a mountain lion might go after me because I’m not that big and I run alone.
I then did a little research and found out that Chaffee County (I’m saying Chaffee County instead of specific towns because I have lived in both Salida and Buena Vista which are both in Chaffe County) is a great place for mountain lions! Chaffee County is a little unique in that one side looks similar to a desert and the other side is much greener with its 12,000 to 14,000 ft. mountains.  Chaffee County also has a low population and is in the banana belt. Being in the banana belt means we have trails that are runnable all year long because the 14ers block most of the heavy snow and the towns stay a little warmer than other mountain towns above 7,000 feet (8,000 for Buena Vista).  In other words, it’s a perfect place for mountain lions and not bad for bears.
Tom enjoying mountain lion left overs in Salida.
Photo courtesy of Chaffee County Running Club.

After becoming even more terrified of mountain lions and bears I started talking to other local runners in Chaffee County and started feeling better. None of the runners had ever had a problem with mountain lions or bears, though some have encountered them. In the 2 years I have lived here, the only bear I saw was on that very first trail run. However, I have seen bear prints and TONS of mountain lion evidence from footprints to dead animals. Seeing bones on runs has become normal. Twice I saw a freshly killed animal which is quite scary because you know the mountain lion is close. Once on an out and back run I even saw mountain lion prints following mine. With that said, I have done hundreds of trail runs in mountain lion and bear country without a sighting. Most of these runs I can run for hours without seeing another human and so I’m quite aware I’m sharing land with many more animals than humans. Now I’m at the point, for better or worse, that on most runs it never even occurs to me I should worry about animals. However if you’re traveling to mountain lion or bear country soon, here are some things that you should know:
You might see a Sage Canaday mountain lion sculpture before you see the real thing!
Photo courtesy of Sage Canaday
Mountain Lions:
Mountain lions are known to be shy and actually seeing one is quite rare. A mountain lion killing a human is extremely rare. However, they are much more likely to go after children so never leave them alone in mountain lion country. Also, I hate to add this but it’s better to hear it and learn than to have this happen to you: A couple in Salida once had their door open on a summer night. As they were sleeping a mountain lion came in and snatched their golden retriever. I adore dogs so don’t let this happen to you.
How to protect yourself:
I almost never (though I should) run with any protection like pepper spray or a knife (good for bears as well), but if your senses tell you that you need to be cautious, you see fresh cmountain lion tracks, or you see a newly killed animal, immediately find a rock or large branch to carry with you. Carry it till you feel safe.
If you see one:
·         Make yourself look as big as possible: Raise your arms, wave, open your jacket, if with others stand together, etc.
·         Make noise: Be stern and loud. If you’re too scared to talk bang a stick or rock.
·         Be the predator: Keep eye contact. DO NOT RUN (it will want to chase you)! You can even start throwing things at it but don’t  bend down.
·         Slowly back away but don’t turn around. Also, be aware of why you’re seeing the lion. They really don’t want people to see them so you may be in their line to their kittens or prey. If this is the case, just give them their line.
·         Fight back: In the rare chance it does attack, fight back with your fists or anything you can get your hands on. People have saved themselves by doing this.

Other interesting facts/ tips:
·         If you’re worried about a mountain lion attacking you from behind, wear sunglasses on the back of your head. They will think you have eyes on the back of your head.
·         If you’re out on a windy day, be deliberately loud. Mountain lions have excellent hearing but the wind can throw them off. If they hear you, they are more likely to stay away.
·         They normally hunt around dawn and dusk.
Sometimes it’s easy to mix up the tracks of a large dog and mountain lion but an easy difference is to look at the heal pad. The mountain lion has 3 lobes while a dog only has two. Additionally, while you may sometimes see mountain lion prints with claws, most of the time they retract their claws to keep them sharp. If you do see claws it might mean they were chasing an animal.

I don’t know much about grizzly bears as I have never been in grizzly bear territory so I won’t write about them. However, I do know a little on black/ brown bears. If you see one, you really shouldn’t be alarmed unless you get between a mother and her cubs. Bears are mostly plant eaters and only eat meat when available, so people don’t look very tasty. I won’t go into food details as this is aimed at runners and not campers, but bears have an amazing sense of smell. Do not litter! If a bear sees food on the trail they are going to associate the trail with food and be more dangerous to humans. Like mountain lions, it is also good to make noise on the trail as the “human” noises will make them avoid you (thus, bear bells).
If you see one:
·         You can follow similar protocol to what I wrote for mountain lions: Look big, make noise, do not run, etc.
·         You may see a bear without it seeing you. When this happened to me I detoured so I wouldn’t confront the bear. After my encounter, another runner told me he had just yelled at a bear and it ran away. (He wasn’t about to let a bear interfere with his running route!)
·         If the bear charges it could very well be a bluff. Bears are known to charge then abruptly stop. If this happens stand your ground then slowly back away.
·         Throwing food at a bear, thinking the food will make them happy enough to leave you alone, is a really dumb idea as the bear will then associate you with food.
Other interesting facts/ tips:
·         If you throw something like a camera on the ground, it might distract a bear long enough for you to get away.
·         You don’t run from a bear because even if they look slow they ran run up to 30 mph!
·         If the bear is standing it might just want to get a better view (it’s not necessarily being aggressive).
Bear tracks are quite easy to identify due to their large size. As you can see their front paws (see left picture) are quite wide and their back paws are long. You can also tell if a bear has been around by scratch marks left on trees as the bears like the sap.

Again, it is very rare to ever have a problem with these animals in Colorado but it's always better to be safe and prepared. You're probably much more safe in the forest than running through a city but it's worth knowing these little things as they can save your life. As I said before I never carry any bear/ pepper spray or a knife with me, but I am on high alert when I notice I'm in certain areas, like between rock walls, which there are alot of on my standard runs. Still, if it makes you more comfortable, please bring extra safety measures.
Now, you are ready for your wilderness adventures! Be safe, but mainly enjoy the mountain views and trails! (Seriously- you really shouldn't worry)

Run Wild, Run Happy (and Run Safe)


  1. Nice post! I try and clap every so often when I'm around bears. Here's a funny vid on the topic:

  2. Have you encountered snakes? Ok I just started trail running and I am deathly afraid of the wild life Mountain Lions, Bears, and Snakes (I just ran in Zions Ragnar two weeks ago and was so scared of rattle snakes). This post has calmed my nerves a little though. Do you ever listen to music when you run? I love too, but don't want to be caught of guard if something decides to come up behind me.

  3. Hi Brooke,

    When I was in Arizona for a month one summer I heard rattle snakes everywhere! It's really just best to run early before they come out or avoid them. Maybe see what you can find on the internet? I would only listen to music on a road run or maybe a very crowded trail. Otherwise it's really dangerous to run with music. Your ears are a really useful safety tool on the trail. It might be hard at first to not listen to music,but you'll get used to it and probably have some great thoughts and ideas or much needed quiet time. :)

  4. Thanks I'll keep all this in mind. :)


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