Stalked by a Cougar

A mountain lion is prowling outside my tent. What should I do?

By Case Conover

November 10, 2016

Stalked by a Cougar

Photo by anankkml/iStock

It was day 79 of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. I got to Stover Spring in Lassen National Forest just as the sun was going down. I noticed a couple of hikers eating dinner by a small fire across the creek, so even though I’d walked more than 27 miles, I filled up on water and hiked another half mile to the top of a wooded ridge. 

I found a clearing in the shrubs to set up my tent and cooked some mac and cheese. While I was eating, I heard a lot of rustling in the brush nearby. Clearly a large animal—deer, I thought, or maybe a bear. I banged my pot with my spoon and yelled, then got in my tent and started writing in my journal. I was happy to have passed the halfway point of my 2,650-mile trek that afternoon. 

The noises persisted—moaning noises, a strange mixture of high pitched and low, like the faint whistle of a train. I shined my light outside and saw the yellow glow of eyes, rather far apart. Bear, I figured. I made more noise, and it leapt back into the woods, maybe 30 yards away.

I tried to sleep but couldn’t. Whatever it was kept circling the tent for hours. I yelled, whistled, banged my pot, even played Tom Petty on my phone at full blast. Then I heard something running toward my tent and skidding to a stop. It was 1:20 A.M. This was starting to freak me out. 

I thought about my options. Part of me wanted to stay in the relative comfort of my tent. Maybe I should make a fire? Then I remembered the two guys camped a half mile back. I decided I'd be more comfortable around other humans, even if it meant packing up my tent and braving that half mile in the dark. My headlamp was fading, so I used my phone light facing forward and put on the headlamp facing back. I packed up camp, still making lots of noise, and didn't see or hear anything. The forest was dead silent. 

I quickly got on the trail and headed south, singing and whistling as I went. After 10 minutes or so I got back to the spring and found where the guys were camping. I felt bad rolling into their camp in the middle of the night and didn't want to freak them out, so I tried to be quiet as I set up my tent.

Suddenly I heard running through the woods. I shined my light at the creek, just 30 feet from camp, and saw a huge cat! Holy sh*t! It was about as big as me, lean and muscular. It dropped its head and darted to the left. Then there it was on my other side, 50 feet away. 

At that point I called out, “Guys?!” Pedro, one of the sleeping dudes—they turned out to be from Taiwan—shot up in his tent.

“Sorry to bother you . . . but there's an animal here.”





We surveyed the circumference of the camp with our lights—and caught the eyes again. Pedro woke up his buddy, who didn't seem to speak English. The cat's eyes vanished, then reappeared a bit closer, and we could see its outline. "That's not a small cat!" Pedro said. They yelled. I lit a fire. 

For an hour or so, it circled us. Whenever we shined our light, its eyes moved toward the ground. We stoked the fire and talked. They were southbound thru-hikers. Poor dudes had gotten their backpacks stolen in Burney. Some luck. 

After enough time passed with no sign of the lion, we decided to get in our tents. I didn't think I'd sleep but was glad to be around people and don't know what I would've done without them. That distinct cat figure is tattooed on my mind. Yikes!


Ask the Expert

Andrew Hughan is an information officer with the California Department of Fish and Game.

I have never heard of a cat behaving this way, but it’s certainly possible. They are very averse to humans, and all the noise and banging should have scared it away. I have been in a similar situation, and often the mind sees what it thinks is there; this sounds like a coyote, or a small group of them rather than a lion, but if Case says it was a lion there’s no reason not to believe him. Maybe it was a mother with cubs nearby, but even then the behavior was very unusual.

Hiking down to seek out the other hikers was smart. In all of California’s 16 verified lion attacks, 6 of which were fatal, the victim was alone or with only one other person.