Survival of the Unfittest: Cougars, the Wilderness, and My Inevitable Demise

Over the past several months, news stories have been on the rise about runners, bikers, and hikers encountering mountain lions while enjoying the outdoors. For those who live near or spend time in the wilderness, you understand how troubling this is, as mountain lion sightings are far from normal. The most recent story had a different ending than most, the runner actually survived the attack and killed the mountain lion with his bare hands in the process. Badass alert.

This brings us to my realization — I am completely unequipped to be left alone outside. Not only would I never be able to defend myself against a mountain lion (which if you know me you’re probably thinking to yourself duh, I have seen you trip over nothing), I’m not sure I really even know what to do if I see one off in the distance.


While I currently reside in outdoorsy states, this was not always the case. I come from the land of concrete, where the only trees you see on a daily basis are the ones planted in those two by two squares of dirt on the sidewalk and the wild animals you run into are raccoons, skunks and stray cats. Oh, and sometimes turkeys. Yes, there are wild turkeys roaming the streets of Boston.

Growing up in a place where you had to drive hours to get to a forest meant that hiking and camping were sporadic events. Sure some families went on outdoor adventures every weekend but mine was more the museum and a show people. Need to add a third to your card game? We got you. Need help starting a fire? Keep on walking.

As I read the mountain lion story it made me wonder, as I have with countless other survival tales, could I take on nature? The short answer, probably not. The long answer, no way in hell.

Between a Rock & an Impossible Place

Let’s start with one of the most famous, and most awe inspiring survival stories — that of Aron Ralston. You are probably familiar with the man who went for a nice day hike only to get his arm trapped by an 800 pound boulder. After being trapped for five and a half days, Ralston did what any savvy outdoors man would do — he cut off his own arm to free himself.

One time I cut my finger on a mandoline (the kitchen slicing tool and not the stringed musical instrument) and fainted in the bathroom while trying to clean my wound. Why did I tell you this story? To illustrate how unlikely it would be that I would be able to rally the physical and emotional strength it would take to break my arm and then use a dull multitool to saw through my cartilage, skin, and tendons. Honestly, reading the description of Ralston’s ordeal made me a bit queasy.

Antelope Canyon, AZ
Antelope Canyon, AZ
That time I hiked inside a slot canyon and did not get trapped

While there is no way to know what any of us would be able to do if we have not been trapped in a slot canyon counting down the hours until our lack of food, water and sleep would usher in the sweet relief of death, there is something to note from this story. Ralston did not tell anyone where he was going before he took off for his hike. He assumed he would be back by nightfall and therefore did not see any reason to alert his friends or family about his excursion. Because of this, he was not reported missing until day four. Even when the authorities were called, no one was quite sure where he had gone. They eventually found his car at the trailhead and started the search. But Ralston had already freed himself and found a family who called for help before the search party ever reached him.

So next time you go on a solo jaunt, make sure to let someone know. Hell, I let people know when I go on a walk in the woods during lunch (that’s right, my work is down the street from park with trees, trails, and even a rushing river), as there is a pretty likely chance that I will get lost and never return. Not that any of my coworkers will come looking for me, but at least they will know they are in the clear when they start stealing shit from me desk.

Up Shit Creek

In 2012 the world was captivated by the story of Jose Salvador Alvarenga, a Salvadoran fisherman who spent 13 months lost at sea. After setting out with his coworker, Ezequiel Córdoba on a professional fishing trip, a storm hit and blew them off course. Days later, the electronics on the boat began to fail and they were officially on their own.

As one would expect, their food and water supply soon ran out. Alvarenga developed a method of catching fish with his bare hands and was even able to rangle the occasional sea turtle. They stayed hydrated by drinking their own urine until the first rainfall, two weeks into the ordeal.

After months of malnutrition, Córdoba died. It would be nine more months before Alvarenga would swim to the shore of Tile Islet, a small island in the pacific ocean. His journey covered approximately 6,000 miles and lasted 438 days.

So the question is, would I die within the first few days trapped on a boat by myself? You better believe it. Being from New England, I have a passable knowledge of boats. I took sailing lessons, spent many summer days skiing or tubing behind a motor boat and have swamped my fair share of canoes. But that is child’s play compared to being on the open ocean. When we ventured out on the water you could always see land. If calamity struck there was a pretty simple universally understood plan — abandon ship and swim like hell toward shore.

Canal in Amsterdam
Canal in Amsterdam
Proof one time I was on a boat.

Now onto the food and water. As for the fishing, this is going to come as a surprise but I don’t know how to do that. At camp, we would tie fishing line to a stick and dangle it into the lake. To our surprise, we never caught anything. I’m honestly not even sure we put worms on the hooks. But don’t worry, plenty of people got fishing hooks stuck in their feet. Does that count for anything?

While I will give myself a small bit of credit that I know drinking salty ocean water is a big no no, drinking your own urine was news to me. While it should only be consumed in the most extreme of circumstances, urine can extend your survival by a day or two. This is because urine is about 95% water, with the remaining percent made up of waste products, including nitrogen, potassium and calcium. Your pee will become more concentrated and contain less water after each cycle of peeing, drinking and peeing again. After a few days, it will be made up of mostly waste products, which can cause kidney failure. This eventually leads you to a decision point — do you want to die from dehydration or renal failure? As for me, I will have met my end from starvation or exposure long before my urine turns to poison.

While these stories of survival are impressive, it is unlikely that something this extreme will happen to you. When reading these incredible tales, it only makes sense that I had to research more practical survival tips.

Think Big, Scream Loudly

So how do you actually survive a cougar attack?

Stay alert. When hiking in mountain lion country, pay close attention to your surroundings. Be extra vigilant when you sit, bend or kneel as they see this as an opening for an attach.

If you encounter a mountain lion, stay calm and back away slowly. NEVER turn your back and run as this will cause them to chase. Make sure the mountain lion has plenty of room to get out of the situation. Experts claim that they are just as afraid of you are you are of them, but I find it hard to believe I would be afraid of a 5 foot 2 inch human if I was a bona fide predator.

Mountain lion
Mountain lion
Oh yeah, he looks scared.

If the mountain lion begins to approach, make yourself appear as large a possible. Raise your arms, open your jacket and speak in a loud, firm voice. If they are not scared off, you can throw stones, branches, or anything else you can grab in their direction. This shows the mountain lion that you are not prey.

If the mountain lion attacks, you fight back. Throw whatever you can at the lion and kick, claw, slap and strangle your way out if its grip. Hopefully the mountain lion will realize you are not worth the effort and retreat.

There are hundreds of sites out there with information on how to stay alive in the great outdoors. Surprisingly, the National Wild Turkey Federation has an excellent list of tips to get you started.

So next time you go out for a walk in the woods, maybe do a little googling first. Familiarize yourself with some simple tips so in the off chance something happens, you are ready. And rest assured, if the time comes where I am faced with the harsh realities of nature, I am pretty confident I will forget everything and die immediately.

Two bloggers who tackle reality — whether in science, politics, travel, or every day attempts at adult life. Find us at

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