In this month’s 5280 Survival Guide,  27-year-old Leadville resident Jeff Thompson explains his wild-animal encounter.

I was on the first night of a trip in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness in 2005. I was alone and had hiked in about five miles to a rock outcropping about 200 yards above the trail. Around dusk I was falling asleep in my one-man tent. I woke up to some rustling, unzipped the tent, and saw a mountain lion four feet away, just standing there looking at me.

I stood up, and as I came out of my tent he scrambled away. I saw two more mountain lions uphill from me, and I heard a fourth one behind my tent, making a lot of noise. I grabbed my sleeping bag and stood it next to me so I looked bigger. I also had a full-size shovel for trail maintenance, and I started banging it on a rock and shaking my sleeping bag. One of the lions launched himself toward me and grabbed the sleeping bag. He got tangled in it, so I started hitting him with my shovel until he scurried away. The trio hung out about 70 feet away while the fourth one behind me kept making menacing cat noises. It probably was the mother, and the other three were her cubs.

I grabbed my tent, threw it around my neck, left the rest of my gear, and headed for the trail. Three of them followed me, staying about 20 feet away. I was planning to relocate my camp, but they weren’t leaving me alone. So I started walking backward down the trail, banging my shovel. They followed me for about a half hour. I crossed a stream, then hightailed it for the trailhead and my car, running under the light from my headlamp. I went back to the site with someone a couple weeks later to get my gear. The lions probably were just curious, but if they had wanted me, there was nothing I could have done to stop them.

The Cottonwood Institute‘s Ford Church assesses Thompson’s  defense strategies.

What he did right

  • Used his sleeping bag to make himself look bigger and made noise.
  • Had the right survival attitude; mountain lions like an easy meal and don’t like their prey fighting back.
  • Removed himself from the situation when the mountain lions wouldn’t back down, but he shouldn’t have run.

What he did wrong

  • Not much. We generally don’t recommend novice campers going out alone, but he was clearly experienced.