Hiking in high altitude zones delivers idyllic wilderness experiences that you won’t find anywhere else, from panoramic views and alpine wildflowers to the magical-looking mountain goats that seem to have stepped straight out of Narnia. But if you’ve come across one of these timid, distinctive-looking creatures on the trail, you may well have asked yourself, are mountain goats dangerous? And what should you do if you encounter one?
Though we understand that seeing a mountain goat up close may actually inspire you to get your hiking boots on, there are certain measures you need to take to stay safe. In this article, we take a look at these surefooted mountain dwellers and explain what to do if you meet on the trail to keep you and everyone else out of harm’s way. If you’re planning on going high altitude hiking, you should also read up on what to do if you encounter a moose or a mountain lion.
What are mountain goats?
Despite their name, mountain goats are not actually goats at all. Rather, they are in the same cloven-hoofed family that comprises animals like gazelles, antelopes and bison. In appearance, however, they do very much resemble goats, albeit ones with long, shaggy white hair.
Mountain goats stand at about 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder and on the larger end of the scale can weigh up to 300lbs. They sport curved black horns that are extremely sharp and can be 2-10 inches long and they use these to stab each other in fights. Their powerful, muscular legs and broad hooves make them extremely nimble and agile on steep, rocky cliffs and icy terrain.
Mountain goats are native to subalpine and high alpine environments in western North America, primarily in the Rocky and Cascade Mountain ranges. They are mostly found in British Columbia, Alaska and sometimes on Colorado’s popular 14ers. They typically reside above treeline in summer, so they tend to be elusive to those of us that don’t like to hike. If you like to adventure up high, you may see a solitary male mountain goat while the females tend to roam in herds and are more territorial and prone to fighting. Because of their white coat, mountain goats often blend in to the snow and are quite difficult to spot.
Are mountain goats dangerous?
Though mountain goats are quiet, elusive herbivores, and attacks on humans are extremely rare, they are known to be unpredictable and skittish and may attack if they feel threatened.
"Mountain goats are wild animals and capable of causing serious injury or even death," says Sarah Creachbaum, Superintendent of Olympic National Park where a mountain goat fatally gored a hiker in 2010. This incident, however, does appear to be the only known such fatality.
What makes mountain goats potentially dangerous has more to do with their powerful bodies and sharp horns than it is to do with their behavior. Their sharp horns can be lethal and, as recently as September 2021, a mountain goat killed a 170lb grizzly bear in self defense.
In areas where mountain goats have become accustomed to humans – or worse, fed by humans – they may stand their ground when you meet one on the trail.
Further, they have been found to have a taste for the salt found in human sweat and urine and there have been instances of mountain goats pestering hikers for their sweat-soaked backpacks.
What do you do if you encounter a mountain goat
If you encounter a mountain goat on the hiking trail, it’s not usually a problem. However, you certainly don’t want to attract a mountain goat to you with your behavior, or make one feel trapped or threatened. If you’re hiking in an area with mountain goats, use the following measures to stay out of harm’s way, or protect yourself if they become aggressive.
1. Steer clear
The first rule of thumb is basically the same for all wildlife encounters – don’t approach them and give them a wide berth. Creachbaum advises you to always maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from any park wildlife, including mountain goats. For those of you wondering, that’s about the length of a football field. If you realize the goat is moving towards you, slowly move away.
2. Don’t feed the goats
For everyone’s safety as well as your own, please don’t feed mountain goats. Yes, they will like being fed and it will probably allow you to get a great photo for Instagram, but doing so is bad for the goats’ health and encourages them to approach future hikers on the trail which could lead to a sticky situation down the line if not today.
3. Keep your gear close by
If you’re in an area where there are mountain goats, keep any sweaty gear on your person rather than draping it over a nearby rock to dry out in the sun. Though mountain goats are drawn to the salt in your sweat, they’re much more likely to stay away if the sweat is on your body.
4. Don’t pee on the trail
This is general trail etiquette as well as mountain goat safety, but if you’re hiking and you have to go, get at least 50 yards from the trail before you do so. That way, if mountain goats are drawn to the salt in your urine, it won’t entice them close to other hikers.
5. Make noise
Should a mountain goat approach you, yell and wave your hiking poles or your arms around to scare it off. If it is acting aggressively towards you, throw rocks at it.
If a mountain goat charges at you, you probably can’t outrun it but you should still try. They are not known to give chase for very long and mostly just want you out of their way, so you might be able to get to safety.
7. Grab it by the horns
If you’re unable to run away and a mountain attacks you, your best hope is to grab it by the horns. Their horns are sharp and they will whip their heads around when attacking to cause maximum damage, so you may be able to keep it at arm's length until someone else can help to drive the mountain goat off. Be sure to report any mountain goat attacks to park rangers or wildlife officials in the area.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.