10 Things We Should All Know About Tracking

Geoffrey Guy
It's a fantastic skill
It's a fantastic skill

Tracking is the art of interpreting the ‘indirect’ sign left by other animals.

Here are the top ten things you need to know about tracking animals:

#1 – Foot Impressions Without Footprints

It’s easy to think of tracking as just following nice clear cartoon-style footprints to catch up with the ‘bad guys’ or to track a prey animal until you find it.

In actual fact though if you spend any significant amount of time tracking, you will be relying on signs much more subtle than footprints. Your feet or an animal’s feet only leave those typical footprints in snow, wet sand and soft mud, and elsewhere you will have to look for other signs.

Perhaps leaf litter covers a surface that will take a print and you will be able to look underneath it to find that print, but you can spot those by looking for tell-tale signs amongst the foliage, small depressions, and wet leaves that have been turned over by the passage of an animal to show the dry under surface.

This is true on gravel and stony ground too. Stones can be moved leaving the depressions underneath fresh and new or rolled over to show a wet or dry surface underneath or pressed further into soft ground by the simple pressure of a foot.

Material from one surface can be transferred to another on the sole of a shoe or on an animal’s foot; wet sand onto dry mud and water onto rock or soil and stones onto grass. You need to be open to all of these signs left by the passage of a human or animal of you are going to get good at tracking.

#2 – What Do Footprints Mean?

If you are lucky enough to find distinct footprints, what can you learn from them? They might tell you how fast something is moving, in what direction it is going, how large it is, and even what species it is.

Tracks are easy to spot in the snow and wet ground, but less so in drier ground, which will force you to turn to alternative tracking methods.
Tracks are easy to spot in the snow and wet ground, but less so in drier ground, which will force you to turn to alternative tracking methods.

The amount you can tell from a footprint will vary depending on the quality of the print and the ground it is made on but a few general rules include;

People and animals that are running leave tracks which are generally deeper at the front than at the back.If something is moving very fast or beginning a jump often only the front portion of the track will be visible but will be accompanied by a ‘hump’ at the back of the track.

Landing from a jump often leaves quite deep prints that are more distinct in certain areas, for example the print left from someone vaulting over a fence or gate might be particularly prominent along one edge of the footprint as this touched the ground first and most forcefully. Similarly with animals; deer often leave very deep prints on soft ground if they have jumped over something but those prints will be significantly deeper at the front than the back.

Rapid changes of direction will leave a pressure ‘hump’ or ‘bulb’ on the opposite side of the track to the direction change.

#3 – Tracking Isn’t Just About Footprints

Footprints aren’t all that is going to be useful to the tracker, as often as we follow footprints we refer to other signs as well, droppings, feeding sign, disturbed vegetation, local bird calls and animal behaviour if we are tracking animals, the same signs can also be true of humans. You may have to track someone who is lost or use your tracking skills to avoid other people in the wilderness.

For an animal you may look for signs of feeding from vegetation or the site of a kill a predatory bird or mammal has made, with humans you are more likely to be looking for litter, discarded apple cores or the site of a fire as a sign of their presence.

Additionally where footprints may not be obvious game trails might provide a general idea of the presence and path taken by animals and a few features of these trails can help us identify what use them.

Foxes for example leave very narrow trails as they stalk along carefully with one foot in front of another, badgers on the other hand leave much wider trails and will often transfer mud and other material onto those runs with their large belly’s. That’s not to say a fox won’t use a badger run but a fox run that is exclusively used by foxes can be easily identified.

#4 – Scat and Droppings

As unpleasant as it sounds, droppings can be very useful in identifying the species you are tracking and allow you to make a decision about whether or not to continue your pursuit or what method of catching that animal you might employ if it is your intention to make a meal of what you are hunting.

For example coming across bear or big cat droppings might cause you to break off following that trail and seek safety rather than pursue a hunt in a survival situation whereas finding deer droppings instead of rabbit droppings on your trail might make you re-assess the suitability of your slingshot as a hunting tool in that situation.

Look for fresh animal droppings in addition to tracks.
Look for fresh animal droppings in addition to tracks.

Do not discount the importance of looking at droppings. It is easy to gauge the size of a herd of deer, for example, from the droppings left, as well as the age makeup of the deer in the herd with a little practice.

In fact, deer populations are often surveyed by ecologists using a method called fecal accumulation counting, so a lot of useful information can be gained just from droppings.

#5 – Interpreting Feeding Signs

While people may leave litter behind animal feeding signs are much more subtle, predators may leave the signs of a kill a plucked bird with the breast meat eaten may be the work of a bird of prey such as a sparrow hawk, and if it is left where it is possibly a male rather than a female as the males are smaller and less likely to carry prey away.

Foxes and other small mammal predators are more likely to carry away their prey unless disturbed in which case feather which are bitten of or ripped out in clumps are a good sign compared to individually plucked feathers which are bent by being gripped in a bird’s beak.

Even if a fox has carried of it’s prey, clumps of fur, feather and blood, as   well as disturbed grass and signs of struggle are good signs to follow.

Herbivores leave feed sign too, nibbled vegetation and the height it has been eaten at can tell us a lot, vegetation eaten above about 1.5 meters height in Europe or north America is probably larger deer or cattle.

Lower feeding signs could also be those larger herbivores but can be distinguished from the feeding sign of small lagomorphs such as rabbits from the tooth pattern.

Deer for example only have lower incisors which bite against a gristly pad in the top jaw, when they bits something there will only be teeth marks at the lower portion of the bite mark and the top portion will be frayed and torn. Rabbits and other small herbivores have opposing sets of incisors so the bites will be cleaner as if cut with scissors.

Again using this method ecologists survey for many species including things like the secretive water vole.

#6 – Following A Trail

Spotting and interpreting tracks is one thing but following them requires a bit more complex thinking, sometimes game trails are easy to follow if they are used regularly but how about the challenges of spotting your target amongst the many other tracks, or spotting where something leaves a trail or where a trail disappears into water or impenetrable undergrowth, how can you find it on the other side?

Let’s face it sometimes it will be impossible, sometimes it’s not coming out on the other side of the bramble patch because it lives in there, but that may mean you have just found it’s burrow or laying up point and now just need to wait for it to reappear.

If you do loose a trail or need to catch up with the person or animal you are tracking to speed things up you can work in teams to leapfrog ahead and find tracks further ahead, leaving one team member to follow the trail without losing it while others rush ahead to pick it up further ahead and then everyone moves to the furthest point along the trail and fans out again from there.

You can also make educated guesses about where the trail might go and move on hoping to pick up the trail further ahead, having a detailed knowledge of behaviour is useful in these situations, and knowing the ground you are tracking on is a massive benefit too.

#7 – Aging Tracks

Tracks change with time and will eventually soften into nothing as the ground they are formed in dries out or is flattened by the rain, droppings degrade and predator kills are scavenged by carrion feeders.

There is not a hard and fast rul as environmental factors will determine how fast droppings break down, the amount of rain will determine how quickly footprints fill with water or are washed away and the presence of scavengers will determine how quickly kills are dragged off or scavenged to the point of the clues you are looking for being invisible.

A few general rules though;

Fresh tracks in firm ground will look sharp and clear, as the action of rain, wind, sun etc.. works on the track they will become less distinct, very soft ground though speeds this process up considerably and a track a few minutes old might already be indistinct in soft marshy ground.

Droppings tend to dry out over time but you can be tricked by dew or high humid as they will retain moisture longer or be rewetted. Even in wetter areas though or after a heavy dew older droppings can be broken apart to show drier material inside if they have been drying for some time.

Leaves and vegetation that has been freshly fed from will still look fresh but after some time bark will discolour and the nibbled leaves and stems will suffer showing and become obvious. Trees or tree branches which have had the bark eaten all the way around for example will still look relatively fresh and lush at first but over the course of a few days will start to wilt and die.

#8 – Tracks In Snow

This is often though of to be a fantastic medium for tracking and sometimes it is, when it’s relatively shallow. As soon as it’s much deeper than mid-calf though and tracks become indistinct and just a trench in the snow.

To determine what you are following look for the compacted snow at the bottom of the tracks for boot prints, hoof prints or other clues, the width of a trail will also give you an idea of what or how many you are tracking, other clues such as droppings and feeding sign along the way will also help.

Snow will also catch signs that no other medium can like the feather marks of a bird landing or taking off or it’s tail dragging behind it as it walks through the snow.

#9 – Tracking Birds on the Ground

As birds can fly they can be difficult to track but a lot of the birds that might be sought after in a survival situation either spend a lot of time on the ground or can easily be spotted from the ground using your tracking skills.

Pheasants and other ground nesting game birds will leave distinct and easy to follow game trails to and from water, their roosts and the roosts of pigeons can be easily spotted by the accumulation of droppings underneath them and then it’s a simple case of lying in wait with a snare on a pole to catch them if the situation warrants it.

As well as birds which spend a lot of time on the ground being relatively easy to track birds can help you with your tracking as they react to the presence of other animals and humans.

#10 – Tracking humans

You might need to track someone in a search and rescue situation or as part of law enforcement duties, luckily humans leave plenty of evidence of their passing unless they are very skilled and careful and don’t want to found tracking a human shouldn’t be too hard.

Look for footprints, broken vegetation you can normally always follow the simplest and easiest path ahead as people don’t want to slog through bramble patches or up sheer rock faces and will almost always follow the path of least resistance, remember that and it should help you with your tracking.

Following these few tracking tips should help but remember nothing beats practice and a few field guides to help you learn to identify footprints, droppings and other signs.


geoffrey-guy is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival