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Tracking: An Essential Skill

Monday, 29 April 2013 00:00 Written by  Craig Caudill

Somewhere down the road, a good tracker became about as hard to come by as Bigfoot. They have been seen on television, in the movies and a few claim to have met one in real life, but they are so rare (according to the movies) one must question whether or not they are real. With the deity-like status, that must mean that normal folk like you and I can never hope to become trackers, right? Wrong. But hold on a minute, just because a guy says he is a tracker, does not automatically make him one. With that said, a word of warning if you decide to learn the art of tracking, be careful who you ask for training. Not everybody is who they say they are.

Before we go on, I will admit I am not an expert by any means. However, I do have years of experience and have worked very hard developing and honing my own tracking skills. Am I an expert? No, but I can share a few tips that I have learned along the way. These tips are things I have discovered that help me “see” more than I normally would while tracking. It is amazing how much more you will see in the environment once you really start looking at a space instead of just taking it at face value.

Are you trying to figure out the correlation between tracking and survival? Let me explain why I think the two go hand in hand. Here’s why:

• Survival may be hinged on finding your way back, tracking helps you do just that

• Tracking can be used to find a person who is missing or has strayed from your group

• Knowing tracks can help identify what wildlife are among you and what it means. Raccoon tracks suggest water and so on.

• Leaving a trail so search-and-rescue teams can find you if you cannot make it back on your own.

The Super 7

Now that you understand why and are hopefully on board the tracking train, it is time to start learning. The following are the “super seven” characteristics to look for when studying a track:

• Outlines-check the edges, partial prints and inside portion of a track

• Shapes-you are looking for recognizable shapes like toes, heels and claw marks

• Color-look for different shadows or color changes to the ground after being disturbed

• Value-this is where you look for how sun exposure has created lighter or darker areas in and around the track

• Texture-check if the track is smooth or rough

• Shine-does the material in and around the track reflect light

• Rhythm-is there a rhythm to the tracks to indicate running, walking or more than one animal

This is a lot to take in. The only way you can really get good at identifying each of the aspects mentioned above is to get out there and actually do it for yourself. You will need to practice often to really get the hang of it.  

Methods for Seeing More Detail

If you want to be a successful tracker, you must learn to see the whole picture. You may think you are already doing this, but if you have not been trained or studied the art of tracking, “seeing” things is pretty hard to do. You must learn to how to recognize the what the track is telling you.


It may sound a little strange, but when you read about what it is, you will understand the name. The sun will most likely be your light source when you are tracking. Because of this, your position will affect how you see the track. If you are between the track and the sun, you are going to cast a shadow over the track and potentially miss seeing some critical pieces of evidence. The trick is to put the track between you and the sun to ensure it is doused in light. This allows you to see every little bump, outline and any other intricate details about the track.   Particularly because of the shadows that are cast upon these pieces of the track.

What do you do if it is cloudy or dark? Use a flashlight in place of the sun. Place the light on the opposite side of the track. Another cool trick you could use to really study a track is to use a mirror to reflect the sun. It does not have to be an actual mirror. Any kind of reflective material surface can work. This allows you to reflect light on a specific portion of a track and really get a good look.

Get Low

It is time to prove you are not afraid of a little dirt and get down on the ground, your belly preferably.   Those closer you get to a track the more details you can see.  Especially in the beginning of your study, get real close. Laying flat on your belly gets you right up close and personal with the track. This allows you to see details that would go unnoticed if you were simply standing directly over a track.

Go Slow

When you spot a track, the worse thing you could do is go rushing into the area.

• Spot it

• Examine the track and its surroundings before entering the area

• Investigate the track

A track only tells part of the story. If you go traipsing into an area, you are likely destroying other evidence to complete the story. There may be other tracks in the area that will need to be observed as well. If you go stomping in the area, you will ruin those clues.

Lastly, it is imperative you take a notebook with you when you are studying or honing your tracking skills. You will want to sketch lots of pictures of the tracks you see. You do not have to be an expert artist to do this. Simply sketch what you see and add notes. This isn’t just me saying this. This is one of the most common teachings of any tracking school or instructor. The act of sketching really helps you to look at a track and see all the little details that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. However, it is crucial you only draw what you see, not what you think you see or assume will be there. As with everything else, tracking is a skill that must be practiced a lot and one in which you will continue to learn from over a lifetime.

Tracking in Leaf Litter

The word mantracker is a strong word for a beginner to use, but it is a widely accepted term for the art of tracking a person. Tracking skills are not limited to hunting animals. They are regularly applied to search and rescue situations, as well as combat missions. We are focusing on the first type. Although I am not an expert by any means, I have trained with search-and-rescue, art oriented, and tactical/combat trackers and feel comfortable enough to share some of what I have learned.

It is easiest to show a person how to track, human or animal, rather than tell somebody how to do it. In this video, you will get some of the basic methods used in tracking. The video focuses on tracking through leaf litter. When tracking, the idea is to see more than just the leaves. There are subtle clues you will need to look for when tracking.

Essentially, you are looking for disturbances in the leaf litter. You are going to need to get down low and really look at a section of leaves. Shadows and exposed earth are two things that will help clue you in to the fact that someone or something has recently passed through an area. This is a skill that is going to require a great deal of practice. As you hone your skills, you will soon see the things mentioned in the video.

Right now, those little nuances may go unnoticed by your untrained eye, but you will get better. Seek out the help of a true expert to help improve your skill set even more.  


Craig Caudill teaches outdoor skills both online at Dan's Depot, and also offline at his Nature Reliance School.

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 April 2013 00:51
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