If you want to know how to track animals in the woods then get ready to embark on an exciting journey of excitement and discovery.
I love this topic…
I’ll never forget the first time I followed a fresh set of snowshoe hare tracks in the woods.
I was amazed by how much could be read in the trail of that animal.
I saw how it stopped to feed on a shrub. I noticed the scattered droppings along the trail, and the places where it suddenly increased speed to move more quickly.
Then one day I was following a trail and saw the hare wiggling it’s nose under the reaches of a balsam fir shrub.
Since that time tracking has helped me get a window into the lives of deer, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, foxes, raccoons and countless other animals.
My goal in that by the end of this article you’ll never look at tracks in the same way again… and you’ll be inspired by natural mystery to follow and discover the secret world of animals.
These are the essential steps to follow if you want to learn how to track animals in the woods…
#1 – Get To Know The Animal You Want To Track
Tracking an animal doesn’t just start when you find the first track.
In fact, a big part of the sharp instincts demonstrated by any good tracker comes from pre-existing knowledge.
The more you can know about an animal in advance of tracking it… the more you’ll be able to accurately predict and make sense of what you find outside.
So the first thing you can do even before you go searching for the first tracks and sign is to have a really clear understanding of the animals you intend to be tracking.
Some animals are habitat generalists and live in pretty much any environment… while others have very specific needs for water, grasslands, or deep forest.
These and other behavioural cues can help you decide where to start your search much more quickly and efficiently.
Here are some study questions to ask before you get outside that give you a much better idea of how to track animals in the woods:
- Where does it live?
- What kind of landscape?
- What kind of habitat?
- What does it eat?
- What are this animal’s daily & seasonal habits?
- Does it hibernate?
- Does it migrate or have seasonal movements?
- How are these animals raised?
- What are their breeding habits?
You can find good information to answer these sorts of questions in books about animal behaviour such as Behaviour of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart.
#2 – Know What Other Animals Exist
Nature is a big interconnected system…
It’s never just one animal in isolation. Animals interact and influence each other’s movement, diet and behaviour.
So a big part of knowing how to track animals in the woods comes from being able to read this ecosystem of interactions between different types of wildlife.
If you want to study a predator animal then it’s also a good idea to study their prey. If you want to study a prey animal then it’s a good idea to know what predators they might be hiding from.
This will also help you confirm whether the tracks & sign you find are from an animal you want to track or perhaps another similar animal.
For the best chance of confidently tracking an animal… here are a few more questions you might want to research first:
- What other animals in your bioregion create similar tracks & sign? How can you tell them apart?
- What kind of predator-prey interactions might be taking place and influencing the behaviour of the animals you want to track?
Now enough research… Let’s track some animals!
#3 – Tips For Finding And Identifying Tracks
It’s always a special moment when you come across a fresh set of animal tracks in the field.
Those tracks are a special piece of history that connects you in space and time to the animal who made them.
If you were able to follow that trail all the way forward you would eventually find the animal. It’s an exciting possibility, and with enough practice anyone can develop the skill to do it.
Clear prints aren’t always easy to find, but there are places in almost any landscape where they can be found.
Look for clear prints in mud puddles, snow, areas of disturbed dirt, or possibly even in the forest leaf litter especially in the case of hard hoofed animals like deer or moose.
In order to confidently identify tracks you simply need to develop your pattern recognition & critical thinking skills.
Take a look at these tracks and consider the following questions:
- What do the tracks look like? Describe them in sensory terms. Sketch them in a nature journal.
- How many toes do you see?
- How big are they? What are the measurements?
- How many tracks do you see? How much space is there between the tracks?
- How are the tracks arranged in relationship to other tracks? Can you deduce front & hind? Left & right?
- Are their claws or no?
- How much symmetry is in the track?
- How many pads do you see? What’s the shape of the heelpad?
As you can see, it’s takes a bit of training to get tuned with all the different visual patterns used in wildlife tracking.
A good way to practice is to write these questions down on a piece of paper and run through them with each new track that you find.
Sometimes it’s helpful to spend time comparing tracks with an experienced tracker who can point out the differences to watch for.
I created a video tutorial about cat and dog paw prints that will show you some of these key track identification features to look for if you want to learn more about how to identify animal tracks.
#4 – Basics of Sign Tracking
As amazing as it would be to always have clear prints every-time we go in the forest… sometimes they’re just not easy to find (or not fresh enough to follow).
This is where sign tracking comes in.
If you want to know how to track animals in the woods then you need to become skilled with the more subtle signs left by animals.
This can be anything from antler scrapes on a tree trunk, to piles of scat and droppings, or trails & runs that mat down plants & foliage.
Here are some questions to help you learn about the plethora of signs that can alert you to the recent presence of an animal:
- What does the animal’s scat look like?
- Does the animal dig burrows?
- Does the animal make latrines?
- Can you find sign of grazing, foraging, midden piles or kill-sites?
- How wide are the trails?
- What other animal signs can you find?
In every part of the world – dedicated trackers have created amazing resources and field guides that can help you learn about the tracks & sign of local mammals, birds, reptiles & amphibians.
Field guides are your secret weapon for tracking success. Get them and use them!
#5 – Following Fresh Animal Trails
Okay let’s get down to business!
This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for… How to follow fresh trails in the woods!
Is That Trail Fresh?
The first thing you need to do is assess whether a trail is fresh and how recently it was made. More recent and freshly made trails will be easier to see and will also give you a better chance of spotting the animal.
This is a skill that comes with practice but a certain amount can be deduced with a little common sense.
Fresh tracks will have a more crisp and textured look to them. As they age the edges erode and smooth out. Scat becomes dried and crusty as it ages.
I often recognize fresh animals trails by looking at differences in color compared to the surrounding landscape.
In springtime you’ll notice the trampled fresh growth of herbs & wildflowers almost shimmers in the forest light and is quite easy to spot.
Fresh trails in leaf litter appear darker and more contrasting in coloration compared to the surrounding forest floor.
It does take a fair bit of practice and “dirt time” in the field, but it’s quite possible to train your sensory acuity to notice more and more subtle trails and footprints of animals.
Following And Trailing Wild Animals
If you come across a trail that you believe to be fresh then you now have a great opportunity to practice your trailing skills.
Veterans of tracking are known for being able to casually spot tracks and trails from a distance that are invisible to the untrained eye.
A simple recipe for progressive learning might go like this:
- Start with hoofed animals like deer, moose, elk…The bigger the better.
- Gradually move on to large soft-padded animals like bears, cougars, or wolves.
- Then at the more advanced levels try your hand at smaller soft padded animals like coyotes, foxes or bobcats.
Don’t worry about finding every single track. It’s not always necessary and it will usually slow you down.
Keep your eyes looking up the trail as much as possible to stay alert for what happens ahead.
Sometimes I find this tricky to do from a standing position, so I get on my hands and knees. It find it easier to see the trail stretching out ahead 10-20 feet or more.
It’s good practice but eventually my goal is to be able to follow trails more quickly from a standing position.
It also helps me to be more quiet if I think the animal might be nearby.
Remember… if you want to have any chance of actually seeing the animal then you need to practice stealth.
I wrote another article on this topic called How To Stalk Animals (And Not Get Caught) if you want to learn more.
These days I often use a combination of wildlife tracking and bird language to find live animals in the forest.
It’s all about practice and consistency.
If you get out there and apply the information from this article I’m confident that you can learn how to track animals in the woods too.
Always remember to practice animal safety & be respectful of local wildlife. Tracking is great fun so let’s remember to be grateful for the animals.
Have fun out there!