Does animal tracking play a central role in your naturalist toolkit?
I see this a lot with educators, naturalists, survival & outdoor enthusiasts. They aren’t using tracking skills to amplify their understanding of nature.
Often it’s because they hold certain misconceptions about what tracking is, or they don’t realize how easy it can be to flex your animal tracking muscles (no, you don’t always need sand or snow).
It’s pretty common for many people who spend time outside to know some of the basics about how to identify rabbit tracks, domestic dogs, deer tracks, or even bobcats.
But simply being able to identify animal tracks hardly makes you a real tracker.
An often quoted phrase in wildlife tracking circles goes something like:
The more advanced you become in tracking, the less time you spend looking at tracks.”
This might make you wonder… well, how am I supposed to track animals without looking at tracks?
It’s really the idea that tracking eventually helps you see beyond the surface to discover things that aren’t actually written in the tracks themselves.
The skills of bushmen trackers for example go so far beyond basic identification skills that it almost seems to border on magic. It’s because they’re tracking nature on a whole other level that most people never even consider a possibility.
The key distinction between the world’s best trackers and folks who simply know a few identification tricks is all about the mindset and attitude you have towards nature and wildlife tracking.
To gain the deepest levels of awareness, you simply need to adopt a dramatically different way of approaching the skill.
This tracker’s attitude can be applied both to tracks on the ground, as well as things that aren’t normally considered to be part of animal tracking skills – like birds, plants, trees, weather, human behavior & even society itself.
So let’s take a look at some essential mindsets for animal tracking success!
#1 Fundamentals Are The Doorway
First off, if you really want to go deep into tracking, then you definitely need to master your fundamentals.
Sometimes people read the amazing stories of Tom Brown Jr, or hear about how the Kalahari Bushmen track animals through dance & intuition… and they immediately want to know all about these seemingly magical tracking abilities.
These stories about the more spiritual or subtle side of tracking are great because they inspire many people who wouldn’t otherwise get interested in nature.
But sometimes these inspirational stories about finding deep connection to nature through tracking can really be a huge distraction if it pulls you away from developing your real life practical tracking skills.
It’s very common for cultures with a deep lineage of tracking to have amazing stories and practices that relate to human intuition, instinct & deeper awareness.
But you will never find a culture that successfully applies those skills without first really honing the basic fundamentals.
Hear this – The people who derive the greatest personal benefits from nature awareness & tracking are also those who have the most practical and grounded knowledge of the physical skills.
I think it’s really important to demystify why advanced trackers sometimes have intuitive flashes about animals or nature that turn out to be true.
You can think of it like learning to walk.
When you first learned to walk, it took a lot of effort. To your baby mind, it might even seem like magic because you can’t yet conceptualize how it all works.
In order to develop that skill you had to focus on very practical & fundamental things like muscle strength, balance, and placing awareness in your legs & feet.
But gradually as you mastered the fundamentals, eventually you got to the point where you could do it without thinking, and suddenly it opened up a whole host of other abilities like running, hopping, jumping & dancing.
Meanwhile, your unconscious mind now keeps track of things like balance, potholes, hazards, & elevation. These things are all kept below the surface, only to emerge when something needs your conscious attention.
This is very similar to how intuition works in tracking.
First you train your senses on the fundamentals of tracking. Then with enough practice, eventually your mind starts tracking without conscious awareness.
This frequently results in the development of instinct, or flashes of insight that provide accurate information about animals & nature, seemingly from out of nowhere.
But even Tom Brown started by focusing on tracking fundamentals.
The Bushmen trackers don’t just magically develop their hunting & animal tracking skills out of thin air. They’re literally outside practicing this stuff all the time!
So what are the fundamentals of tracking?
The fundamentals of tracking have to do with looking at tracks on the ground and asking a ton of questions to derive insight and hone your senses.
Tracking is about gathering information and putting the pieces together in order to tell a complete story.
5 Fundamental Skills of Animal Tracking:
Look at the tracks and ask yourself:
- Identification – Who is this?
- Interpretation – What is it doing?
- Aging – When was it here?
- Trailing – Where is it going?
- Ecology & context – Why was it here?
#2 Don’t Stare At The Ground
One of the biggest mistakes made by animal tracking students is being too focused on staring at the ground… to the point where you lose connection with your surroundings.
In the beginning, as you’re training the fundamentals, you will of course need to spend lots of time staring at the ground.
But it’s very important to also be mindful not to lose sight of the big picture.
An easy way to do this is by combining focused tracking fundamentals with open, big picture sensory awareness. I explained how to do this in my article about walking silently in the woods.
Anytime you want to examine a track, trail, or other sign of animals, the first thing you should do is stop moving! Go ahead and immerse yourself in the details… get down on hands & knees, sketch & journal, stare at the details.
Then when you’ve exhausted your investigation… you should place an equal amount of attention on looking around at the wider context.
- Where are you?
- What kind of landscape is this?
- What kinds of trees, plants, birds, or other wildlife are you seeing nearby?
- How are these things all connected to the animal you’re tracking?
- What is all this telling you?
Eventually you’ll be able to gather most of what you need to know about an animal without looking at the ground at all, only occasionally stopping to examine something more carefully.
In this way you can balance focused, tracking fundamentals with open, expansive sensory awareness.
This helps you follow trails farther, and in progressively more difficult terrain. It helps you get closer to wildlife. It’s also an important safety tip for when you’re trailing animals that could be dangerous, especially when combined with knowledge of bird language.
#3 Everything Is A Track
By now, I hope you’re already seeing that tracking is about so much more than just tracks on the ground.
This is a really important thing to realize in places where good substrate is sparse.
Sometimes people think they can’t train their tracking skills because they lack long stretches of sand or snow.
But as I already mentioned, the highest level of tracking really doesn’t require perfectly clear tracking substrate.
There is tremendous benefit to taking advantage of clear tracks when you have them, but it’s also important to realize that you can train your tracker’s mind literally anywhere, anytime.
- Take on the mindset that everything is a track.
- Everything in nature is telling you something.
- It’s just a matter of whether you’re looking closely enough.
It is totally possible to become skilled at locating animals and learning about their lives just by studying interactions between plants, birds, weather, insects, time of year, time of day, and direct observation.
This is actually one of my preferred ways to do it because then you aren’t dependant on sand, mud or snow.
What are your favorite things to track in nature?
#4 Questions Are The Answer
Another important animal tracking skill is the ability to ask questions from a place of authentic curiosity.
Many modern people get really stuck here because they were taught that the purpose of questions is to get an answer. This creates unhelpful pressure to find answers.
Sometimes it seems like no matter how many times I explain this, people still struggle.
Many people close themselves off from asking questions because they don’t want to appear stupid.
Or sometimes they simply don’t know what questions to ask because they haven’t practiced being curious, and most people weren’t encouraged to be curious as children.
The most important thing is putting the ‘quest’ back in question!
You simply need to get in the habit of constantly asking lots of questions, and let go of any need to be “correct” or find direct answers.
It’s the asking that’s important.
You can direct questions towards yourself.
You can ask questions of nature.
You can also ask a mentor (although if their training comes from a traditional awareness lineage there’s a good chance they might respond by asking more questions!)
The key mindset here is that every-time you ask a question, you’re setting up the mental conditions to expand awareness & perception.
One of the best ways to train this skill is by keeping a question journal.
- First, go outside and find something that calls to you. It could be a favorite sit spot, or something you find like a plant, or a track on the ground.
- Next, pull out your question journal and write down as many possible questions as you can think to ask both directly and indirectly related. Try to get in the flow of asking questions. Notice which ones have emotional energy behind them, and which ones feel a bit flat.
- Don’t worry about trying to answer them. Just keep thinking of interesting questions. Then after you fill up the page, go back and underline 2 or 3 that are most intriguing or exciting for you. Re-write them on stick notes and post in places where you’ll see them often. This will remind you to come back and nurture your curiosity.
Curiosity is a skill that can be cultivated and improved. Curiosity becomes passion. Passion becomes vision… and vision changes the world!
The ability to ask questions from authentic curiosity is perhaps the most important indicator of someone’s ability to be successful as a naturalist or tracker.
#5 Don’t Be Afraid To Guess
One of the best things about studying tracking is that you’ll constantly discover little mysteries and things you can’t explain or understand.
Many people respond to the unknown by shutting down. It comes back to what I was saying before about not wanting to look stupid.
But in reality, I always find that the best students of tracking are those who don’t care about looking stupid.
The best students of tracking understand that their perceptions will only become more refined and accurate through consistent use and practice.
You need to put your ideas out there, and let them change when new evidence presents itself.
So let your imagination run wild!
The Bushmen trackers of the Kalahari are known for making up wild stories & theories about what the tracks on the ground are telling them… They claim to know things about the animals that would make many outsiders roll their eyes and think, “yeah right. You can’t possibly know that.”
Then people are stunned when their theories are often correct.
I love sharing this mindset when I mentor people in tracking because it’s so outside the norm of how people typically learn and develop their mind.
I call it, “creating your bushmen hypothesis”.
It simply means to allow yourself to imagine and generate “best guess” theories to explain things you find while tracking.
Let’s say you find some puzzling tracks on the ground. You can tell there’s information here, but you just can’t quite make sense of it all yet.
Using the information you have, what are some possible explanations you could generate? Make up a few stories to anchor the details in your memory.
Go beyond what you think is possible to know. What kind of story would a bushman be able to tell from looking at these tracks? The wilder the better!
Again, it’s not about being right. In many cases you won’t be able to confirm or deny the truth of your theories. It’s also not about deluding yourself into thinking you know more than you do.
The important thing is that you’re expanding your mind.
Then as you continue gathering more evidence to either support or disprove your hypothesis, you’ll gradually adjust your stories to become more and more in line with reality.
This is when your imagination becomes intuition.
#6 Never Stop Looking Closer
One of the underlying themes with everything we’ve been talking about on this page is that it’s absolutely essential to never stop looking closer.
If you ever catch yourself thinking you understand the whole story… think again!
One of the biggest blocks on the journey of animal tracking is thinking you’ve seen it all.
What you have to realize is there’s always more to discover beyond the edge of your awareness.
As a mentor of awareness-based skills like tracking & bird language, I’ll admit one of the toughest things is when someone comes back from a tracking adventure and they try to sum up their experience in 1 or 2 measly sentences.
I’ll say something like,
So what happened in the forest today?”
And they’ll come back with something like,
I saw some deer tracks. That’s about it.”
Now, I know from experience that’s never just it! There’s always enough happening in the forest to fill an entire book.
So the question is… are they just not paying attention? Are they not looking for the deeper lessons? Or are they just not sharing?
To me it’s a sign that we need to work on helping the student really immerse themselves in their senses so they can have an embodied experience of nature and report back on what they observe.
It’s a sharp contrast to people who come back absolutely bubbling over and almost exploding with stories and vivid details about the things they find in the forest.
The best students of tracking realize that no matter how carefully they examine a situation, whether tracks on the ground, or the patterns of plants & trees, or behaviour of a bird… there is always more to it than what you’re currently seeing.
It’s important to have someone you can dialogue with on a deeper level and coax you beyond the edges of what you’re currently attuned with.
So never stop looking closer, and then share your stories with a mentor who can help you go even further!
#7 Learn Your Land Deeply
Another important thing to remember is that knowing all the little nooks & cranny’s of your home landscape really does make it a million times easier to track animals there.
Learn your landscape deeply!
While good tracking skills will give you the ability to enter any landscape and successfully learn the animals there… Your best results will always come from having a core territory that you know like the back of your hand.
This can only come from spend lots of time wandering, sitting & exploring the places where you enjoy tracking.
Over time and with repeated exposure in all conditions, you’ll get to know where the deer tend to hang out at first light on clear days in spring.
And you’ll discover it might be a different spot from where the deer like to hang out at first light on clear days in fall.
This is why it’s so essential to experience nature at all times of day, year & weather.
Your growing knowledge of the land will eventually enable you to step into the forest and much more accurately… sometimes instantly predict events happening at a distance.
It’s both because you learn to recognize the patterns, and also because it becomes really obvious when there’s a break in those patterns. This deserves good study.
#8 Tracking As A Way Of Life
I hope you’re now seeing that animal tracking isn’t just about identifying deer tracks or finding the occasional sign of raccoons.
It’s really about expanding your mind to new levels of knowledge & understanding about the natural world and beyond.
You start by training your tracker’s mind with the animals & nature.
Then, as one of my great mentors once said,
Tracking & nature awareness isn’t simply an intellectual skill like mathematics where you can learn it without changing… Nature gets inside you and changes who you are on a very deep level.”
– Jon Young (Seeing Through Native Eyes Vol 1)
Long-time trackers develop qualities of tremendous focus and mental/physical/spiritual health. It’s like a deep joy & vitality for the mysteries of life that spreads out to everything you do.
Whether this comes from spending so much time in the fresh air & sunshine, exposing yourself to wild animals, or something about how sensory awareness moves energy in the brain.
There’s an emotional openness and mental sharpness that gives you an edge both in the forest, and in life.
In ancient China, you might say that good trackers develop strong chi that leads to robust & healthy lifestyles.
Think about this… and I highly recommend if connecting with nature is important to you… definitely make tracking a priority because it will pay you back in many surprising ways!