What animal left this track?
I still remember the first time one of my tracking mentors showed me the trail of an animal that was completely unknown to me.
Like many nature lovers, I had some basic experience with dog and cat tracks… but these bizarre impressions in the mud were completely unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Eventually with a bit of study and plenty of dirt time in the field, I got to the point where I could confidently identify all the tracks of mammals, even many birds, amphibians & insects.
Being able to quickly & confidently identify animal tracks is a HUGE step on the journey to understanding your local environment.
So today I’m excited to share this online guide to animal tracks!
I’m going to walk you through the most important things to look for in animal footprints with plenty of examples to help you determine what animal left the sign.
Most tracks can be confidently identified simply by counting the number of toes, taking accurate measurements of size, and analyzing the overall pattern of movement.
Let’s take a look at how these techniques work so you can learn to identify tracks in your local area!
Track Families & Most Common Examples:
To start us off, let’s check out some common animal track examples.
For each animal, I’ll share sketches I’ve made of the key track features with a quick explanation of how to identify their tracks.
If you really want to go deeper with tracking, you’ll also find a more in-depth tutorial on track identification later on this page.
Now let’s check out some tracks!
1. Canine Tracks (Dogs, Foxes, Coyotes, Wolves)
Canine tracks have 4 toes (on both the front & hind feet) and also usually register nails.
The overall shape is an oval and the preferred movement pattern for wild canines like foxes, coyotes & wolves is a trot.
Another thing to notice about canines is they have large toes with a relatively small heel-pad, however this isn’t always true for domestic dogs.
The negative space of canines tends to be a star shape. We’ll talk more about this later.
2. Feline Tracks (House cats, Bobcats, Cougars)
Cat tracks (like the cougar track shown above) have 4 toes. They tend not to register claws or nails, which is one common way to tell them apart from canines (however isn’t 100% accurate).
The overall shape of cat tracks is a circle. You’ll also notice the heelpad covers a relatively large area compared to the toe size.
The negative space is a sort of wavy U-shape. If you want to see a more thorough comparison of cats & dogs, watch my video on how to identify cat vs dog tracks.
3. Rodent Tracks
Rodents are unique in the tracking world because they have four toes on their front feet and five on the hind.
This is a key pattern to look for whenever you go tracking because rodent species are extremely common and they come in many different shapes and sizes, so anything you can do to narrow your list will be a big help.
The unusual tracks shown above are muskrat tracks, which have an extra bit of almost webbed furriness to the hind foot as an adaptation to water.
Now check out these porcupine tracks:
These look completely different, however you can still see there are four claw marks on the front and five on the hind for this large rodent.
We can also look at something a bit more typical for many small rodents like squirrels, mice & voles.
These are tracks of a groundhog or woodchuck. Once again they follow the typical rodent pattern of 4 toes in the front & 5 in the hind (Learn more about groundhogs).
Size is an important ID feature for rodents because they range from the smallest mouse all the way up to full grown beavers.
Many rodent species also have their own unique way of moving that can be identified down to the species simply by measuring the overall trail width, as we’ll discuss in the tutorial.
4. Weasel Family Tracks
Weasel family tracks have 5 toes on the front and hind.
Small weasels like ermines & long-tailed weasels can be deceptively tiny for such a vicious carnivore, sometimes causing people to confuse them with mice or shrews.
The example shown above is a mink.
Notice the single circular heel pad on the front foot.
Also notice that extra 5th toe hanging off the hind at a weird angle. This is the toe that’s normally missing in dogs & cats.
The weasel family also includes larger examples like otters, badgers & wolverines, whose tracks all share many of the same features.
5. Bear Tracks
Bear tracks have 5 toes on the front and hind. They’re larger than most other tracks in this category, which makes identification fairly simply in ideal conditions.
Likely the only time you’ll misidentify a bear is when one of the toes gets obscured, making it possible to confuse this track with a cougar or domestic dog.
The other big clue for bears is the negative space between the toes & heel pad, forming a single arch separating all five toes from the main pad in one smooth arch.
Negative space is a great way to distinguish bear tracks when the toes aren’t 100% clear.
Animals in the bear family include black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears.
6. Hoofed Animals (Deer, Elk, Moose)
Hoofed animals like this deer have tracks that completely break the pattern of all the other tracks.
Rather than walking on soft toe pads, hooves are essentially fingernails that have grown in size over time.
These tracks sometimes sink into the substrate pretty far, making them stand out more easily in soft ground.
In most cases all you have to do is measure the track size and you’ll be able to tell whether it’s a deer or moose or something else.
How To Use These Examples
These are just some of the most common tracks to help you start thinking in terms of identification clues.
But to really get skilled at track ID in the field, we need to actually practice asking the right questions and approach tracks strategically.
So let’s look at how to actually apply this information to identify tracks with confidence. I’ll also share a few more examples that don’t quite fit into the above families (like raccoons, skunks & rabbits).
Animal Tracking Confidence: Identification 101
As you can see from the examples, animal tracks come in many different shapes and sizes… even appearing differently depending on sand, mud & snow conditions.
In order to confidently identify all these different types of tracks, you need to look very carefully at what you’re seeing and gather enough information to narrow down your options.
It’s true, many people do have a basic sense for some of the most common tracks like dogs, deer, and even rabbits.
But it isn’t until you really begin to study tracking in a more focused way that you realize how common it is for prints in sand, mud & snow to play tricks on your eyes.
Even with tracks that many people consider quite easy like dog tracks, you’d be amazed how often big mistakes are made.
Yes, there are reliable tricks you can use to tell certain animals under normal conditions, but you never know when you’ll encounter a scenario that breaks the norm.
This is why so many beginners hit a plateau of their skills when they hit 80% or 90% confidence about the ID of an animal, but they can’t quite get their ID skills to where they have 100% certainty & accuracy about what animal made the track.
And when it comes to tracking, anything less than 100% confidence is setting yourself up to make major assumptions.
Nature is incredibly complex, so leaving things up to guess work is usually about as good as being completely wrong.
We need to get to the point where we can gather enough information that you DO have 100% certainty about what an animal track is… and the ability to explain WHY it’s this animal and not a lookalike.
So how do you do it then?
How do you get to 100% confidence about animal track identification?
Quite simply – the key is to use multiple identification clues at the same time.
You never want to rely on just one trick or technique because eventually every technique has a fail point where it will give you false readings.
If instead you have multiple signs all pointing towards the same animal and ruling out all others… there comes a point where you CAN know the ID of your mystery animal beyond a shadow of a doubt.
This is a huge step that builds massive confidence as a tracker and gets you ready for more advanced skills like trailing to actually find the animal.
So again – the big key to tracking with confidence is always use multiple clues and keep looking until you’ve exhausted all options.
With that in mind… here are some of the best clues you should always look for to help you identify animal tracks:
1. How Many Toes Are There?
One of the simplest ways to identify animal tracks is by counting the number of toes.
Anytime you aren’t 100% certain of a track, this is always the first thing you should do to begin gathering more information.
For many beginners to the art of tracking, it’s a major eye opener to realize that different animals have different numbers of toes!
And this one clue can often rule out entire groupings or families of animals that might otherwise be considered suspects.
Here’s a quick reference for some common animals and their toe numbers…
Animal Tracks With 5 Toes Include:
- Weasel, Mink, Badgers, ferrets
Animal Tracks With 4 Toes Include:
- Cats (Domestic and wild)
- Dogs (Domestic and wild)
Animal Tracks With 2 Toes Include:
- Deer, Moose, Elk
- Goats, Sheep
Animal Tracks With 4 Toes On The Front & 5 On The Hind Include:
- Mice, Rats
- Squirrels, Chipmunks, Marmots
- Aplodontia (Mountain Beavers)
- Muskrats, Beavers, Nutria
Just make sure you get down close and really count accurately. Sometimes 1 or 2 of the toes might be obscured so ask yourself: is it possible I missed anything?
A healthy amount of perceptual skepticism will improve your accuracy by causing you to look more closely for verification and other clues.
It’s also important to mention that many hoofed animals with 2 toes technically have 2 extra “dew claws” further up their leg that normally don’t register, but can show up in the tracks when the ground is soft or when moving at a heavy pace.
Since Rodents like beavers, muskrats, mice & voles have 4 toes on their front feet and 5 toes on their hinds… it’s important to always confirm your numbers by comparison of multiple feet if possible (We’ll talk about this in more depth later).
Counting toes will set you on the right track, but it’s really just the first piece of a larger puzzle.
Sometimes toes are obscured or overlap with other tracks, making it tough to sort out what’s happening, so we still need to look closer.
2. Track Symmetry
Another thing you should always look for in tracks is signs of symmetry or asymmetry.
This is not always useful for ID of certain animals, but in some cases it can be extremely useful.
Track symmetry can also sometimes help you identify whether you’re looking at a front, hind, left or right foot, which is very useful information to have.
For example: The front foot of a raccoon track is highly asymmetrical, almost resembling a tiny human hand.
Other animals like cats, tend to have only minor asymmetry, but with careful observation this can be used to quickly discern cat tracks from dog tracks, which tend to be much more symmetrical.
3. Claws And Nails
One of the most well known tricks for telling cat tracks from dog tracks is by the presence of nails in the tracks (Dog tracks have nails, while cats keep theirs retracted so they don’t register).
It’s important to realize this clue isn’t 100% accurate, but in my personal experience it still is extremely useful and normally does hold true for most canines & felines.
What many beginners don’t realize is that claws are also useful for more than just telling dogs apart from cats.
Some animals can be identified by looking at the relative sharpness or dullness of the nails.
Domestic dogs for example can sometimes be identified from wild canines by the lack of sharpness to their nails.
However, this is mostly a result of their sedentary lifestyle rather than any actual biological difference.
Members of the weasel family have particularly sharp claws used for hunting that can be readily detected in the tracks.
Sometimes the distance between the toe pads and the claws can also tell you a lot.
Some animals like Badgers and grizzly bears have claws that extend a pretty incredible distance beyond the toes to the point where beginners might not even realize they’re connected.
4. Overall Track Size & Shape
Size can sometimes be a surprisingly important factor for track identification.
In fact, as you get more experienced with looking at lots of different track sizes, there will be times when you can confidently identify what animal left a track by size alone.
This includes both the actual area covered by a track, and also the general shape of the track, whether oval or circular, or simply a sharp indentation in the case of hoofed animals.
Size is an extremely important ID clue because very often in the real world you simply won’t have distinct or clear tracks to work with.
In aged substrates (like dry sand or snow) you might only have the overall shape & size, and possibly the trail pattern.
This means you won’t always be able to count toes or claws, or analyze the symmetry, but it is still possible to know what animal left the track.
Identification by size simply requires using these 3 steps:
- Measure the track dimensions (Length & Width)
- Measure the distance between tracks, including the stride and trail width
- Sketch the overall shape of the track
There’s a whole art & science behind how to take accurate measurements of tracks, but for starters just do the best you can and I’ll share a few more tips as we move through the article to help improve your accuracy.
The good news is that for beginner levels of tracking, even having some general measurements with a margin of error can often rule out entire groups of animals and set you on the path to solving your mystery animal much more quickly.
5. Front & Hind Comparisons
Another useful ID clue is to realize that most animals have easily observable differences between their front & hind feet.
In some animals like raccoons, bears & all members of the rodent family, these differences are quite obvious.
And even in dogs & cats where the difference is more subtle, it can be extremely valuable tracking experience to compare and tell front from hind just by track anatomy.
This all plays into how well you’re able to discern lookalike prints and gain a more accurate assessment of size & movement if you can’t quite ID the animal from the tracks alone.
Whenever you find a track that still confuses you even after a lot of careful observation, try expanding your search and see if you can find more examples of other feet.
You might be completely confused by a hind foot, but then as soon as you find a front, the identification becomes obvious.
This is why tracking is so much about expanding our perspective and looking for wider clues rather than constantly narrowing our vision.
For the best accuracy, you need to see both the details and the big picture simultaneously.
6. Negative Space
Negative space is the area of a track between the toes & heelpad.
For example: Here’s an image with a red line traced through the negative space of a canine track.
With a cat track like a bobcat, it’s not possible to trace a straight line without intersecting the heel or toes.
Instead, here’s the negative space of a bobcat:
All animals have their own unique negative space, and in many cases this can help you see the relationship between track components much more easily.
Always remember to look at negative space… it’s one of your most valuable identification tools!
7. Using ID Clues To Explain Who AND Why
While many folks with experience in the woods develop fair skills at identification of common animals, very often they can’t explain why they came to certain conclusions and not others.
Why is this track a fox?
Why is that track a bobcat?
Why not a dog or house cat?
Even if you feel fairly certain about what track that is… what if you just can’t explain why? Has this ever happened to you?
This is risky territory for a developing tracker because if you can’t explain how you reach certain conclusions, there’s just no way to hold yourself accountable for accuracy.
Without an experienced tracker there to confirm your assessment, you have no way of quantifiably knowing whether your gut instinct is correct.
There’s a saying in the tracker community that basically says, “People who track alone are always right.”
It basically means that just because you convince yourself you’ve identified a track correctly, it doesn’t mean you actually are correct!
One of the great things about tracking with others is everybody sees things from their own unique perspective.
You quickly discover that people see dramatically different things in tracks based on our preconceived expectations and personal experience.
This is why mentoring is so useful for learning tracking.
An experienced tracker can point to a little mark on the ground and invite you to look closer until suddenly you realize there’s a whole extra toe you completely missed.
If you’re tracking alone, you need to do this for yourself by challenging yourself to explain and justify why you came to certain conclusions and ruled out others.
Imagine you had to convince a group of people that your identification is correct by pointing to sensory specific track characteristics that anyone could see and agree upon.
Don’t just say “I think it’s a muskrat”.
You want to say, “I think it’s a muskrat because it has 4 toes on the front, 5 on the hind, it’s the right size, it’s right next to a river and the hind feet have a thick, asymmetrical, almost webbed look to them.”
Always use this mindset and try to explain conclusively WHY you came to certain conclusions & not others. This is one of the secrets to making faster progress.
8. Getting Close & Seeing Tracks Accurately
There’s another common phrase amongst wildlife trackers called “Dirt Time”.
This is basically a way of talking about the amount of time you spend on your hands and knees (in the dirt) studying tracks.
A common beginner mistake is standing fully upright, and looking down at the tracks from above.
Yes, eventually you will be able to accurately discern many tracks from a standing and even a moving position. This is an essential skill for trailing.
But early on as you’re first learning to identify the tracks of different animals, you will always progress much faster if you get down and study the tracks at close range.
This means being prepared to get your clothes dirty. If you come home from a morning of tracking and your pants aren’t dirty at the knees, it probably means you weren’t looking closely enough.
First – study the tracks from a standing position. Look around at the habitat. Look at the overall location. Think about what kind of animals might live in a place like this?
Next – get down really close so your face is within inches of the tracks. Give yourself a good 5-10 minutes really studying every little nook and cranny and notice how much more you can see from this position.
It’s amazing how often people miss a toe simply because they aren’t looking closely enough, and this can completely skew your entire understanding of a trail.
Assumption is the biggest killer of tracking skills… And the cure is to have clear perception that only comes from looking closely before making judgments.
9. Journaling & Sketching Animal Tracks
A great way to make sure you’re looking closely enough at tracks is to sketch what you’re seeing at life size.
If you always try to keep tracks in your head, it’s inevitable that you’ll make mistakes, especially when you’re first starting out.
This is because sketching requires you to slow down and really study what you see in more detail so you can reproduce it on paper.
Always start by taking measurements from the farthest back of the track possible to the farthest forward, as well as the track width.
These measurements can be used to create a square or rectangle box the exact dimensions of your track.
This is exactly what I did to create all the track sketches you see throughout this tutorial.
It’s very important to always sketch tracks at actual life size because this will keep your internal sense accurate.
Eventually your brain will learn to store accurate dimensions so even the most obscure & aged tracks will be easier to identify.
Next – begin filling in the details of your track including toes, heelpad, negative space, claws, etc.
I think it’s important to mention that sketching was never a strong point for me. In fact I still draw most things at a kindergarten level.
It took a lot of practice sketching tracks before I developed the perceptual skills to reproduce tracks accurately at life size.
However it was worth every moment because my ID skills absolutely skyrocketed. Sketching life size tracks was probably the single most important exercise to grow my identification skills.
This process is helped immensely by having some knowledge of track anatomy, so let’s take a look at that.
10. Track Anatomy
Many of the best identification clues are quite subtle.
It’s amazing how easy it is to miss little impressions like sharp claws in wet sand, or entire toes that don’t register quite as deeply as the rest.
Basic track anatomy includes toes, nails, heel pad & metacarpel pad. But not all animals have each of these track components, which is where it becomes very useful for narrowing things down.
Here’s a basic cross section of track anatomy using the front foot of a skunk track:
The easiest way to think about this is how it matches up with the human foot.
- The nails & toes should be obvious.
- Then you have that fleshy part just behind your toes (sometimes called the ball of the foot). In tracking terminology this is actually your metacarpel pad.
- And finally that little circle at the back of the track is the heel.
Can you feel how all these track components match up with your own feet? What about your hands?
The differences between all tracks simply come from how different animals evolved to adapt their track anatomy in many different ways.
Some animals have their toes fused with the metacarpel pad. Some animals have 2 heel pads. Others have no heel pad at all!
Notice in the skunk example above, only one of the toes is fused to the metacarpel pad. This is an excellent clue to be aware of!
Practice looking for these different anatomical features in tracks whenever possible because every animal has it’s own little quirks & trademarks that will bump your identification confidence very high.
11. Compare Tracks In Sand vs Snow vs Mud
Another important thing to watch for is the effect of your substrate.
Substrate is the quality of surface on which a track is located, and this can have a dramatic effect on how your tracks turn out.
Wet sand can be an excellent tracking substrate, often showing great detail in the toes, nails & other key track components.
However, when sand gets really dry, it sometimes doesn’t hold any detail at all.
Similar for mud. Mud with the perfect amount of moisture can capture and hold tracks for incredibly long periods of time. But if it gets too dry, many animals can walk through leaving practically no sign at all!
Depth of your substrate also makes a big difference. If the mud is too deep then the walls of a track might cave in as soon as the foot is lifted.
The same issue happens with deep snow, and some animals will even resort to tunnelling under the snow.
I did a closer analysis of tracking substrates in my article on where to find animal tracks.
We discussed the advantages & disadvantages of tracking substrates like sand, mud and even leaf litter. As well as how to approach finding ideal substrates to learn from in your area.
If you want to get good at tracking, then you’ll need to become skilled at finding good tracking spots where you can hone your skills, so I highly recommend you read that article if you’re having trouble finding good spots.
12. Animal Movement Patterns (Gaits)
As you get more advanced with tracking, it eventually becomes possible to identify animal trails with increasingly more subtle clues & signs.
Clear print identification is step one, but it can also be extremely useful to study how to identify animal trails by gait patterns.
This is because different animals move differently depending on their individual body mechanics & behavior.
Some animals like cats and deer spend the vast majority of their time walking. Other animals like foxes & coyotes are designed for trotting.
Many other animal species have their own specialized hopping, bounding or loping movement patterns that are completely unique to that one specific animal.
These movement patterns are a big key for how trackers interpret behavior & even predict future activity of animals just by studying trail patterns.
However, these will also help you more confidently identify what animal actually made the trail.
This technique is especially useful when the tracks are not very clear, but you can still discern the overall characteristics of the trail.
Here are some examples of common gait patterns…
This diagram shows 4 types of animal gaits: Walk, trot, lope & gallop.
The letter ‘F’ represents a front foot, and the letter ‘H’ represents a hind.
By measuring the distance & relationships of different tracks, we can determine exactly how an animal was moving, and thereby gain a more accurate read on size, type & behavior.
Gait studies can go very deep, and would require an entire tutorial to explain, so right now I just want to introduce the concept and point out a few key things to notice.
Notice how in a walk, the tracks spread away from the center line. This is because the animal is moving at a slower pace with at least 2 or 3 feet on the ground at all times.
It’s important to measure the stride (distance from any foot to that same foot’s next step) as this will also help you discern a walk from a trot.
This movement is slower, but enables greater stealth & awareness with eyes & ears, so you see this movement a lot in deer & cats.
In a theoretical diagram, trots might look very similar to walks, but in real life, the movement is completely different.
Notice the front feet have pulled in towards the centerline, and the hinds are now landing at an angle, rather than being in-line with the front.
Measurements of the stride will now be much larger relative to the animal because they’re moving at a faster pace.
This is especially good for opportunistic animals who need to cover a lot of territory while using their nose & ears to detect food or danger.
This is the preferred movement of canines, but is occasionally used by many different animals when they need to cover a bit of distance without tiring themselves out.
Hopping, Bounding and Lopes:
Some animals almost never walk or trot, and this alone can be a great identification clue.
Look for trail patterns in sets of 4 tracks followed by a long space telling you the animal was airborne.
Many animals with these track patterns have their own unique way of moving that can be easily identified by measuring the trail width & overall size.
This is why rabbit trails are so distinct even when you can’t see the track details.
Once you recognize the basic pattern & sizing, it’s almost impossible to confuse their trails with anything else.
Squirrel trails, and other small mammals in snow have their own unique trail width & track spacing which once mastered, can bring your identification skills up to lightning speed.
13. Learning The Mammal Families
Once you know how to count toes and analyze the track anatomy, it’s an easy transition to lumping animals in different categories based on family.
Knowing the mammal families is one of the best ways to dramatically simplify being able to identify animal tracks because it means you don’t have to study every animal one by one.
For example: Most places have multiple species in the rodent family. There are big rodents like marmots & beavers. And there are small rodents like mice & voles.
But all rodents share much of the same basic track anatomy: four toes on the front and five on the hind.
Rodents are the only taxonomical mammal group that has this particular track structure, so if you simply learn to identify the rodent pattern, it removes a lot of complexity from studying tracks in your local area.
Once you identify the family, then all you have to do is think in terms of size categories.
If it’s a small rodent, then you might be looking at a mouse or vole. A medium sized rodent might be a groundhog or muskrat. And if it’s a larger rodent, you might be looking at something like a beaver.
This simplified strategy is extremely effective for the vast majority of mammals, and greatly speeds up your learning.
In fact, you might have notice the track examples shared earlier on this page are all organized by family.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some common mammal families:
- Canines (Dogs, coyotes, wolves): 4 toes, nails typically show, often trotting.
- Felines (Cats, tigers, lions): 4 toes, nails typically retracted, usually walking.
- Rodents (Squirrels, mice, muskrats): 4 toes in the front, 5 in the hind.
- Lagomorphs (Rabbits, pika): 5 toes, hind feet larger than front, hinds move together in a hopping pattern.
- Bears: 5 toes, large, hind foot often registers heel pad making it appear larger than the front.
- Weasels (Mink, otters, ferrets, badgers): 5 toes, very sharp claws. Often loping or bounding over long distances.
- Hoofed mammals (deer, goats, moose): 2 hoofed toes, tends to walk.
One technical note for science geeks – These “families” are organized for the sole purpose of effective & efficient wildlife tracking, and therefore aren’t 100% technical.
For example – the “Rodents” group actually includes multiple families.
For the purpose of tracking however, it’s usually just more practical & easier to lump them all together.
Sometimes when it comes to field applications, practical simplicity is more useful than 100% scientific accuracy, so that’s why I have them organized this way.
14. Habitat Clues
When you first start looking at tracks, it’s pretty much unavoidable that you’re going to spend a lot of time staring at the ground. This is quite natural, but it can also blind you to some important tracking clues.
So in addition to studying tracks on the ground, you should also get yourself in the habit of observing the actual habitat in which you’re tracking.
Sometimes you can rule out certain animals, or consider other animals more likely just by looking at what types of plants, vegetation, soil & water conditions are making up this ecosystem.
This is why the world’s best trackers are also known to be extremely knowledgeable about general naturalist ecology and animal behavior.
In fact – it’s a commonly shared idea in the tracking community that the more advanced you become with tracking, the less time you spend actually looking at tracks.
This is because your visual sense goes through a training process to become more efficient.
You train your sensory brain to absorb massive amounts of information about tracks much more quickly.
Your conscious attention is then freed up to spend the majority of your focus on situational awareness (looking up ahead the trail, monitoring the habit, and even listening for bird alarms that give you advanced knowledge of nearby animals).
So as you’re learning the tracks, I also highly recommend you do some focused study of the plants, trees, forests, fields, wetlands, and the different animals that live in these habitats.
Yes it’s a lot to study, but this is one of the big secrets to developing a much more intuitive ability to find and follow animals with tracking.
15. Using Field Guides To Identify Animal Tracks
You might think with all the information available online that you wouldn’t need an actual field guide to learn tracking.
However, there are some important reasons why a physical field guide to animal tracks can offer perspectives that just can’t be found online.
One of the biggest challenges with trying to show you accurate images of animal tracks online is the images appear at different sizes depending on your device.
For this reason, I highly recommend getting an actual field guide that contains life size tracks.
Life size tracks are absolutely essential when you’re trying to visualize what tracks actually look like and compare what you’re seeing on the ground with what’s in a book.
For this reason, the tracking guides by Mark Elbroch are my favorite. He’s done an excellent job of recording tracks that are anatomically correct, and at the correct size.
It’ll help you progress a lot faster when it comes to questions like – is this a bobcat or a house cat? Bobcat or mountain lion? Fox or coyote? Domestic dog or wolf?
16. Practice & Put In Your Dirt Time!
Okay so I know we’ve covered a lot…
With the information shared in this online guide to tracks, you now have a really great start on how to build your confidence with track identification.
Of course, there’s always more information & resources to help you build and refine your confidence.
But even more important than collecting and reading information is to apply what you’ve learned and actually practice!
It does take time, but you’d be surprised how quickly you make progress with a bit of good focus & dirt time.
And if you need help with finding time to get outside, make sure you read my recent article called – How To Spend More Time Outside for ideas & inspiration.
Just remember to look carefully and always use as many identification clues as possible to confirm or disprove what animal left a track.
Practice journaling & sketching tracks to help you observe more accurately and build mental images in your mind.
And learn to lump tracks into their family groups before you decide what species it might be.
Go through each step of this guide carefully and practice implementing everything until it becomes an automatic awareness pattern.
Most of all have fun out there, and let me know what kinds of tracks you discover!
Ken Chapman (83 years old) says
Our recent 14″ snow revealed a track I would not believe could exist. I am in rural eastern Virginia north of Richmond. The track on a dirt road through a mixed forested area traveled only by me showed six (6!) toes arranged with two at the top and two each on the sides in a rectangle about 2.5 or 3″ on a side. They were essentially symmetrical with no metacarpal or heel pad. I was immediately puzzled but did not examine the track further because of downed trees and related pressing concerns. (Other tracks revealed travelling deer, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, rabbits, and raccoons.)
Thanks for any information you might have.
Brian Mertins says
Hi Ken, most likely what you’re seeing here is 2 tracks landing just slightly offset from each other.
It could be a single animal moving with the hind landing indirectly next to the front. Or it could be multiple animals walking generally in each other’s footprints, giving the appearance of 6 toes.
Examining closer you probably would have been able to see this more easily. Another helpful tip is to look at the gait pattern (walking vs trotting vs loping), which will help you determine whether it’s a single animal with indirect register or multiple animals.
Thanks for your question! Keep up the adventuring!