For many people, discovering fresh deer tracks marks the beginning of a life-long journey towards deeper understanding of deer and their environment.
If you’ve ever stumbled across these two toed hoof prints in the mud, then you know the feeling of intrigue and curiosity as you realize that not too long ago, a wild animal was standing right here:
- Is this a deer track?
- How long ago was it here?
- Where was it going?
- Was it a male or female?
- Where is it now?
Deer are the perfect place to start your tracking journey because they’re among the most common and easiest trails to identify and follow.
Once you know what to look for, their tracks can tell you a lot about what’s happening with the animals in your landscape.
So today, I want to walk you through the simple steps to confirm when you’re seeing deer tracks and start reading some of the amazing stories found within their trails.
Let’s start with the most essential facts about deer tracks that everyone should know…
What Do Deer Tracks Look Like?
Deer tracks have two hoofed toes that come to a point at the front of the track.
Adult deer tracks measure anywhere from 1 to 4 inches in length, and .75 to 2.8 inches in width.
Here are some more detailed size measurements for reference:
|1.5 – 4.0 in (3.8 – 10.2 cm)
|.8 – 2.8 in (2.0 – 7.1 cm)
|1.25 – 3.5 in (3.2 – 8.9 cm)
|.75 – 2.5 in (1.9 – 6.4 cm)
|Mule or Black-Tailed Deer
|2.25 – 4 in (5.7 – 10.2 cm)
|1.5 – 2.75 in (3.8 – 7 cm)
|2.0 – 3.5 in (5.1 – 8.9 cm)
|1.5 – 2.25 in (3.8 – 5.7 cm)
Of course, this range of sizes all depends on a variety of factors including the age/sex of the deer and even the actual location you’re tracking in.
There are many different types of deer in the world and depending on your location, the local species might have some subtle differences in size, preferred ecology and even behavior traits.
It is useful to know your local species, but luckily there’s also plenty of cross-over, so we can study their tracks in very similar ways.
- Eastern north america is dominated by white tailed deer.
- Western north america has more mule deer and black tailed deer.
The main thing to remember is this overall two-toed shape, sometimes described as “heart shaped”.
Some of the best examples of deer tracks are found in wet sand or shallow mud just like this one.
In conditions with deep mud, it’s also possible to see an extra set of vestigial toes at the back of the track, called “dew claws”.
These dew claws show up in deep mud or snowy conditions. Or sometimes when the deer is moving at a faster pace than their usual walking speed.
Keep an eye out for those dew claws so they don’t confuse you the first time you see them.
The great thing about deer tracks is because they’re such heavy hoofed animals, their tracks can also often be seen in difficult substrates like leaf debris in the forest.
Here’s a trail in the mulch next to my driveway:
Even though there’s less detail, careful examination will reveal the pointed heart-shaped tracks of a deer.
The only other tracks that could get confused with deer tracks are other hoofed animals like moose, elk or things like goats.
However – if you study the images from this article, take measurements and check your local species, you shouldn’t have any problems telling the difference.
So now you know how to identify deer tracks, let’s explore some more advanced interpretation of their trails.
How To Determine Direction Of Travel
Knowing the direction of travel with deer is incredibly easy:
Just remember that deer tracks always point in the direction of travel.
So when you look at a deer track, notice how one end of the track comes together at a point… this is the front.
A few other things to keep in mind about direction:
- Even if the toes are splayed apart in deep substrates like mud, you can still note the individual toes narrow to a point at the front.
- If you’re able to see dew claws, these will appear at the back of the track.
- The front of the track will also typically sink a little bit deeper than the back. This can be subtle, but still useful when the tracks are unclear.
Look for these simple clues and very quickly you’ll see how easy it is to know which direction a deer is traveling.
Now that we have the direction of travel, we’re ready to start reading the actual trail.
This is where it gets really fun…
Reading Deer Trails: The Importance Of Finding All Four Feet
Whenever you find a set of deer tracks, it’s important that you don’t stop searching after that first track.
While it is possible to confirm the identity and which way a deer is moving from just a single track, this is really just the beginning of what we can learn by studying deer trails in more detail.
If you want to know where a deer is going, and gain some great insight about what’s happening and why, then we need to find more tracks.
Specifically, the greatest understanding will come from finding a complete sequence of tracks corresponding to all 4 feet:
- Left front
- Left hind
- Right front
- Right hind
If you can identify all 4 of these tracks in a sequence, then you’ll be able to do some really amazing things with tracking.
This might sound a bit tricky right now, but it’s actually quite simple when you break it down into left vs right, and front vs hind.
Finding all four feet will train your eyes to see much more subtle information in the trail.
It will also give you crucial insight into the behavior, emotional state & possible motivations of that deer which helps you predict where the next footprint will be, before you even see it.
Reading trails is a big secret to how skilled trackers are able to follow deer across seemingly impossible surfaces and make intuitive leaps that look like magic to non-trackers.
So here’s how it’s done…
Identify Left VS Right Deer Tracks
The first step in finding all 4 feet of a deer trail is to identify the left and right side tracks.
You can do this by taking a step back and focusing your eyes on the overall trail rather than the individual tracks.
As you look up the trail, stand with one foot on either side and visualize an invisible line going right up the center.
Notice how some tracks land on the left of that line, while others are on the right. These are your left & right tracks!
It really is that simple.
Use this little trick in a stretch of sand or snow, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the lefts and rights become obvious.
If you’re in a more challenging substrate like leaf litter, you might find it helpful to mark the track locations with popsicle sticks before stepping back because this will enable you study the pattern more easily.
It’s also best to practice finding lefts and rights on the trail of just a single deer at first.
If you’re dealing with a herd and multiple trails overlapping, this exercise can quickly become over complicated… so keep things easy to start with!
So now that we have the left and right tracks, we can move on to finding the fronts & hinds.
Finding The Front & Hind Tracks
The easiest way to identify the front & hind tracks of deer is by picking either the left or right and comparing two consecutive tracks on that side only.
Just pick whatever side seems the most clear and zoom in to really study these two tracks in great detail.
Ask yourself some good awareness questions like:
- How far apart are these two tracks?
- How deeply do they sink into the ground?
- Does one look bigger than the other?
- Are there subtle differences to which way the tracks point?
The main thing is to observe that the front tracks of a deer are a little bit bigger than the hinds.
This is a subtle difference so you will need to get down and look carefully, but once you can spot this size difference, then you’ve got it!
Another great clue for front vs hind – Deer often walk with the hind foot landing partially on top of the front. Since the front feet land first, this means the one on top is the hind.
This works when deer are walking in a partial direct register, and it’s a fairly common occurrence so definitely watch for this.
By deductive reasoning we can now mark out all 4 feet including left, right, front & hind.
I know this is a lot, but you’re doing great! Get these fundamentals down and deer tracking will really become a lot more fun.
Deer Gait Analysis: Walks, Trots & Gallops
Now that we have all 4 feet, we can start to make some confident interpretations of how deer are moving.
At the most basic level, we now have a simple way to gauge the overall speed of travel by measuring the actual distance between tracks.
How fast a deer is moving can be represented in 3 basic gaits – Walking, Trotting, and Galloping.
The preferred movement of a deer is a walk.
In a walk you’ll see tracks in sets of 2 – A front and hind, alternating from side to side. The distance between these sets will be 13-26 inches (33-66 cm).
When measuring the stride of a deer’s gait, always measure from same track to same track, as shown in the image above measuring the distance from left front to left front.
Most often when you find a deer trail, they will be moving in a walking pattern similar to this.
Walking is the standard “baseline” movement pattern of all deer. It’s the way they prefer to move because it conserves energy, and enables them to stay alert to nearby sounds and bird alarms.
When deer move faster than this pace, at a trot or a gallop, it gives us important clues about what’s happening because it represents a shift in emotional state.
At first glance, deer trotting might look very similar to a walk.
However, when you take measurements it will become obvious that the tracks are covering much more distance (29-56 in), while also landing much tighter into the center of the trail.
This is a really huge difference in the way a deer is moving and is actually quite an obvious shift in behavior when you first see it.
In many cases the hind tracks will still direct register into the front tracks.
Deer will trot when they need to cover a bit of distance, but are not in direct pursuit or danger.
This does represent an increased level of excitement in a deer, but not necessarily a sign of direct alarm.
Our job as trackers is to notice this change in behavior and ask good questions to help us determine WHY.
- What might be causing this change in behavior?
- Is this an exposed area?
- How much human or predator activity is nearby?
- Was the deer nervous about something?
- What might be happening to cause a deer to move this way?
When you see four tracks in a line, followed by an open space, then another set of 4 tracks, this is a gallop.
Gallops are an indicator of extreme emotion. This way of moving requires a high degree of energy output so it only happens when there’s a genuine need to move as fast as possible.
If you spook a deer and it runs away at high speed, this is what the tracks will look like. It’s one possible indicator that deer are aware of your presence and feeling threatened.
Of course, there are many more subtle variations on these three gait patterns, but this will give you a basic framework for how to start reading deer trails.
Knowing these gaits will eventually help you take cues off the trail patterns in order to better predict where the next tracks will be.
This is especially important when your goal is to follow deer across difficult terrain.
Following And Trailing Deer
Now that we’re getting a good read on the trail, it’s time to start following and learn about how deer are using your landscape.
If you’re lucky enough to have long stretches of sand or snow, in many cases you should be able to follow their trails quite easily.
However it will take practice to get your “seeing abilities” trained up in more challenging conditions (like leaf litter & forest substrate).
At first you’ll only be able to follow deer in clear substrates like sand, mud & snow. This will be your greatest early opportunity to get comfortable with the different track patterns.
Then as you get more familiar with seeing and reading deer trails, it will become easier to follow in gradually more challenging conditions.
Your goal when trailing deer should always try to learn as much as you can about deer. Don’t just blindly follow tracks without engaging your tracker’s mind.
The more you can learn about their habitual patterns & behavior, the easier it will be to find them in the future and predict the most likely scenarios.
You can do this by asking good questions:
- What are these deer doing?
- How many are there?
- Why are they here?
- Where is their food source?
- Where do they go for water?
- Where do they sleep?
- Where do they find cover?
- Do they have predators here?
- What is their strategy for navigating hills and open areas?
- What is their strategy for navigating densely covered landscapes?
- Where do they walk?
- Where do they trot?
- Where do they gallop?
These are all essential questions to help you understand the complete life cycle of deer within an ecosystem.
These questions will eventually give you a sort of tracker’s intuition that makes it possible to get much closer to deer without being detected.
Just keep going! Practice the techniques shared in this article. Put in the dirt time, and you’ll get there!
Other Signs Of Deer: Beds, Scat, Feeding
Whenever you’re tracking deer, you also want to keep your eyes out for other signs besides just the tracks.
Deer scat is easy to identify as a cluster of small pellets with little dimples and a pointed tip.
Deer droppings can also form as a cow-like patty at times of year when their diet has lots of tender green moisture.
Also pay attention for feeding sign like the chomped tips of this ash sapling.
Whenever you notice deer traveling along the edges of fields, look for torn off vegetation with frayed edges.
Try to learn their preferred food sources at all times of year because this will really help you predict where to find them.
In fall, you can keep your eyes out for fresh scrapes and signs of rut activity.
Scrapes happen in fall as the males lose their antler velvet and begin roaming in search of females.
Deer beds look like patches of matted down vegetation. Day beds are typically hidden in sheltered locations, while nighttime beds can be found out in the middle of open fields.
I often look for deer beds under the sheltered branches of big pine trees, and it’s a good thing to watch for whenever you follow a trail.
How To Tell Male vs Female Deer From Their Tracks
Telling male vs female can be quite challenging from tracks alone, but there are several clues to keep in mind.
- If you notice very small tracks mixed with larger tracks in a herd during spring or summer, this is most likely a female group with fawns.
- Males have broader chests, and females have wider hips. Therefore in males, the front tracks will land slightly outside the hinds. In females, the hinds will land slightly outside the fronts.
- Tracks on the highest end of size ranges will most likely be mature males.
- If you notice large solitary tracks during fall, this is very likely a male, especially if you’re seeing signs of rut activity like scrapes and rubs.
- Solitary tracks are more likely to be males at all times of year, but there are also bachelor groups you can encounter during spring & summer, so don’t rely on this alone.
- Always look for multiple clues to support or disprove your hypothesis about male vs female.
The difference is subtle so this is definitely an advanced skill… Give it lots of practice and dirt time!
Thanks for joining me on this adventure into the exciting world of deer tracking. Stay safe & respect your local wildlife… Have fun out there!