One of the big challenges whenever we find tracks outside is knowing just how long ago that animal was here.
If your goal is to eventually find the animal, it really helps to know whether a trail was freshly made or if you’re still quite far behind.
Luckily there is a bit of a science behind aging tracks. If you know what to look for you can gain a practical accuracy at knowing which tracks are most fresh by studying the erosive conditions of any trail.
As a general rule fresh tracks will have sharp and well-defined edges without any obvious drying or erosion effects around the edges.
A good method is to make your own fresh track next to the trail you’re trying to age so you can compare the characteristics and consider recent effects like rain, sun, wind & temperature.
It’s also important to remember that because tracks occur in such a wide variety of conditions, we really need to look at each situation individually to accurately know how fresh a track really is.
So let’s discuss the main signs of freshness you can look for.
How To Tell Fresh Tracks In Mud
One of the best signs that you’re seeing fresh tracks in mud is when you see precariously positioned mud balls along the edges of the track wall.
These mud balls are highly susceptible to falling into the tracks as they dry out over a period of minutes and hours.
With very fresh tracks, you might even see little bits of mud flaking off and rolling into the print before your eyes.
These flakes will start out having the same color & moisture content as the rest of the track. But then as the track ages, these bits of disturbed soil will dry and the track edges will round out.
Mud is typically the slowest aging substrate for tracking animals, which means tracks can sometimes still appear quite fresh even after the animal is long gone.
This means we have to be extra attentive to detail and study the track characteristics very carefully before making a judgment.
A few things to keep in mind when gauging how fresh tracks are in mud:
- In windy conditions, look for signs of debris blown into the track. This can also help you age tracks if you know yesterday was windy, but today is calm.
- Tracks will age faster in direct sun, heat & strong winds.
- In cold conditions, mud can become very hard at night, causing tracks to stay on the surface. If the tracks sink in deeply, it tells us this animal was here during the daytime.
- In hot conditions the opposite effect occurs. Mud may become softer at night as dew collects and moisture seeps up from below.
- If the track is much deeper than you would expect for the current soil firmness, it means the ground has either dried out or frozen since it was made.
- If you see sun-bleached tracks in the early morning, it means they were made before the sun went down the day yesterday.
- If it rained recently, look for water droplets inside the track, and compare with your simulated track.
- Also look for dew droplets to help determine if tracks were made before last night or after the morning.
- On frosty mornings, a lack of ice crystals means the tracks are freshly made.
How to Tell Fresh Tracks In Sand
In sandy conditions, carefully study the raised sand at the top edges of the track wall and observe whether it looks drier than the surrounding substrate. Freshly disturbed sand will not be dried out yet.
Because sand is such a light & well drained material, tracks made in sand are highly susceptible to drying out in sun, wind & rain, particularly around the disturbed edges where soil has been displaced.
Therefore if the track edges have not yet begun to dry out, it’s likely these tracks are very fresh.
This effect can also be seen in sand that has been kicked out from the track as the animal lifted its foot, as shown in the following image:
As with all track aging, it’s important to consider the time of day & recent weather conditions because sand can dry out extremely fast in direct sun & strong winds, possibly making tracks appear older than they actually are.
Some other tips to remember when gauging the freshness of tracks in sand:
- If the day is very hot or windy, tracks will dry out much faster. Remember to make a fresh track and compare.
- Tracks made at night (before the sun & wind pick up) will have a larger window of freshness compared to tracks made during the daytime.
- Tracks made in calm, humid and overcast weather will also look fresh for much longer than tracks in direct sun and wind.
- In soft dry sand, it’s normal for tracks to have almost no definition. In this case, wind will be the driving factor of erosion.
- Has it rained recently? In sandy conditions, rain can wash away tracks very quickly, and dramatically change their appearance. If you don’t see any signs of rain, then it means these tracks were made after the rain stopped.
- In the morning, look for signs of dew in the tracks to determine whether the tracks were made this morning or last night.
How To Tell Fresh Tracks In Snow
The general rule with tracks in snow is to study the edges of the track and look for signs of either melting or re-crystallizing moisture. Then you need to compare those observations with recent weather trends.
Warm and sunny conditions will cause the track edges to melt and round out. Then at night, a drop in temperature causes ice crystals to grow inside the track.
Because snow tracks are so sensitive to temperature, you typically can’t base a tracks freshness on appearance alone. It’s important to also consider the time of day, temperature & weather conditions.
Some key points to remember about aging tracks in snow:
- Sharp edges in warm or sunny weather is a great sign of fresh tracks in snow, especially if you can witness the beginning stages of active melting around the edges when studying the track up close.
- On cold mornings, fresh tracks will also have sharp edges, but they will not have signs of active melting. Instead, you can tell fresh tracks in the morning by a lack of ice crystals forming inside the track.
- On cold & cloudy days, tracks in snow are more protected from melting, which can make them look fresh for longer.
- Deep snow is much harder to accurately age than snow with clear prints
- Look for snow that has been displaced by a raised foot. These bits of snow will leave their own trails and are more sensitive to melting effects.
- Has it snowed recently? If you don’t see any snow inside the track, then you know this track was made after the snow stopped.
- Is it windy? Look for signs of snow dust or other debris being blown into the track by wind.
- Does the track surface have a hard icy crust in the morning? This means the track was made during warm weather before freezing overnight.
How Long Do Tracks Last?
In general, tracks will last until the next significant weather event washes them away. This can be anywhere from a few hours to many days or weeks depending on the season & location.
The longest lasting tracks are typically those made in mud. These can sometimes even survive rains, though not without significantly changing their appearance.
Tracks in mud followed by a long period of dry weather can last months or even years in places that only get occasional rain.
On the other hand, tracks in sand usually don’t last much longer than a few hours or days because the substrate is so light and dry, even a strong wind can erase them.
In very cold weather with long periods of no precipitation, snow tracks can also last for many weeks. With a strong sun however, or if the temperature increases to the melting point, snow tracks can be erased in just a matter of minutes or hours.
The key with all tracking skills is to put in the dirt time. Practice observing how your local conditions affect the aging of tracks and you’ll get better at knowing what to expect in your local area.
How Fresh Do Tracks Need To Be?
The good news is when it comes to aging tracks for freshness, any trail that’s less than 12 hours old will present a good opportunity for us to follow and even potentially find the animal.
This might seem like a long window of time, but it’s important to remember that animals are not constantly on the move. Most animals have predictable patterns of activity & rest which correspond to time of day & weather patterns.
This means if you find a trail that was made 12 hours ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re 12 hours behind the animal. Sometimes the animal can still be relatively close by!
There’s a great chapter on aging tracks in the book Practical Tracking by Leibenberg, Louw & Elbroch which explains how to think about track age in terms of three age categories:
- Old tracks
These are tracks more than 12 hours old, and require significant effort to locate the animal in question.
- Fresh tracks
These are tracks less than 12 hours old. They’re fresh enough to follow, but not so close to have a high risk of detection by the animal.
- Very Fresh tracks
These tracks are 3 hours old or less. In this case, there’s a distinct possibility for the animal to hear, smell or see you, so it’s important to slow down & move strategically to avoid detection.
If your intent is to actively follow and locate wild animals, then all you really need to know is that a trail is not older than 12 hours.
Also important to mention – if your intent is simply to learn about animal behavior & gain a glimpse into their lifestyle, you can even learn a lot about animal behavior from tracks that are several days old.
The key with trailing animals is to take what you can determine about the track age, and combine it with knowledge of animal behavior. This is an extremely important aspect to the art & science of animal tracking that is often misunderstood.
Always remember that following fresh animal trails can pose significant ethical & safety questions so if you plan to pursue this, I highly recommend the book “Practical Tracking” by Leibenberg, Louv & Elbroch.
Studying the animal detection skills of bird language can also give you advanced warning when you’re getting close to animals that may be wary of your presence.
No matter what your goals are, I hope this article has inspired you to get outside and look a bit closer at your local animal tracks!