Animal tracking is an ancient human skill that has been teaching people about their environment for thousands of years.
Many people have had the experience of seeing tracks on the ground, and wondered, what animal was here? Where was it going? What was it doing? And where is it now?
Yet for all the opportunities to look carefully at nature and discover amazing things in our backyards, effective tracking skills are actually quite rare in modern times.
My own journey to learn tracking required intense self-study, reading hundreds of books and traveling long distances to learn from trained instructors.
So what if you don’t have that same opportunity?
Today I’d like to present a practical introduction for anyone looking to get started with tracking in the easiest possible way.
So let’s jump right in!
What Is Animal Tracking?
Animal Tracking is the ability to gather evidence of local wildlife like tracks, scat & other animal sign, and then use these clues to interpret animal behavior and locate wildlife in the environment.
There are specific techniques for identifying tracks & sign, determining the speed of travel, behavior & even individual characteristics like size & sex of the animal.
For our prehistoric ancestors, tracking was used extensively around the world as a hunting skill to acquire food, as well as to stay informed about possible dangers in the area.
A skilled tracker uses their awareness to better predict and locate the best places to hunt animals like deer, moose, rabbits, bears and other types of game essential to survival.
For this reason hunting is the most obvious historical application of tracking, however it’s important to realize this skill actually goes far beyond studying animals with obvious food value.
An Ecology of Tracking Knowledge…
At it’s core, animal tracking depends on having a deep understanding of precisely how and why everything in nature is intimately interconnected.
To really learn tracking at the deepest level, we need to have a complete understanding of how nature works as a system that includes plants, trees, birds, frogs, insects & energy cycles through time & space.
Using this complete ecological knowledge, trackers can get close to animals not just by following trails and direct evidence, but by anticipating animal behavior in it’s complete environmental context.
To the untrained eye, this level of tracking skill can appear almost like magic, but it really just comes down to practical sensory training that can be learned & passed down through mentoring.
So let’s begin your training in the same place all trackers have begun since the dawn of time… Let’s talk about tracks!
What Is A Track?
Strictly speaking – A track is the impression of an animals foot after it walks in any soft substrate like sand, mud, silt or snow.
In the same way your own foot has a heel, an arch, and toes that leave observable tracks and identify as human, all animals have uniquely identifiable tracks that match their species.
Being able to identify the different types of tracks is one of the first steps towards becoming a competent tracker.
As we study the tracks of different animals, we learn to observe and identify the key characteristics like toes, claws, symmetry, size, and negative space between the soft pads of mammals.
So to give you a better sense of how to study animal tracks, here’s a video I created comparing cat tracks & dog tracks in terms of their unique characteristics:
The important thing to realize as you watch this video is there are universal principles behind how to observe and categorize all animal tracks.
The point is not just to help you see the difference between canines (like foxes, coyotes, wolves) and felines like (bobcats, mountain lions & house cats).
The real purpose is that with practice & “dirt time”, the same skills required to identify a dog track can also be applied to weasels, squirrels, deer, rabbits, even frogs, lizards & elephants.
If you want to see some great examples of common mammal tracks that are useful to know, check out my online guide to animal tracks for more.
How Do You Track Animals?
At it’s core, wildlife tracking is really about asking questions related to nature and finding evidence to answer those questions.
In order to make the fastest progress, it’s important to know which questions to ask first, second, third, and so on.
Our goal is to reconstruct the complete story of events in much the same way a detective would reconstruct a crime scene.
This is an engaging process of asking questions, gathering evidence, creating theories and then testing our assumptions to discern the truth about what happened before we arrived on the scene.
The true extent of tracking is absolutely NOT just about knowing there was a bobcat walking through the mud.
If you really want to track animals effectively then we need to work towards a deeper understanding by asking questions like:
- What was it doing here?
- Was it hunting or just passing through?
- When did it pass by?
- Where was it going and why?
- What if you actually want to see that animal with your own eyes?
- What trailing strategies should you use given the age & speed of the trail if you want to get closer without alerting the animal to your presence?
As you can see, the deeper you go with your reconstruction of events, the more complex and strategic your tracking becomes.
All these questions and many more can be confidently answered by studying the more subtle patterns of tracks and how animals interact with their environment.
If you’d like to really go deep with track analysis, I highly recommend you check out my other article on how to read what tracks are telling you.
Can Effective Tracking Only Be Done In Sand or Snow?
The ability to track animals across any environment really just depends on your skill level.
Sand and snow represent ideal learning conditions.
Having long stretches of sand & snow gives you an opportunity to practice following trails with relative ease and piece together a life story of the animals you track.
But as your knowledge of animal behavior increases through study in ideal conditions, you will gradually learn to derive useful information from increasingly subtle signs.
As the tracking substrate gets more difficult, we have to rely more on our accumulated knowledge of the animal to predict where it’s going and what it’s doing.
This eventually makes it possible to stay on the trail even when the footprints aren’t very clear or are entirely absent.
The more practice and “dirt time” you put in, the easier it will be to stay on a trail in gradually more challenging conditions.
This process is helped immensely by learning to study animal activity with sign tracking.
Applied Sign Tracking To Find Animals
The reality of the situation is that much of the time in the field, you simply won’t have clear tracks to follow.
Maybe you haven’t found a fresh trail yet or maybe the substrate just isn’t conducive to holding clear impressions.
Tracking must therefore start even before we find the first footprint.
We have to know where to go and what to look for in order to get on the trail in the first place.
Aside from the most obvious tracks left in sand or mud, there are a whole host of other subtle and not so subtle signs that indicate the presence of an animal.
Things like scrapes on trees, droppings, feeding sign, and frequently used trails all play into our ability to locate and learn about the animals of an area.
What tracking is truly all about then is finding and learning about animals with our human senses by any means necessary.
This is a skill that requires no technology because our human senses are designed to be highly tuned animal tracking machines.
How To Learn Tracking
The most important thing when you want to learn to track animals is you have to do significant practice time in the field.
There is a very direct correlation between the skill of a tracker and the amount of ‘dirt time’ that individual has spent sketching tracks, taking measurements, asking questions and following trails.
This is true whether you’re doing it alone, or with the help of an experienced tracking mentor.
Finding The Right Spot To Learn Tracking
Your practice time with tracking will be greatly facilitated by finding at least one or two ideal study areas to focus on.
This could be something like a sandy beach that edges up against a forest or a wooded trail with muddy ‘track traps’ you can visit regularly to learn about the animals.
There is a whole art and science to finding the best locations to learn tracking in your local area so if you’re not sure where to go, click here to learn how to find animal tracks.
Weekly Practice Routines
Once you find a good place with substrate like sand, mud or snow, a good practice is to set up a weekly routine so you can visit, gather evidence, then go home to research & reflect before returning again the following week.
As you familiarize yourself with all the tracks that you see, you’ll notice there are gradual changes from week to week.
Animals will come and go according to things like weather, season, food larders, predator movements, even booms & busts in the population.
Pay attention to these changes!
As you become more and more comfortable with identifying what you find on your route you’ll inevitably have a need to explore other areas of the landscape in order to piece together the complete story.
You can continue learning more about the animals by going off trail and really making an effort to explore all the different parts of the landscape.
Practice Trailing & The Art of Questioning
Whenever you find fresh trails made by large hoofed animals like deer, try following the tracks and see where they go.
When you find interesting sign, or feeding browse or scat, take the necessary time to stop and look around.
Think about where you are in the landscape and ask yourself some critical questions to promote deeper study:
- What is this sign telling you?
- What animal could have left this here?
- How old is it?
- Why is it here?
- Why not somewhere else?
- Can you find any other signs connected to this?
Tracking does take patience and persistence but the reward is well worth it.
Just continue getting out there. Explore the land. Learn to identify the tracks & sign you find. Follow those animal trails and you’ll be on your way to learning some great tracking skills.
Why Is Animal Tracking Important?
Animal tracking helps us make better decisions for wildlife conservation essential to maintaining the long term biodiversity of our planet.
This is important because modern decision-makers very often don’t have all the facts when they decide to develop areas of land.
With the unique observation skills of a tracker, it’s possible to design resource management strategies that work in harmony with nature, rather than against it.
Tracking also has implications that support cultural preservation of indigenous knowledge.
My own experience is that tracking has greatly enhanced my observation & critical thinking skills, as well as my overall appreciation & love for nature.
For this reason, I personally believe tracking is one of the best ways to help children and adults build their intelligence, confidence, and generally reach their full human potential.
Tracking & The Origins of Science:
I view tracking as the original observation based science, which is supported by arguments made in Louis Leibenberg’s book “The Art of Tracking & The Origin of Science”.
The Cybertracker organization has a free copy of this book on their website, and I highly recommend every tracker and naturalist read it to understand the full implications of tracking skills on the human mind.
If we look back far enough in human history, before scientific knowledge was written, traditional trackers were using a sophisticated science of observation to get close to wildlife and educate their children about nature.
Needless to say, there’s a lot more we could get into on the philosophy of tracking and the human mind.
I even created an entire course designed to help you awaken your naturalist intelligence, so definitely go check that out if you’re interested in this topic.
Tracking is fun. It teaches us about the world, while also teaching how to think & learn more effectively in all areas of life.
So get out there & track some animals!
If you’re ready for more information, go check out the other linked articles on this page to help you get started.