Tom Brown, Jr. shares his tracking knowledge of how to track animals in the wilderness, including tips on track patterns, aging tracks and following and preserving tracks.
Tom Brown, Jr. was brought up in the ways of the woods by a displaced Apache named Stalking Wolf. Today, he is one of our country’s leading outdoors experts, author of The Tracker and The Search, and head of one of the largest tracking and wilderness survival schools in the U.S. (write Tom Brown Jr., Dept. TMEN, Asbury, New Jersey). Tom has agreed to do a series of special features for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, articles that will help us all learn how to survive in the wilds. With the Tracker’s guidance, we can become more at Home in the Wilderness.
Tracking is an age-old art . . . and one that’s been pretty much forgotten in modern times. The finely honed skills that native Americans once used to sustain and protect themselves have been — in the eyes of many people — rendered unnecessary by supermarkets and government-provided security. However, the ground still has a wealth of stories to tell those who’ll take the time to learn to read it. Imprinted upon the earth’s surface is a manuscript that’s written and rewritten every day . . . recording the movements of raccoons and squirrels, the foragings of deer and elk, and the daily dramas that make up the lives of other residents of our forests and fields.
Of course, as is the case with almost any avocation, it takes years of dedication and practice to become an expert tracker . . . but anyone can learn how to track animals in the wilderness and become more sensitive to the flow of animal life by simply learning to recognize the basic signs of its passage. Furthermore, it isn’t even necessary to enter the wilderness to study tracking. In fact, most of the essential skills can be learned in your back yard or in a city park. Your own dog or cat can teach you a wealth of lessons that will give you a deeper understanding of — and interrelationship with — the great outdoors.
RECOGNIZING ANIMAL RELATIVES
Learning to track is like learning to read: Before you can begin making out meaningful words, sentences, and paragraphs, you have to know the alphabet. And the ABC’s of tracking are the distinctive prints of various species of animals. It’s usually possible to determine the family to which the owner of a given track belongs by doing little more than counting the number of toes in the footprint. Then you can determine the creature’s species, by examining foot size and other features, with the help of a reputable guidebook. (Olaus Murie’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks — Peterson Field Guide Series, $9.95 — is one of the best.) To help get you started, though, here are the track classifications for the most common families of animals.
The felines include the house cat, bobcat, lynx, and cougar. These beasts leave very rounded tracks, with four toes apparent on each foot but no claw marks (their claws are usually retracted). The cats are the only family of animals that directly register when they walk . . . which means that a hind foot usually falls directly into the print made by a front foot, creating what appears to be a single track.
The canines include dogs, foxes, coyotes, and wolves. These animals’ front and rear feet also have four toes each, but the claw marks are typically visible in canine prints. The fox is the one member of the dog family that directly registers when it walks. All other canines show indirect register. . . meaning that the back foot’s mark falls slightly behind and to one side of the front print.
The weasel family consists of martens, fishers, minks, ferrets, skunks, otters, badgers, wolverines, and (of course) weasels. Prints made by these mammals show five toes up front and in the rear, and usually reveal sharp claws. Many members of the weasel family also have very pungent scent glands and leave an acrid smell wherever they go (the skunk is merely the most famous example). So use your nose when you investigate unknown tracks or animal signs.
Raccoons, opossums, and bears are not in the weasel family, but they do have similar clawed five-and-five tracks. All three of these animals, though, have very flat, human-like feet . . . and the opossum has distinctively opposing thumbs that are used for climbing.
The rodents include such gnawing mammals as voles, mice, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, porcupines, muskrats, and beavers. Their tracks show four toes on each front foot and five on the rear, with three exceptions: Beaver and muskrat leave five-and-five prints some of the time (often the fifth toes don’t make visible impressions), while aplodont — or mountain beaver — marks show five and five all the time.
Pika, hare, and rabbit family members are not rodents, in spite of their chisel-like gnawing teeth and often similar size. Their tracks show four toes up front and in the rear, and generally (except for those of the marsh rabbit and the pika) the back feet leave impressions that are at least twice the size of those made by the front paws.
The hoofed animals are easily recognized by their one- or two-part heart-shaped prints. This group includes pronghorns, goats, sheep, deer, caribou, musk ox, moose, reindeer, and elk.
Once you’ve learned the tracking alphabet, you’ll be ready to start reading the “words” . . . that is, the simple statements made by animals as they pass over the landscape. As you’ll soon discover, tracking involves more than merely following an animal from one place to another. When done well, it’s a process of answering a continuing series of questions about a beast and its interactions with the environment. It’s important, then, to familiarize yourself with the various track patterns of animals, in order to read the thoughts and intentions that might have inspired the movements recorded on the ground.
Animals are no more eager to wear themselves out needlessly than humans are, so they usually walk or shuffle from one place to another. Therefore, the vast majority of the tracks you find will indicate an animal moving at or near its slowest gait. And there are four distinctive walking patterns that you’ll have to learn to recognize and to link up with specific families of creatures. Once you’re familiar with them, you’ll be able to see how these same gaits are used by different animals at different speeds.
Diagonal walkers — like the cats, dogs, and hoofed animals — lift front and hind feet on opposite sides of the body at the same time, alternating sides as they go. This movement leaves a staggered set of tracks. At progressively higher speeds, diagonal walkers often move into trotting, loping, bounding, and finally galloping patterns.
Bounders include members of the weasel family (except for the wide-bodied shufflers . . . such as skunks, badgers, and wolverines). These animals hop in a series of “stitching” jumps in which the front feet come down first and the back feet pull up right behind them. Bounders maintain this pattern most of the time regardless of speed (though the “stride” increases — that is, the jumps become longer — when the beast hurries).
Gallopers are animals — such as rabbits — that hunch their bodies even more than do bounders . . . bringing their hind feet down in front and to the side of the front paws. This gait usually creates an easily recognized U-shaped track pattern. If the prints of the two front feet regularly lie side by side, the track probably was made by a tree-dwelling creature — perhaps a squirrel — while a consistent pattern of diagonal front-foot marks indicates a ground-dwelling animal, such as a rabbit. (Incidentally, tree-dwelling and ground-dwelling bird tracks can generally be distinguished in a similar way. Arboreal “hoppers” leave parallel prints, while “walking” birds stroll on the bias.) The speed of a galloper can be determined partly by the increasing distance between sets of tracks.
Pacers include such wide-bodied animals as raccoons, opossums, bears, beavers, porcupines, wolverines, badgers, and skunks. These beasts usually move both feet on one side of the body at the same time in a shuffling or lumbering fashion. As their speed increases, the broadbeamed members of the weasel family — wolverines, badgers, and skunks — progress from pacing to bounding. Other pacers, though, often move first into a diagonal trot, then into a bounding lope, and finally into a full gallop.
ANIMAL HIGHWAYS AND HOMES
Footprints are only one of the groups of animal signs that an experienced tracker reads. In fact, an astute nature observer, realizing that almost every facet of the surrounding environment can contribute to the understanding of a track, tries to interpret the entire landscape. For example, animals create a wealth of thoroughfares, as was pointed out in my article on survival traps (see MOTHER NO. 74, page 70), and many of them are much like our own highways and side streets.
The most obvious routes are the trails. . . well-worn paths that are generally used by a wide variety of species. Runs are less noticeable pathways that connect trails to feeding, bedding, and watering areas. Usually these will be traveled by only one or two kinds of animals and are subject to constant change. Pushdowns are the sudden escape routes indicated by vegetation that has been crushed in one direction. Beds are habitual sleeping spots, sometimes lined with fur or other debris. They often appear as well-used depressions in thickets, grasses, and hollow logs or under rocks. Lays are less-frequented resting spots, typically near feeding or watering areas. They are indicated by depressed vegetation and will often show the outline of the animal.
You’re most likely to find these highways and homes on the edges of forests and fields . . . in the transition areas that offer abundant food, water, and cover.
OTHER ANIMAL SIGNS
As you’re tracking, keep in mind that animals leave a whole host of clues as they pass over the landscape. Look for rubs and nicks . . . those bare spots on branches and trunks where animals have scraped themselves either intentionally or accidentally in passing. Study scat (animal droppings), because it can tell you a great deal about what a creature has been eating. And always examine likely areas to see whether you can detect scratchings or hairs.
You may also discover obvious signs of gnawing such as the substantial marks left by a beaver on a tree trunk. Remember, though, that every piece of gnawed vegetation — even tiny twigs and grasses — can help you decipher the signature of a specific animal. Rodents and rabbits slice through greenery with a clean diagonal cut, while hoofed animals clamp down and yank upward, a motion that produces a flat, serrated cut. On the other hand, members of the dog and cat families chew on vitamin-rich grasses and herbs, leaving those plants with a crushed or mashed appearance. Of course, the height of any gnawing will indicate the size of the animal (standing on either four or two feet) that made it.
FOLLOWING ANIMAL TRACKS
Naturally, the best places to begin tracking are areas covered with wet sand, soft mud, or new snow. Beaches, creek beds, plains, and desert areas are usually excellent learning spots, since tracks made in soft earth are typically quite distinct and easy to read. If no such area is readily available, you can study the basics by making a tracking box filled with wet sand, or by smoothing out a section of soft soil in your garden or back yard. Put a variety of bait on the “track trap”, and then study the prints of the creatures that it attracts.
A tracking stick is an especially useful self-teaching tool. It’s simply a smooth, straight 3- to 4-foot length of dowel — or a ski pole — fitted with rubber washers or bands that can be moved to divide the tool into sections. Use the first marker to indicate the length of a footprint . . . the distance between the first and second, the animal’s stride . . . and the space between the second and third, the width of the foot. Once you’ve found a good track, set these measurements on your stick, and you’ll be able to more easily identify your animal and predict — if you’re in difficult terrain — the approximate location of its next track.
Whether or not you’re using a tracking stick, there are some basic procedures that will improve your ability. First, keep the track between yourself and the source of light, as doing so will make it easier for you to see the shadows in the footprint. And for the same reason, it’s best to track in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun’s rays hit the ground at an angle that makes the shaded prints pop out more clearly. Also, be sure to get down on all fours and examine the track from different angles. Vary the focus of your vision to see how the track fits into the total environment. And use side-heading. . . that is, get one eye as close to the ground as possible and squint the other eye when you scan the earth for signs. (This technique is especially useful for picking up the dulling and shining effects that are created when animals walk across grassy surfaces.)
When following tracks (especially while you’re in the process of acquiring this skill), try to learn everything you can about one footprint before moving on to the next. Don’t be content just to identify and follow an animal. Ask yourself the “why” questions. “Why is this track here?” “Why is the animal moving in this particular manner?” “Why is it headed in this direction?”
And don’t skip tracks . . . the print that could teach the most is usually the one that you “can’t” locate. You’ll discover it if you just remember that the key to the next mark is contained in the one you’re already looking at. (You may find the clue you need to determine where and how the animal moved next by examining — very closely — the soil distortions or “pressure releases” in the track.)
Understand as well that you’ll rarely come across a perfect print. Most of the time, you’ll see parts of tracks — a toe or two, a heel pad perhaps — and you’ll have to visualize the rest. That’s why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with classifications and patterns before trying to read too complicated a manuscript.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to master these basics is to watch an animal make a track, and then immediately go examine the print. That way, you’ll know what the ground says (that is, what the animal was doing) before you read the message, and you can memorize a wealth of different “words” and “phrases” that will help you more easily “translate” stories later on.
Sometimes, of course, you’ll look for a print and find only creases or faint depressions in a bed of leaves. If so, you can often carefully lift those fronds up and find perfect tracks in the soil beneath. Remove any debris — with a pair of tweezers — from the prints you discover before you examine them. And use a magnifying glass often. It’s much easier to pick up dirt smudges or telltale pressure-related cracks in the ground when your eye is looking from behind a good lens.
Since tracks are three-dimensional rather than flat, many folks find that they’re able to develop their skills by trying to follow a trail blindfolded. Before you attempt this exercise, familiarize your hands with the feel of visible marks. Then gently press and probe the ground where you think there ought to be a track but you can’t see one . . . and the sensitive parts of the fingers and palms will help you find prints that may have deceived your eyes. Ultimately, your hands will be able to read the ground like a book written in braille.
Finally, you can learn a lot by simply marking each print in a series with a popsicle stick and then connecting the sticks with light string. The layout that results can be a big help to you in learning an animal’s pattern of movement. (It’ll also let you know when you’ve made a mistake and left out a print . . . because the strides and overall pattern should always be flowing and logical.)
AGING ANIMAL TRACKS
Determining the age of a track is an art in itself . . . and one that can be learned only through observation and practice. The main thing to remember is that all disturbances in the earth tend to become flat. However, the terrain and weather can have a great effect on just how long a track lasts. For instance, a good wind may smooth out a depression made in dry sand within 30 seconds, but a trail that dries into hard clay may last for weeks or months (or more) if it’s not washed out by rain. Under most conditions, though, the peaks of a track — one made in, say, medium-hard garden soil — will have deteriorated or rounded somewhat after 24 hours. In another day, the mark may have accumulated debris, leaves, or pockmarks from raindrops. Eventually, as the track crumbles and fills or is covered by other prints, it will disappear completely.
It’s often possible to get a feel for the age of an individual track by making a thumbprint in the soil right next to it and comparing the sharpness of the ridges. However, the most effective and systematic way to familiarize yourself with the basics of track deterioration is to make several thumbprints in an outdoor tracking box every 6 or 12 hours, keep a record of weather changes, and note the relative deterioration of your prints each time you return to make a new set. You can learn to age broken or mashed vegetation by the similar method of snapping twigs or tearing leaves . . . and returning at regular intervals to examine them.
I call this method “learning the wisdom of the marks” . . . with it, you’ll quickly become more proficient at aging tracks. After a while, you should be able not only to date tracks to within a few hours of when they were made, but also to read stories written on the same piece of ground by different animals at different times.
PRESERVING ANIMAL TRACKS
If you’d like to make a more complete and leisurely study of a particular footprint, you can take a plaster casting. This is done by stirring up a honey-thick mixture of plaster of Paris and water, pouring it into the track, and letting it set (five or ten minutes should be long enough). To assure greater cast strength, pour the mix until it overflows and creates a lip around the edges. If the print is so shallow that you fear your model may crack when you take it out, you can reinforce the casting by adding a couple of twig “backbones” to it while it’s still wet. Remove the preserved print by carefully digging around its edges and lifting up from below. After the cast is completely dry, clean off debris with a brush.
FOLLOWING ANIMAL TRACKS: DIRT TIME
I’ve outlined the major skills you’ll need to learn in order to track animals, but the knowledge that can come only with dedication and practice is more important than all the information you can possibly gain from any article or book. There is no substitute for dirt time. . . for the hours and days spent on one’s hands and knees, following prints and absorbing the secrets that only those mysterious marks can teach. Still, no matter who you are or where you live, you can learn to track by simply devoting a little time to it each day. And once you become familiar with this new language, I think you’ll be amazed at the abundance of stories that await you . . . many of which will begin just beyond your own back door.
COMING UP: For some tips on winter survival in the wilderness, watch for our article on snow shelters in MOTHER NO. 78.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article concludes our “At Home in the Wilderness” series (earlier portions of which appeared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS issues 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, and 76). MOTHER would like to thank Tom Brown, Jr. for contributing this fine sequence to the magazine.