How to Track Animals in the Wilderness

At Home in the Wilderness Part VII: This article explains how to track animals in the wilderness, including tracking patterns, animal highways and homes, aging tracks and following and preserving tracks.

| September/October 1982

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.


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.

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