Tracking is a modern "survival" skill because it strenghens our awareness of what is around us and helps maintain a dynamic relationship with the natural world. It's used by hikers, biologists, teachers, trail riders, parents, hunters, in short anyone spending time in the outdoors, to know and understand the environment.
Learning to track includes identifying tracks, interpreting tracks and signs, and following trails. While tracking is largely self-taught (i.e. requires a lot of individual practice no matter how else you learn it), there are distinct advantages to taking one or more classes or finding a mentor. One or more really good field guides are also essential. Following is a brief discussion about how to learn tracking; you can download a free pdf file with more comprehensive information.
Note: At Earth Skills, our classes and special trainings are designed to help the tracking student at every level, from beginning to expert. Also my Tracker's Field Guide is designed for beginning to advanced tracking students. It contains a huge amount of mammal biology and many examples of track interpretation as well as illustrations and tips for track ID.
Now, some thoughts about how best to learn this skill.
1. TRACK IDENTIFICATION
Track Identification is the first step, and for this you have to learn not only to distinguish clear footprints (for example, coyote vs. gray fox), but also to recognize track patterns and animal gaits. If you learned only the former, or have a tracking guide that shows only the clear prints and not extensive gait examples, you will succeed in perhaps 5% of track identification instances.
A good field guide, possibly after you've taken an introductory class, will allow you to narrow down the choices of track ID pretty quickly for what you've found, for example coyote vs. domestic dog, or river otter vs. fisher. Then, you would go to the fine-tuning stage of track ID, in which you look for telltale differences between the possibilities, The Tracker's Field Guide as well as a couple of other resources provide fine-tuning details. (These are listed in the full pdf file.)
When you're starting out, you need to find one or more good tracking areas where you are; the full pdf has some suggestions for where to look. Also, knowing the mammals in your area will help enormously in narrowing down choices when you are identifying tracks. Go out about twenty times, keeping a notebook with drawings and measurements, and from there track ID will become more straightforward and easier.
2. TRACK AND SIGN INTERPRETATION
Tracks and signs invite you into the animal's world, so from Day 1 of tracking you'll want to go beyond track ID as you ask questions about why the animal is there and what it's doing. There are two access points. One is the animal's biology: what it eats, how it hunts or forages, when the young disperse, how an animal marks its territory, and scores of other questions. Beginning with the tracks or signs you've found, take the opportunity to explore what the tracks tell you, and also read up on the animal's biology and behavior. Besides my book there are several excellent resources that will help you answer questions.
The other access point to track interpretation is the visualization of its movement, which can be read through the track pattern (which shows the animal's gait) and pressure releases, that is soil movement caused by the moving foot. ("Pressure releases" is a term from Tom Brown, Jr.) Visualizing movement brings you into immediate contact with the animal, and you can notice things from the tracks that you might not have even noticed had you actually seen the animal.
Learning this skill is helped by your watching animals move whenever you can, noticing different gaits, speed and posture. You can study dogs cats, deer, coyotes or horses, the latter by going to an equestrian center for example. Also, experiment by making tracks as you do different things, such as change direction, carry something on your back, look over your shoulder, etc., and then see how the tracks look. Use a dog or other pet to study its tracks. At Earth Skills, we do offer workshops on animal movement as well as track interpretation. But the activities above were how I learned. The essential text if you want to go far into track interpretation is Tom Brown, Jr.'s The Science and Art of Tracking.
Following an animal's trail can be an exhilirating experience, because it calls upon all of your tracking skills and more importantly, allows you to travel with the animal, experiencing its choices, its mood and personality.
Of course you are responsible for evaluating the safety of doing so, and must know the dangers involved! Also you must respect animals' space so that you do not harass them or interfere, for example, with raising young or essential feeding. Know the animal's biology!
You can follow very fresh trails, or even ones that are weeks old. With an older trail, your goal may be to discover where the animal bedded down, or how it hunted or foraged. In my view, finding the animal is not always possible or necessary; being on the trail long enough to "become the animal" can be reward enough.
The key to trailing is being able to move forward with enough confidence and trust that you're not stuck in tedious track-by-track progress. However, you must also confirm every now and then that you're still on the trail. It also expands your experience if you stop to read tracks once in a while to discover behavior or mood changes that will make your trailing easier.
When you begin to trail an animal, invest some time studying a number of tracks carefully, so that you have an image of the size and shape of the track, and can distinguish tracks of this exact age from others you may encounter. Deer or other hoofed animals are the easiest quarry to start with, because their tracks tend to be crisp and deep, and the edges of their hooves often bruise or crease vegetation that's stepped on, providing good confirmation. Eventually you can trail foxes, chipmunks or mice, and the tracks you find that confirm you're still on the trail may be as subtle as a single grain of gravel dislodged on hard-packed ground. Intuition plays a significant role, in my experience.
You will need one, or probably several tracking field guides and other references that help you interpret tracks. Also taking some classes or finding a mentor will definitely help. The full pdf file about How to Learn Tracking contains some good references and links to schools. You may download it at no cost.
I wish you good Tracking!
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