Footprints Across The Landscape: An education in tracking
BY MARK WARREN
How often do we look up at clouds drifting overhead on a sunny day and remember that stars
hide beyond that great blue vault of sky? It is easy to forget them until the night rolls in
to reveal them twinkling by the thousands. Tracks are like stars in that way. They are all
around us all the time. On a winter’s morning when we awake to a world blanketed in snow we
are surprised by the criss-cross of tracks stitched over our backyards. Snow is like the
revealing night sky – or perhaps it is the forensic investigator’s fingerprint dust in
reverse (dust goes down after a track, snow before).
For the most part these busy comings-and-goings of animals are a nightly occurrence. It is
the secret time when humans sleep. One reason wild creatures are active in the dark, of
course, is that tracking was originally a hunter’s tool. The point is: tracks are
everywhere all the time with or without snow and so transitory.
In fact when you think of it, everything is really a track. A maple tree can be considered
the final track of the winged seed that twirled to earth along a path driven by the wind.
The tree is a monument to that seed’s landing place. Even your home is the complicated
convergence of many tracks where workmen’s hands, trucks, and tools left their marks. An
empty beer can beside the road is a track of ignorance or arrogance or apathy or anger or
who knows what?
To a tracker the earth is a manuscript full of stories – some written in a child’s block
letters (deer tracks in soft mud) and others secretly encoded in faint, wispy lines that beg
scrutiny (the tree-side landing pad of a flying squirrel). All the stories are written in
disappearing inks of varying longevity.
Here in north Georgia humidity determines the life-span of a track. Serious humidity (rain)
erases tracks. On the other hand the moist day or two after a rain can present new tracks
with biscuit-cutter precision in muddy spots. Instructive as it is, looking at isolated soft
mud patches is merely “track sight-seeing”. Real tracking – that is, following a particular
animal’s passage through the wild – rarely involves such ideal terrain. It is hard work. It
can be exhausting. So to make any headway at all as a tracker you must start easy.
Sand is very accommodating for clearly defining a track. It is not too difficult to
understand why the Apache of the Southwest acquired their reputation as trackers
extraordinaire. The Sonora desert virtually forced this skill upon them.
Imagine growing up there, each day making fresh tracks to the creek to fill your family’s
empty water pouch. As you return with your burden you cannot avoid seeing your “to-the-creek
tracks”. Let’s say you accidentally left your knife at the creek. You hang the pouch from a
rock and go back. As you return you see your heavier “carrying-water tracks”. You compare.
Then while retrieving your knife, you watch the wind ripple patterns across the surface of
the creek. Returning to the pouch you take note of that wind’s alterations of your previous
tracks. Like it or not, your tracking education has begun.
Sand – and really all substrates, especially soft mud – behaves somewhat like a liquid when
a track is made; it’s just not as fluid. You could observe this phenomenon by slapping your
hand into a deep dish of dry flour. Waves of powder will swell and try to rush away from the
impact, but since they are not liquid the waves will “freeze” outside your handprint as part
of your track.
So to begin Tracking 101 let’s go to a beach – river or ocean – to track the easiest, most
accommodating animal you’ll ever work with. you. First learn what your natural walking tracks
look like. Get to know the length of your stride, the pitch of your feet as they angle
outward from your centerline of travel, the straddle (how far your feet extend sideways from
that same imaginary line), and the treads of that particular pair of shoes.
Now vary your speed a bit. On a stroll, note the drag mark left by your toe as it leaves the
track. When you pick up your pace a bit this sign disappears, and the front of your shoe’s
track becomes a well-defined arc. Plus, your stride has lengthened. Speed up more and you
will discover the wave of disturbance you create as sand is pushed toward the back of the
track, eventually dislodging a circular chunk of sand as if you had accidentally stepped on
a buried saucer.
If you sprint down the beach, churning your legs as fast as humanly possible, you’ll be
surprised at the new length of stride. If you are in decent shape, that measurement will far
exceed your body height. Already you have learned quite a few tricks about tracking.
In Tracking 101 there are no unknowns. You are an eye-witness to each track that you study.
It’s going to get harder, so enjoy this first stage of the discipline. You could continue to
learn new things from yourself for many months, even years, in Tracking 101: tracks of you
carrying something heavy, tracks of you constantly looking over one shoulder, you stopping
suddenly, and so on.
With a friend who also wants to learn, you can graduate to a higher tracking level on sand.
While you close your eyes, your friend can walk through a deliberate scenario; such as:
veering toward a curious object, stopping, going down on one knee to inspect, picking up the
stone or shell, and skimming it out over the water. Your job is now to “read” the tracks -
to interpret the marks in the sand as live action. Note the tiny but abrupt pile-up of sand
at the front of the track when your friend halted. Observe the slant of the track as his
weight leaned forward to bend, the knee print, the gouge made by the toes behind that knee,
the track left by the stone and by the fingers that pried it up. And finally study the
unique scrapes made by the feet during a throw by hand.
A hundred scenarios later you are ready for semi-sandy woods and then north Georgia’s
piedmont and mountains to learn about additions to the landscape such as dirt, leaves,
sticks, logs, rocks, plants and bark. You can learn to identify fresh breaks in twigs
(versus old breaks) by studying color, moisture and texture. This can be accomplished simply
by comparing to another fresh break you perform manually on the spot. Rocks might be scarred
by hoof, claw or boot or slightly dislodged from their “sockets” in the earth. Leaves
present more volumes of information. Their cracks, shears, folds, bruises, wetness, and
color each carry a message – especially living plants whose leaves have been stepped on and
disoriented from their preferred angles for catching sunlight. The brighter, less
chlorophyll-laden undersides of leaves are like neon clues in the forest. Even a plant’s
smell, though fleeting, is a sign.
Once while tracking two runaways from a youth program in Pisgah Forest, I came to a dead-end
where the boys had apparently turned very stealthy. Their tracks seemed to disappear. A dry
barkless log that sloped downhill to a creek presented one possible path they had taken. Or
maybe they had continued straight ahead with more carefully placed steps. It is a situation
like this that will remind you the trackee has a huge advantage over the tracker.
I began a series of concentrically wider semi-circles to pick up their trail, but after
three circuits I had found nothing. I stood very still trying to think like these boys, to
see what opening in the forest might have drawn them; when a gentle wind brought to me a
gift – a smell I knew. It was the aroma of hay-scented fern, a fragrance emitted only when
the plant is crushed. My eyes turned instantly upwind toward the creek’s floodplain. The
ferns were there. I went back to the log, descended and found perfect footprints pressed
into mashed ferns. I was back “on track” and found the boys within a half mile.
To track humans can be a useful tool, but let’s get to wild animal tracking. The ultimate
tracking adventure would be to bump into the back of the animal you are tracking. This is
seldom done by anyone. But by reading the earth’s story of a bobcat or deer or boar, you
have identified an area where that “creature of habit” will likely return another day. This
is your impetus to return as a stalker to observe the animal making its own tracks – which
is why this article on tracking follows last issue’s article on stalking. The best way to
learn to read a track is to see the track made. To be an audience to this you must know how
to stalk – part of which is the ability to sit, kneel, lie or stand very still for a long
time. Few people can claim this as a natural talent. As easy as it sounds, it takes
There is much more to a track than an impression in the ground, but the impression is a good
starting point. It is important to learn the difference between a raccoon’s front foot and
rear foot, the number of toes on the feet of rabbit and squirrel, the unique heel pads of
bobcat and gray fox, the long reach of a skunk’s claws. These details can be gleaned from
any number of books on animal tracks. (Three good ones are: Tracking and the Art of Seeing
by Paul Rezendez, Camden House Publishing; A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America
by James Halfpenny, Johnson Publishing; Peterson Field Guide Series A Field Guide to Animal
Tracks by Olaus Murie, Houghton Mifflin.)
In your reading beware of “rules”. Nature loves to humble rule-makers. Here is an example:
the wild cats retract their claws so that claw marks do not show up in a track. This is
true most of the time. But once at Warwoman Creek I watched a bobcat make a graceful leap
over water into sand. Both front prints showed four distinct claw punctures. Wouldn’t you
want the largest “shoe” possible when landing on uncertain sand that might sink with your
As a tracker, you must also consider patterns of tracks. As a two-legged you may not
appreciate how many pattern variations are possible with four legs. And the thing is, each
animal has its preferred gait, just as you do. Even if you are a runner or a cyclist, you
spend 95% of your leg-locomotion-time in the gait we call “walking”. But not just any kind
of walking. You and I follow a formula hard-wired into our genes. When the left leg moves
forward, so does the right arm. Diagonal appendages work together. When you first crawled as
a baby, you followed that recipe without benefit of instruction.
Deer, fox, bobcat, and lots of other animals use this same gait 95% of their lives. When
they shift gears into another gait, something special has called for the change. Cause and
effect is at work. Maybe the animal is stalking or chasing or chased or worried or
threatening. Each gait leaves its own pattern.
If you sloshed wet red paint on your knees (rear feet) and green paint on your hands (front
feet), got down and crawled as you did as a baby, then studied your colorful tracks, you
would see a pattern. Each green track appears paired with a red track right behind it (see
Diagram 1). With many four-leggeds who walk this way, the front foot actually lifts to allow
the rear foot (on the same side) to step into its track and partially or completely overlap
it. For example, when you look at a deer print, more than likely you are really looking at
two prints, one inside the other (see photograph 1). What happens if you speed up using this
same gait? Your knee print catches up to then passes its paired handprint. The same thing
happens when a deer speeds up.
Okay, let’s pretend you slosh on the paint again for a new gait. Still on all fours, lift
both left “legs” for a step then both right “legs” for a step. This is how raccoon, bear,
striped skunk, beaver, and opossum walk, to name a few. Of these raccoon is the most agile.
To walk like raccoon, your left knee must come all the way up next to your right hand,
leaving a nice pattern of alternating pairs (see Diagram 2) as you raccoon-walk along.
But raccoon can walk like deer and deer like raccoon. Why would they? Deer might assume
raccoon’s one-side-at-a-time gait to appear bigger and, therefore, threatening. Even people
do this “gunfighter’s walk” when they want to look intimidating. Raccoon would assume deer’s
faster walk simply to speed up considerably, such as when he hears you approaching in the
My greatest tracking teacher was my dog, Elly. I constantly watched her shift through all
the gaits according to need: stalking a chipmunk, same-side walking when she was bored or
eyeing a strange dog, diagonal-limb walking as was her doggy norm, trotting when something
perked her up like the appearance of a friend, loping when going for a run with me, bounding
then galloping when chasing a squirrel or rabbit. If you have a dog, consider yourself its
I’m reluctant to admit this for fear of letters I may receive from your dog, but once I even
painted Elly’s feet and had her move across a long sheet of paper. Very instructive for me.
For her, one of those moments she wondered about me and gave me that look all dog-owners
Another facet of tracking is reading the nuance of a single track. Does it show the
beginning of a directional turn by its tilt or extra build-up of a dirt wall on one side?
Does it show a limp or lethargy or nervousness? You can teach yourself these tricks in a
sandbox by returning to Tracking 101.
And then there is the skill of determining how old a track is. Who hasn’t grown secretly
quiet with envy in a dark theater when the Indian scout climbs off his pony and kneels in
the prairie grass and says, “Three men . two days ago . riding hard.” No one can teach you
this. You’ve got to earn it by religiously visiting a prepared friable dirt site every 12
hours (or 6 or 24, depending on what you demand from yourself as a tracker) and pressing
your fist into the dirt exactly the same way each time in a different spot. On each visit
you will see a fresh track next to a 12 hour-old track next to a 24 hour-old track, and so
on. And you will monitor the weather to see how that affects the prints.
Basically you will learn from this aging-lesson that the interior of a fresh track is crisp
in detail and grainy in texture, while older tracks get a glazed-over and crumbly
appearance. But beware: a light sprinkle or heavy dew can make an old track look fresher
than it is.
Our final aspect of tracking is psychological. Can you think like your trackee? Humans will
almost always seek the easier route. They will walk around a low limb rather than bend down.
Animals are not too different if you remember to consider in the equation that they are in
much better shape than we are. If you were the size of a bobcat, an encumbrance that might
veer you off course might be nothing to a bobcat, especially since they seem to cherish
secrecy. Bobcats do not like to leave a track anywhere.
Some of the most difficult natural terrains on which to track are grassy meadows and
established trails (which are already a massive collection of tracks). Leave those alone
until you start to feel part-Apache.
In the meantime you may be surprised where tracking will lead you. You’ll learn about animal
habits, their burrows and nests, what they eat, and how they eat it. Deer, for example, have
no upper incisors and rip plants with a jerk of the head with a stem pinched between lower
incisors and upper gum, leaving a trademark ragged tear. And you may discover where some
animals sleep, for some like fox and deer sleep in the open and leave clear impressions
called “forms” on ground cover.
And because you are paying attention to the plants these animals use, you’ll begin to learn
about plants and where they prefer to grow. You’ll find animal scrapes (photograph 3),
scratchings and droppings, some of which have dangerous parasites you could inhale – so be
careful. And it’s a guarantee that one day while you are on your belly studiously and
patiently reading a track, one of the phantoms of the forest will move right through your
area and contribute to your schooling in the art of tracking.
The column of tracks on the left (bottom to top) demonstrates the track pattern made by a
human crawling as diagonal limbs move together. On the right the same pattern is made by a
deer except that the front hoof moves out of the way of the rear hoof (on the same side of
the animal) to allow some overlap. Note the larger front hoof of the deer. This is an
exception to the general rule that predators have larger front feet (for catching prey)
while prey have larger rear feet for sure grip in the athletic demands of evasive escape.
On the left a human moves forward by stepping with both left appendages then both rights. To
understand this, get down and do it! On the right the raccoon, another exception to the
predator/prey foot size rule, nimbly stretches that rear foot all the way to the front foot
of the opposite side. Bears and beavers use the same gait but with less stretch. Can you
draw their patterns?
A hierarchy of gaits from slowest (at the top) to fastest (at the bottom). The animals shown
can perform any and all of these gaits with minor variations. For example, members of the
dog family (who walk most of the time with diagonal limbs moving together) can obviously
gallop, but their pattern differs from rabbit’s gallop in that canines do not plant rear
feet side by side. Their rear feet stagger, one hitting the ground sooner than the other.
Picture a fox in mid-air during its sprint. Now imagine the left front foot touching down,
then almost 24″ farther the right front foot touches down, then the body jack-knifes to
allow the rear feet to stretch ahead of the front tracks and repeat the staggered touch
down, this time right first then left. The result is a crescent-shaped pattern of four
tracks then a long gap that represents the propulsion through the air by the rear leg
muscles, then the pattern starts over again.
Here are two deer tracks, one inside the other, both from the same side of the deer moving
from lower left to upper right corners of the photo. The larger front hoof print has been
largely obscured by the smaller rear hoof. The longest line of shadow toward the top of the
track shows what remains of the front hoof print. Just down from it is another wall of
shadow showing the rear hoof outline.
At first glance this might appear to be something bigger than it is. Aren’t those five toes
showing? Bear? No, it is an overweight dog not in good shape. He is moving along at a pretty
good walk, back paw approaching the front, but since his overlap is so spread out to the
side it means one of two things: he was changing direction or he is out of shape. Since this
track was one of many in a straight line, it is the latter case. Wildness breeds fitness.
Domestication generally robs an animal of fitness. But even domestic dogs (usually mongrels
like my Elly) who are in good physical shape can approach the wild trademark of better
overlap of tracks.
A buck chose this young hemlock to scrape his antlers. Not only is this the way to clean
velvet from antlers but also to leave a message: THIS IS MY TURF. The choice of hemlock is
not chance. The exposed inner bark is aromatic, leaving not only a visual sign but an
olfactory one as well. Unless humans disturb this area this buck will be back next season to
the same posting spot.
Since a squirrel is a daredevil tree jumper, his arboreal talents prejudice his running
techniques on land. Imagine you had claws that could dig into bark for a firm grip. When you
made the leap to a vertical tree trunk would you land with your hands side by side or
staggered – one above the other? To prevent shoulder injury by an over-extension of that
upper arm you must choose the former. So even on land that is squirrel’s habit. These
four-toed front feet hit side by side then the five-toed back feet reached around the
outside of the front legs to place rear feet ahead of front feet. This photo shows that the
“rule” is not always followed perfectly. This squirrel was moving fast. His rear feet prints
are up ahead out of the picture.
The work that animals do sometimes leaves an interesting track. A striped skunk is an
excellent digger. His long curved front claws are perfectly adapted for excavating. At night
a skunk might dig up a yellow jacket nest to eat the delicious, protein-filled larvae. (The
Cherokees did this too for a favorite soup.) Here a skunk has used his typical
“hand-over-hand” technique to dig a narrow hole to find the cicada larva he has sniffed out