1. Basic Terminology. Prior to discussing tracking, some basic terms must be understood by all.
a. Trails and Runs. In any area, there will be many thoroughfares or trails and runs. Some may be seasonal, while others may be used by many different species. Runs are infrequently or intermittently used thoroughfares that connect trails to specific feeding, bedding, or watering areas. If trails are like highways connecting cities and towns, runs are like streets providing access to the gas stations, supermarkets, and neighborhoods.
b. Beds and Lays. Beds are frequently used sleeping areas commonly referred to as dens or burrows. These can be found in hollow logs, trees, rock piles, brush piles, grass, thickets, or even out in the open. A lay is an infrequently used resting or sleeping spot. It is rarely used more than once.
c. Rubs. Some rubs are accidental and some are deliberate. Accidental rubs can be in a burrow, on a trail, or over/under a fallen tree across a trail. Deliberate rubs can be when an animal scratches a hard-to-reach spot, or when a deer scrapes its antlers against a tree to remove its velvet.
d. Scratches. They also can be accidental or deliberate. Accidental scratches are left by animals climbing trees or on a log where it left a belly rub. Deliberate scratches can be found at the base of trees where they have reached up and raked their claws downward for any number of reasons. Scratches can also be found in the ground where cats have buried scat, squirrels have cached nuts, or animals are digging at a scent.
e. Transference. Transference is the removal of material from one area onto another. Transference can occur when walking along a muddy stream bank and crossing a log. The mud left on the log is considered transference.
f. Compression. Compression is the actual flattening of the soil or snow pack. It is caused by the pressing down or leveling of soil, sand, stones, twigs, or leaves by the weight of the body. Compression is more likely to be found in frozen, hard, dry, sandy conditions where there is no moisture to hold a clear and lasting imprint.
g. Disturbance. Disturbance is the eye-catching effect of unnatural patterns.
h. Gait. (MSVX.02.14a) A gait is generally the way an animal moves. Gaits are very critical in the identification of animal tracks. Although certain gaits are more indicative of certain animals, they may (depending on the circumstances) modify or alter their gait to another style.
(1) Diagonal Walker. Normal pattern for all predatory animals, which includes all dogs, cats, and hoofed animals.
(2) Pacers. Normal pattern for all wide-bodied animals such as bears, raccoon, opossum, skunk, wolverine, badger, beaver, porcupine, muskrat, and marmot Instead of moving opposite sides of the body at the same time like diagonal walkers, they find it easier to move both limbs on one side of the body at the same time.
(3) Bounders. Normal pattern for most of the long-bodied, short-legged weasel family such as marten, fisher, and mink. Bounders walk by reaching out with the front feet and bringing the back feet up just behind them.
(4) Gallopers. Normal pattern for rabbits, hares, and rodents (except wide-body beaver, muskrat, marmot, and porcupine). As these animals move, they push off with their back feet, hit with their front feet, and bring their back feet into position. Tree dwelling gallopers will land with their front feet side by side, while ground dwelling gallopers will land with the front feet at a diagonal.
i. Gnawing. All animals will chew on vegetation; some as a food source, while predators need certain vitamins. Gnawings can be on trees (cambium layer) or on vegetation.
j. Scat. Scat is actual animal droppings.
k. Sign. Any disturbance of the natural condition which reveals the presence or passage of animals, persons, or things. Examples of sign include stones that have been knocked out of their original position, overturned leaves showing a darker underside, sand deposited on rocks, drag and scuff marks, displaced twigs, and scuff marks on trees.
l. Spoor. The actual track or trail of an animal which can be identified as to size, shape, type and pattern. This word is generally interchanged with track. Spoor is broken down into two segments; aerial and ground.
2. Reading Spoor. Unless a clearly visible ground spoor is readable, interpretations must be made in order to determine "what animal made this?" Prior to ever attempting to read spoor, one must be thoroughly knowledgeable about what animals are in the area. The first step is to look at the gait. This will generally narrow down the species. The next step is determined which animal family the track belongs to. (MSVX.02.14b)
a. Cat Family. Bobcat, Lynx, and Mountain Lion (Cougar). 4 toe pads, no visible claw print. It moves with a sense of purpose and direct registers its paws. Its heel pad is much more defined than one from a dog.
No claws showing
Direct register (two prints appear as one)
t b. Dog Family. Fox, Coyote, and Wolves. Visible claw print, 4 toe pads. No sense of purpose, except fox, which steps like a cat and likes depressions. Heel pad is much rounder.
c. Rabbit Family. The main difference between rabbits and hares (which include the jackrabbit) is that rabbits are born almost hairless and with eyes closed, while hares are born with a thick coat of fur, open eyes, and an ability to run very soon afterwards. They have four toes with relatively enormous hind feet as compared to their front.
Rear d. Rodent Family. Voles, Mice, Rats, Chipmunks, Squirrels, Woodchucks, Muskrats, & Beaver. Track size varies greatly because of the different species, but one fact
remains, all have 5 toe prints on their rear feet, while having 4 toe prints on their front feet.
Rear f. Raccoon, Opossums, & Bear. All have 5 toe prints while looking like a baby's hand print.
g. After the family is known, we must identify the individual species. Using various clues about the habits of animals, a determination can be made. (MSVX.02.14c)
(1) If the tracker is educated on the behavior and habits of animals, he can determine the individual species. This information can be used for better employment of traps and snares. The following is an example.
(a) Walking along a creek bank, you notice a set of tracks that have five toe prints for both front and back feet with visible claw prints. The information tells you the prints belong to the weasel family. The tracks have a bounding gait pattern, which eliminates wide-bodied animals such as badger, skunk, porcupine, and wolverine. Because the tracks are approximately the size of a dime, you have eliminated marten and fisher. The tracks are following the stream bank for some distance, stopping at small holes along the bank's edge. Knowing that weasels like grassy meadows, you can determine that the track is probably made by a mink.
3. Age Determination. (MSVX.02.14d) It is very critical to be able to determine track age. Each area and climate will vary in the effects of aging tracks, so practice, experimentation, and experience is vital in that area. The following factors deteriorate all tracks and must be factored.
e. Track Erosion. All tracks will erode over a given period of time. The following time table can be used as a general guideline.
(1) Minutes-Top edges begin to dry.
(2) 24 hours-Top edges begin to erode.
(4) 72 hours-Pock marks from rain or dew may be seen. Track is almost flat.
f. Aging Scat. All scat dries on the inside first. Therefore, relatively wet scat on the outside could be old. The only way to determine the age is by analyzing the inside. When assessing scat, care must be taken to avoid the possibility of contracting disease.
a. The best time to track is early in the morning or late in the afternoon due to the height of the sun to cast shadows. When reading spoor, always place it between yourself and the sun.
b. Do not move past the last sign until you have found the next sign, this is called "sign cutting" and will be discussed later. In training, always try to find every track.
c. Once the initial track is found, completely document and sketch it for future reference. This sketch will prevent you from following the wrong track later on. Record the following information.
(6) Document Quadrants:
-Wear patterns -Tread patters
Wear Patterns d. Attempting to find each and every track is a slow and tedious task. The best method to assist you is with the use of a tracking stick.
(1) Materials: a 4 foot straight pole
2 rubber bands or similar material
(2) Locate 2 consecutive tracks.
(3) Place the tip of the stick on the edge of the heel on the lead track.
(4) Place a rubber band to mark the toe of the rear track.
(5) Place the second rubber band to mark the heel.
(6) Move the tracking stick to the rubber band markings of the lead track and sweep the tip of the stick until the next track is found.
(7) Repeat the process.
RUBBER BANDS OR 'BOOT BANDS
e. Tracking Teams. If tracking teams are available, the tracking process can be sped up by "sign cutting".
(1) All tracking teams (minimum of two) must document and sketch the initial
(2) The initial team continues to track until another tracking team has positively found the same track further ahead on the trail. The last track is marked for future reference.
(3) The second team assumes the responsibility of locating each track until they have been radioed by the first team that "they have found the track". This is "sign cutting".
(4) "Sign cutting" is accomplished by making large sweeping arcs ahead of the primary tracking team until the track is located at which time the teams change roles by "leap frogging".
(5) If the track is lost or misidentified, the teams will move back to the last marked track.
f. Delaying a tracker or tracking teams. If you are being tracked, your primary concern is to gain as much distance as possible between yourself and the tracker. The more distance you gain, the more time to enable you to create devices to discourage a tracker.
(1) Locate and dig poisonous plants. Trackers know the vegetation in their area. If they have seen poisonous plants dug along the trail, they will use more caution and slow their pace, whether you have used them or not.
(2) Create simple pathguards along your trail. An experienced tracker will not pick up things along the trail because of the possibility of being "booby trapped". If he notices possible traps, he will use more caution and slow his pace.
(3) Use caution when moving along the trail. When traveling, make it difficult for the tracker to find your tracks. Padded over boots are extremely effective to reduce the "signature" left by combat boots.
1. David Scott Donelan, Tactical Tracking Operation, 1998.
2. Tom Brown, Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking, 1983.
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