Short of finding where the grocery store relocated the canned goods section, there’s not much a modern man has to do to hunt down grub. Which is nice and all, but if shit ever hits the survival fan and you’re without sustenance in the cruel outdoors, you’ll wish you knew what you were doing. Hunters, you’ve no doubt learned a few tricks of the trade to give you an advantage in the field, but that may or may not include how to track an animal in the wilderness, or even set up a proper shelter in the field. Think tracking’s a skill you’ll never use? Don’t doubt.
Animal tracking isn’t something you learn overnight. It’s a skill gained over years of learning and time in the field, a holistic skill that uses all of your senses. It takes time and attention to learn a local ecological system, which will give you a much deeper understanding of the animals that reside there or migrate through. Taking all the factors into account — landscape, habitat, seasons, travel routes, scat (droppings), hair and feathers analysis — is a lifelong learning process of becoming an expert tracker. That said, there’s a few rules you can learn to get you started. Here’s a quick guide to learning how to track an animal, should you ever find yourself really, really screwed — or just on the hunt.
1 Start with some indoor/outdoor studying. Before you get out there, educate yourself. Pick up a copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks and start studying. Number of toes, presence of claws or nails in the prints, walking or running patterns, movement — all are vital to telling the difference between a skunk and a squirrel. It could make the difference between a light meal and a heavy odor. You might think you’re tracking a big raccoon and instead find yourself in a tussle with an angry, rabid bobcat — not good. Know the tracks before you go.
Once you’ve got a fairly firm grasp on the various types of animal tracks and your purpose in tracking them down — for hunting, survival or just an affinity for nature — test your abilities, but don’t be afraid to bring the guidebook with you. It’s good to have the two-dimensional tracks there to verify the three-dimensional ones.
Also, while you’re out there bring a camera, notebook and pen. The best places to find tracks are areas where there’s a proper medium to imprint — moist dirt, mud, wet sand and snow — and once you find a set, check them against your guidebook. Take notes on what you see. Conditions, time of day, medium, size and depth of tracks. Start taking photos to study back at home, but keep the majority of your study out in the field. Repeated familiarity with actual animal tracks is the best way to learn.
2 Know what to look for (and how to look). After studying types of animal beds, go out and look for them. Burrows, nests, dens, etc. can be easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Broken sticks, twigs, foliage and bits of fur are present all signposts, and look for secluded areas of transition (the land between forest and field), which are significantly more likely to be where an animal may reside. If you find a home, look around for tracks.
In hunting for tracks, try to keep the sun opposite you, so you can see shadows in the tracks. If the sun’s behind you, it’s difficult to see the impression. Look for tracks in early morning, late afternoon or early evening. Tracking when the sun is high in the sky is difficult, and since animals are more active in the morning and evening, your chances of finding fresh tracks is better at those times, anyway. Only larger animals roam during the middle of the day, so unless your plan is to take down something sizable, stick to early a.m. or later p.m.
3 Start where you can clearly see tracks. The easiest way to start tracking an animal is to begin in a spot where you see undeniable tracks, like in freshly fallen snow or in a muddy spot. From there, you can follow the tracks to areas where they’re not quite as easy to detect. If the tracks have fresh vegetation like grass, leaves, etc. in them, then it’s likely the tracks are recent. Vegetation will decay in older tracks, meaning it’s pointless to continue tracking unless it’s for research and study purposes. Also, newer tracks will have sharper edges, whereas older ones will be more rounded off in the outline. As you look for clear tracks, don’t discount partial tracks that can lead you to more distinct ones.
4 Find the food of that which you track. As you follow the tracks, look for signs that the animal has fed. For herbivores and omnivores, berries and nuts might be left behind. Bark and grass are also widely consumed, so look for bite marks and/or places where grass has been pulled and eaten. Just because the bite marks are higher on a tree doesn’t mean the animal is necessarily larger. Squirrels consume bark high on the tree. Also, be aware that not all animals bite bark in the same way. Bears rip off outer bark to get to the more tender inner bark, while elk have to bite bark at an angle since they lack upper incisors. These differences are key.
As unpleasant as it may sound, you also have to play shit detective. Scat or droppings are key indicators for animal presence and type. Smaller, hard, pellet-like droppings are typically left by smaller animals; larger pellets may be deer or elk. Long, tapering feces are usually meat-eating mammals. The fresher the droppings, the more recently the animal has been at that location. You can also determine what the animal has been eating by inspecting the droppings, all of which will help you track more effectively, since what an animal eats will narrow down where you should look.
5 Be a wild man. As mentioned before, any one particular aspect of tracking is by no means sufficient. Again, it’s a holistic approach that involves gathering lots of data from your surroundings. It’s of far more value to you to understand the local nature and wildlife as a whole before you throw yourself at tracking animals. The more you get out there and explore the earth, the more you’ll be in tune with it and the easier tracking will come to you. And, eventually, through time and attention, the skill of tracking will be a true arrow in your quiver of survival skills.