Last Updated on January 13, 2021
“A very small percentage (I’d day less than 1%) of Tracking Students will have, or will take, the time and dedication to become good trackers”
— AB Taylor, former US Border Patrol Agent*
Let me tell you the truth: this Art is tough.
Besides the fact that the fundamentals of this Art (for either tracking men or animals) are quite a few, the main role, as suggested by the above quote by the legendary AB Taylor, consists of experience. The terminology of Tracking defines it as “dirt time on ground“.
In this article we will look at the information we can gain by observing a set of tracks (called the trackline), using size, measurements, and light angle, as well as cover the major differences between tracking men and animals.
The most friendly terrain to Trackers (even for absolute beginners) is called “Track Traps,” which refers to muddy or sandy areas where you can easily detect the presence of a whole track (a track which appears in her “entirety”) or a well-defined partial track, whether it’s a shoe impression or an animal’s paw.
But track traps are not limited to nature; there are many you can run across in an urban environment, such as construction sites, gardens, playgrounds, and similar locations. A fundamental skill for any Tracker is to keep their eyes on the ground, even in challenging environments like cities or small towns.
Track Traps allow us to gain a lot of information, which becomes part of the mental database of any Tracker. I like to consider any individual devoted to following tracks as a sort of detective: his/her task is to acquire information from the ground, build a mental picture of what happened in a certain place at a certain time, then put all the pieces of the puzzle together to tell a story.
Elements of Observation
Length and width of a track. The length is measured from the toe to the heel, keeping the measuring device a safe distance from the track’s side in order not to contaminate it or damage the track in any way. The width is taken at the largest part of the toe, of the heel, and the arch (the intersection between the two parts of the foot). The length and the width of a whole track can allow us to determine if the subject is male or female, adult or child.
By analyzing how the track appears in the soil, we can determine if the person is carrying a load on his/her shoulders by how the weight shifts from the heel to the toe. In the case of animals, we would observe the impression from the top to the bottom of the track, the reverse of a human track. The dimensions will reveal if the animal is a male or female, as with humans. The disturbances on the ground can also tell us if the person or the animal was walking or running, based on the tracks’ distance on the ground.
The faster an animal or human runs, for example, the more evident the disturbances on the ground will be. Further considerations on the “pressure releases”, the definition given by Tom Brown Jr. for these types of disturbances, can give us the details about the position of the head and body due to the intention to look towards a specific direction. The ability to do that depends on the accurate analysis of how the soil reacted to the passage of the subject at a specific time.
Shoes, Boots, and Heels
The shoe pattern. The shoe pattern is basically the design of the mold of each shoe’s sole. Knowing what the subject was wearing at the time of the passage is, as you can easily understand, one of the keys of every search and rescue or manhunt mission. Due to the presence of millions of different shoes in commerce, we recognize three main categories: flat shoes (like sneakers), boots, and classic shoes (in which heels are pretty visible).
We can also determine how many people passed in a distinct area by shoe patterns: we can select all the different patterns (I recommend identifying them with different colored marks). This method is called the “Comparison Method.” Another method consists in just counting all the shoes inside an ideal box bordered inside an area of at least 4.6 feet and count all the different tracks you can spot inside, called the “Direct Count” method.
In Tracking, be sure to keep an open mind and not immediately jump to conclusions. A good thing is always keeping things “large”, for example making deductions about “at least six persons passed through this area” or “less than five female deer crossed this point”.
It’s not always that easy
Outside of “Track Traps”, challenges for Trackers increase dramatically. Terrain covered by dry leaves, or craggy slopes, or entirely rocky areas are the toughest to track in.
On areas like these, Trackers cannot leave anything to chance: their task is to analyze any compression, any flattening of grass (this can reveal the direction of travel), or any dislodged pebble, looking for ground spoor (signs left by paws or feet) as well as for aerial spoor (upper vegetation damaged, shifted or broken). If we are lucky enough to run across spoor such as discharged materials, droppings, or blood, we can surely gain more data to add to our follow up, either if we are on man trails or animal trails.
When considering the differences between tracking men and animals, please never forget that humans move with intention, while wild creatures by instinct. Thus, if we are willing to observe the fauna, we should be not only 100% familiar with the species of certain areas, but also with their habits, their feeding spaces, and sleeping area, too. In both of the two types of follow up, keep in mind that a Tracker uses all his senses (plus, a good role is played by their sixth sense, intuition).
Use all your senses
You track using not only eyes, but with your ears (to detect any sudden noise, for example, which can put you on alert), your nose, your brain, and your sense of touch (disturbed ground is often colder since dry leaves have been swept away by feet or hoofs!).
One of the senses you need to consider is your common sense, which can lead you towards the proper interpretation of tracks, as we will see in the next article, based on some real case scenarios.
*Fundamentals of Mantracking: The Step-by-Step Method: An Essential Primer for Search and Rescue Tracker, by Albert “AB” Taylor and Donald C. Cooper