Last Updated on January 13, 2021
As I have previously written, the fundamentals of the Art of Tracking are firmly based on the use of all five senses and developed in three main stages: observation, examination, and correct interpretation of a specific trackline.
Easy to say, but quite challenging to put in action, especially if you find yourself training on the toughest surfaces you can imagine!
Tools of the trade
Before going into the differences between the various types of soil and environment, let me point out some of the most common “tools of the trade” for a Tracker:
- a measuring device,
- a hand torch (flashlight for us Americans),
- note paper along with pen, pencil, and rubber (eraser)
- tweezers, which are useful to remove any debris on tracks, such as fallen leaves, pine needles, discharged materials which can partially or entirely hide tracks
- casting materials such as plaster cast or Shake n’ Cast
These items easily obtained and relatively affordable, but will be extremely useful for helping you succeed at tracking.
As most manuals on tracking will tell you, a good hand torch works better than headlamps since it’s easier to adjust the light toward the trackline. A light that is too high in relation to the tracks you are following doesn’t provide you the additional luminosity you need not only during darkness but also in the shade or during a poorly-lit day.
So doing some “dirt time on ground”, looking for tracks and following them, is as possible at night as it is during daylight! Be just aware of the fact that, during the night, noises seem to be four times louder than during the day. That’s when squirrels can sound as large as Sasquatch!
I recommend a hand torch of not less than 1500 Lumens, which will give you more than enough light to see at distance and fully light the track your following or examining. Torches which offer the possibility to switch colors (green/red/blue/white) can help you to better see the inner details of a pattern and detect erosion, wear pattern, and so on), by choosing the color that best fits the characteristics of a specific terrain.
Fernando Moreira, in his book “Visual Mantracking for Law Enforcement and Search and Rescue” (2016), writes that red light works best on sandy soil. In the same manner, which you may already be aware of, blue light can determine bloodstains, while my experience shows green aids you in observing tracks on dry leaves bed, especially in case of poor light.
So now that you have seen how tracking at night is possible, what about tracking on hard surfaces like craggy slopes, former dry glaciers, or even in an urban environment?
Let’s consider a hike in the beautiful area of Dolomiti, part of the Italian Alps. The area is really breathtaking, but being a Tracker there can be extremely challenging. In order to understand how it is possible to follow tracks in this specific context, let’s think about the movement of our feet on rocks.
When we step, the ball of our foot strikes first, then we roll forward and ultimately stand on the toe. Our shoes, as well as animals’ hoofs or paws, hit the ground causing the relocation of the rocks and pebbles. In this way, we can notice the bare ground no longer covered by the stones. To the expert eye, any alteration of the natural state would be immediately noticeable.
But what about urban environments, where hard surfaces prevail? We can observe signs there, too, but it’s a very different challenge.
As asphalt and concrete are the major and most common elements on streets and main roads, we must be able to locate the ideal spots where we can easily detect tracks. Do you remember “Track Traps” from the earlier “Understanding the Fundamentals” article? Well, they also exist in big cities and metropolitan areas.
Construction sites (which often contain sand), public gardens, playgrounds, private gardens, flowerbeds: all are valuable Track Traps. Even on hard surfaces, the transfer of any element like water, mud, feces, and so on represents a fitting track trap.
What about indoor environments? Many crimes have been successfully solved by forensics through the application of Tracking, which is considered a cornerstone in any phase of data collection and examination.
The case surrounding OJ Simpson, for example, showed how the collection of evidence related to footprints found at the crime scene (specifically, blood-stained prints on a hard surface) led to the proper interpretation not only of the whole trackline, but also to the reconstruction of the entire sequence events. (William J. Bodziak, former FBI Agent, in his manual “Forensic Footwear Evidence: Detection, Recovery and Examination“, 1990).
In the next article, we will learn more about how to move while tracking and how to minimize our disturbances on the terrain.