A Complete Guide to Tracking in the Wilderness

Tracking guide

Let’s get started:

Tracking and identifying footprints in the woods is a lot like learning your ABC’s.

I would not expect anyone to become an expert overnight.

In this article, I will outline the 6 main disciplines of tracking in addition to some supplemental knowledge.

After reading this article, you will understand how to track anything in the woods. Yes, folks, anything. I have even gone the extra mile to explain tracking in the snow.

Without delay…

The science of tracking is still practiced by people worldwide; mainly hunters and survivalist; however, intelligence officials and the military also utilize tracking as a way to locate enemy soldiers. Tracking is considered an art and science. It involves observing the tracks and other signs that animals and people leave in nature. The goal is to develop a deep understanding of the environment and the subject that is being tracked.

If you’re a hunter it’s vital to stay hidden, this article will teach you how.

Tracking Explained

A primary focus of tracking is to gain insight into the patterns and actions of the subject that is being tracked; be it an animal or subject. The tracker must be able to distinguish and follow the subject via the tracks (footprints) and other signs that the leave in the landscape, such as feathers, markings left in trees, marks that indicate the subject has dragged something, signs of feeding, scat, bones, blood, scents, and more. Collectively, these signs are known as “spoor”, and essentially, it provides the tracker with clues about the animal or person that he or she is attempting to locate.

Tracking: An Ancient Science

Many believe that tracking may have played a key role in helping us to develop into modern human beings. The reason? – Because it is thought that tracking was one of the first scientific accomplishments. Our hunter-gather ancestors used tracking as a way to gain an understanding about nature. To add, they even implemented many advanced strategies in order to do so.

While it is true that directly observing animals allows us to gain an understanding about animals, the information is limited. But, thanks to tracking, our ancestors – and modern humans – were and are able to gain much more insight into the behaviors of animals. In other words, without tracking, a lot of what modern humans have discovered about animals would not be known. This is true for all animal species, but particularly for nocturnal beings and animals that are seldom seen.

Tracking: A Way to Learn About Animals

Tracks and other signs (scratch marks, drag marks, blood, feathers, fur, and so on) provide invaluable information about the natural behavior of animals. It allows us to gain a detailed picture of their actions; how they move, what they do, where they go, etc. Through tracking, we can understand various rituals, including hunting, foraging, mating, nesting, and more. Tracking allows us to gain much more insight than the direct observation of animals because through direct observation, animals are often stressed, and as such, they change their behaviors. Therefore, tracking is considered a non-invasive method of collecting information about animals. Here is a very good book about tracking.

Learn About Animals

The science of tracking is used in a variety of applications. Hunters use it to gain better insight about their prey. Scientists in the fields of zoology, wildlife management, and environmental science use it to not only develop a greater understanding about various species of animals, but also as a way to educate the public and control various issues that wildlife endures, such as poaching.

Tracking: Beneficial for Humans, Too

The science of tracking isn’t limited to animals; it is also used to gain pertinent information about human beings. The military, law enforcement officials, and search and rescue teams are just some of the organizations that utilize tracking. In the military, it allows soldiers to track their opponents. In law enforcement, it enables police officers and detectives to find criminals and missing persons. In search and rescue operations, it can assist rescuers with finding individuals that have gone missing in all types of scenarios.

Tracking is also used by scientists that study human behavior. For example, biologists, anthropologists, and sociologists can use tracking to gain valuable insight about human behavior. Anthropologists, for instance, can study removed civilizations to learn how they hunt and gather, and to discover more about their traditions.

In the case of human studies, it is often difficult to gather information via direct observation. In the case of a search and rescue mission, for example, when a person is missing, the tracks and other markings left behind can help rescuers locate individuals.

Dissecting Spoor

If you are interested in tracking, whether it’s for hunting purposes, to assist in finding missing people, or simply to learn more about an animal’s or a person’s behavior. It is important to understand exactly how tracking works.

As we’ve already discussed, tracking involves dissecting the spoor – any type of marks or disturbances that are left behind by animal or human activity. Any animal or subject that makes contact with any object – the ground, trees, grass, leaves, snow, etc – leaves a trace of their presence behind. As such, spoor can be found virtually everywhere. By understanding how to dissect the signs that an animal or person leaves behind, you can successfully track – and locate – the subject that you are trying to find simply by examining the traces that are left behind.

Dissecting Spoor

Of course, it goes without saying that the science of tracking involves spotting the signs that animals and humans have left behind in the environment. However, most people have a defined image of what it is that they are looking for. They know that they are trying to search for spoor – the markings and other signs that the subject has left behind – however, in order for tracking missions to be successful, you have to understand exactly what type of signs you are looking for from the specific subject that you are searching for. While you know that you are going to be looking for footprints, dig marks, scratches, and other signs, you could actually end up picking up incorrect spoor or random markings that have nothing to do with the subject that is being tracked.

In other words, in order for tracking to be successful, you have to know exactly what type of signs you are looking for; the markings that are associated with the subject. Furthermore, you have to have an open mind and not focus solely on what you think it is that you should be looking for. At-a-glance decisions often end up being incorrect, which is why it is important to take the time to fully study any signs that you locate in great detail. Though the defined images that you have set in your mind about what you should be looking for can certainly help you recognize marking and other valuable signs, it is important to avoid looking at only those things that you think you should be looking for, as doing so could very well result in failure.

Understanding Tracks

The most obvious element that trackers use to locate the subject they are trying to locate are the tracks that the animal or human leaves behind. Typically, tracks are the outlines that are left behind by an animal’s or person’s feet; however, they can also include any marks that are left behind by a tail, a head, antlers, or any other part of the body that makes contact with a surface.

Understanding Tracks

By analyzing the distinct features of tracks, including the size, the shape, and the pattern, you should be able to successfully determine which type of animal (or person) the tracks are associated with. You should also be able to understand what the animal or person was doing when the tracks were made.

Understanding Other Signs

While tracks are one of the main sources that trackers use to locate or find out information about the subject they are searching for, other signs left behind by the animal or person can also reveal pertinent information. As we mentioned above, other signs can include:

  • Trails, such as the marking left behind when an animal was dragging its prey or when a human was dragging a stick
  • Scat (feces)
  • Markings made on trees or rocks
  • Remnants of food, such as bones or teeth
  • Skin
  • Fur
  • Feathers
  • Hair

Together with the tracks that the subject leaves behind (again, collectively referred to as “spoor”), these signs can provide a wealth of valuable information. For example, if can let a hunter know the time of day it hunts or what type of prey the animal itself hunts, or it can let law enforcement officials know where a suspect was located and what he or she was doing at the location where the spoor was found.

Putting It All Together

The science of tracking involves looking for the tracks and other signs (spoor) that animals or humans have left behind. But what is it that you should be looking for? And, what type of information can you gather about the spoor that you have observed? Below, we will look at the different types of tracking techniques that are often used for animals and people. We’ll highlight what type of information the different techniques can help you acquire about the subject you are examining, as well as what it is that you should be looking for.

Track Identification

The first technique used in tracking is referred to as “track identification”, or who made the track. For example, if it was an animal, what type of animal was it?

It’s important to know where to look for tracks in the environment. There are several types of mediums in which tracks can be located. In the winter, for example, snow is commonly used as a medium for tracking animals and humans. Mud and wet sand are ideal mediums, as they hold the shape of a footprint, a dragging tail, or antlers as well. The banks of rivers, ponds and lakes, sandbars, mud- or sand-filled ditches, and gullies that are filled with sand or mud are all excellent places to locate the tracks of various types of animals, as well as humans.

You can also find tracks on grass or in the snow. A dew-covered field, for example, can reveal the tracks of a creature that was recently out hunting, or a snow-covered path can revel the tracks of a human that was passing through an area. The only trouble with these locations is that they are sensitive. For instance, the dew won’t last for long and the shape of the grass can easily change with a passing wind. Or, if the snow is very deep and/or soft, it may not hold the shape of the subject’s track well.

Track Identification for Animals

Track identification involves learning the different features of a track that are unique to the animal. These unique features include:

  • The measurement of the track; the length, width, and depth of the footprint
  • Scat, or the feces that the animal left behind
  • If there are any claw marks or indentations in the track
  • The number of footprints; are there two only two footprints side-by-side, or are there four footprints, for example.
  • If there are hoof marks

With this information, you can gain great insight about important information regarding the animal you are observing. For example, track identification can help to tell you about the mating and hunting rituals of an animal and how they move.

In order for track identification for animals to be a success, it’s important to first familiarize yourself with the features of the subject you are looking for. For example, knowing the shape of an animal’s foot can help you determine what type of track you are following.

Track Identification for Humans

Track identification for humans also involves understanding the different features that are left behind by a human to help distinguish important details. Just as with animals, track identification can help you identify important information about the person that was passing through the area.

Track Identification for Humans

With that said, everyone leaves tracks behind. That’s why, if you are looking for a specific individual, it is important to know exactly what type of tracks you are looking for. For example, if you are looking for a suspect in a crime, knowing the height and weight of the suspect prior to searching for tracks can help to make track identification more successful.

In addition to knowing the size and weight of the suspect, there are other distinguishing features that you could look for, including:

  • The markings that were made by the feet; for example, are the imprints those of sneakers, boots, high-heels, or bare feet
  • The color of the individual’s hair, as hair could be left behind at the scene
  • The type of clothing the suspect was wearing. For instance, if you find a torn remnant of a piece of fabric in the same color and material that the suspect was wearing, it could be very helpful

Track Identification in the Snow

Tracking the snow is much different than tracking in other locations. Snow is a much different medium than mud, sand, and dirt. The consistency of the snow affects the manner in which tracks are presented. However, with that said, identifying tracks in the snow is very similar to identification in other mediums.

Track Identification in the Snow

To identify the subject that made the track, consider the following:

  • The size of the tracks
  • Inspect the track for toes. Footpads vary from animal to animal, and the presentation of the toes can help you identify the type of animal that made the tracks.
  • Claws or hoof prints
  • The number of footprints; if there two footprints side-by-side or four footprints

Track Interpretation

The next technique used in tracking, track interpretation, allows you to determine what was going on at the location. In other words, with track interpretation, you can gain an understanding of what the subject was doing in the area where the tracks were found. In order to interpret a track, you first must identify the subject that made the track. Once you have that information, you can then gain a better understanding about what was going on with the subject at that location.

Pressure releases in the ground, track patterns, and incidental and accidental rubbings on the land or the surrounding flora can paint a clearer picture of what was happening at the sight. For example, a strong indentation in the ground might indicate is a sign that the subject released more pressure into the ground, which could very well mean that the animal or person was fighting, standing, or struggling in some way. A lighter indentation in the ground is an indication of a lighter release of pressure, which could mean that the subject was running through the area.

Track Interpretation for Animals

The signs that you should be looking for with track interpretation are similar to the signs that you would be looking for with track identification; however, there are some differences. For example, once you identify the animal that made the tracks, you would then further investigate those tracks to determine what was occurring at the sight when the tracks were made.

For instance, if you have successfully identified a track as belonging to a deer, you can then further analyze the footprints, scat, hair, antler marks, or other signs that the animal left behind to figure out what was occurring. As an example, strong, random indentations of the hooves coupled with dragging antler marks on the ground, coupled with pieces of fur scattered about and blood might mean that the animal was in distress. Or, a generally straight path of tracks coupled with antler rubbings on a tree and leaves that have been chewed off branches could be a sign that the deer was foraging for food as it was passing through the area.


Track Interpretation for Humans

Track interpretation for humans is much like track interpretation for animals. It can help to provide you with details about what the person was doing in the location at the time the tracks were made. For example, if the tracks appear to be significantly more intended in the front and the strides are shorter, than it could be a sign that the individual was running. Generally, a person applies more pressure in the ball of the foot and takes smaller strides as he or she is running. However, if the strides are longer and there is more even pressure in the front and back of the footprint, it might mean that the suspect was walking through the area.

Track Interpretation in the Snow

Determining what a person or animal was doing based on the tracks left in the snow is very similar to tracking in other mediums in that you are going to look for the same signs. For example, you should if there are several footprints scattered about the snow in a random pattern, it could indicate that the subject was in an altercation; being attacked by another animal, for instance. The white backdrop also makes footprints and other signs that the subject leaves behind more visible. Check for any signs of blood, feces, hair, feathers, or any other spoor that the animal may have left behind. The appearance of the spoor can help you determine what was happening at the scene.


Trailing is the tracking technique that allows you to determine where the animal or human was heading. This information is very valuable, as it allows you to determine which direction to go in order to follow the subject.

For example, if you are hunting, trailing can help you find out which direction the animal went so you can successfully locate your prey. Likewise, trailing is an effective way to locate a human in a search and rescue mission. Trailing can help you determine whether the subject was headed north, south, east, or west so that you can pinpoint the direction that you should be following.

Trailing Animals

There are several tips to keep in mind while trailing an animal, including:

  • Follow fresh tracks. Tracks that are aged won’t give you much more information. Tracks dull as they age, which means that they become more difficult to see. With frails trails, you will be able to gather a lot more information about the direction the animal went.
  • Look at the direction of the foot. If the animal has toes, for example, the direction that they are pointing is the direction that the animal went.
  • Look for signs in the distance. Once you find a fresh trail, take a step back and look for any spoor. Examine the surrounding vegetation and check for any spoor that may have been left behind.
  • Check for signs of burrows or nests.
  • You can tell a lot about an animal’s location simply by listening. If you’ve spotted it’s trail, there’s a chance that it might not be very far off in the distance.

Trailing Humans

As with all aspects of tracking, trailing humans is very similar to trailing animals. Some of the things that you should be looking for include:

  • Fresh tracks. Again, the fresher the tracks are, the more information they will reveal. Older tracks are worn and it can be difficult to collect details from them. However, if you do spot older tracks, carefully inspect them, as they can provide insight into the whereabouts of the subject.
  • Look at the position of the footprints. The subject will have gone in the direction that the toes are pointing.
  • Take a step back and assess the scene to look for any other signs. For instance, inspect the nearby trees and shrubbery. If you spot any disturbances in the surrounding area or see any spoor, you can use those clues to gain a better idea about which direction the subjected headed.

Trailing in the Snow

Trailing in the snow is also very similar to trailing in other mediums, such as sand or mud. The following tips can help you find which direction the animal went:

  • Look for fresh trails. This is particularly important, as trails lose a lot of their defining characteristics in the snow as a result of melting or wind.
  • Inspect the position of the feet. Analyze the shape of the tracks to determine which direction the toes are pointed. The animal or person will have gone in the direction that the toes are pointing.
  • Assess the surrounding area. For instance, if you see a large mass of compacted snow within the vicinity surrounded by footprints, it could be an indication that the animal or person sat in the snow for a while.

Track Aging

The age of the track is important. It lets you know how long ago the track was made, which, of course, indicates how long ago the person or animal was in the area. The fresher the tracks are, the greater the chances are that the subject is within close proximity of the area. It can be hard to tell when an animal or person was in the area; however, if you examine the tracks and other signs that were left behind, you can determine if the subject was in the area that day, a few days ago, or even a few weeks ago.

In other words, aging can help you determine if you are hot on the trail of the animal or person, or if it is further away.

Track Aging for Animals

How can you determine the age of an animal’s track? Here are some tips that you can use to assist you with figuring out how long ago the animal was in the area:

  • Press your hand into the ground adjacent to the track. Inspect the difference of the print that you left behind and the print that the animal left behind. Just like the print that you made with your hand, the diameter of the animal’s prints will have sharper edges. On the other hand, if the tracks are older, the edges of the prints made by the animal will be more rounded in appearance around the edges. That’s because chances in the climate and weather, as well as erosion, will impact the appearance of the track over time.
  • Look at the vegetation in the area. If the plants or leaves were recently eaten, you might be able to see moisture around them. If the chew marks in the foliage are dried out and brown, the animal was in the vicinity a few days or weeks ago.
  • Inspect the area to see if you spot several tracks. It’s more likely that the tracks are fresher if there are several noticeable prints. As time passes, tracks will start to dissipate, which obviously means that more time has passed since the animal was in the area.
  • Examine any spoor that the animal left behind. For example, if there’s scat, if it’s fresh, the animal was recently in the area; however, if it is dried out, the tracks were made a while ago. Feel any feathers or fur; the warmer they are, the newer the tracks are. If there is any blood in the area, if it is still wet, the tracks were made recently; but, if it is dried up, the tracks are older.

Track Aging for Humans

To determine the age of the tracks made by a human, use the same tips that were mentioned above for determining the age of the tracks made by an animal. These tips include:

  • Push your hand into the ground next to the footprint. Look at the appearance of the print that your hand made. You’ll notice that is the edges around your handprint are sharper. Now, take a look at the prints left by the subject. If they edges of the track are also sharp, it’s an indication that the tracks were recently made and that it wasn’t that long ago that the subject was in the area. However, if the edges of the human’s track are rounded in appearance, it’s older. As a track is exposed to changes in the weather and the climate (rain, wind, etc), it will start to erode. The edges of the track will start to erode, which will result in a more rounded appearance.
  • Inspect the plant life around the vicinity. If the person was in the area recently and rubbed up against leaves or branches, and that contact resulted in indentations to the plants, you can tell how long ago the person was in the area by analyzing the appearance of the flora. For instance, if the person was recently in the area, the foliage will still be green and moist. However, if the person was in the location several days ago, any contact that was made with the foliage will appear dried out and brown.
  • Check to see how many tracks are in the area. The more visible tracks there are, the more likely it is that they are new. However, if there are fewer tracks, there’s a good chance that they are older. The reason? – As the tracks are exposed to the elements, they will erode or wash away completely, which will result in the appearance of fewer tracks.
  • Inspect any other signs that the person may have left behind in the area. For instance, a torn piece of fabric that looks relatively vivid in color was likely left not that long ago; but, if the fabric seems worn (faded and very tattered), it’s likely that it was left behind a while ago.

Track Aging in the Snow

Determining the age of tracks left behind by either an animal or a human can be a challenge. The structure of snow can change dramatically in a short period of time – even in areas that receive large amounts of snow. As more snow falls, the composition of the tracks will change, as freshly fallen snow will cover up the tracks. Additionally, temperature changes can lead to melting, and wind can blow powdery snow, altering the appearance of the tracks. However, there are tips that you can use to help you determine the age of animal or human tracks that are left in the snow. These tips include:

  • Push your hand into the snow next to the tracks that you found. Examine the appearance of the print your hand left in the snow. Notice how the edges of the print have a sharper appearance? That’s because the print is fresh and hasn’t been affected by the weather. Now, look at the track left behind by the animal or person. If the edges appear sharp, then they were recently made; however, if they are rounded, the tracks are older. Obviously, as snow is exposed to changes in the climate, the shape of the print is going to chance. Warmer temperatures, wind, or even fresh snowfall, will alter the look of the track, and the more worn the track appears to be, the older it is.
  • Look at the surrounding area. Take a look at the foliage. If the animal was recently in the location and feeding on plants, the snow will be knocked off the leaves. But, if any nearby leaves were nibbled on are covered in snow or appear dried out and/or brown, than it’s a sign that the track is older.

Ecological Tracking

Ecological tracking (also referred to as environmental tracking) refers to a tracking technique that is used to determine the reason why an animal or person was in the area where the tracks were found. For example, with this tracking technique, you can find out if an animal was in the location to hunt or forage for food, or if a person was seeking shelter in the vicinity.

Ecological Tracking

With the information that ecological tracking can help you obtain, you can potentially determine if the subject will revisit the location. For instance, if an animal was hunting in the area, there’s a chance that it will return back to the spot to hunt again in the future. Or, if a human was seeking shelter in the location where the tracks were found, there is a possibility that he or she will return again for the same purpose.

Ecological Tracking for Animals

The following tips can help you read tracks and spoor to determine the reason why an animal subject was in the area:

  • Assess the ground. If you notice more than one set of footprints, and those footprints are from different species of animals, it’s a possibility that the animal you are tracking was hunting in the area. Or, if you see multiple sets of footprints from the same species of animals, this could reveal that the subjects were mating, birthing young, or simply seeking shelter in the location.
  • Look for burrows or nests. If you spot tracks in the area and there are nests or burrows nearby, that’s a surefire sign that the animal is using the location as a source of shelter. It’s very likely that the subject will return to the region again in the very near future for shelter.
  • Inspect the appearance of the flora in the area that surrounds the tracks that you found. If you notice that the branches on several trees are missing leaves, then the animal (a deer, for example), is probably visiting the area to eat. Animals often return back to areas where food is plentiful to feed again.
  • Notice if there are any signs of blood, fur, eggs, egg shells, or any other evidence that a baby was birthed. Even if you do not see babies in the area, many species of animal come back to the spot where they birth their young, as they see it as a safe space to provide care.

Ecological Tracking for Humans

Generally, the nature of humans is different than the nature of wild animals; however, there are some similarities that the two species share. That being said, you can inspect the location where you found the tracks to figure out what they subject was doing there. Some of things that you should keep an eye out for include:

  • Signs of shelter, such as tree limbs gathered in a lean-to formation, branches pulled over a pile of leaves, or perhaps even a manmade tent. These are all signs that the area was being used for shelter. If there are any signs of shelter, there is a very good possibility that the subject you tracking will return to the area in the near future.
  • Check for any remnants of food or drink. For example, if you find what appears to be signs of that a campfire was in the area, it is very likely that the individual was preparing food there. Moreover, if the embers are hot, then there is a very good chance that the person isn’t far from the location. Additionally, if you see any other signs of food debris – cans, bones, water – the subject you are trying to locate was eating in the area, and there is a chance that he or she will return again.
  • Look for excrement. It might sound off-putting, but people, like animals, do need to relieve themselves. If you do see excrement and it appears to be fresh, the subject was in the vicinity not too long ago.

Ecological Tracking in the Snow

As we’ve mentioned, tracking in the snow can be challenging. While the white backdrop does clearly showcase tracks and other signs that an animal or person was present in the area, if the snow is too fluffy, too deep, or if there have been changes to the climate, then it can be difficult to assess any signs of evidence. However, there are things that you can look for that can help you determine why a person or animal was in the area, including:

  • The presentation of any footprints can give offer clues as to why the subject was there. For instance, if you see long stretches of compacted snow, it might indicate that a group of animals was passing through the area, or that one or more animals frequently visit the spot. A collection of footprints from different species of animals that are in a scattered arrangement might mean that hunting took place in the area.
  • Check for blood, feathers, fur, or skin. If you see these types of spoor, the subject was more than likely hunting in the region. If these remnants that were left behind appear fresh, chances are that the subject isn’t far away or will return again in the near future.
  • Look for holes in the snow. If the snow is very deep, an animal or a human may dig into it to create a shelter. If that is the case, the subject may return, may be nearby; or, there is even a chance that it could still be in the shelter.
  • Inspect the foliage. If there are tracks near trees, there are bite marks in them, and those bite marks appear fresh, for example, that’s a sign that an animal was eating in the area. The animal might not nearby, or could very well return in the near future, as animals tend to return to areas where they foraged for food if they were successful during previous visits.

Intuitive Tracking

The last technique used for tracking is referred to as intuitive tracking (also called spirit tracking). This tracking technique gives insight into how the subject was feeling while it was in the location. This technique is reserved for individuals who have ample experience in the other five disciplines of tracking that we have discussed. This technique is based on educated speculations. It involves collection a tremendous amount of evidence and results that can be verified before you can speculate how the subject was feeling. However, the speculations that are made via intuitive tracking can be quite accurate if you have a firm understanding of the other five techniques that are used for tracking.

For instance, if the evidence that you collected with the other tracking disciplines is solid, you can predict where the subject is, what the emotional state of the subject is, and what the subject is planning on doing. As long as you have excellent skills in the other five tracking techniques, your intuitive tracking predictions could very well be about 80 percent accurate.

With that said, we are not going to get into the specifics of intuitive tracking for animals, people, or in the snow. Why? – Because it is such a complex science and you really need to be very well-versed in the other aforementioned disciplines in order to effectively make predictions via this form of tracking. If you are not well-versed in track identification, track interpretation, trailing, track aging, and ecological tracking and you dive into spirit tracking, than you will not only be doing yourself a disservice; you will also be doing the entire tracking community a disservice.

Wrapping It Up

Tracking is an ancient science that has been practiced since the times when our prehistoric ancestors roamed the earth. While it might seem primitive in nature, it is actually highly advanced. Through the six disciplines of tracking, you can discover a wealth of invaluable information about the subject or animal that you are trying to locate. In order to effectively execute each type of tracking, you do need to have a wealth of background knowledge, extreme patience, and a great deal of experience.

Whatever your reasons for tracking may be, by using care, paying close attention to details, and collecting solid evidence, you can accurately determine where an animal or person is located in the wild. It truly is a fascinating and highly useful science.


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