The Joy of Tracks

by Paul Kirtley

An interest in animal tracks and sign is something of an affliction. If you become hooked, country walks can become very slow affairs. You certainly have to have understanding walking partners. Once you start looking, there are signs of animal activity everywhere...
Fallow Deer Track Near a Stream

Fallow deer track near a stream. East Sussex. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

In fact, after you tune in to the evidence of wildlife activity in your local woods and fields, you'll certainly see tracks and sign of animals a lot more frequently than many of the animals themselves.

A Glimpse Into the Animal's World

Most animals are wary of humans; many are nocturnal. Spotting and interpreting their tracks gives an insight into a world that can otherwise be hard to access. Identifying tracks, sign and the animals that left them provides a greater understanding of an environment and helps provide a wider knowledge of nature. An interest in animal tracks cuts across all outdoor activities - I see tracks while out for a leisurely walk in local woods, while winter mountaineering in Scotland, while on canoe trips in Canada, while cross-country skiing in Norway, snow-shoeing in Sweden, while bush walking in Africa or Australia... There are always tracks to be seen.
Hare tracks in snow in the Scottish mountains with Ben Nevis in the background.

Hare tracks high in the Mamores, Scotland with Ben Nevis in the background. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Stoat tracks on snow in Arctic Sweden

The tracks of a Stoat scampering across the surface of the snow in Arctic Sweden. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Increased Awareness

An interest in animal tracks encourages greater observation. An awareness of which species of animal are around also improves outdoor safety.

Bear tracks, weathered

The weathered tracks of a black bear, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Clear Print ID

Clear tracks are the easiest to identify. Clear tracks give you a good idea of the animal that left it. Clear prints are most readily seen on snow, soft mud or clay, fine soil or wet sand.
Hyena track.

Hyena track, Serengeti, Tanzania. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

In addition to the shape of the print helping determine the species, so does the size help us determine a positive identification. Knowledge of the habitats preferred by various animals as well as their range, can also help narrow down identification.
Red deer tracks in snow

Red deer tracks in snow, Scotland. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

If you have multiple prints one after the other, this will also indicate the gait of the animal - that is, was it walking, running, leaping or bounding. In addition to the size of the footprint, the gait of the animal can also help indicate its size.
Reindeer tracks in snow

Reindeer tracks, Setesdal mountains, Norway. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Elk tracks through snow

Elk tracks through snow, Norway. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Hare tracks in snow

Hare tracks in snow, Scotland. The hare was moving from right to left of the picture. You can clearly see the toe pads of the hind feet (to the right). Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Animal Tracks Tell a Story

Tracks give away more than just who left it. Even a single footprint can tell a story; a story that helps bring the animal to life in our mind's eye. It's easy to imagine a moose having a little slip on the damp earth of the portage trail from the track in the photo below....

Moose track showing it slipped on the trail

Moose slip on a portage trail, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Baboon track in sandy soil

Baboon, moving fast, Tanzania. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

In the photo above you can see the sandy earth pushed back as the baboon was running. It was running from the Hadza hunting party we were with.

If the medium is good then you can even spot tracks of smaller animals. The squirrel tracks in the photo below were in the fine clay mud left in the bottom of rut that was slowing drying out after rains. The marks from some of its claws are very distinct.

Grey squirel tracks

Grey squirrel tracks in fine clay mud, East Sussex. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

A fine medium can sometimes capture tracks that are seen relatively rarely. This is often the case with small, sleight creatures. Below are the tracks of a newt, again in fine clay mud. Newts have four toes on the front feet and five on the rear. It's rare to see this so clearly - if at all - in tracks. You can also clearly see where the newt has dragged its tail.

New tracks in mud

Very well-defined newt tracks showing four toes on the front feet, five on the rear and tail drag. East Sussex. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

An Extended Play

If an animal has been active on an extent of a particular medium where all its tracks are clear and distinct, then we get an even greater insight into its activity.

A few years ago I was undertaking a ski tour in Norway, crossing the Hardanger Vidda. The Hardanger is a large mountain plateau in the south of Norway that is approximately 100km x 100km. It can be subject to some of the worst weather in northern Europe and is certainly wild. Despite its harshness, this environment still harbours wildlife, even in winter. Reindeer, ptarmigan, lemmings and artic foxes are amongst its inhabitants.

Lemming tracks in snow

Lemming tracks crossing a ski trail. Hardanger Vidda, Norway. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Our trip had started with some bad weather and we'd been confined to a hut for 48 hours due to the strength of the winds. Once the weather broke, we carried on. The winds had scoured the trails of tracks and the following day there was some light snow in the evening. The next day we headed out with the aim of covering around 30km.

After a few km the route we were following was joined by the tracks of an arctic fox. The routes between huts in this part of Norway are marked with birch saplings stuck in the snow. The fox had clearly been running along the trail and urinating on these trail markers to mark its territory.

Kilometer after kilometer the fox had stayed with our trail. Imagining the fox galloping along was eventually like having a little companion running along with us. Its tracks were clear every step of the way.

We passed a summer trail marker - a stone marked with the familiar DNT 'T' in red paint - normally hidden beneath the snow but that had been uncovered by the scouring winds. The fox had approached and urinated on it too.

Arctic fox tracks and DNT summer trail marker

Arctic fox tracks and DNT summer trail marker, Hardanger Vidda, Norway. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Every so often along the fox's trail there was a significant disturbance, where the fox had been digging in the snow, probably for lemmings. Lemmings spend a lot of their time under the snow and foxes can smell and hear them.

Sign of artic fox digging for lemmings

Excavations in the snow made by arctic fox. Hardanger Vidda, Norway. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

A little while along the trail after the above disturbances, the fox had obviously caught something. There was digging again with even more disturbance this time. And there was blood on the snow. Not much, but it was there. The fox had also urinated and defecated in this area.

Evidence of an arctic fox killing a lemming

More disturbance, just off the ski trail - you can see faint ski tracks from before the storm - with blood being evidence that the fox had hunted successfully. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Close up view of site of lemming kill

A close-up view of the successful excavation. Spats of blood are clearly visible. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The fox's trail continued to coincide with our own route for a while further. As we contoured a rounded hill and the valley opened up on our right, the fox's track took a right-angled turn away from ours and headed out into the white expanse. In the foreground we could see that the fox had again been digging. After that we could see that the animal had continued to gallop across the snow, into the distance.

Arctic fox trail heading into the distant snowy landscape

Arctic fox trail heaing off into the white expanse of the Hardanger Vidda. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

It would have been great to follow our little imaginary friend to see what further adventures it had had. But we still had a good distance to cover, not least because of our stops to study the fox's activities. So we continued on our way.

It's on days like this, though, that you can truly say you've fully experienced the joy of tracks.

We Should be So Lucky: The Reality of Tracking

Following tracks takes us into the realm of tracking.

We don't usually get to follow such clear prints as the arctic fox over the Hardanger Vidda.

As trackers we often have very few, if any, clear prints at all.

As trackers, we don't follow footprints, we follow sign.

To recognise and follow sign, you must have a good understanding of The 6 Key Characteristics of Sign.

 

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Paul Kirtley is owner and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog as well as for various publications including Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine.

 

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

sean fagan

Hi Paul. Loved your tracking article!

I was tracking and observing black bears at a rural dump in Ontario with my brother (after opening hours of course and yes we were cautious and carried bear spray). It was the first time I went tracking with my brother. My brother was, to say the least, skeptical of tracking. Anyway, as we carefully approached the dump from downwind, I spotted from the corner of my eye, a beautiful light-grey wolf, leisurely trotting out of view into the nearby forest. I turned to my brother, who had not seen the wolf and siad, in excitement – “I just saw a wolf, it looked like a medium-sized wolf ”, to which he sarcastically replied “Yeah right, it was probably a dog or a coyote”. We approached the spot where I had seen the wolf, and there, on single patch of damp earth, was the unmistakable front print of a wolf – which was 4 inches long – medium-sized! (a length of 5-5½ inches is supposedly a large wolf track). Instant smug mode! It wasn’t the best tracking experience I ever had but it was certainly the smuggest tracking experience I ever had!. Boy oh boy did I enjoy my beer that night with my brother as I basked in silent glory before the camp fire (which by the way happens very, very rarely). Sibling rivalry – there is no end to it : )

p.s. HEALTH WARNING: I am, in no way, advocating approaching semi-tame black bears in dumps in Canada!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Sean,

That’s an interesting story (and I’m glad you put the PS in there 🙂 ).

It’s great that you found the wolf track.

It also serves to illustrate an important point about learning to identify tracks; something I recommend is that if you see an animal, even in the distance, take the time to locate and study the tracks. The next time you come across the tracks without having seen the animal, you will more likely identify them.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Pete

Great article Paul and after your lessons, I am certainly on the look out now, I am amazed at how many I see, and following them is always a story to be read.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Pete. Good to read that you are getting out and about and seeing even more tracks and sign than before. I hope to see you for some more in-depth training when you can make it 🙂

All the best,

Paul

Reply

wannabemountainman

Back in 74, I was walking in Yellowstone with my wife and a couple friends. My friend, Jim came upon a pile of bear poop, nearly stepping in it. He and the girls were having a good laugh, and gave me a puzzled look when I stuck my finger in it. I strongly suggested we turn back and retrace our steps, making noise in the process. The pile was quite warm, so I knew it was fresh and we weren’t that far behind our furry friend.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi and thanks for your comment – great story and a clear example of how awareness of animal sign can improve your outdoor safety. Thanks for sharing.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Toby

GREAT article and story, felt like inwas right there with you! I’m really looking forward to the signs article. That’s the more elusive bit of knowledge for me and probably more commonly used?
Toby

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Toby,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

Yes, much of the time we are not lucky enough to have clear prints every step of the way. Then we have to look for partial prints and more subtle sign still.

But once you know how to look, there is a lot of sign to be seen…

All the best,

Paul

Reply

hedgey

Outstanding that Paul, been tracking all weekend, Munt jack, Fallow, Roe, Fox, Water vole and a house cat that got me wondering one on earth it was, out of place print in the wood

Thanks Hedgey

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Mark.H

Phenomenal subject- tracking and/ or natural awareness really is the one area of Bushcraft which really speeds up the process of blending in to your natural environment.

Still very much a novice- but learning to ‘zone in’ and pay attention to detail helps me in every environment !

Thank you Paul

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark,

Absolutely – a student on a recent tracking course commented that he hadn’t realised until that point how important a skill tracking was to furthering his bushcraft skills overall.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

buy propecia generic online

Furrealz? That’s marvelously good to know.

Reply

Sam Wel

Hi Paul,

Another great article, and on my favorite subject. I agree with other readers that incorporating tracking skills into your bushcraft and outdoor activities gives another level of understanding and observation.
As a rural police officer I use tracking to better inform my investigation of crime scenes both in and outdoors. It amazes me how neglected it is as a skill in my line of work. When I tell colleagues and members of the public the story of an event and what I have deduced and observed I’m often met with cynicism and blank looks.
But I’m sticking to my guns and after ten years of practice on the job I’m writing a training package for other officers. Im really hoping to make a sucess of it, inspired, at least in part, by your love of sharing knowledge and experience.

Reply

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