Living in a world filled with technology can make some ancient skills appear like a useless waste of time.
The mere fact that we need to put all of ourselves into learning and mastering them could discourage those who believe that the devices that fill stores are enough to substitute for skills instantaneously.
I am certainly not a misoneist, I just believe in the good, old ways. They actually worked for ages.
In recent years we assisted a birth (or rebirth) of schools and associations which promote a true comeback of such skills. They teach friction fire, how to make primitive weapons, how to make a shelter out of only natural materials, land navigation and… how to track animals.
Why Track Animals?
Learning how to identify and follow animal tracks can provide you several benefits in an emergency scenario.
Coming across fresh animal tracks allows you to determine the proximity of a river to get water to filter and purify and is also a remarkable aid to avoid being in a predator’s territory when you need to move your shelter, just to give some examples.
Additionally, it is useful to know the habits of animals (bedding and feeding areas, for example) in order to understand the more suitable places to set traps or to start any hunting activities for small game.
How Animal Tracking is Used
Animal tracking consist of (1) detecting, (2) reading, and (3) following animal tracks.
It is pretty obvious how ancient this skill is, if we think about primitive hunters, but these days, this ability is mostly learned and applied in wildlife conservation, anti-poaching, and hunting.
Long-time hunters, in fact, have always relied on their ability to find and to follow tracks, with or without the aid of hound dogs. German hunters, for example, have a long and solid tradition of tracking.
Being able to distinguish one species from another, and—basically—to know where to look, is far from an easy skill that one can pick up in a day or two. It takes years to develop, even if you only want to track in one specific environment.
How to Track: Basic Skills & Tools of the Trade
The starting point of animal tracking is the deep knowledge not only of the local fauna, but also the flora. They are intrinsically related to the area you are in and its morphology.
This art consists of four phases:
The “tools of the trade” are easily gotten and are actually pretty useful when you begin detecting tracks. They include:
- a measuring device, like a ruler
- a flashlight (to enhance details of tracks, especially in shady areas, in areas with thick vegetation or at night)
- tweezers (in order to remove any debris on the tracks)
- note paper
- pen and pencil
Your expertise in animal tracking is determined by how many hours you spend in the field with different soils, vegetation, and weather conditions as well as different personal mental and physical conditions. Never underestimate your hours of practice.
Being a good tracker requires a lot of patience, especially when you are tracking small game.
When we track, we use all of our senses except taste. Even if our sight has the biggest task, the sense of smelling and hearing are important too. You track by hearing, seeing, and smelling every detail around you.
Let’s say you hear a sudden noise: you put yourself on alert. Your brain starts to make deductions about the source and the maker of the noise. Animals do the very same, but their sense of hearing is sharper than ours.
Now let’s say you detect a distinctive wild animal’s smell. You know it doesn’t belong to any domestic dog. You take a few steps and run across the droppings of a roe deer. Then you know your deduction was correct.
Touch is another important sense. If you gently touch the soil imprinted by the transit of an animal, you can tell that the soil has been altered from its “natural state,” and that portion of ground is, for example, no longer covered by debris (leaves, twigs, etc.). The terrain will appear darker.
The passage of different subjects (animals, humans, or even vehicles) can be easily recognized as a distinctive variation from the natural state of an environment. This is a dogma in animal and man tracking, and the key to success.
As such, tracks and signs can be considered and treated as “disturbances”—a common word in tracking terminology.
The disturbances can present themselves in a wide range of forms. Never forget a crucial point: they depend on the terrain they have been left on. They can appear as:
- compressions (on dry leaves)
- flattening or bending (on a grassy field)
- a transfer (of material, such as mud, which has been stuck beneath hooves or claws, for example)
- dislodged pebbles or rocks
- broken, torn, or bent vegetation
- pieces left behind like droppings, hair, sweat, food remains, or blood
How to Start
“Track traps” are areas in which it is most likely to spot tracks. These are mostly sandy, snowy or muddy areas. Sticking to river beds can be a valuable way to locate signs of animal activity.
It is not only important where to look but also how to look.
The first thing we should do is to scrupulously assess the whole area, evaluating any alteration of the natural state: a broken twig, tracks compressed on the ground—anything that looks out of place. Being methodical and inquisitive will pave the way to being a good tracker.
Keep in mind that while men are moved by a specific purpose, animals behave by instinct. The direction of travel of animals follows specific smells and habits, and it may be extremely winding.
As mentioned before, experience is the main thing. By that I mean that you simply need to gain a lot of experience through so-called “time on the ground.” Watching YouTube videos cannot make you a tracker. You could also be paired with an experienced tracker who can correct your mistakes and help you improve on your personal path into this art.
You will be amazed by the successes you will achieve in a short time if you dedicate yourself to animal tracking with humility and passion.