Beau Harger is an avid outdoorsman that holds a level 3 track and sign certification. He also teaches survival courses and is training to be a master tracker through ASCA. But his greatest accomplishment was bringing WAZOO’s tracking bandana to life. He sat down with Dustin and Nick to tell us everything that a novice tracker needs to know to get started.
What are animal tracks?
Animals make impressions on the ground when they walk or run around which can create footprints (or tracks). Trackers call these impressions registers since they register the animals activity in that area. Tracks provide a wealth of information that can help determine not only the species that made it, but also their behavior and possibly their age and sex.
Even though animal tracks are only left in substrate that’s soft enough to register, Beau tells us that successful trackers remember that it’s “skill over substrate.” In other words, tracks don’t tell you the truth at first glance--you have to have a critical mindset to understand the story that’s been left behind.
The morphology of animal tracks (their features) can vary whether you’re dealing with a bird or mammal, but tracks will register claws, toe pads, palm pads, and/or heel pads. But when tracking, always keep your mind open and remember that ungulates (like deer and boar) have hoofs.
Where do we find Animal tracks?
The best places to find animal tracks are environments where the ground has lots of definition. Some of the best places to find tracks are:
- Under bridges
- On river banks
- On beaches
- Grass and gravel can “trap tracks”
- Muddy ground
It’s also important to consider how animals behave to find their tracks. For example, Beau tells us that in desert environments it’s a good idea to check near vegetation since a lot of animals seek shelter from the heat.
Why Should You Learn Tracking?
It’s commonly thought that tracking skills are only necessary for hunters and people that need to follow or catch a creature, but Beau and Dustin agree that this isn't true.
One of the best things about tracking is that it boosts perception abilities. Being a successful tracker requires the ability to carefully gather and reasonably interpret evidence, and these skills are helpful in the modern world since they level-up critical thinking abilities. Beau says that “tracking takes humility, patience, and curiosity,” and uping these traits will definitely enhance your ability to appreciate nature.
Knowing how to track animals is crucial for locating them since their tracks tell stories written on the ground. But you don’t have to locate the animals themselves to read their stories--you just have to know the language of tracking. Therefore, anyone that appreciates wildlife will benefit from solid tracking skills.
Primary Perception vs Secondary Perception
Tracking is like being a detective. It requires the ability to not only gather solid evidence, but also the ability to interpret it properly. You must approach the art of tracking with an objective mindset, therefore it’s important to know how to distinguish between primary perception and secondary perception.
Tracks are objective data registered on the ground, so analyzing them requires an objective approach. Primary perception is a critical mindset that does not accept things without reasonable evidence, and it’s crucial for successful tracking.
On the other hand, secondary perception is subjective. It’s the bias that echoes fear and causes a house cat to be misread as a mountain lion, for example. When we use secondary perception, we’re not using a reasonable interpretation of evidence to arrive at conclusions.
Beau tells us that, “we want to push the biases out of the way and use our primary perception to just analyze what’s on the ground.” Again, this skill goes a long way in both wilderness and the modern world since being a good tracker means that you’re a critical thinker, and critical thinkers are good at solving all sorts of problems.
Questions to Ask When Tracking
Any detective will tell you that asking questions is crucial for gathering evidence, and this practice is shared by trackers. Beau tells us that “one characteristic doesn't tell you what animal it is,” so it’s important to ask lots of questions to gather as much evidence as possible.
There are lots of things to ask when you find tracks, but keep these questions in mind:
- Is the track symmetrical?
- How many toes are there?
- What is the shape of the toes?
- Can you see nails? (Are they blunt or fine?)
- What is the shape of the paw pad?
- Is there a heel?
- Did any hair register?
- What is the overall shape of the track?
- What is the shape of the negative space?
It’s also important to ask questions about the animals behavior. Some things to consider are:
- Where does this animal sleep?
- What does it eat?
- Where is it now?
- What kind of interactions does it have?
Animal Track #1: Traits of a Track
Beau ran us through his process of reading a track (pictured below).
The first thing he noticed is that the track is not symmetrical and that minor claws registered from tear-drop shaped toes. There are four toe pads and the size of the paw pad is pretty large in relation to the rest of the track. Also note the “C” shape of the negative space and the absence of a heel pad.
So now that we have seven solid pieces of evidence it’s time to draw a conclusion, and these traits tell us that this track belongs to the nimble bobcat. Beau tells us that the big thing for cats is a trapezoid shaped paw pad that is bi-lobed at top and trilobed at the bottom. Also look for the subtle register of their retracted claws.
Animal Track #2: Pop-Quiz
So now that you know the process of reading a track, look at the picture below and gather some evidence to hone your skills. Remember--tracking is all about asking questions AND THEN making a determination.
Questions to ask about this track:
- Is it symmetrical?
- Can we see any claws?
- How many toes registered?
- What is the shape of the paw pad?
- How would you describe the shape of the negative space?
- How would you describe the overall shape of the track?
- Do you see any hair?
Answers: This track is symmetrical and there are fine claws. There are four toes, the paw pad is triangle-shaped, and the negative space forms an “X.” No hair registered on this oval shaped track.
So how did you do? If your observations match the ones above, then congratulations! You have successfully tracked the cunning coyote. Beau tells us that distinguishing the difference between a coyote and a dog can be difficult, but a tell-tale sign is the former’s more aerodynamic shaped track.
Be sure to check out the entire SKILLS video since Beau goes over three more tracks with Dustin and Nick.
Resources to Learn About Tracking
Beau tells us that the absolute best book on tracking is Mammal Tracks and Signs by Mark Elbroch. His runner up choice is Animal Tracks and Scat of California, but he makes it clear that it’s contents are useful in every state--and it also has info for birds.
As for online resources, beau highly recommends the John Evor Wildlife Tracking App and also these sites:
It’s important to remember that wildlife tracking is an objective, process-oriented skill. It’s too easy to jump the gun and assume that you’ve got all the evidence you need to make a determination, so remember to be patient and speculative. Learning how to track makes trips into nature more vivid since it’s a skill that lets you read the stories that animals left behind. So now that you now the basics of tracking, pick up a guide, download an app, and have fun!
About the Author: Kyle Howington is a Colorado native that has been exploring the state's wild areas for many years. He writes about outdoor activities and skills when he's not wandering around with his djembe.