Becoming an expert tracker requires close attention as it often is a rather complex process. Some basics were mentioned in the former Part I tracking article, but there are still a number of additional items to consider. Again, Lord Baden-Powell’s (BP), the father of modern Boy Scouting, writings will be referenced.* He was incredibly expert in many facets of outdoor campcraft skills.
English “tracking” is called “spooring” and in India it is called “pugging.” In days before modern transportation, when most rural travel was by horseback, tracking was much more pertinent to one’s daily life than currently. Nowadays, not many of us are impacted by stolen livestock or criminals making their getaway on foot or on horseback. War scouts rarely need to rely on tracking due to all the modern technologies under their command. Hunters, however, still find tracking useful as they carefully observe sign or “spoor” to eventually encounter their quarry.
In tracking humans (barefoot), measure the footprint of the target person, draw a line from the tip of the big toe to the tip of the little toe, then key on where the other toes come in regards to this line and record it in your field notebook. In my own family, I have noted that several of us have toes with different ratios to the big toe, making each one’s footprint rather unique. When you encounter a confluence of footprints, it only takes a few measurements to identify the one you are following.
To ascertain the pace of tracks being made, remember that a walking person puts the entire flat of the foot on the ground, with strides a little under 36 inches. A running person digs his toes more deeply into the ground as dirt is kicked up—strides more than 36 inches apart. A backwards walking person can be known as the strides are shorter, the toes more turned in, the heel marks dug deeper. Fast moving animals dig their toes more deeply into the dirt and their paces become longer, kicking up more dirt. When walking, a horse makes two pairs of prints. At a trot, the track is similar, but the stride is a little longer. Hind feet are often longer and narrower in female horses. The state of the soil or ground (mud, sand) and weather (snowing, raining, stiff winds) can greatly affect the value of the “spoor” over even a few minutes or few hours.
In some cases, age of tracks becomes quite important. If I am hunting mule deer and see an older track, I will likely look for another more recent track—I generally have little or no interest in a track made several days ago. I would much rather find a fresh track to follow with the possibility of a large deer jumping out in front of me than an old track where there is very little possibility of surprising its maker. Sharp edges of a newly made track in the sand become rounded the longer breezes turn the outlying edges to dry dust. In damp ground and under trees, tracks will appear much crisper and fresher as the sun likely will have only partially dried up the edges of the print. Prints with small cavities made by rain drops will have been made prior to recent rainfall. Older prints made in the snow may be partially obliterated by drifting or melting.
If you are following really fresh tracks, you must avoid following too closely, as the pursued animal will frequently look back to see if it is being followed. In such cases, the tracker makes a circle and comes back to where he would expect to see the tracks again. If he finds it, he continues to make circles until he finds no tracks. Now he knows he is ahead of his quarry, so he gradually circles nearer and nearer until he finds it, taking care not to get upwind of the animal within scenting distance. If tracking over hard ground or in grass, where sign is difficult to see, remember the direction of the last print and look in the same direction 30 or so yards in advance. Careful observations may show small displaced stones or soil scratchings or blades of bent grass in a line, one in advance of the other, giving the tracker the general overall direction of travel.
Expert tracking is fast becoming a lost art, especially among non-hunters. Likewise being less common is the art of astute observation. Practice the latter in the city, at home, or wherever you are and your skill and interest in tracking will greatly increase!
*Scouting for Boys–A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship Through Woodcraft. Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, World Brotherhood Edition. Copyright 1946 by the (British) Boy Scouts Association. Published by Boy Scouts of America.