There was a time in human history when tracking ability was the most important survival skill of all. Tracking was learned from a young age, then refined and perfected through years of on-the-spot training from older, more experienced trackers. In the days of Lewis and Clark, the most successful hunters were always the best trackers. If you couldn't track, you went without meat.
Today, we can learn animal tracking from books, courses, tracking schools or by being mentored by a veteran tracker. For a hunter, tracking isn't just about trying to follow an animal through the wilderness - it's an ongoing process of studying a creature's habits so you can better anticipate its next move.
Whatever your skill level, here are some simple tips that can help make you a better tracker:
1. Remember that the largest animals aren't always the easiest to track:
A black bear is bigger, heavier and clumsier than a deer, so you would think it would be easier to track, but this isn't necessarily so. A bear's track is spread over a much wider area than a deer's, so in the same soil it won't be as deep. In harder ground or leaf-covered areas, this can make bear tracks trickier to spot than the hoof prints of a mule deer.
2. Sometimes sitting still is the best tracking skill of all:
If you know an animal's habits, let it come to you - it's much less work. If you've determined that a creature has used the same trail two mornings in a row, there's a good chance it will be back on the third morning as well. Find an ideal spot to wait. Get comfortable and be as silent as you can. Stillness is your friend.
3. Be alert to any changes in wind direction:
Wildlife can be warned of your presence by sight, sound, or smell. While there are all sorts of products on the market to help disguise your distinctively human odour, don't rely on them completely. Keep the wind in your face as much as you can while you're stalking an animal, because they will almost certainly smell you long before you smell (or see) them. It's always a tricky balance: in order to keep out of sniffing distance you constantly have to move, which can lead to more noise.
4. Remember that not all animal sign is on the ground:
Tracking isn't just about footprints. Porcupines will leave copious droppings on rock ledges near their dens, deer will rub antlers against branches, rabbits will leave characteristic bite marks on twigs, and the passage of a bear may be more evident from displaced leaves at waist height than from any prints on the ground. Try not to be so focused on the space in front of your feet that you forget to occasionally look up and check for above-ground clues.
5. Bring a plastic ruler, a tracking guide book, a flashlight and a hat:
A tracking field guide will give you the dimensions of the more common animal tracks in your area, and will usually include information about habitats and gaits as well. A plastic ruler or short length of measuring tape will give you all kinds of useful information, including length and width of the print, length of stride and width of straddle.
When the sun is directly overhead it's much harder to see the detail in a track, but you can use the old 'hat and flashlight trick' to make the print more visible. Kneel down, hold the hat about eight inches above the track to block out the sun, and then shine your light from the side to illuminate the track. All the little ridges and depressions in the print will jump out at you in the artificial light. Hold the flashlight about an inch above the ground and point it sideways across the track, so the light hits the print at a low angle. If you don't carry a hat, use a tee shirt draped over your hand to shade the track.
6. Practice makes perfect:
Don't just track when you hunt. Get into the habit of looking for animal sign whenever you're moving through the woods. The more you look, the more you'll see!