Dirt Time--Learning Practical Tracking Techniques, by James K. in Alaska
By James Wesley, Rawles on April 4, 2010 7:46 PM
These are the opening words from the book The Tracker by Tom Brown, Jr. & William Jon Watkins: “The first track is the end of a string. At the far end, a being is moving; a mystery, dropping a hint about itself every so many feet, telling you more about itself until you can almost see it, even before you come to it. The mystery reveals itself slowly, track by track, giving its genealogy early to coax you in. Further on, it will tell you the intimate details of its life and work, until you know the maker of the track like a lifelong friend.”
Here is a coyote track walking inside an old wolf track in deep snow. We followed this for several hundred feet across a field not far from our house.
Ever since childhood I’ve been fascinated by those who could see history in the dirt. The ground was like the page of a book unraveling many mysteries for those who took the time to read it. In this essay lies the groundwork, the basics to get anyone started in a fascinating skill that has many practical applications. One of the most valuable is being able to back track your steps when you find yourself disoriented or wanting to return to camp in wilderness.
In a TEOTWAWKI scenario being able to track can be a valuable tool for being aware of what is happening around your area. Identifying game and knowing when someone has been in your neck of the woods will give you an awareness advantage.
Learning to track animals requires a lot of skill but it is a very rewarding endeavor to undertake. Tracking people is a good way to start your skill and far easier.
Dirt time is a phrase trackers use to describe time spent interpreting tracks. Like anything else the more dirt time you spend the more your skills and abilities will blossom.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I lived in Oregon and was part of the Search and Rescue (SAR) group there they used to hold seminars all over the state (and Washington) in various terrains. These exercises were with a certain man tracker named Joel Harding. Joel honed his skills over many years working border patrol on the US/Mexican border down around El Cajon, California. He was a master tracker. We would listen to him speak of skills learned over the years, look at slide shows of various sets of tracks each evening and spend most of the days tracking each other under his guidance.
A good way to begin is to find an undisturbed (undisturbed by recent human foot traffic) area and determine a course- say 150’ out to some prominent marker: a tree, rock, etc. Now before you start, tear up the ground and make a nice 2’-3’ diameter mound of loose soil. Take the person to be tracked and have them carefully place their feet & full weight into this mound- producing a clear set of tracks. Next have them walk in their normal pace out to the marker tree and then circle around coming back a different way.
It doesn’t hurt to take some field notes and sketch these first boot or shoe footprints in the mound. Look for any distinguishing features like tread, heel & toe shape, any wear. Now it’s time for your tracking stick.
My son Kody holding a tracking stick.
Take a ~1” thick relatively straight stick about 4’-5’ long and with your knife smooth it out. Find a natural stride area where the person being tracked is walking along and lay the stick down so the tip of the stick is on the heel of the left foot print (it really matters not right or left- but to match my photos for those who can see them- left.).
Here you have a right then left foot stride with the tracking stick laid out for measurement. The knife point is where you pivot the stick to find the next track which will lie right off the tip of the stick- in this case the left foot. The stick has two marked measurements: the length of the foot as well as the stride between the prints.
Now look behind this left foot print and mark on your stick where the right toe tip falls. This is the stride distance (tip of stick to right toe tip). You can cut a ring here on your stick, use a rubber band or marker. By pivoting the stick at this toe point while holding it over the last found track you can get a good idea where to look for sign on the next track. Now that you have the stride, next place a mark at the heel of this same right foot print. This marks the length of the foot.
As you track you will be able to tell left from right. You can mark these as you go along if you like. Knowing this you can anticipate and lay your stick down; sweeping it in such a way as to know almost precisely where the next foot will fall. In this way you can work on finding each track, marking them left or right as you go if you like. But don’t disturb the ground too much as occasionally you may have to backtrack. You will rarely find a whole print unless you have ideal conditions (like my photos). But there will always be sign for those who can see it.
It is important when first learning to find sign on every track. Pay attention to detail, forget about how long it takes. Get your face to the ground and visually check different angles. You will start to see many signs: dirt will sometimes be transferred from one area to another. Compression will cause the dirt around the track to lift, push out and crack, sometimes even explode out in compression releases. Scuff marks, partial tracks, pebbles pressed into the ground. Vegetation that is crushed, broke, bent or bruised. Flattened areas, disturbed ground. Dew, rain, dust or pollen coatings on the ground and on plants can be disturbed as the person walks by. As you acquire more dirt time many types of sign will reveal themselves.
A good way to learn what effect time has on a track and how a track ages is to find an ideal tracking area near your home and place a single footprint there. Now every day for a week or longer place another single track right alongside the last one. Keep notes on what the weather is doing. By comparing the fresh track to the older ones you can see the effect of wind, rain and temperature fluxes.
Rain is the great eraser in tracking. Many soils will give up anything obvious in the track with a heavy rain. In snow it is also important to know that with age tracks will “melt” out, that is increase in size as they decrease in detail. Old tracks on snow can sometimes fool even a seasoned tracker.
It can be easy- or very tedious to find the succession of tracks. Here are some tricks of the trade:
Work in groups of three. The point man is out front looking down intently and working his stick to find each track. The two flanks stay back a few paces so as not to disturb the ground ahead. The flanks look all around and out ahead for clues- offering them to the point man. Every 20 minutes or so rotate the point man with a flanker. This relieves tension on the point position and allows everyone experience in the point position.
Keep the track between you and the falling sunlight. This will yield the most shadow relief and contrast in the track- almost always making it easier to see. In flat light you will notice a big difference when the sun is on the other side of the tracks your looking at. A small mirror (or flashlight in dim light) will allow you to cast flat light (parallel to the ground) from a different direction.
Here is a fresh set of wolf tracks on fresh snow, the knife is 14” overall length with a 9” blade.
Don’t be in a hurry at first- that will come later. Some skilled trackers can follow their track while running, riding on the hood of a vehicle (the Masai tracker/guides are known for this) or even from a helicopter. When starting out pay a lot of attention to detail. Work slow and absorb everything the point man sees even if your in a flank position. Look at the terrain ahead and mentally put yourself in their shoes- which way would they most likely go?
Try placing your head close to the ground. This will give you a different perspective and help you see fine detail. By laying your eyes close to the ground and your vision parallel with the ground you can see things you’ll never see standing up.
Feel the tracks lightly with your fingertips. Sometimes under the debris or vegetation you can feel the heel strike or the edge of the compression. Loose soil under the surface vegetation can hold a compression of a track that you won’t see through the debris but you can feel.
A large sand box or area of loose soil near your home is a wonderful tool for studying tracks. You can see the effects of time and weather, try different techniques in laying out your tracks, and erase them easily to start over. Damp sand will offer an amazing amount of detail.
Snow, sand and soft dirt are usually easy. Grass leaves a lot of sign but one must learn through “dirt time” how to read it. Hard rocky ground will require a lot more skill. But there is always a track there- even over bare rock. Wind, sun, rain and changing temperatures will always be working over the rock. It will have some kind of film on it, grains of sand, dust and the rock itself. Wind will deposit dirt, pollen and a host of other particles. When something walks over that rock it will disturb this film and leave sign. Let me illustrate this with a story of something that happened to Joel on one of our SAR tracking seminars:
It was in the early 1980s during a tracking seminar near Walla Walla, Washington. An early Saturday morn and in a small nearby town there had been a jewelry store broken into. As Joel was conducting a seminar just outside this town and as all the law enforcement officials were well aware of his skills they came in the wee hours of the morning and got him and took him to the crime scene. There were footprints across the wet grass outside the store- through the early morning dew. Then they went down a sidewalk- transferring wet dew from the grass onto the cement. But then the tracks faded out for the officers- but not for Joel. With a flashlight in the early morning light he kept right on target, now going from the sidewalk to right down the street. About five blocks from the store, Joel and two armed officers banged on the door of a house. The man was so shocked when he came to the door in his underwear all he could say was “How did you know it was me?”
Start with the easy stuff and work your way into the more difficult. It is actually very entertaining, addicting at times. I think this is because people just don’t realize how much is there until they take the time to read the sign. Then this whole universe of knowledge starts opening up. The more dirt time, the easier it gets. And the more fun!
Just familiarizing yourself with the local fauna tracks of your area can be very rewarding. River, sea and lake shores often offer good areas to see clear animal tracks. Fall and Winter and Spring seasons in northern latitudes offer snow as a great tracking medium. Fresh snow is the perfect way to see new tracks and with clean, crisp detail. A camera can record great sign that you can share with others for years to come.
As a final note there are many good animal track books out there, and a few good human track books. I’ve listed a few below. Tom Brown Jr., in my opinion has some of the best ways to hone your tracking skills for animals. He has a whole series of field guides all of which have sound advice.
But as a Christian I must caution you to be aware of the [nativist] spirituality espoused in Tom’s books. There are good and evil spirits out there, and the only way you can discern the difference is through God’s Word (the Holy Bible), the saving Grace of Jesus Christ and His completed work on the cross. Only through a repentant heart and belief in Christ will the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the word of God keep you safe from the evil spirits that often come in the deceiving guise of "spiritual light".
Griz with hand print. Thumb to little finger is about 7”. We were hunting moose at the time and this bear followed our tracks for several hundred yards. On returning to camp and finding these tracks I was glad we brought a .45-70 along with our .308.
Now get your nose to the dirt and may your tracking be rewarding! - James K. in Alaska
References and Recommended Reading
Tom Brown’s School of Tracking web site.
Tracking: A Blueprint for Learning How by Jack Kearney, 1978, H. Paul Publishing Company
The Tracker by Tom Brown Jr. & William Jon Watkins, 1978, Prentice Hall Inc.
Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking by Tom Brown Jr., 1983, Berkley Books
Tom Brown's Science and Art of Tracking by Tom Brown Jr., 1999, Berkley Books
Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks: Third Edition by Olaus J. Murie, 1954 Houghton Mifflin Company
Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior by Donald W. Stokes, 1986, Little, Brown and Company
The SAS Guide to Tracking, New and Revised by Bob Carss, 2000, The Lyons Press
Tracking--Signs of Man, Signs of Hope: A Systematic Approach to the Art and Science of Tracking Humans by David Diaz, 2005, The Lyons Press
Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign by Paul Rezendes, 1999, Collins Reference