Learning how to track animals is a vital part of living in the wilderness. After all, if you don’t know where they are, how can you find them and hunt them down? This skill can be difficult to learn—as it requires looking at all the small changes in the environment that were brought about by animal life as they move through a given area—but it’s very much worth it.
So, what are the basics of tracking? Well, one general thing to keep in mind is that you need to be quiet. As you’re moving about, you don’t want to draw the animals’ attention to you; they’ll run off, and alert the others in their groups or herds.
Now, that being said, when you’re out tracking animals, you’re looking, more specifically, for tracks and sign. This category includes signs that animals have passed through an area recently—signs like footprints, fur, feathers, and fragments of bone. The word “tracks” refers to footprints as well as tail prints. Although sometimes they’re easily noticeable, much of the time tracks can be difficult to see, because they’re often just compressions left in debris. You can see tracks more easily if you’re looking at sand, snow and mud that has silt in it. When they’re clear, you can identify what kind of animal made them, based on the shape, and how fast they were going, judging by the distance between individual footprints. When tracks come together in this way, it’s known as a trail.
To spot tracks that are hard to see, look for those areas where vegetation is broken or has been cleared away. Soil that’s been packed down can be another indicator that an animal has passed through the area recently. Trails below the surface—aka “tunnels”—are also a possibility; these can be made in snow, soil or underneath leafy debris. The diameter of a given tunnel can help you identify the animal that made it. For example, piles of soil, which have been taken out from below the surface are molehills. In contrast, beavers dig tunnels that have open tops.
In addition to the tracks are signs, which refer to other clues that an animal has passed through recently. Look out for scat (feces) or feathers. Further signs are marks left by scratching or biting; these can be seen on trees, on leaves, and on plants. You might also see trees with the bark missing, or with rub marks which were made with antlers or teeth. Keep an eye out for bones as well; they may be left over from where an animal was eating. Similarly, some birds, such as owls, cough out pellets in which you can see animal remains—fur, feathers, pieces of bone, etc.
A related skill is trailing, in which you’re following a single animal throughout an area. In order to trail an animal, you must put together the clues you’ve learned through tracks and sign. However, it might be safer—and more productive—if instead you stay within one area, watching out for the animals that come there. In such case, keep an eye out the tracks and sign we’ve talked about, as well as biome, lairs and nests, ground cover, vegetation, and water sources.
Tracking animals is no easy skill, but it’s certainly one of the more valuable ones. Thanks to this ability, you’ll be a great hunter—you’ll know how to find and kill many species of animals in a wide variety of environments. For, here, the next step is obvious: get yourself out there and start hunting. Who knows what you’ll find?