Tracking with dust and other natural substances and using environmentally friendly substances to enhance sign, have been in existence since our ancestors used them for hunting prey. Indeed, recorded examples, ancient sketches, and cave paintings show tracking methods using powders and dust as far back as prehistoric times.
I will illustrate just a sample of methods of enhancing signs using powders and dusts and, more importantly, how identifying contaminants can assist the bushcrafter whilst tracking. I will also try and demonstrate just how easy the practice of using powders and dusts is.
My first encounter with the art of tracking with dust
I was introduced to powder and dust tracking in the 1970s by a tracking expert that showed me and a few fascinated others the basics. He taught us the importance of careful examination. He told us, “Always when hypothesizing sign or signs on any track, route, and trail…” and at this point, he paused and proceeded to maneuver carefully around some indistinct footprints and began to repeat a phrase that I will never forget.
I recall it being one of those magical moments in tracking that anyone who has ever done any decent time in the field will tell you when it all comes together. He continued ….“Every time a subject connects with a surface, contaminants are passed…they are not always instantly visible to you and me, but they can be enhanced, all you need to do is investigate.”
With this prophetic phrase my he then produced an old decaying fungus (see later) from his jacket pocket and continued, “Never be afraid to stop and never bluff, always know your stuff.” And with a well-practiced act, he proceeded to blow across the top of the decaying fungi, directing the fine inner spores right at the ridge surface of the visual ground sign.
As if appearing from nowhere, a detailed footwear impression developed in front of our shocked eyes. Amazingly the tiny particles rested on the ridges and crests, causing shadows or depressions as the spores connected with the outline.
I then distinctly remember him, whilst crouching over the ground sign, turning his head around, looking me straight in the eye and then winking and smiling and saying, “Pretty cool eh, now you have a go.”
This was it for me; this was the moment it all began. A defining moment in time had just occurred, and it was as if I had just been allowed into the inner secrets of some magic circle. I just had to have a go and to try it for myself, and from that day to these modern times, I am still doing it, and it still never ceases to amaze.
For the novice tracker reader, powders and dust most definitely can be adapted and used to assist in tracking subjects and not just on ground signs. It can be used or adapted to enhance natural sign such as cobwebs, fingerprints, animal traits, and all manner of other substances.
Since I was first introduced to tracking with dust, much has developed in the world of tracking with powders, and having experimented with various methods of forensic tracking. I have mastered most of the skills needed for contaminant treatment and recognition.
The details are too vast and detailed for this article, but I will share some of the basic powder and dusting techniques and translate them into easy learning steps that can be adopted by anyone.
Tracking with dust step by step
Before I begin to explain how to use the basics of powder and dusting techniques, it is important to understand the purpose and necessity of enhancing the sign.
To assist you, here is a quick ready reference, whenever you are tracking, and you are thinking about using powders and dust but are not sure, use this mnemonic to decide if it is appropriate.
Significant reason for improved sign enhancement.
Increased intelligence or information is resolved as a result of sign enhancement.
Gained or enhanced hypothesis as a consequence of using the powders and dust.
Necessity or reason for enhancing the sign.
The next step is to decide or define which powder or dust in the circumstances should be used. What is at hand, in your equipment or tracking kit or growing in your environment are all options. Most dry natural substances can be pounded or crushed into fine powders.
Using two hard surfaces such as boulders, knives, etc., or even crushing leaves into a container such as a tin can help produce finer powders or dusts. With powders or dusts, knowing where, when and what to apply is the key to success.
Some applications of powders will fail; however, without trying to enhance the sign, you will never know the outcome, and having some visual image or enhancement is better than none at all. Bear in mind the reason you are trying to enhance the sign, to improve or expand on the information already available.
Enhanced signs can, with practice, assist in identifying the subject’s height or weight, direction of travel, as well as being a calculation for speed of travel.
This is probably the most important step and a most useful tracking point to remember. When any two surfaces are connected or collide together, contaminants transfer from one surface to another, and although sometimes invisible (known as a latent contaminant), they can be enhanced.
Visible debris or other matter transferred from one surface to another (known as true contaminants) may not require enhancement but can still be improved upon. These contaminants may also be in various forms, liquid, scat, blood, or urine, and may be in solid particle form such as dust or debris or fine vegetation.
Insect trails or spiders webs, minute barely visible natural aspects of nature, can be brought to life and enhanced in some way that otherwise we would not have detected.
To make matters more complicated, these transferred contaminants are then divided into two further separate entities:
POSITIVE – Where the subject’s contaminants are transferred from one surface to another
NEGATIVE – Where the subject removes contaminants from a surface, which then leaves a sign or partial sign representing the subject’s presence.
But what has all this to do with me as a tracker, following sign in the wilderness?
Well, it’s simple, by detailed and further examination of any sign, you gain a clue to the subject’s behavior, and by adding all the clues together, the mystery becomes solved.
If, for example, an animal’s sign is suddenly halted at the foot of a tree and by using powders or dust on cobwebs or claw marks on the tree, it can be deduced that the animal ascended the tree, then the area of ascent and descent can be traced.
Step four – Assessing the origin of contaminants
Where a subject creates a sign, and a contaminant has been transferred, you need to assess the origin of the contaminant. If, for example, the transferred contaminant is wet or dry, then vital information may be gleaned from the contaminant source.
The best analogy being if a human subject walks from dry land into water, the water will adhere to his footwear and clothing, etc., and as he leaves the water back onto dry land, then the water will transfer from his footwear and clothing back onto the land. The more the water transference, the deeper the subject has been in the source. The deeper the subject has been in the source, the more agility or effort used whilst crossing the water. The connotations are endless.
Even though the most likely contaminant to transfer or adhere to another sign is from a wet or damp surface, it is also the most likely to evaporate and, therefore, one of the most difficult to record or interpret when dry. However, some wet but then dried contaminants can still be enhanced by powders and dust.
The best sign for any tracking unit to follow and assess are those changing contaminants. In the above picture, an injured deer has brushed against a corn stalk showing a positive wet origin sign. Its injury can be assessed by the color, texture, and density of the blood, but also the location of the transferred sign is indicative of its height and possible desperation as it brushes against other elements.
Another consideration is the actual surface on which the sign is created, which can be separated into two categories, porous and non-porous. As a general rule, the smoother the surface on which the sign was created, the greater the possibility of finer detail within the sign.
Using powders and dust on contaminant staining
As we know, the transference of wet contaminants can occur on most surfaces, and the ability to visualize the transference may become more difficult if the contaminant are exposed to the elements, time, or other debris. Exposed stains and contaminants can also be reduced in color, size, and texture.
Blood is a good example, left at the scene and exposed to the sun, dependent on the amount; blood will slowly dry out and can be indicative of the time the subject left the contaminant. Apart from obvious forensic applications (DNA extraction), adding luminal powders and derivatives to stains and blood smears can enhance or highlight the presence.
Step five – Use natural elements
There are many natural fine powders and dusts readily available and others that can be adapted to assist in sign enhancement. Using old army issue foot powder, crushed leaves and dry vegetation, cold crushed carbon from fire beds, flower seeds, powdered snow, and fine sands are all options.
Try wherever possible to choose a powder or dust that is in contrast to the color of the background of the sign to amplify the visual representation. Dark curry powder on green vegetation is a good example.
Probably the cheapest and most useful tracking powder is flour, which also allows a good contrast on darker materials. The fine constituents allow it to be carried and stored easily within a tracking rig or backpack. Flour can also be easily adapted for use in making castings or impressions.
Also, be aware that some thicker or denser powders will not travel through the air towards the sign, whereas others may be too light to distribute. In urban tracking, specialist forensically-enhanced luminescent or magnetized dusts are administered, usually applied with the use of fiberglass application brushes or syringes.
Step six – Simple application
The best method or technique for learning how to use powders and dust to enhance sign is practice. Repetitive trial and error on unrelated and unconnected sign should become the norm and soon allow you to find the best method and become adept.
Start by locating and securing the sign to be enhanced, ensure that you are facing downwind. If necessary, cover your eyes and gently blow the selected powder or dust across the surface of the sign, allowing it to gently settle and increase the ridges and crests.
Avoid blowing too much powder or dust all at once. Once you have blown the powder, move your position in relation to the sun or light and alter your visual distance by kneeling or lying prone, etc., to increase your vision of the enhanced sign.
Other methods of delivery include the use of a small plastic syringe to initially suck up the fine powders and then blow them across the sign. The inclusion of any syringe is a must in every survival pack as the uses are endless.
They also double up as water retracting devices from a fluid-filled sign or difficult locations and can be used to insert fluids into smaller areas. A good tip when using a syringe is to gently blow at the same time as the tube is depressed.
Other easy methods include the most useful and inexpensive of tracking equipment, the surgical rubber, or cheap plastic glove. This is another very useful survival and tracking tool, and every kit should contain many pairs.
Simply partially inflate or make larger the glove and then fill it with your selected fine powder. Tie a knot in the open end, trapping the air towards the enclosed fingers. Cut a small hole in the finger end and gently squeeze the air through the glove and into and out of the small cut hole and across the sign.
One classic tracking technique taught by some tracking schools is the use of the puffball fungi. The puffball or Lycoperdon fungi is non-poisonous, easily recognizable, and is from the division of the Basidiomycota.
It has a distinguishing feature in that when the fungi matures it has a dry brown soft outer skin which, if squeezed, emits millions of tiny spores, and the spores can be blown over sign.
The spores have been traditionally added to cobwebs for cleaning and covering wounds. Lay the cobweb on the wound first, and then squeeze the contents of the puffball fungi onto the wound. Layered cobwebs are the best option.
Concluding on tracking with dust
So, there you have it, a brief insight into tracking with dust and using powders when enhancing contaminant sign. These tracking powders are known by different names in different regions of the world, but essentially, all have the same effect.
The next time you are out foraging and bushcrafting, and you come across sign that needs enhancement, consider using a natural powder or dust and remember the simple steps to sign enhancement.