Tracking Techniques Learned From Our Ancestors

Tracking Techniques Learned From Our AncestorsOur forefathers used many skills to survive. Tracking or “reading sign” is one of the ancient skills they left us. Some of their tracking techniques and knowledge can be found today in many army field manuals. Even though today we rely on modern technology for tracking and surveillance, their experience will become useful when technology fails.  

Tracking requires a keen sense of observation. It involves looking for deviation in the way things are supposed to look in their natural environment. If you spot something that seems out of place, you should stop and examine it further. This is how tracking starts and the next step would be to figure out what occurred in that particular location.

Many of the tracking skills we know today were passed on to the pioneers by the Native Americans and it is well known that the U.S. Army made good use of their skills. Today, very little is known about these brave men who participated during times of war.

Most of the information we have depicts the contribution of Native Americans to the WWII effort. In recent years, due to the movies made by Hollywood, the Navajo Code Talkers received a great deal of attention. It started a research that continues to provide more and more information about the role played by the Native Americans during the conflicts involving the U.S. Army.

Tracking is one of the ancient skills they used to find and hunt the animals that would help them survive through harsh times. To learn more about their tracking techniques one should start with the basics: the spoor – the trace by which the progress of someone or something may be followed. Not all signs and marks are caused by humans or animals. One should look for spoor that is unlikely to be caused by nature.

There are two basic kinds of spoor that every tracker should look for: ground spoor and aerial spoor. As the name implies, the ground spoor can be defined by any sign found on the ground. Footprints, burn marks, vehicle tracks, blood stains, overturned soil or rocks, all these are examples that would indicate the presence of a ground spoor. Aerial spoor can be defined by any sign that is above ground. Things such as broken bush and trampled vegetation, blood stains on foliage are all excellent examples.

To go even further, we can classify spoor as confirmed and unconfirmed. Finding an actual footprint or vehicle tracks is a confirmed spoor. Broken cobwebs or other types of ground spoor are considered unconfirmed. Whenever possible, it is logical to start tracking with confirmed spoor and analyze it further to distinguish it from different prints.

Once you can isolate a trace from the environment around it, you will be able to study it and find out more about the person or animal you are tracking. When tracking people, it is easier to spot tracks on trails and you should look for footprints in areas where it’s easiest to step.

Tracking someone or something is easier in soft, damp soil, in sand and heavy dust. Snow can be tricky and it can hurt your tracking efforts. While it is easy to track signs after a heavy snow, snowfall can cover up the tracks or melting snow would almost erase all footprints.

The pioneers used to track into the sun because shadows would be cast into indentations on the ground. You should always track with your head slightly up looking 10-20 feet ahead of you. If you are tracking away from the sun, look back over your shoulder and down at the spot to create a shadow and use it to your advantage.

You should avoid walking on spoor. Everyone that accompanies you should be instructed to do the same. Move from track to track to confirm spore and when you lose trail, you should go back to the last confirmed spoor and walk in concentric circles until you find a new spoor.

If you manage to find a spoor, you should carefully examine it to determine the following:

  1. The Number of people or animals you are tracking
  2. The Direction of travel
  3. The Age of the spoor
  4. The Type of the spoor

Tracking techniques to establish the NDAT (number, direction, age and type):

The simplest method to track the number takes the length of average stride and measure on ground between two points. Draw 2 lines across the tracks perpendicular to the direction of travel. Now you have to count the number of footprints between the two lines. It will provide you a reasonably accurate number. The number of people or animals being tracked can also be determined by difference in footprints, size, tread pattern and other variations (different types of shoes will leave different kinds of shoeprints).

Lifestraw dealThe direction of travel and the age of spoor can be determined by a variety of factors. The terrain and the weather will impact your tracking efforts. You should have a map of the area where you concentrate your tracking efforts and study the terrain.

Based on the animals or people you are tracking, it would provide you with some useful pointers regarding the direction your “prey” is most likely to follow. Knowing the history of snow, wind and rain in recent days will increase or decrease your tracking chances.

Some of the basics factors that can be learned by anyone include displacement, staining, littering and weathering.

Analyzing footprints when tracking people will tell a lot and in time, you will become more experienced at tracking people. For example, men weigh more than women and have larger feet. Women and children have a smaller stride and their footprints will not be as deep. If you notice deep toe marks in smaller spaced steps, this indicates a heavier load being carried.

Deep toeprints in wide steps means someone was running. If a person walks in someone else’s track to conceal the number of people in their group, they will leave deeper impressions and have less distinct edges. Drag marks are signs that indicated injured or wounded.

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Water and sunlight will help you determine the age of the spoor. Sunlight will cause crumbling of the dirt ridge which outlines a footprint in moist soil and it takes almost 1 hour for this to happen. If it rains, the edges of a footprint will be rounded or leveled. When walking through wet areas, a muddied footprint will retain water for 1 hour.

The wind factor can also cause problems when tracking and it will cover the footprints with leaves and other small debris. Time is of the essence when it comes to tracking techniques and as it passes, the footprint outlines will become less distinct and you will lose the trail of the people or animals you are tracking.

Vegetation plays an important role when tracking people or animal and many tracking techniques concentrate on studying the foliage to spot the trail. Bent blades of grass show direction, but you have to keep in mind that it springs back. Walking on fresh grass will leave slightly damp footprints created by the plant’s juices.

Grass blades will remain green for about a day after being broken. However, it is not a guarantee and hot air and intense sunlight will shorten this time drastically. Dew on the ground will create a darkened trail and it will be maintained for a few hours. Overturned leaves will have a darker underside and scuffed foliage and bark will display a lighter color. The pulp of freshly broken twigs will turn brown within 10 hours.

When it comes to improving your tracking techniques, you can also look for overturned rooks because they are clear signs of ground spoor. Some kids don’t pay attention when walking and they will hit rocks with their shoes, leaving some exposed. The same thing can happen when traveling through rough terrain with specific vehicles.

The overturned rocks will leave a darker underside and some may have moss and lichen growths on it. Since rocks retain moisture, it takes a few days for overturned rocks to dry in the direct sun.  Mud can also indicate where the party came from and we carry it from one place to another without noticing. Water will always be muddied downstream from fording sites.

Stains will also provide clear signs that will help you improve your tracking techniques. Look for stains on leaves and underbrush as well as the ground. For example, when it comes to blood stains, the height of blood off the ground and the color of the blood may indicate location of the wound.

The amount of blood can also indicate the severity of the wound. Here is what I’ve learned about blood stains when tracking wounded prey. Bright red blood with air bubbles often emitted in a spray indicates a fatal lung hit. Dark red blood usually indicates a liver hit while small spots of bright red blood could come from a minor or non-lethal muscle hit.

Peeing on tree trunks and rocks is also a rookie mistake and it can take a few hours for the stain to dry. It can also indicate the number and gender of the people in the party.

Another thing that people tend to forget about when traveling is that litter can give away their position and will make it easier for trackers to get on their trail. Sunlight and moisture will affect litter and can become a great clue for experienced trackers. For example, certain plastic wraps will be discolored in two or 3 days while metal cans will develop rust spots in less than 24 hours in some geographic regions.

Related article: Survival sanitation and how to deal with it

Animals and insects are essential factors for many tracking techniques and they will give away your position just as quickly. When traveling through the wilderness, most animals will flee areas where man goes. You can note their direction to discover the trail of the party you are tracking. Since most animals are nocturnal, the animal tracks superimposed on party’s footprints indicate that spoor was made during or before nightfall. Spoor over animal tracks indicated that spoor was made after sunrise.

The Native Americans used to accurately establish the age of the spoor by observing spider webs. If a spider web is broken, it will take 1 hour for the spider to repair its web. If you are an experienced hunter, you should know by now that animals leave a variety of signs that would help you track them easily.

Chewed or bruised vegetation, droppings, scratches on tree bark, hair on branches or in bark, rubbings on trees,  nests, all these are signs that may not be obvious at first for the novice hunter, but in time, with a little practice, you will learn how to see them.

The Lost Ways of living

If you follow the tracking techniques listed above, chances are you will reach a campsite and that is the mother lode when it comes to tracking. A campsite can reveal a great deal and it can determine your next actions when tracking a party. For example, the way the fire is laid can indicate the experience of the person who made it. It can show if the person was trying to conceal presence. The campfire’s heat can determine the time window between you and the people you are tracking.

Marks on the ground will indicate the presence of equipment and weapons because not everyone will hang out their gear to leave fewer trails.  It can also show the number in party. Discarded items can reveal even the gender of the people in party (tampon wraps, for example, will indicate the presence of a woman).

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Learning to track requires practice and reading about these tracking techniques won’t make you an experienced tracker. If you want to learn about tracking you have two options: you can join a survival school that teaches tracking techniques or you start practicing tracking on your own.

Here are just a few ideas on how to do it: get members of your party involved into your learning experience and make them go in different directions and then try to find them, join hunting parties that have experienced hunters and learn by observing them, and my favorite, check out camping sites when you’re out hiking. You will be amazed at what you can learn and observe if you try this. The tracking techniques listed in this article are part of the legacy left by our forefathers and we should not forget them.

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3 thoughts on “Tracking Techniques Learned From Our Ancestors”

  1. Dan,
    Great article and a terrific introduction to the art and science or tracking. I’ve spent quite a few years tracking humans in the desert and mountains of the Southwest. It is no understatement when you say that it takes time and a lot of practice to develop the skills, but it is an activity that is both personally rewarding and potentially life-saving. Ground sign, High sign and Night sign are vital components of effective tracking and they require patience, concentration and (usually) a significant improvement in observational skills for most people.

    For folks that are interested in developing these skills, I would also suggest that they seek out an experienced member of a Search and Rescue team. In my state, all SAR units receive training on a recurring basis.
    Well done!

  2. You did not mention fences ,crossing is a good spot for sign ;). Cats ,they retract their claws ,dog ,coyote ,wolf among others do not . Hog tracks and trails are dangerous even if your armed . They will eat you and some of the herd are huge . Buzzards when circling something iTIs wise to see what . I hope hiding your trail is next . My favorite is to grab some yearlings and put shoes on them . I would love hearing that trackers thoughts ;).Rattlers nailed to ,”duck under branches” ,behind you and leave good enough track to pull the enemy in . Oh ,be sure and cut the buttons off . Less warning ;). Follow as close as you can get among livestock . Ride any horses you find ,but let them amble in the direction you are generally going . Indians walked on their toes and ball of their feet . White men walk heal and toe .You also forgot ,or I missed the part about odors ,campfire ,tobacco ,weed ,red meat eaters and fish eaters different odors . Opps coffee is a long distance odor . Shots can not only show you have company but they are armed . Several shots and they are either in trouble or a bad shot ;). On the bent over plant life ,some will stand back up . What you watch for is the shock and how much it has recovered . Usually takes a good part of a day . Size and temps. not figured . I would also point out good practice is to track yourself now and again . I believe iTIs easier learning ,when you already know the track and time you left it etc. … . Best of luck .

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