Human tracking is a subset of one of the oldest skills on earth. It is the practice of being able to observe, recognize and interpret the footprints and signs left behind by humans. This skill set is most often utilized for search & rescue, forensic and military purposes.
It is helpful to break down this practice into parts and describe them to make them easier to understand. Tracks are one type of evidence, and can be described as any kind of footprint, hand print, scuff, drag mark or other kind of mark left in the substrate (ground) by a passing human body. Other types of signs includes things such as disturbed vegetation & rocks, tire tread, discarded clothing, and various kinds of trash.
Learning to track, whether humans or animals, requires keen skills of observation, as well as patience, persistence and determination. To begin, it helps to learn how to distinguish what is sign from what is not. This means doing some exercises to help you see what is the normal chaotic pattern of the landscape (called "baseline") from actual tracks or signs from a passing person.
Have a friend help you practice the skill of observing disturbances by asking them to move through various landscapes around you and then observe how they have changed with their passing. This gets you to practice both "the art of seeing" and "the art of trailing." The art of seeing is simply the practice and ability to learn to see tracks and signs. The art of trailing is using the evidence you see to follow where that person or animal went.
Have a friend walk across an area of sand, mud, or dirt while your back is turned, and then retrace their steps. Take note of how their tracks look different as the amount of moisture in the ground changes. Also ask them to move across the same area several times at different speeds and look at their tracks closely to see how things like the distance between steps and angles of their feet changes with speed.
You can also ask your friend to walk through an area of densely vegetated park or woodland. Then follow their trail and note every detail of their passing that you can. Take notice of things such as:
- Disturbed duff or leaf litter, such as indentations, creases or piles
- Crushed plants in the tracks
- Bent plants (called "flagging") from their legs or bodies passing through
- Material such as mud or sand deposited onto leaves or plants from their feet (called "carry over" or "transference")
- Displaced gravel, rocks, sticks or moss
- Broken sticks or branches
- Broken or disturbed spiderwebs
Looking for this kind of sign might seem logical, or even obvious, but it takes practice to learn to see these details, especially under different conditions affected by weather, temperature and other factors.
Human tracking is also a study in human psychology. We humans have a diverse number of behaviors. Much like other animals, however, we are also creatures of habit. On a hot day, most of us will seek shade or water whenever possible. On a cold day, we might seek shelter out of the wind and precipitation. We tend to walk using pathways through the landscape that are paths of least resistance. In other words, unless we are deliberately hiding, we are likely to walk and move through areas that won't hamper our movements, poke or whack us in the face or eyes, and allow us to walk largely upright.
Like other animals, we have familiar haunts and predictable habits. All of us have favorite places we seek out when we are tired, wanting to relax, to socialize, to eat and to work. We also have familiar habits of comforting ourselves. All of these things shape what kinds of tracks and signs we leave in our environments and in the woods.
Nearly every scuff, scrap of trash and other mark is some kind of human sign. We live in a world so full of human sign, it can be overwhelming.
Aging (being able to answer the question "when were these tracks or signs made?") is perhaps the most difficult part of the study of human tracking. Aging is possible to variable degrees, depending on many different conditions. When it comes to tracks, aging can be done to a certain degree of accuracy by keeping a record of the weather and studying its effects on tracks in that particular environment. When you see a track in the field of an indeterminate age, you can use a mark of your own made by your finger or foot next to it for comparison. Note the difference of appearance in the fresh mark. Fresh tracks tend to have sharp, clean edges and crisper details, when the substrate allows for it. This practice helps you sort out fresh tracks (made within 12 hours) from older tracks (tracks greater than 12 hours old). Because substrate can vary so much, even on a seemingly consistent stretch of sandy beach, one must look very critically and make marks to test assumptions.
Human tracking is a broad and exciting field of study. Tracking requires at times for us to think like detectives. The famous literary character Sherlock Holmes describes this beautifully in the beginning of the book The Study in Scarlet. It is both learning to see with a penetrating and critical eye, as well as interpreting what we see in a logical manner based on the facts at hand.
Go out and try your hand on observing the world through the eye of a tracker. Enjoy practicing human tracking!
We highly recommend the book Foundations for Awareness, Signcutting, and Tracking by Rob Speiden. It is an excellent resource on human tracking skills. Alderleaf hosts Rob as a guest instructor to teach the human tracking component of the Advanced Wilderness Skills Program. Rob has also taught Human Tracking Weekend Courses at Alderleaf.
About the Author: Filip Tkaczyk is a periodic guest teacher at Alderleaf. He also wrote the field guide Tracks & Sign of Reptiles & Amphibians. Learn more about Filip Tkaczyk.