Tracking instructors can be found in many parts of the world. There are a variety of reasons that lead people to seek out instructors to learn tracking skills. It might be for personal enjoyment and enrichment, to learn more about and connect with the wildlife around you, or to serve your community or an organization as a volunteer for search & rescue. Perhaps you’re interested in learning tracking as part of training for a future career in a wildlife or human tracking related field.
If you're interested in learning to track wildlife or humans, you might find it difficult to know where to start and specifically, who to seek out for training. The greater community of tracking instructors is diverse, and the different organizations and individual instructors have variable degrees of skill in the different aspects of tracking. Many people who are new to tracking don’t realize how vast an area of study it is, nor that there are different aspects to focus on and specialize in within the field.
For the sake of simplifying things, let’s define the general areas of tracking to help differentiate the broad areas of study. First, the two main categories of tracking are: wildlife tracking and human tracking. Wildlife tracking is the study of the tracks and sign (which includes scat, fur, bones, lays, burrows, and other types of sign) left by the passage of animals. This type of study is typically used for wildlife science, wildlife conservation, and education. Human tracking is the study of human tracks and sign, and this is typically used for purposes such as search & rescue, forensics and military or security applications.
Wildlife tracking can be further broken down into two related areas of study: trailing and track & sign study. The study of looking at tracks and sign is used to identify the maker of the tracks or sign, learn about their life and how they interact with their environment. The goal is not to find the animal, but to learn about it and to better understand it and its relationships to the landscape. Trailing is the practice of following tracks or sign in order to specifically find an animal. These two skills go hand and hand, but some people focus more on one over the other.
Tracking is considered by many as both a science and an art. The aspects of tracking that are often considered scientific are skills such as species identification, gait analysis, scat analysis, etc... There is also a side to tracking that is considered an art, a more creative practice that requires imagination. The artistic side of tracking includes aspects of interpretation such as speculating about an animal’s intentions or motivations, estimating specific ages of tracks, or predicting the location of an animal. Interpretation is one of the most difficult aspects of tracking and requires a great amount of focused field time and study of animal behavior to understand with a high degree of accuracy. Accuracy in track interpretation comes from tempering the use of imagination along with the greatest amount of available supporting data present in the field. It is in the process of interpretation where the most errors are made by those who study tracking.
For example, as an observer you might see a set of raccoon and dog tracks in a muddy spot along a river. If you are going largely off of what you imagine happened, you might assume these two animals interacted and even come up with a story about how they did. You might simply make that assumption based on simple correlation: they both left tracks in this spot, therefore, they must have interacted. Going from there, you might elaborate on what likely happened based largely on imagination. This is not a reliably accurate method for understanding tracks or animal behavior. Closer inspection might indicate conflicting information, such as the age of the tracks being different, or the trails not showing any signs of interaction. Jumping to conclusions is largely a quality of unskilled trackers.
If it is to be considered scientifically credible, tracking should be treated as a real skill based on real, on-the-ground information rather than mental projections or unsupported assumptions. Imagination is an important tool in tracking, but it should be used cautiously and interpretation of the story written by the tracks or sign should be the final step in the process when as much data as possible has been gathered to give the most complete picture from the available information.
Some organizations and tracking instructors focus on tracking as a scientific and systematic study of wildlife in the field. Others focus more on the creative aspects of tracking. These are different approaches, often having different intentions and different end goals. The more “hard science” approach to tracking is focused more on using tracking as a scientifically credible method of wildlife study and management, or for the purpose of tracking humans. The more artistic approach is generally more personal, and may be more about connecting with the landscape and wildlife through stories.
Since tracking skills are still not widely known to the general public, it can be challenging for those with little or no previous knowledge to find quality tracking instructors. Here is a helpful list of things to look for and questions to ask when you are interested in taking tracking courses. The unfortunate truth is that there are charlatans in every professional field and tracking is no exception.
1) Know what you want: The first step is figuring out what it is you are looking to learn and why. Do you want to learn to track wildlife? To track humans? Are you interested for personal experience? Career-related training? Safety or military use?
2) Reputation: Do some research and see what kind of reputation this tracking instructor or organization has for teaching tracking. Some organizations focus on teaching both wildlife tracking and human tracking. Others only teach human tracking or only wildlife tracking. If you are going to give them your money to train you, be sure you feel comfortable with your choice. Contact a credible, worldwide tracking organization such as CyberTracker Conservation or the International Society of Professional Trackers (ISPT) and ask about your intended instructor or organization.
3) Ask to talk to one or more tracking instructors personally: Have a conversation with your intended instructor(s) via phone or better yet, in person. Not everyone claiming to be a wildlife or human tracking instructor is legitimate or skilled. Do they strike you as humble or boastful? Do they brag about what they can do or see, or are they sincerely interested in teaching you? Are they passionate or is it just a day job? Ask them to share with you how they got involved in tracking and how they are continuing to practice/study.
4) Accolades: Check out your potential instructor(s) accomplishments. Not all skilled tracking instructors have certificates or ranking, but you can make a safe bet that those who are widely recognized through such established systems of ranking such as the CyberTracker Evaluations will have a known and acknowledged/confirmed level of skill. Some tracking instructors that boast about having vast skills may prove to have little real knowledge when they are asked to demonstrate those skills in front of seasoned and highly skilled trackers.
5) Ask about Experience: Tracking experience comes with intensive study and training in the field. This takes time and focus. Someone who has studied tracking for several years or longer in a focused manner will be much more skilled than someone who has been tracking for 10 years but does not track more than 1 or 2 weekends a year. Good questions to ask are: How much field time have they had? How often during that time were they practicing/studying? Who did they study with and in what manner?
6) Details of the program: How long is the program? What does it entail? What is a typical class day like? What is the skill level the student is meant to achieve by the end of the course? What locations is the class taught at? What is the overall cost?
7) Simple and Direct Language: Can the instructors explain things to you in simple terms? Do they speak directly or use flowery/exaggerated language about what they see? Can they explain their logic simply and show you the details of how they came to that conclusion? If not, be careful about the information they are sharing. Real tracking skills are based on real evidence that can be readily observed by anyone with some basic training. If what the instructor is saying sounds far-fetched, it very well may be far-fetched.
8) Books and Websites: Check out some quality tracking books and study at least a little bit about what tracking entails before you decide on a specific educational organization or instructor. If you are going to sift out which organization is the best fit for you, it's best to make an informed decision. Here are some excellent introductory books and websites to check out and learn more about tracking:
- Mammal Tracks & Sign of North America – Mark Elbroch
- Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest – David Moskowitz
- Practical Tracking – Louis Liebenburg, Adriaan Louw & Mark Elbroch
- Foundations of Awareness, Sign-cutting and Tracking – Robert Speiden
- Website: http://trackercertification.com/ - CyberTracker Evaluations
- Website: www.naturetracking.com/ - Jonah Evans
- Website: List of Tracking Schools - Tracking Schools in North America
Remember, not all tracking instructors and what they teach are of the same caliber. Ask yourself what it is you want from learning tracking, and what you need in an instructor. Use these guidelines and your common sense to help you find the best match for your tracking needs and find a quality tracking instructor. Enjoy the process of learning to track!
By the way, when you're out tracking or looking for wild animals, it's important to know how to stay safe in the outdoors, especially if you were to get lost. Right now you can get a free copy of our mini survival guide here, where you'll discover six key strategies for outdoor emergencies, plus often-overlooked survival tips.
Learn about Wildlife Tracking 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.