How to Recognize Animal Tracks

How to Recognize Animal TracksIdentifying animal tracks in the wilderness can give you a better sense of the ecological systems that govern the woods and a deeper appreciation for nature. Hiking along a stream and witnessing the recent history of animal movements in the mud can be one of the most exciting outdoor skills a hiker can possess. Identifying animals based on their tracks is a process anyone can learn with a little patience.


Difficulty: Moderate

How to:

Things You’ll Need:
  • Rescue Mirror
  • Flashlight
  • Dowel Rod
  • Rubber Band
Step 1
Know where to look. Finding animal tracks is no simple matter. It takes a combination of luck, skill and perception. The best places to look for animal tracks are along rivers, in mud, in silt or in sand. Also look in any low-lying area, checking patches of mud and other areas of softened soil.
Step 2
Keep a light source handy. The easiest way to find a track or to highlight the contours of a track you've already found is to shine light on the scene. This can be as simple as not allowing your shadow to fall over the area you are searching. Many trackers use a rescue mirror to reflect light onto tracks or areas likely to have tracks. Even a flashlight can be used to highlight the edges of tracks.
Step 3
Look for other signs of animal habitation. The difficulty of finding tracks can be greatly eased by the additional contextual information found at the scene. Keep an eye open for narrow paths in the underbrush that might indicate a game trail. Other signs to look out for include leavings, crushed pine needles, half-eaten berries, feathers, bits of fur, broken branches and scratches on rocks or tree bark.
Step 4
Distinguish canine, feline and hooved animals. While hooves are easily distinguished by their deep, sharp indentations, canine and feline tracks can be a little harder to discern. In felines, such as bobcats and mountain lions, the pad of the foot is likely to be lobed, with two lobes at the top of the pad and three at the bottom. Canine feet, with slightly less padding, are likely to have a smaller, less obviously lobed pad. Claw marks in front of the toes indicate the presence of a canine, whether wolf, coyote, fox or family pet. Once you have made the distinction among these three categories of animals you will have a much better sense of what you are dealing with.
Step 5
Know how to identify bear tracks. Often found near water, bear tracks can be easily mistaken for dog or even human footprints, particularly in distorting mud. Bears are best identified by the tracks of their back legs, which look remarkably similar to a human footprint, except with claw marks. Their front legs are most similar to dog tracks, except for the presence of five toes and a wide foot pad.
Step 6
Use a tracking stick for difficult-to-identify tracks. One of the best ways to aid the beginning tracker is to use a tracking stick. Simply carry a length of straight wood, such as a dowel rod, with measurements marked out on it. Also carry two rubber bands. Use the rubber bands like markers on the tracking stick to mark the length of tracks. Take the length measurement and the measurement of the stride. These two features should greatly aid you in identifying tracks you were unable to identify in the field.

Article Written By Louie Doverspike

Based in Seattle, Louie Doverspike has been a professional writer since 2004. His work has appeared in various publications, including "AntiqueWeek" magazine, the "Prague Post" and "Seattle Represent!" Doverspike holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Hamilton College.

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