Lost Skills: Tracking

Common woodland animal tracks

Spring has officially arrived but there are still plenty of days in Paradelle when the temperature is below freezing. People are thinking about, planning and cleaning up their gardens, but it’s not a frost-free time yet. This weekend we may even get some snow in our part of the world.

Winter is not my favorite season and dealing with snow is my least favorite part of winter, But one thing I do like about a fresh snowfall is that it gives me a chance to more easily do some animal tracking in the woods.

I have written here about getting lost and getting found. Part of that writing focused on “The Tracker,” Tom Brown, Jr., who lives in New Jersey.  I still marvel at Tom’s abilities as a tracker and his knowledge of the natural world. I feel like I am still learning and I like that process very much.

dog track

In my almost suburban woods, the most common tracks are often that of dogs and their owners.  I have to go off trails and paths to find wilder life. If you look in books about tracking, you usually find drawings of tracks like the one at the top of this post. They are very clear, but the chances of finding such a clear track in your tracking are not very good. Mud is a good track medium, so I often look beside creeks, ponds, or even vernal pools. Snow makes the entire woods easier for tracks.

coyote track

Where I track, a coyote track is a possibility and, as you can see, the tracks are very similar to their relative, the domestic dog. (No wolves in Paradelle, but they would also be quite similar.)

But snow melts and so tracks change rapidly. The snow can help you determine how long ago the animal passed based on the melting or crusting of the edges from an overnight freeze.

Deer are very common in my neighborhood. I can track them on my front lawn. Their tracks are distinctive hooves. The challenge for me in the woods tracking deer is determining where they stopped, took a leap, or how they moved over gravel and rock, crossed creeks, and ran. The ultimate for me is to track a deer right to its present location – which might be its day bedding area.


I like tracking because it is a problem-solving challenge. It uses your vision in a way that you don’t often use it in everyday life situations. You need to take in all the signs and signals of the woods – not just the tracks.

It is quite clear that almost all of these senses and this knowledge has been lost in our move from frontier to civilization. Do we need to be able to track animals? No. We don’t need this skill or the ability to name trees and plants or pick out a star or planet in the night sky. But I think that having all those skills and many other lost ones has benefits today.

I cannot move as silently as the Native American scouts. I still find myself looking in tracking guides when I am in the field to confirm a species. No one will call on me to find humans lost in the wilderness, as they do with Tom Brown, Jr. But I have skills beyond those of my neighbors and friends.

raccoon “hands”

I know that those tracks in the alleyway are raccoons checking out my trash cans with their almost-human “hands.” that can push the handle locks on those cans.


I will walk out to my backyard with my morning coffee in the snow and track the many squirrels who have been busy.  But there are more challenging tracks and bigger animals to find.

bear black

The “big game” for my area is the black bear. Bears appear in my area which is too suburban for hunting, but the state does have a controlled hunt season for bear and deer. Though finding fresh bear tracks is exciting, I might not track the bear’s path forward to find it, but instead, follow it back to see where it has been and what it has been doing.

I used to teach classes in tracking at the Pequest Trout Hatchery and Education Center in New Jersey. My favorite was a winter one that, with the cooperation of the weather, was called “Stories in the Snow.” The class was very much a problem-solving session besides teaching the basics of identifying tracks. The goal was to find the story in the snow. Beyond knowing who left a track, I wanted people to think about why the animal was there, what it was doing, and where might it be going. Could we actually track it down and find its home, bedding area, or the animal itself?

Some finds were more spectacular than others. I would go out a few hours before the class and look for places that would definitely have tracks, such as around the fishing pond filled with trout and along the Pequest River which also held trout.

My classes were open to children and adults and I often had parents with their children which was great. Kids have such a different way of viewing the natural world. You might have a 5-year-old who guesses that a track is from a dinosaur or a 10-year-old who sees a chipmunk track go “through a tree” and surmises that it must have “climbed up the tree for a better view.”

What happened here?

The photo above is one of those “wow” finds for a class. What happened here? It looks like someone created a design in the snow. Animal tracks often cross after one has passed, but when animals cross paths in real time, you usually get a story. This photo tells the story of a rabbit (tracks) who met up with an eagle (“tracks” from its wings). Did the eagle swoop down and get the rabbit, or did the rabbit escape?

I might get one last tracking session in the snow in early April. Then, in the soft mud of spring and after rainfall, I will walk the woods in greater temperature comfort but more challenged by the conditions.

And maybe I will finally find where that fox that sometimes walks through my backyard actually lives.


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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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