How to Track Animals: A Primer on Identifying Footprints

Discussion in 'Turf and Surf Hunting and Fishing' started by Yard Dart, Feb 17, 2016.

  1. Yard Dart

    Yard Dart Vigilant Monkey Moderator


    “It is hard to over-value the powers of the clever tracker. To him the trail of each animal is not a mere series of similar footprints; it is an accurate account of the creature’s life, habit, changing whims, and emotions during the portion of life whose record is in view.” –Ernest Thompson Seton, Boy Scout Handbook, 1911

    The other day while hiking some muddy trails with my family, my son pointed to a set of tracks and asked me what animal had made them. “That’s easy,” I said, “those are the tracks of a whitetail deer.” “What about those?” he asked, pointing to another set of footprints. “Those are, um, hmmm, well, I’m not sure what they are,” I confessed. I realized I needed to brush up on my knowledge of animal tracks.

    Learning how to track and identify the footprints of animals is an ancient and largely forgotten art — one that’s not only important for hunters, but also enhances any outdoorsman’s experience in the wild. It’s fascinating to know what creatures are sharing the woods with you, and trying to track them down by following their trail is a lot of fun. Learning how to read tracks allows you to pick up on the little dramas enacted by wildlife that usually go unnoticed by the human eye. It’s thus a skill that both deepens your understanding of nature and heightens your all-important powers of observation.

    Becoming an expert tracker takes years of practice. To get you started, today we offer a primer on the basics of identifying the footprints of common animals. We’ve taken as our guides two master woodsmen of yore — Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts, and Charles “Ohiyesa” Eastman, who was raised as a Sioux tribesman — as well as drawn on tips from Tom Brown Jr., one of the foremost modern trackers.

    Let’s head into the woods and see what we can discover!

    Where to Look for Tracks
    “Never lose the chance of the first snow if you wish to become a trailer.” –Ernest Thompson Seton

    Winter is primetime for animal tracking, as the prints are easy to find in the snow and can be followed for a long distance. However, as Seton explains:

    “the first morning after a night’s snow fall is not so good as the second. Most creatures ‘lie up’ during the storm; the snow hides the tracks of those that do go forth; and some actually go into a ‘cold sleep’ for a day or two after a heavy downfall. But a calm, mild night following a storm is sure to offer abundant and ideal opportunity for beginning the study of the trail.”

    The drawback of snow tracking is that in deep, soft snow you may find only the holes made by the animal’s feet and legs. Further accumulation and melting can also easily obscure the trail. And of course, some animals don’t come out at all during the winter because they are hibernating.

    For these reasons, mud and fine, wet sand can be an even better medium, as they hold the shape of the footprint well. A mudbank stream is one of the best places to look for tracks, as it’s frequented by shore birds and waterfowl as well as animals like the raccoon and muskrat looking for food. After a rain, sand bars, ditches, and muddy gullies are also fruitful places to find the tracks of deer, possums, and other creatures. Looking over a dewy, open field in the morning can reveal the tracks creatures made in the night as well.

    Whether in snow or dirt, a track is best and easiest to follow when it is freshest — before wind, rain, melting (in the case of snow), and debris have obscured the prints.

    While it’s surely fun to track animals through the wilderness, it’s also enjoyable to try to find their footprints in your very own backyard (and around the trashcan!). So always be aware of your surroundings wherever you go, and you never know what you’ll see.

    Learning the Tracks
    In learning which tracks belong to which animals, it can help to know the basic classifications of common animal families. Simply by counting the number of toes in a footprint, you can figure out which family the creature belongs to, and from there work on narrowing down which species you’re looking at.

    In this narrowing down process, it’s useful to know which animals are common to your area. As Seton explains, “In studying trails one must always keep probabilities in mind”:

    “Sometimes one kind of track looks much like another; then the question is, ‘Which is the likeliest in this place.’

    If I saw a jaguar track in India, I should know it was made by a leopard. If I found a leopard in Colorado, I should be sure I had found the mark of a cougar or mountain lion. A wolf track on Broadway would doubtless be the doing of a very large dog, and a St. Bernard’s footmark in the Rockies, twenty miles from anywhere, would most likely turn out to be the happen-so imprint of a gray wolf’s foot. To be sure of the marks, then, one should know all the animals that belong to the neighborhood.”

    Below you’ll find illustrations of the footprints of the track classifications for the most common families of animals; they break down not only what the tracks look like when the animal is walking (which is its typical gait), but also hopping/running (which it may do when chased by a predator, or doing some chasing of its own).


    Cats leave rounded prints that show four soft, pliable, spread toes. The prints lack claws, since they’re retractable. A cat also walks in what’s called a “single register” — its hind legs exactly track its front legs, so that it appears to only be walking with two legs, rather than four. This aids in quiet, stealthy stalking.

    Canines have four toes like cats, but their feet are harder and their claws can be seen as they don’t retract. While the fox walks in a single register, dogs and coyotes walk in an indirect register — their hind legs land a little behind and to the side of the front print, leaving a messier track than that of a cat.

    Members of the weasel family have five toes on both their front and hind feet, though all five don’t always show in the track.

    Five-Fingered Outliers
    While bears, possums, and beavers don’t belong to the weasel family, their tracks are similar in that they also have five toes in both back and front. However, they differ in the flat, human-like nature of their feet.

    Rodents have four toes on their front feet, and five toes on their hind feet.

    Hares & Rabbits
    Rabbits have four toes on both their front and rear feet, and in almost all species the back feet leave tracks that are at least twice the size of the front.

    Hoofed Animals
    The tracks of hoofed animals are easy to recognize, and deer tracks are some of the most common to find in the woods. You can distinguish a doe from a buck, in that the female has sharper hoofs and a narrower foot than the male.

    Tips for Following the Trail
    “I will now ask you to enter the forest with me. First, scan the horizon and look deep into the blue vault above you, to adjust your nerves and the muscles of your eye, just as you do other muscles by stretching them. There is still another point. You have spread a blank upon the retina, and you have cleared the decks of your mind, your soul, for action.

    It is a crisp winter morning, and upon the glistening fresh snow we see everywhere the story of the early hours — now clear and plain, now tangled and illegible — where every traveler has left his mark upon the clean, white surface for you to decipher.

    The first question is: Who is he? The second: Where is he now? Around these two points you must proceed to construct your story.” –Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), Indian Scout Talks, 1915

    Now that you know what the tracks look like, how do you follow the trail once you’ve identified it?

    When following an animal’s footprints, try to track towards the sun if possible, as the shadows will make the impressions stand out more. The sun’s position in the sky during the early morning and late afternoon will particularly enhance the tracks.

    As you follow an animal’s tracks, don’t just focus on the discrete sets of prints themselves, but continually take in the trail as a whole — which may in fact be easier than finding individual footprints. For example, by looking ahead, instead of having your nose to the ground, you may see a trail of bent grass through a field. Also look for other disturbances like cracked twigs, or pebbles and leaves that have been overturned to reveal their darker, wetter undersides. If you lose the trail, place a stick by the last set of prints you discovered and then walk around it in an ever widening spiral until you pick up the trail again.

    Eastman lays out other considerations for your hunt:

    “It is essential to estimate as closely as you can how much of a journey you will undertake if you determine to follow a particular trail. Many factors enter into this. When you come upon the trail, you must if possible ascertain when it was made. Examine the outline; if that is undisturbed, and the loose snow left on the surface has not yet settled, the track is very fresh, as even an inexperienced eye can tell…It will also be necessary to consider the time of year. It is of no use to follow a buck when he starts out on his travels in the autumn, and with the moose or elk it is the same.”

    Conclusion: What the Trail Gives — The Secrets of the Woods
    Animal tracks are the alphabet of the wild — an education in their language can help you read more of the nature all around you. As Seton concludes, knowing this language opens books of the woods and its inhabitants that would otherwise be closed to you:

    “There is yet another feature of trail study that gives it exceptional value — it is an account of the creature pursuing its ordinary life. If you succeeded in getting a glimpse of a fox or a hare in the woods, the chances are a hundred to one that it was aware of your presence first. They are much cleverer than we are at this sort of thing, and if they do not actually sight or sense us, they observe, and are warned by the action of some other creature that did sense us, and so cease their occupations to steal away or hide. But the snow story will tell of the life that the animal ordinarily leads — its method of searching for food, its kind of food, the help it gets from its friends, or sometimes from its rivals — and thus offers an insight into its home ways that is scarcely to be attained in any other way.

    The trailer has the key to a new storehouse of nature’s secrets, another of the Sybilline books is opened to his view; his fairy godmother has indeed conferred on him a wonderful gift in opening his eyes to the foot-writing of the trail. It is like giving sight to the blind man, like the rolling away of fogs from a mountain view, and the trailer comes closer than others to the heart of the woods.

    Dowered with a precious power is he,
    He drinks where others sipped,
    And wild things write their lives for him
    In endless manuscript.”

    How to Identify and Track Animal Footprints | The Art of Manliness
    Ganado, marlas1too, stg58 and 5 others like this.
  2. Tikka

    Tikka Monkey+++

    @Yard Dart
    Deer and hog tracks add 2 pointed marks at the rear.

    Same as as anyone who has seen either; the 2 additional tracks at the back (bottom of the illustrations) are difficult to see.
    Literally, we see lots of deer tracks at the feeder and even in mud, it is rare to see the two small ones at the bottom.
    arleigh and Motomom34 like this.
  3. Yard Dart

    Yard Dart Vigilant Monkey Moderator

    Yes sir, you are correct... as the pic indicated. :)
    As it mentions, the dew claw shows on the print when the deer is bounding... and will not be noticeable in their tracks, while they are just walking.
    Motomom34 likes this.
  4. Tikka

    Tikka Monkey+++

    My Pitts make them bound and wild open. As the deer don't know the dogs will not jump the fence. Typically we check with a 300 lumen flashlight before we let them out to do their business. Even in soft/muddy soil (red clay), it is rare to see the two extra points. I'll keep looking for them.
    Yard Dart likes this.
  5. Tikka

    Tikka Monkey+++

    As I have the basics, tracking fascinates me. With the help of the deer etc., I'm into it deep enough to have an idea of grass rising after it has been flattened or leaves being flipped or slightly flattened by the movement of animal. That being said I am far from being a expert.

    If you look very close, there is a difference in what I call deer highway 3 and the surrounding dead leaves..

    I've labeled their trails by numbers.
    kellory likes this.
  6. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    You can tell a deer's sex if you find it's bedding area. Any guesses how?;)
  7. AD1

    AD1 Monkey+++

    Used condoms scattered around?
    VisuTrac, Tikka, Mountainman and 3 others like this.
  8. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Cute. No;)
  9. AD1

    AD1 Monkey+++

    Size and where the pee spots are located?
  10. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Size is not relevant to sex. Plumbing is.
    First thing a deer normally does upon rising is urinate. Boys further forward, girls further back.spacing with hind prints will show sex.
    Yard Dart likes this.
  11. AD1

    AD1 Monkey+++

    I did not know, I google cheated

    Whitetail Deer: Sign Language

    Deer beds vary from about 25 to 42 inches wide. If you find a bed that is at or near the high end of this scale, you've found a mature buck's bed. If the bed is smaller--say, 35 inches wide--you'll need to look for other clues. For example, you can sometimes do a "pee test" to find out. Bucks generally leave urine in the middle of their beds. Does pee at the back end of their ovals. Look for moisture or stains on the flat leaves or weeds. Also, a small bed or one or two beds nearby seals the deal that a doe and fawn(s) lay there.

    A mature buck is 50 or more pounds heavier and thicker than the other deer in an area and leaves a bed up to 42 inches long. Generally, you'll find a king-size bed off by itself, but in September and early October, three to five huge ovals together indicate that a bachelor group rests there.

    The doe and well-grown fawn pictured here bedded on a ridge where they could see and smell well. Many whitetails do that, though the animals typically prefer a spot with more cover. The only time you'll catch a giant like this wide-racked 10-pointer bedded in an open field is after dark or, in this case, when he's tending a hot doe for a day or two during the rut. A mature buck typically beds on a ridge, bench or hillside with moderate to thick brush; in a steep, rocky pocket; or in a secluded swamp or marsh--anywhere he can hide from hunters and smell or see danger coming. Big deer also like to have escape routes handy in several directions. If you stumble across a king-size bed in such a spot, get the heck out of there and never go back. It's always best to hunt the fringes of a bedding area
    Yard Dart likes this.
  12. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Add to this, every deer is different, and none have read that book.
    Bucks will also bed down in places you would not believe we're large enough. (Brush pile or brambles).
    He is mostly nocturnal, except when hunting sex, which he can smell from down wind.
    He MAY trail her once he scents her, but will usually just pass down wind of any groups of does, for sampling. His trail will be the fainter one, that skirts the meadow edges, but stays near the woods edge.
    Yard Dart and AD1 like this.
  13. yeti695

    yeti695 Monkey+

    I have done a bit of trapping in my day and its hard to tell all the prints when the ground is not muddy or something suitable for leaving a distinct tract. That being said if you look around enough you can tell what animals are around. I have a pretty good idea of the track that are in my area and by the habits of the animals. I don't spend near the time in the woods as I want or used to, but I can still walk around and see enough to tell me what is out there. This is a very good post for people that not familiar with tracking animals. On another note, I did not know that about the deer. Thanks for that.
    Motomom34, kellory and Yard Dart like this.
  14. Ganado

    Ganado Monkey+++


    Yard Dart Print
    Yard Dart likes this.
  15. 3M-TA3

    3M-TA3 Cold Wet Monkey Site Supporter++

    I sure wish I had read this sooner. Earlier this week I was working in my back yard and I didn't know it but something was stalking me. I wouldn't have even caught on, but I circled back to an area I'd been in earlier, and the critter had accidentally stepped in some fresh dog crap as it was stalking me. It was big, too, as by the mark it left in the poo was seemingly as wide as my own foot.

    That's how I figured out it was stalking me - it left small pieces of the crap behind as it followed me everywhere. It was following so closely that I found the evidence in my very footprints, however it was so stealthy I couldn't make out its own tracks from my own. It was also very alert as I never found it - apparently it sensed I was now the hunter and it snuck off before I could spot it.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2016
    kellory and Ganado like this.
  16. Yard Dart

    Yard Dart Vigilant Monkey Moderator

    Mountain lions love to play those games around here @3M-TA3 .... I suspect that was your stalker?!
    3M-TA3 and Ganado like this.
  17. arleigh

    arleigh Goophy monkey

    Animals are not that hard to track ,The fun one is tracking people.
    If you know the victims print it's important to get a picture or draw the details because lug sole prints can vary a lot ,and to the untrained eye they all look alike .(except for size)
    I train my kids to track people and each other and every time we went to the woods we'd identify some other hiker and fallow it for a while . it is exceptionally good practice because it sharpens one to pay closer attention .
    Tracks tell a story , Dad and I were at a favorite fishing creek and found mountain lion prints along side fawn prints . Kind a tells you what happened next .
    Hope the lion survived the fawn attack.
    Any way
    thanks for the reminders of animal prints , good to print up and study from time to time.
    kellory, BlueDuck and Ganado like this.
  18. 3M-TA3

    3M-TA3 Cold Wet Monkey Site Supporter++

    I guess I have to "come clean" here... Two things all my friends know about me are that 1) I'm a smart ass, and 2) sometimes my sense of humor is a bit of a stretch.

    My post above was intended to be humorous along the lines of coming out of the men's room with a bit of toilet paper stuck hanging out the back of my trousers. In fact, I'd accidentally stepped in fresh Border Collie poo but didn't see it until I had circled back around to clean a few things up.Then I read your post on tracking (very dim light bulb appears above my head) and rules 1 and 2 both applied... It does look like @kellory and @Ganado might have gotten it...

    BTW, regarding cougars - one was frequenting a field just a few hundred feet away from my house last year, and another was spotted near my Dad's house about three miles away. I expect this to be more frequent as we move from rural to gentry along with hunting protections in place. I expect to hear of maulings and kills within the next few years as happened in SoCal when the same thing happened - they are just "so cute" to control...

    I know I've been tracked a few times hiking and hunting (found tracks crossing my own when I went back through the area). One of many reasons I'm never far from protection.
  19. Gator 45/70

    Gator 45/70 Monkey+++

    I can track red headed woodpeckers....
    Ganado likes this.
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