Learning to Track

For the traditional hunter, learning to track is a natural process that becomes part of his or her way of life from early childhood. Those who are not full-time hunters cannot expect to ever reach the level of skill and expertise attained by hunters whose survival depends on their tracking abilities. Any intelligent person, however, should be able to master the basics of tracking. But reading this book will not in itself make one a tracker, since tracking demands practical skills acquired only through many hours of practice and experience over a long period. Furthermore, once this skill is acquired it should be maintained through continued practice on a regular basis, since one will soon become ineffective if one does not exercise it.

The average person should by practice and experience be able to become a fair tracker, but really outstanding trackers are probably born with the latent ability. Qualities required include good senses (or good glasses for poor eyesight), acute observation, physical fitness, patience, perseverance, concentration, alertness, a good memory, an analytical mind, an understanding of nature, intuition and a creative imagination.

Apart from the tracker's own ability, the case or difficulty of tracking depends on other factors as well. The type of ground, vegetation and weather conditions will determine the degree of skill required to recognise and interpret spoor. It is, for example, more difficult to track on hard, stony ground than in soft sand. In overcast weather, spoor lacks depth while rain may completely obliterate it. One must also consider the extent to which other similar tracks may confuse or blur spoor in areas of high animal densities.

The easiest way to learn how to track is to have an experienced tracker teach you. The tracker would point out and explain all the signs until you are able to recognise and interpret the signs yourself. Expert trackers, however, are few and far between, and even if they were available, most of them don't speak English, so you would need a good translator to communicate with them.

Teaching yourself is much more time-consuming, but it is also more exciting to make new discoveries yourself. When teaching yourself it is easiest to start studying your own tracks. This can be done with a two-phase method which should be repeated until the two phases fuse into one.

Phase one. Marking the point where you start off, lay out a spoor for yourself. Going back to the starting point, start by carefully studying every sign of your own spoor. After completing the course, which may take quite a long time at first, return to the starting point.

Phase two. The course now consists of two trails, and since you've been over it twice, you should know where it is going. The second phase simply consists of walking over the already known course at a fast pace. Looking well ahead of you, try to see as many signs as possible.

In Phase one you concentrated on recognition and interpretation, while neglecting aspects like speed, momentum, looking well ahead and anticipation. In Phase two you already know the spoor and must now concentrate on the aspects which were previously neglected. At first you will probably miss most of the signs, but after repeating Phase two several times you will start recognising more of them.

Repeating this two-phase exercise several times, you will improve the speed of Phase one, while finding more signs during Phase two. This exercise should be repeated over different types of terrain, starting with easy terrain and gradually working towards the more difficult types.

When you have developed the ability to track down your own trail you should get someone else to lay out a trail for you. This spoor will obviously be more difficult. The object of the exercise is to develop an ability to anticipate and predict an unknown trail. It is easier with another person than with an animal, because you can easily identify with that person and think where you would have gone if you were in his or her position.

While in the previous exercise you concentrated on each and every sign, in this exercise you should try to follow the trail by anticipating and predicting the person's movements while looking at only a few signs. Looking at the terrain ahead, try to imagine the most likely route the person would have taken, and go and look for signs well ahead, neglecting those in between. A lot of time can also be saved by taking short cuts. If you know the area well, and you are able to predict where the person might be going to, you could simply go to that place and track down the trail from there. If you lose the spoor, several likely routes should first be searched for signs. Should this prove unsuccessful, work in a complete circle to look for fresh leads, working in wider circles until the spoor is found. You may also walk out in a wide perimeter around the area, using natural boundaries where tracks would be obvious, such as paths or river banks.

While it is relatively easy to anticipate and predict the movements of another person, it will be much more difficult to identify with an animal if you do not know it very well. The best way to learn how to interpret animal tracks is to watch an animal and then go and study its tracks. In learning to track an animal, it may be easiest to start by following the trail, studying all the signs in detail in order to come to know the animal's habits. Start by studying animal tracks, gaits and activities in easy terrain, such as barren dunes along beaches or in arid regions. This will help you visualise tracks and signs in terrain where footprints are not obvious. From terrain with soft substrate and sparse vegetation, move on to soft substrate and denser vegetation. Once terrain with soft substrate and denser vegetation has been mastered, first try harder, stony substrate with sparser vegetation before attempting hard, stony substrate with dense vegetation. Eventually, as you get to know the animal, you may be able to anticipate and predict its movements, so that it will not be necessary to look for all the signs. An experienced tracker who knows an animal does not have to follow it everywhere it went. Apart from anticipating its movements by looking at the terrain ahead, the tracker may be able to predict its movements, leaving the spoor at places and picking it up further ahead to save time.

Besides interpreting the animal's activities in order to predict its movements, it is also very important to be able to determine the age of the spoor. The tracker must know whether a spoor is fresh enough to follow up, or too old, in which case he will never catch up with the animal. He should be able to tell if the spoor is so fresh that the animal may be very close, since the animal may be alarmed if he does not approach it with stealth. Only a very experienced tracker can establish the age of a spoor with any accuracy. The rate at which the sun, wind or rain may erode or blur the spoor can vary considerably. A detailed knowledge of the local weather conditions is therefore essential. A tracker must also have a thorough knowledge of animal behaviour.

The best way to acquire an ability to determine the age of spoor is to study the ageing process systematically. This can be done by laying out a succession of spoor next to each other every hour during the course of one or more days. By the end of the day you will have examples of spoor that are one hour old, two hours old, three hours old, etc. Spoor of varying ages can be compared directly, which will enable you to study the ageing process in detail. This method of study should be repeated in different soil types, types of terrain, weather conditions and seasons in order to determine the rate of ageing under different conditions.