As amazing as it would be to always have clear prints every-time we go in the forest... sometimes they're just not easy to find (or not fresh enough to follow).
This is where sign tracking comes in.
If you want to know how to track animals in the woods then you need to become skilled with the more subtle signs left by animals.
This can be anything from antler scrapes on a tree trunk, to piles of scat and droppings, or trails & runs that mat down plants & foliage.
Here are some questions to help you learn about the plethora of signs that can alert you to the recent presence of an animal:
What does the animal's scat look like?
Does the animal dig burrows?
Does the animal make latrines?
Can you find sign of grazing, foraging, midden piles or kill-sites?
How wide are the trails?
What other animal signs can you find?
In every part of the world - dedicated trackers have created amazing resources and field guides that can help you learn about the tracks & sign of local mammals, birds, reptiles & amphibians.
Field guides are your secret weapon for tracking success. Get them and use them!
#5 - Following Fresh Animal Trails
Okay let's get down to business!
This is the moment we've all been waiting for... How to follow fresh trails in the woods!
Is That Trail Fresh?
The first thing you need to do is assess whether a trail is fresh and how recently it was made. More recent and freshly made trails will be easier to see and will also give you a better chance of spotting the animal.
This is a skill that comes with practice but a certain amount can be deduced with a little common sense.
Fresh tracks will have a more crisp and textured look to them. As they age the edges erode and smooth out. Scat becomes dried and crusty as it ages.
I often recognize fresh animals trails by looking at differences in color compared to the surrounding landscape.
In springtime you'll notice the trampled fresh growth of herbs & wildflowers almost shimmers in the forest light and is quite easy to spot.
Fresh trails in leaf litter appear darker and more contrasting in coloration compared to the surrounding forest floor.
It does take a fair bit of practice and “dirt time” in the field, but it's quite possible to train your sensory acuity to notice more and more subtle trails and footprints of animals.
Following And Trailing Wild Animals
If you come across a trail that you believe to be fresh then you now have a great opportunity to practice your trailing skills.
This sometimes takes a lot of practice and “dirt time” in the field, but it is possible to train your sensory acuity to notice more and more subtle trails and footprints of animals.
Veterans of tracking are known for being able to casually spot tracks and trails from a distance that are invisible to the untrained eye.
A simple recipe for progressive learning might go like this:
Start with hoofed animals like deer, moose, elk...The bigger the better.
Gradually move on to large soft-padded animals like bears, cougars, or wolves.
Then at the more advanced levels try your hand at smaller soft padded animals like coyotes, foxes or bobcats.
Don’t worry about finding every single track. It's not always necessary and it will usually slow you down.
Keep your eyes looking up the trail as much as possible to stay alert for what happens ahead.
Sometimes I find this tricky to do from a standing position, so I get on my hands and knees. It find it easier to see the trail stretching out ahead 10-20 feet or more.
It's good practice but eventually my goal is to be able to follow trails more quickly from a standing position.
It also helps me to be more quiet if I think the animal might be nearby.
Remember... if you want to have any chance of actually seeing the animal then you need to practice stealth. I wrote another article on this topic called How To Stalk Animals (And Not Get Caught) if you want to learn more. These days I often use a combination of wildlife tracking and bird language to find live animals in the forest.
It's all about practice and consistency. If you get out there and apply the information from this article I'm confident that you can learn how to track animals in the woods too. Always remember to practice animal safety & be respectful of local wildlife. Tracking is great fun so let's remember to be grateful for the animals.