Nature ConnectionRewilding

Reading the Story of Nature – The Art of Tracking

By October 7, 2016 4 Comments

Many times in my classes, I have said that tracking is an integral part of what it means to be a human, it is part of our heritage, part of our story, and if your ancestors were not trackers, you would not be here today.

So what exactly do I mean when I say “tracking” and why is it just as relevant today as it was 10,000 years ago?

Tracking is about so much more then putting names to lifeless depressions on the ground. Trackers are storytellers. Almost every action performed by a person, animal, bird, insect, weather system or geological force, has an impact on the surrounding environment. These actions leave behind clues to those who are aware. 

As we learn to track, we learn to read these clues as though we were immersed in reading a Sherlock Holmes story book. These clues, signs and tracks, tell us about the past, inform us in the present, and guide us in the future. This is what it means to be a tracker. To see the world with curiosity, awe and reverence, to see it for it’s complexity and simplicity all in the same moment. One individual track is an entire landscape of information . It may be able to tell us not only who made it, but how fast they were moving, which way there head was facing and sometimes even what kind of emotional state they were in when they made the track. We glean this information from the “6 Arts of Questioning“.

One of my many mentors, a man by the name of Tom Brown Jr, said to our class once, “Absolutely everything is a track”. This statement changed my life and the lens I see the world through. Think to yourself for a second, what is a tree a track of? How much wisdom does it hold? And what could it teach me that would be useful?

A tree is a track of:

  • The age of the forest
  • The type of soil it grows in
  • The health of the surrounding ecosystem
  • A greater ecological community
  • And so much more!

A tree holds information about:

  • The species of wildlife that live around them and interact with them
  • The weather trends of it’s entire life, they can be read in it’s growth rings and branches
  • It may tell of an ancient fire, a insect invasion or a rain still 2 days away by the minute curling of it’s leaves.

We could glean this same wisdom from a plant, a rock, or the craftsmanship put into building a house or garden. Tracking is about reading the story of life. Are you interested? Do you want to keep going deeper?  Once you start, the learning never ends!

I would like to dedicate the majority of the rest of this blog to sharing some tried and tested tools, ones that have been used in some capacity for generations, throughout cultures and landscapes of the world. Whether you have never considered the narrative I just shared, or you are a seasoned outdoors person who has been tracking since before you even knew it was a thing, I hope you find this post and these tools both enriching and educational. Before I share a formula, “Five steps to grow awareness and see the world through the eye’s of a Tracker”, I would like to address one more point.

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Why is tracking still relevant today? In ancient times it was an essential skill. We as a species had to track the animals that sustained our livelihood when we hunted, trapped and fished. We used tracking to find our way before modern day maps and compasses. We used tracking to know where to find the medicines we needed to sustain our health, or the materials for building our tools, dwellings and other projects. Today, for many of us, our basic primordial needs are met by the infrastructure of the modern world. So is it still relevant today? Is it still an essential skill?

My case for keeping this skill alive in a conscious and intentional way can be introduced with these questions:

How well have we stewarded our natural environment? Do we as a species leave tracks of health and abundance? Or tracks that our grandchildren may wish were never left? And if you lean towards the latter statement, I ask you, how well do you know the intimate details of the lives of all the animals, birds, insects and natural cycles you share your life with? Not just the ones in your home, but the ones whom live in the greater ecological community that supports your life? Do you know them like you know a close family member? Do you know them like your ancient hunter gatherer ancestor did who relied on a deep and profound knowledge and relationship to these beings to sustain their very existence?

If your answer is no, please do not feel guilty, for very few people are raised in a way that would allow this type of knowledge and knowing to exist. I am far from attaining the skill level and awareness that I know my ancient ancestors once had.  This way of observing and being is part of our heritage, but rarely a part of our modern day upbringing. The story of these skills being lost is much older then your parents and grandparents and is a fascinating story to track on its own. I pose these questions and ask one more: How can we truly tend and live in harmony with these miraculous natural cycles and all the other beings we share this planet with, if we don’t have a profound ability to read this story? To know of the past, to be informed in the present, and let this story guide our future?

So are you ready? It’s never to late to start!  You have actually been doing it to some capacity your whole life and may not have even realized it. And if this is something you have pondered and practiced in your life, well like I said earlier…….. The learning never stops.

So lets dive in!

6 Steps to Learning & Growing in the Art & Science of Tracking:

We just zoomed way out, as if we were looking at Google Earth on our computer. I talked about how absolutely everything is a track, and the role of tracking in history. Now lets zoom right in…keep going… a little further now…yep…right there… Let’s look at that footprint on the ground. Let’s put some life back into it and start to tell the story.

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I have so much gratitude for the wild mammals of the world and the endless lessons they have to teach us. And fortunately for us, all the fundamentals of tracking, observation and awareness, can be found in their footprints and the signs they leave behind. These five tools are a starting point to help you get going if you are new and to help you continue to grow and learn if you are experienced already. 

1) Know your possibilities – The Mammals Master Species List

Fields guides are great for so many reasons, but if you open one up to find a five toed mammal you will have a lot of pages to flip through and may be more confused after you put it down then when you started. A great practice is to make a “Mammals Master Species List”. Using a field guide or your computer, make a list of all the possible mammals that could be found in your region. List every single one. Once you have this list you can start to use the process of elimination out in the field to start to drastically reduce your possibilities. For example: it is too large to be a mink, too small for a bear, too many toes to be a rabbit and so on. The species list will help make sure that you do not miss any possibilities as well.

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2)  Consider where the tracking hot spots might be?

Although tracks are absolutely everywhere, some landscapes are significantly easier to find and read tracks in than others. Just like cities have quiet neighbourhoods, and streets that are always busy, so do natural ecosystems. All mammals need a place to sleep (often in dense cover), food, water, and at varying times of the year, sex. Where might these basic needs be fulfilled for the animals you want to track in the area’s you wish to track in? And where are the most concealed, yet easily traveled corridors for the mammals between these needs? Example: Going from cover (sleep) to food to water without being easily observed.

The next piece that is helpful with hot spots if finding a substrate (the geeky tracker word for type of soil or material being traveled across) that registers tracks easily. Moist sand and snow are my two favourite substrates to bring beginner tracker to. To find these spots look at local maps for creeks, beaches, trails not frequently used by people and under bridges. Also consider what is the main food source of the animal you wish to track the time of year you are tracking it.

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3) Use all your senses, expand your awareness

When you are ready to start tracking, before you start looking for actual tracks and signs, STOP!    Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Listen to all the sounds that abound you. Feel the breeze blow across your skin. Then slowly open your eyes and take a few minutes to just revel in all your senses. Try to stay in this state as much as you can while on your tracking mission. The more often you practice this, the more it will just merge into the way you move through the world all the time. When you reach this state, you are always tracking, everything, everywhere you go.

4) Be Curious, ask lots of questions

It is really easy to get caught up in wanting to identify something, to put a name to it right away. This can blind you to the plethora of other information available and intricacies of the story you have the potential to tap into.When you come across a track or sign, ask lots of questions:

  • How many toes does it have?
  • Which is the from and which is the rear foot?
  • What direction is it traveling?
  • How fast is it going?
  • Look around at the surrounding landscape, are their any other clues?
  • What was it doing?
  • Why was it doing this?
  • When was this track made?
  • The list goes on and on and on.

Even if you don’t know how to deduce these answers, get in the habit of asking them. Consider what possible answers could be. The more you do this, the quicker and better your tracking skills will develop.

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5) Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. A Common mistake!

Another common error I see when people track is deciding what they want the track to be based on previous experiences and conceptions, then trying to make the sights and evidence in front of you match your hypothesis. A better scientific process is to try to hold back your conclusion and potential for bias, take in all the information you can objectively, then form your hypothesis.

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6) Do some research.

If you followed step 4, then you should be returning from your tracking mission with more questions then answers. This is a great time to open up your journal and record as much information from the day as possible. Open up some field guides, search the internet, and see if you can answer any of your questions. Doing this over time, you will have more information to support your hypotheses and the next time you go out tracking, the more you will learn about the natural world.

So there you go, I hope you found this post educational. If you did not consider yourself a tracker before reading this post, I hope you feel like you at least got a glimpse of how this way of seeing the world could enrich your life.

Until next time, Happy Tracking Everyone!


Author Chris Gilmour

Chris has dedicated the last 20 yrs of his life to building his knowledge of, and relationship with, the natural world. He is passionate about reading the natural landscape through the art and science of tracking and practicing ancient wilderness living and modern survival skills. He runs the "Natural Born Tracker" eCourse at We Are Wildness University, is a professor of Ecology at Sir Sanford Fleming College and teaches through several outdoor education organizations. Chris is also passionate about emergency preparedness and his latest project is based around helping people to adapt and be resilient in the face of climate change and a changing world.

More posts by Chris Gilmour
  • Chris Gilmour

    Love your choice for the photo at the top We Are Wildness. I was the guest blogger for this article. If you have any questions about tracking please ask them here!

  • Deborah Marie Flower Power

    I love this !!!!!!!!!! I used to go tracking when I was a kid..I even studied animal track books when I was a kid to know what kind of critters were wondering around….Skunks…Coons…You name it…hahhahaa 🙂

  • The1TruthSpeaker

    Might also like “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science” by Louis Liebenberg
    Tracking in the Kalahari it is a free online book

  • Josh Gross

    This was a great read! I’ve never been taught how to track, but I spent as much time as I could in the woods as a kid. Then when I became an adult, I took a job with my county metro parks district. So I’ve seen a few tracks in my time; mostly white-tailed deer. It’s wonderfully relaxing to find a moist creek bed during the summer and just look at the tracks. I can’t always id the animals that left them, but it helps to tell that creek bed’s story. I can’t wait to learn more about tracking, as I’m sure I will before long.