Know The Wilderness; The Importance of Tracking

Whether you're out for a hunt, hike, simple stroll in the woods or (ideally not) in a survival situation, knowing how to read your surroundings is key. There are many tracking guidelines, books and courses out there which all can assist you in learning the skills necessary to become proficient. There is also a growing popularity in tracking field practice, which puts classroom learning on the back burner and allows you to get out in the wilderness and learn hands-on with an experienced tracker (in our opinion, the best way to learn). However, no matter what method you use, the takeaway remains the same; You'll be surprised at how many things you'll see once you know what to look for.

Animal tracking is not only a useful tool for hunting, an association it is most commonly known for. It is a skill that lures us in and forces us to appreciate the strength of seemingly unnoticeable hints shown to us by the natural world. A knowledge of your surroundings encourages you to open all of your senses to the subtle clues hidden everywhere in the wild, making the supposedly chaotic and unpredictable reappear as orderly and familiar. 

Grizzly bear clawed tree. Shot by  B. Atalay

Grizzly bear clawed tree. Shot by B. Atalay

Tracking the rut. Learning to read rubs via  OutdoorLife.  Shot by Lance Krueger.

Tracking the rut. Learning to read rubs via OutdoorLife. Shot by Lance Krueger.

Tracking animals is broken down into an assorted group of techniques and goals. Depending what you're looking to do you may be; tracking animals (animal track identification), trailing (following animal footprints/signs over long stretches), track aging (discovering how long the tracks have been there), gait interpretation (knowing how animals moved through an area without actually having seen them) or all techniques combined. 

The know-how not only includes a thorough knowledge of tracks, trails and sign, but also draws on the natural history, anatomy, and behavioural characteristics of animals and the environment. There is no doubt a primitive aspect to these skills, drawing on basic perceptions with minimal (if any) interference by technology, offering a welcome break from our ever-growing dependence to the online world. Ultimately, tracking is about the uncontaminated relationship between the tracker and the surrounding wilderness.

Some starting tips to keep in mind:

An understanding of basic ecological concepts is important.

Learn to consciously recognize unfamiliar parts of the landscape; create a habit of seeking out unfamiliar aspects of one’s surroundings, or consciously alter the physical vantage point you observe the landscape from.

Focus on the big picture. One of the most effective ways to recognize patterns and relationships is to sit down and just watch the entire landscape without focusing on any one detail in particular. This allows us to recognize macropatterns which are larger than the detailed sphere of one’s normal awareness.

Give time for processing perceptions and information (minutes to hours to days depending on the scale of your goals). It takes time for the senses to wander and truly learn the landscape.

Have some familiarity with the landscape. Gain experience of the area by means of trial or accompaniment of an elder tracker with a profound knowledge of the area/s.

Though in written form it may sound farfetched, an awareness of one’s instinctual feelings about the landscape and perceptions can help bring attention to things which you may be aware of on a subconscious level.

Understanding in a relational sense involves making connections, rather than just making recognitions. Being able to compare one observation to another or to theoretical knowledge is vital.