The Art of Trailing

The question that a lot of people always want to ask but don't when it comes to trailing: Is this real? Can a you or I really learn to follow a trail, track by track, without the aid of sand or snow or mud? It is common in myths, books, and movies to see incredible feats of tracking and several hyped up and popularized trackers make wild claims of skill with little to no verification, so it leaves a question, is the art of trailing real or just something humans wish they could do? Do you have to be a wilderness god or raised by indigenous people to really be able to trail?

 After over a decade of studying tracking I have learned the following when it comes to trailing: It is not possible to trail a subject 100% of the time. There are environmental conditions that make it impossible to continue on a trail. When confronted with this reality, the fantasy of the tracker who can always find the trail is destroyed, and often I see that dispel peoples belief in the value of trying to learn it. People get discouraged, "If someone who has been studying tracking for this long can't even do it, it is either impossible for me to learn or just plain not possible at all..."

I teach tracking quite often and see these attitudes displayed, despite the fact that real life experience teaches us that nothing is 100%, that life is plan B or C, or on and on. So to me the questions with any skill I am pursuing is this, can this skill be developed to a point of usefulness? And the answer to this question in regards to trailing is: absolutely.

The unbelievable part of learning trailing is that it is not even really that hard to do. The skill of following a track is mainly a function of time spent practicing, the mechanics are simple. Once you get the hang of learning to identify a fresh disturbance, do some basic measuring, and develop the ability to remain focused for long periods of time you will be able to follow a trail in good conditions. Anyone who tells you otherwise is after your wallet or has not pushed it enough to know. It takes time and is something you can always practice more, always get better at, but basic proficiency takes nothing more than a few months of diligently going out and trying to do it for a few hours a week. Not getting discouraged and quitting when you lose a trail is easily half the battle.

 There is a point at which your ability to detect a disturbance does not exist. There is a limit to our human sensory potential. I know that is not a popular thing to say, but it is for the most part, true. Our senses can only be so sharp. Disturbance to baseline (a track) will be destroyed by weather and other disturbances to the substrate (ground). After a point there is nothing to follow, no track to magically perceive. This is where the wild claims of mythology and fiction get us into trouble, because they pervert the reality of tracking, and make us believe that there is something wrong with us, or tracking if we cannot accomplish these feats of extrasensory tracking.

 People get scared away from trailing because they do not believe that they are capable of learning to track like the mythic tracker or the movie hero, so why bother? There are also tracking teachers out there who tell students that they cannot see tracks yet because they are not advanced enough, have not put in enough dirt time, or even somehow make it a spiritual problem. This is crazy talk. I have seen instructors at different schools clearly lying about tracks and then hide behind the shield of "You just cannot see it yet and need to try harder". If an instructor cannot point out to you what they are looking and/or is unable to adequately describe why they are reading the ground the way they are, you are in trouble, find a different instructor. Our eyes all work the same way, we are just more or less trained at noticing tracks and disturbances, there is no transcendent moment of glory when you become Tom Brown Jr. and start to see tracks in day glow orange from a moving helicopter.

Tracking is a fundamental human skill. We are hardwired for it. Our ability to perceive a symbol and turn it into a mental image came from tracking for survival purposes, our ability to read; to see the word "forest" and have it produce an image in our mind is a basic human ability. So given the fact that we are all just as capable at learning trailing what does it take to become proficient?

 Time and Practice

Like most of the useful skills I have been developing, tracking takes time, both for actual practice and for your brain to assimilate the information and make use of it. Tracking is a cumulative skill, the more you do it the better you get, the more you know the more experiences and mistakes you have to draw on. Trailing is an especially perishable skill, in that you will be much better at it if you keep yourself tuned into tracks all the time and practice regularly.

 A Place to Track and Things that Leave Tracks

You need a place where you can cut fresh trails from heavy animals wearing hard shoes. That means people (not wearing moccasins or mukluks), deer, moose, or anything else biggish and heavy and with relatively sharp edged feet. Ideally this place will have varied terrain and substrate to frustrate and confound you as you try to follow someone or something through it. If you cannot find fresh animal tracks to follow make a friend put on some hiking boots and play a game of hide and seek. (At first when you are learning you might want to suggest they bring an especially engaging book as it will take you some time to find them). Start with short distance goals and work up to longer range trailing. Be ready to fail and try again.

 A Friend to Practice With

Everyone sees the ground a little differently, everyone is turned into and tunes into different aspects of a scene. Bring along another tracker interested in learning trailing and you will learn twice as much as you learn to pick up on the things that others notice that you do not. Ideally this person will be better than you at tracking.

 Basic Resources

After you have taken a basic class or two in tracking, here or somewhere else, or read the beginning of the Elbroch Mammal Tracking Of North America and checked out a couple other good tracking reads like Halfpenny and Rezendez, the rest is up to you and this other person you have suckered into making you better at tracking. For trailing I would rather pay a better tracker than myself to go tracking with them then pay to go to a large class and be lectured. Just saying.

 Time

No, seriously, it take a lot of time and patience and failure to get better. You will though, and honestly surprisingly fast. For such a bad ass skill as being able to trail a person or a deer through the forest you are going to need to pay up to the gods of persistence. But week by week your brain and eyes will start to pick out tracks with more and more ease.

 Honesty

Here is a place I see some weakness in the world of tracking. Set realistic goals. "I want to be able to trail a person 100 yards through leaf litter or grass when the tracks are less than 1 day old." Not really that hard, not a bad first goal. "I want to track a bobcat across solid rock and gravel six months after the trail was made and be able to tell age, sex, weight, and how many whiskers they had." If this sounds like what you want then I am here to tell you sorry, but I just don't see it happening. You might need to readjust you sights.

 A Varied View

Tracking is a function of light reflecting off of a surface, our eyes collecting it, and our brains interpreting it. You have to vary your perspective in order to see some tracks. Often (not always) tracks are easier to see if the track is between you and the source of light. Often tracks are easier to see at a low angle of view, accomplished by either being ten feet away from the track or by getting your eyes closer to the ground. Looking directly down at a track from standing is often the worst place to see a track.

 Good Tracking Conditions

You don't know what this means yet, but you will. After a few weeks you will know which conditions of temperature, moisture, sunlight and quality of light, and substrates are easiest and hardest to follow a trail in. Dryer conditions tend to be harder to age tracks in, and aging is one of the easiest ways to stay on the correct trail.

 There really is not much more to it. It is an instinctive thing, to follow a trail and the real learning comes in the doing. Have fun with it. Follow the trail until you lose it and then find another and do it again. If you stick to it you will find yourself able to follow the trail through more and more difficult substrates and through more confusing interference tracks. And maybe one day we can go tracking and you can point out something I missed.

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