ArmaSkin is delighted to feature this introduction to Tracking from Kyt Lyn Walken. As Kyt points out this is an art that takes time to learn, but is a powerful skill that you can acquire.
For of our readers not skilled in Tracking, we follow this article with some additional general advice from Darren Edwards of Trail Hiking for that occasion where you may become lost.
by Kyt Lyn Walken
Kyt Lyn Walken is the official European representative and instructor for Hull's Tracking School (Virginia, USA), and she is a certified Wildlife Conservation Ranger for C.R.O.W. (Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide). She has been an outdoors and tracking enthusiast since childhood.
Kyt currently lives and works in Europe while often traveling overseas.
Tracking is truly an ancient Art and a fascinating Science. It consists of distinguishing, studying and reading human and animal tracks. Basically, it’s about studying and comprehending the reaction of each type of surface to the passage of men and animals with the specific purpose of understanding what exactly happened in a certain place inside a specific time frame.
Modern applications of an ancient Art
This primitive art, established on a process which involves both observation and cogitation, happens to be still alive. When crises and catastrophes occur, the art of tracking may take on a special value as it has been (and amazingly continues to be!) successfully employed in disparate fields as search and rescue, law enforcement, border operations, wildlife conservation and forensic science. But this art can be profitably applied to everyday life too, as growing a Tracker mindset means to enhance your situational acuity and, by that, allowing you to avoid mishaps, or to save yourself should you get lost in the Great Outdoors.
In fact, a tracker should not necessarily be a fan of old times, but rather he/she lives right in the present: throughout the application of this art, it is possible to collect information and evolve a clear picture in mind.
Nonetheless, tracking isn’t a subject you can acquire in a few days, but once gained, it will serve you as a faithful skill all your life, making the difference even in an emergency situation.
Why learn to read, to interpret and to follow tracks
Any worst-case scenario has its own features and what we can actually define as "rules of engagement". Prohibitive weather conditions, lack of proper gear, absence of cardinal points or unavailability of connection for mobile phones (or GPS): if we add to that an inadequate preparedness, we can easily find ourselves abandoning soon every hope to get out sound and safe.
As I often stress with my Students during Basic Tracking Classes, the starting point is ATTITUDE, which is strictly connected to MINDSET. The vanishing point is to give up.
I know no Skills in which you can't apply this perspective.
The Art of Tracking is no different.
Equally speaking, becoming a Tracker can be extremely useful if you find yourself lost, especially if you have no GPS and the connection is totally off.
Being stranded can surely be a good way to test your Survival (and Bushcraft, why not?) abilities, but we can't ignore our very first instinct: move along before the darkness come, search for help.
In a few words, come back sound and safe.
Reading the tracks of other people on ground, for example, can lead you to a safe place: a parking area, the next road, and so on. No doubt you need to be very good in that, especially if the soil is clearly tough to read due to the presence of rocks, gravel, leaves, grass and so on. Sandy and muddy soils are certainly precious aids in locating the trail to follow. On them, in fact, we can clearly see the outline of footprints.
Considering the case where you are an experienced Tracker, backtracking yourself will be probably your very first choice. You may be familiar with your stride (the total length of your pace, measured from heel of left footprint to heel of right, or from toe to toe) and you know how to recognize the pattern (the design) of your boots.
Sounds easy, right?
You can't be more wrong. In fact, to reach even the lowest level of being a proficient Tracker, you should have gained experiences in years and years of "dirt time on ground" (as defined by Tracking's terminology).
Every skill that can save your life requires that, and the ancient (and still so valuable!) art of reading, interpreting, and following Tracks makes no exception.
How to get started
Now let's see deeper in how the Art of Tracking exactly works.
The fundamentals of it consist in two main topics: Where to look, and How to look.
A powerful and meaningful quote by Charles Worsham: “You see what you know or think to know. The trick is to know what to see,” makes clear the essence of the above-mentioned issues.
- How much information can we gain from a single track?
One single footprint can reveal a lot of data:
- the age of the track itself
- the type of shoe that left it (Tracking manuals enlist them in three main categories: tennis shoes, boots and classic shoes, according to the design of their pattern related to the sole)
- the gender of the owner of the track (male or female phenotype)
- the presence (or absence) of loads the person is carrying
By an entire set of tracks (left foot and right foot) you are enabled also to calculate the stride (the length of the whole pace, from toe to toe) and the straddle (the inner distance between two tracks). These additional details allow you to better understand the dynamic of the passage of the person (easy walk, sudden stop, fast run, and so on).
All this information becomes consistent elements for a Tracker, who is like a Detective: he/she observes, analyzes, compares and follows them.
- How to start to become a Tracker
Developing a proper observation in Tracking can come in handy in your hikes and trails.
The terrain – and its variations – plays indeed a huge role in spotting and consequently following tracks,
Learning to read tracks on any kind of soil makes the difference between a novice Tracker and an experienced one. Simply and clearly, there’s no terrain in which you cannot track. There’s also no weather condition which prevents you from tracking.
The Tracking terminology calls any type of track “disturbances”. They can be extremely visible or totally tough even to notice. Learning how to spot them anywhere, anytime, and at very first sight, requires a huge amount of experience. Trackers call it “dirt time on ground”.
As mentioned before, firstly observation and, in second instance, deduction are two essential phases in Tracking. Without a proper visual and holistic analysis of the specific terrain (as well as of the entire area you find yourself in), you cannot start the follow up. First you see, then you understand which tracks are of your interest. In last instance, you put the pieces of the puzzle together and you have a complete picture. Combining all the elements together will enable you to set an accurate storage of data which will help you to face your further steps in Tracking with a more aware mentality.
Different terrain = different tracks = different perspective
Some terrain are surely of utter aid to a Tracker. Muddy or sandy areas are the top options to consider when your desire is to pinpoint tracks. We call them "Track traps" in Tracking. Same talk for snow, as most of you have already experienced. In fact, tracks on these soils immediately grab our attention: for this reason, Mike Hull described them as “local newspapers”. This is totally true. Observing all the footprints helps you to form the mentality of a good Observer and Tracker too.
The dynamic of a step involves that the ball of our foot strikes first, then the foot rolls forward and, ultimately, stands on the toe. Our shoes, as well as animals’ hoofs or paws, get in contact with the ground or in a straight relocation of twigs, dead and dry leaves, rocks, soil and pebbles. In this way, the bare ground happens to be no longer topped by other debris. This is a clear example of a track found on difficult terrain.
Consider that any Track represents an alteration of the natural state of an environment (and consequently of a terrain). This means that if your eyes spot anything which is clearly "out of balance", that sign is certainly a track, or perhaps and indicator of the passage of a man or an animal. A sharply bended leaf, a broken twig, a twisted branch: all these details can lead you to understand a kind of fresh transition inside an area. If you need to backtrack yourself, you will pay attention to your stride (your pace), and even to the design of your shoe soles. In this manner you will make sure not to get confused with others.
What about tracking on tough grounds like craggy slopes, former dry glaciers or even inside a city?
If we consider tracking on high altitude, we will immediately realize that being a Tracker there can be extremely demanding. Just think to the dynamic of a footstep: the rocks will be moved by the pression practiced, and they will slip forward. Then you got tracks to follow, by searching for potholes in correspondence to their original location.
Actions you can take if you get lost in the Great Outdoors
By that said, there are some simple but effective actions you can take if you find yourself in an unfamiliar area, or if you cannot signal your presence to the local Search and Rescue.
First things first: don't panic and consider the situation you are in. Reckon – honestly! - the level of your skills in case you want to start backtracking yourself.
- IF YOU ARE A PROFICIENT TRACKER
Know your pace and the pattern (the sole design) of your shoes. Take advantage of any area with soft terrain to relocate your own tracks like humid and shady spots, river bench and so on.
Consider the freshness of the damage in vegetation in case you crossed a prairie.
In woodlands, pay attention to straight creases, leaves left upside down in a very unnatural position and any small twig broken. If fresh, the two parts should completely match. Dislodged pebbles are easy to spot: the presence of darken, wet soil is pretty flashy.
In a pine forest, you should recognize the small “tepees” of pine needles produced by your stepping on them.
Proceed using common sense and simply stay on your tracks. Respect the golden rule of tracking by observing tracks from the best perspective: keep the footprints between you and the source of light. In case of twilight, shady areas or the upcoming darkness, replace natural light with a flashlight. Headlights can work as well, but hold them with your hands to create a minor distance with the terrain.
- IF YOU AREN'T A PROFICIENT TRACKER
Look carefully all the area around you. Check for fresh and evident animal tracks in order to reach a river. By following it, you should be able to reach an urbanized centre.
Check for other fresh footprints to understand if any possible trail has been recently beaten and look for help.
Pay attention to any possible mechanical sound (like a zip) which could reveal the presence of other people nearby. The sudden flight of birds can also indicate the proximity of other individuals.
Make yourself visible by reaching open land and try to contact the emergency number.
In case you need to spend the night out, (and you have no survival knowledge) stay far away from caves and holes you aren't sure of. Look above and check for widow makers trees and any nests. Use the vegetation to protect yourself from hypothermia. Observation always play a huge role to take advantage of all the resources we are surrounded by.
All Trackers are trained, not born. So, if you are allured by the benefits of this ancient Art, you have nothing else to do than apply yourself to it, with humility, patience and dedication, which are the main features of a good Tracker to be.
A good starting point could be to take advantage of some time during your hikes to observe your own footprints. To see if you can spot clearly where you left your signs of passage. Day by day, you will become familiar with all the terrains you are challenging yourself on.
In case you will need to backtrack yourself for real, you will already have this Art at easy reach inside your luggage of knowledge.
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And now some general advice from Darren Edwards of Trail Hiking Australia
Here’s a few tips:
- Don’t panic! This wastes energy and leads to poor decision making
- Stop, stay calm and think
- Separated from your group? Shout out then wait for a response. Don’t run blindly towards where you think they might be
- Retrace your steps a short distance and see if you can find the trail
- Check your map and try to determine where you are by the contours and your compass. You might need to gain some height for orientation
- If you have no idea where you are, STAY WHERE YOU ARE!
- If you’re in a group ALWAYS STAY TOGETHER! There is safety in numbers and rescue teams don’t need to be searching for multiple groups
- If you have mobile reception, call 000 and ask for police. The international standard emergency number is 112, if you dial this number in Australia you will be treated exactly the same as a 000 call. In areas of marginal coverage SMS can be more reliable than voice, but 000 does not accept SMS messages. If SMS is the only way you seem to be able to connect, then you will have to SMS a friend and get them to call 000 for you
- If you have a Spot, InReach or satellite communication device, activate your emergency response.
- Make your position visible to rescue teams by placing bright items (pack cover, bright clothing etc.) in an open and clearly visible area
- If you believe your life is at risk, activate your personal locator beacon (PLB)
- It can take time for rescuers to reach you, so your priority is to find or build a shelter to keep warm and dry. Remember to remain visible.
- Find a water source if it’s safe to do so and ration your food and water if necessary.