Tracking can be defined as the Art and Science of locating, reading and pursuing animals and/or men by their tracks.
Even if primordial, this skill has been successfully handed down to current times, passing through centuries of discoveries, explorations, technological development, without losing her very basis, rules and power too. I do not use the word “power” by chance, as the remarkable applications of Tracking have been widely known since Primitive Era. From hunting to defensive purposes, this Art has always come into play with extreme effectiveness.
Written Kyt Lyn Walken, Instructor at Hull’s Tracking School and Certified Conservation Ranger for the NGO Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide.
What is Tracking?
If the first picture which dawns on you is simply related to Native Americans, who proved to be exceptional Scouts (Scout, infact, is a synonym of “Tracker”), you should consider a wider perspective.
Indeed, this Art has been employed by Trappers at the age of the Old Frontier as well as during the Vietnam war. Not to mention Colonial Time in which she played a valuable role in the frantic fight against local guerrilla, involved into rapid operations to gain independence from the Mother Country.
Albeit never abandoned by Border Patrol and Search and Rescue Teams – they both consider Tracking the very cornerstone of their modus operandi – tactically speaking this art knew a period of abrupt oblivion in the late Seventies, as her validity started to be considered less effective than any GPS or locatization devices.
Nonethelss, the US Army decided to bring it back in training in 2007: reading the terrain, in fact, could make the difference in identifying IED in Afghanistan, and, consequently, reducing casualities.
Thus, Tracking is alive and well, still serving those who truly believe in her power.
Tracking 101: The Basics
All through the centuries, nothing seems to have changed inside Tracking. This skill, infact, has remained stick to her very core, keeping the same rules and procedures, as her essence consists in one fundamental element: observation.
Observation not only allows you to develop a huge awareness of any specific scenario you are in (either urban and outdoors), but it provides all the elements necessary to reconstruct what really happened in a determined time/space frame.
This is, essentially, the purpose of Tracking.
Tracking is, long story short, quite similar to solve a puzzle. The first steps is collecting the pieces, then matching them together in order to get the whole picture.
This happens to be quite simple in “easy” terrains (so called “track traps” in the Tracking terminology,) like muddy, sandy soils, or on snow, but way more tough on difficut surfaces like bed of leaves (or pine needles), craggy slopes or freshly bush hogged praires. And so on.
What you can clearly see on a specific soil, mostly rich of humidity, appears to be quite impossible to detect elsewhere.
The challenge of Tracking is being able:
- to carefully observe what surrounds you
- to gain data based on the scenario you are in (any sign of urbanization? Fresh passage of vehicles or persons and/or animals?..)
- to start looking for the tracks you wish to follow
- to interpret them in an accurate way
- to finally follow them
At this very point, the question “Why should I do that?” is more than legit.
The answer is pretty straightforward and simple: because Tracking can make the difference between life and death.
Tracking Applications in Survival Situations
As I often stress out with my students, no matter if you are an experienced backpacker, a truehiker, a Survivalist or a simple oudoor enthusiast: the ability of reading tracks can come in handy, especially when the worst overcomes.
The possibility of being stranded, with no GPS, and no chance to call the Search and Rescue is not so much remote. News daily report of people (with way distinct backgrounds) stranded somewhere and forced to face a situation they could have never imagine.
1. Backtrack Yourself
If you aren’t too rusty with your Tracking skills and you actually find yourself on a real good terrain (those “Track Traps” mentioned some lines above), you can be lucky enoug to be able to backtrack yourself by checking the design of the soles of your shoes (Trackers call it “pattern”).
I can’t stress enough to be extremely precise in doing it, as a miss-interpretation could lead you in following the tracks of those who passed before you. Even considering a sudden change of the ground, you should be good in detecting your own trackline and reach your point “A” (where you parked your car, for example).
2. Tracking Others to Find a Way To Get Out
With basic elements of Tracking, you can actually overcome the first, bad, sensation you could feel: panic. Infact, if you stay focused and if you keep control of your anguish, then it is pretty mandatory to start considering the specific spot you are.
Let’s start from observation, and pair it with long breathing.
Then focus on answering to the following questions, in order to compose the correct puzzle:
- Are there any signs of urbanization insight?
- Are any roads visible?
- Any sound I can easily connect to men-made?
- Any trace, on the ground, of the recent passage of people?
If you feel familiar enough in what you see on the ground, you can follow the tracks previously other individuals left, always considering to descend towards the closest road, or camping site and so on.
3. Tracking Connected with Survival Skills
If you have no other chances than spending the night out, you can look for a proper area where to set your camp and apply Observation and Tracking Skills in order to check a safe place, far away from any wasp nests or widow maker, at the proper distance from any animal passage, avoiding taking advantages of any den, even if it seems old or abandoned.
Then you can come along tracking fresh animal tracks to locate the proximity of wadi to get water to filter and purify.
Don’t forget to look carefully at the ground in order to choose the proper place/s where to set tracks and provide yourself proteins.
If all the mentioned cases (and tips) could sound to you nothing more than plain common sense, well, consider that Tracking is exactly that. Common sense, paired with your ability to “take risks early“, as Special Air Service always recommends, is the true core of this primordial, but still powerful Art.
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