Tracking And Awareness: How To Make A Tracking Stick

Building familiarity with tracks will teach details about the people or animals who make them.
foot on sand tracking animals
In time, trails reveal themselves almost like magic.

One of the most common and fun studies within the outdoor skills community is tracking. The practice of tracking on any level changes our attitude by making us more aware of what’s around us and also by pointing out how we influence a given area with our own presence. Tracking and stealth are related since perception is what defines true “invisibility.”

A fun home project is making a tracking stick. A tracking stick is any object with pre-measured marks of various length.  It should be strong and lightweight for field use and include small increments to differentiate between members of the same species by measuring tracks. I’ve notched old tent pole sections as well as actual sticks.  It can be helpful to measure your own body parts and memorize various lengths so you always have a measuring “stick” on you. Fingers, fist, palm, handspan, forearm, foot, can all become tracking sticks of their own and be used in any environment including urban terrain.

Objects that you carry for the job at hand also work. Military trackers will measure out weapon sections and use their rifle as a tracking stick. This can be a serious liability – laying your weapon down and using it as a measuring stick. Such action should only be taken if you have a team and your buddy has full attention down range, weapon ready. Three person tracking teams are an ideal balance between mobility and security. We assume that such a team would be tracking a potentially hostile party and there’s no better time to get a first strike in than when the pursuer is studying the ground, weapon down. Beware the tendency to stay “eyes down” while tracking to the detriment of greater awareness. 

Use the tracking stick to determine stride length or the distance from heel to heel. Make note of outward or inward angles. You will find that males tend to angle toes out and females toes in. Males tend to have wider tracks and trail width as a rule. Tracking a group of people can seem intimidating, so here are a few Appalachian secrets. Mountain people have been keeping an eye on visitors for a long, long time. Using a tracking stick, mark off an area in the trail where impressions are easily discerned that is 36” in length. Count every single human track you can find. Divide the total by two and you’ll have an accurate measurement of how many people were traveling in the group. You can do this for animals as well if you know the stride length average. This is known as the Box Method.

Another more precise estimation tool is the Key Track Method. Identify the last track made by the group. This track will be on top of all other tracks and is fairly visible. For beginning trackers locate a soft area of dirt or mud to estimate group numbers. Note the stride length of the Key Track maker by using a tracking stick or by cutting a stick or length of fiber/cord to precise length – save it and use later as well. Box off the area within Key Track stride length and count; up to 18 people can be counted using this method depending on terrain and skill. 

Building familiarity with tracks will teach details about the people or animals who make them. We might notice that one person always drags the outside of their left foot a little, and the condition is worsening over time. Someone else might be unusually weighted for their foot size indicating a heavy load. Tired people tend to drag the toe as it leaves a track spraying out sand or debris in the direction of travel. When you are ready to leave the handicap of soft mud behind take the knowledge with you and imagine how these foot pressures react with different surface types. In a leafy forest you can carefully remove leaves to see greater detail in the soft dirt below, although with practice the trail is easy to see without doing so. The detail might be necessary to identify a particular animal and make sure we are on the correct game trail since they often intersect and cross over one another.

In time, trails reveal themselves almost like magic. Have you ever learned a language and marveled at that moment when the gibberish of sound started to reveal a word here and there, then a few more, and then a concept or an idea, even a sentence? Trails are similar. Sometimes I will say “wow look at that trail” and the other person with me will say, “Where?” It’s so obvious, and they might even think they see something but doubt themselves. Before long the entire mountain begins to look like a busy city with highways and crosswalks, roads and trails, covered with the language of movement trapped in time. Time dissipates the story, erasing memory of the forest. The best way to see through the veil of time is to build a Tracking Box.


Spencer 2 Dogs
Spencer 2 Dogs Bolejack operates Land of the Sky Wilderness School in Western North Carolina where he lives with his wife and three kids. An apprentice of mountain man Eustace Conway in the 1990s, Bolejack holds rank in multiple styles of martial arts including a 5th degree black belt in ninjutsu. After a rough start at Appalachian, he gave everything away and moved into the woods for a total of three years, surviving on little and accumulating many of the skills discussed in camp. Eventually graduating from UNC-A, he has taught public school, won state level awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has been published in Best Practices for Middle School Teachers and has taught internationally. The 11th generation Carolinian also co-hosted 59 episodes of Discovery’s Hillbilly Blood, and teaches yearly at the Firefly Gathering.

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