I enjoy learning new things and picking up new skills, and the many activities I engage in such as shooting, paintball, backpacking and, of course, prepping give me ample motivation and opportunity to do so. A year or so ago while on a backpacking trip with some friends I met a guy who was a pretty decent tracker, and after he kindly spent some time on that hike showing me some of the basics I decided that tracking (and evading trackers) were some skills that might be useful in a TEOTWAWKI scenario. Since then I’ve taken training classes, read books, researched a lot of online material and invested a good amount of field time in learning how to track both people and animals. The goal of this article is to provide a starting point for understanding the basics of tracking and hopefully give the reader an incentive for adding this skill to your survival arsenal. I want to state that I’m by no means an expert tracker – I’ve only been practicing and learning for about a year, and I have a long way to go before I’d even consider myself a novice, but I thought that sharing my experiences and what I learned might be useful for others.
To begin with, tracking and evading are two sides of the same coin – knowledge of how to track someone can be just as useful for helping you evade pursuers, and developing habits to minimize your ‘footprint’ on the world while instinctively paying attention to the signs left by others can help you in a lot of different scenarios. In a post-disaster environment you may need to track down someone who’s been poaching your livestock or locate a lost family member, or you may need to avoid leading some bad guys back to your homestead. Even in today’s ‘normal’ environment you may be followed or tracked by people that mean you harm.
There are also people that debate the meaning of ‘tracking’ versus ‘following’ someone – ‘tracking’ typically means using signs someone leaves behind in the environment to figure out where they’re going, how many people are involved, etc., whereas ‘following’ typically means maintaining visual contact with the person you want to keep track of. For the purposes of this article I’m just going to use the word ‘tracking’ for both, since the goals are essentially the same.
It’s critical to understand that following or tracking someone can be considered a hostile act, especially in a post-disaster environment, so you need to make sure your goals and abilities justify doing so and act accordingly. Even if you’re just tracking someone to return something they dropped at the local market, they may not know that and assume you’re up to no good.
The foundation of tracking someone is observing, which requires not just noticing what’s going on around you but understanding what it means in your current context. Most people tend to be lost in their own head or their cell phone when moving through the world and fail to notice what’s happening around them. They may glance up occasionally to avoid running into something, but for the most part the details of their current environment barely register. In order to effectively track someone you need to be able to detect the smallest detail out of context – the smaller the detail you can effectively observe the better you’ll be at tracking people. Conversely, to avoid being tracked you need to be constantly thinking about how your actions interact with and impact your environment, which means constantly observing that environment. There are a lot of good articles online that discuss how to improve your powers of observation – I highly recommend investing at least a couple of hours a week to building this foundational skill.
Another important concept for tracking and evading is understanding context – humans are most likely to notice something out of context with the environment. For example, wearing a pink polo shirt and lime green pants will make you stand out in the woods, but wearing a camouflage outfit while walking down a street in Miami Beach will also get you noticed. Movement through a still forest will catch attention, but so will standing still in the middle of a waving field of plants. The sound of metal hitting metal typically won’t even be noticed in an urban environment, but it will stand out as unnatural even in a noisy wilderness environment. When you’re tracking or evading you need to consider the context of the environment in which you’re operating in order to be most effective at either.
Methods of Tracking
Now let’s take a look at the methods you can use to track someone. The first and most obvious one is by sight, since humans tend to rely more heavily on visual cues more than their other senses. Note that I’m referring to actually observing the person(s) being pursued with your own eyes – we’ll discuss seeing signs of their passing shortly. There are number of factors that can help a tracker see their target, including:
- Color – As I mentioned earlier, wearing colors that don’t fit into the current context can make it easier for a tracker to spot you. Camouflage clothing is usually designed to blend in with the colors in the environment so you don’t stand out as much, but in most urban/suburban environments blue jeans and a sweatshirt are less likely to stand out than military camouflage.
- Shape – The human brain is pretty good at detecting certain shapes, especially ones that can be a danger to us (such as other humans). One of the goals of camouflage patterns on clothing is to break up your visual outline so you’re less likely to be detected as a human shape. This is one of the reasons we instinctively tend to duck when we’re trying to avoid being seen, since it changes our shape/outline to look less like a human.
- Movement – The human eye is very good at picking up movement, especially fast movement or movement (or lack thereof) that’s out of context.
- Light – Changes in light patterns are easily detected by the human brain. Sunlight reflecting off of a piece of shiny metal or glass or a flashlight beam in a dark forest will draw a person’s attention. Shadows (or lack of light) can also make it easier to detect a person – if someone is hiding behind a tree and the sun is off to their side, the shadow of that person may be very visible on the ground, giving their location away.
Note that the trackers themselves don’t necessarily have to see the people being tracked – they can potentially interview witnesses to determine if they’ve seen anyone go by recently. Trackers can also utilize technology to enhance and extend what they can see, including binoculars/monoculars, night vision devices, thermal vision devices, drones and flashlights.
Sound is the next method that can be utilized to track people. Someone talking in a normal voice in a quiet wilderness setting can be detected from a pretty good distance, and even walking can result in rocks being kicked and rolling downhill and twigs being broken, all of which cause noise. Walking on crunchy snow/ice or dry leaves tends to be pretty loud, and sound tends to carry a lot further in cold air; warm layers above cold air can result in sound being reflected down, carrying it even further. Soft surfaces like layers of pine needles or soft snow and falling snow/rain can absorb sound and reduce the distance it’s carried, and sounds can carry quite a distance across water. Unnatural sounds like nylon clothing rubbing when you walk, opening a zipper quickly, metal or hard plastic clanking, or pulling some velcro apart can be very noticeable in a quiet environment. Trackers can utilize technology like sound/hearing amplifiers to assist them in detecting and following sounds.
While humans don’t have the same degree of sensitivity to scent as dogs, we can still detect even minuscule amounts of scent from a pretty far away, depending on conditions. Smells such as smoke, food cooking, body odor and bodily waste can be detected from a good distance, depending on environmental conditions. Wind can carry smells for quite a ways, and the reduction in natural organic odors in colder weather can make even minor scents stand out.
Sign is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘tracking’, and it’s any changes you’ve made as a result of interacting with the environment as you move through it. Sign can be footprints, broken branches, discarded food wrappers, disturbed leaves, or anything else that changed in the environment as a result of your passage. There are several characteristics that trackers tend to look for in regards to sign:
- Transfer – Something moved from one part of the environment to another, or off of your person into the environment. This can be mud on the road from your boots when you step out of the woods, a piece of clothing fiber stuck in a branch, blood drops, heat from your footsteps (if the tracker is using thermal vision), etc. Those Action Jackson combat boots with Super Grip Soles might look cool, but they probably leave a pretty distinct footprint pattern and the dirt and other debris that builds up in the soles will eventually fall out, leaving a nice trail.
- Color change – A change in the natural color pattern of the environment. For example, a leaf turned over exposing a lighter-colored bottom, clean light-colored wood from a broken branch, lighter dry soil where you waited out a rain shower under your poncho, disturbed soil, etc.
- Shape change – A change in the natural shape of things – e.g. a plant folded down, a branch broken, etc.
- Regularity – Regular shapes that don’t typically appear in the environment, like straight lines or geometric shapes in a boot print.
- Discards – Unnatural things that the target leaves behind, like a wrapper or the remains of a fire.
Locating sign in the wilderness tends to be a lot easier than in rural/suburban/urban areas, since there’s a lot more impressionable material for a person to impact; following someone along roads and among buildings will typically require you to maintain visual contact with the target. Trackers can locate sign using technology such as thermal vision to detect residual body heat, flashlights to provide contrast (e.g. holding the light parallel to the ground to expose small features) or enhanced sight in low-light situations, infrared vision (most man-made material tend to glow brighter in infrared) and enhanced optics to locate sign at a distance.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)