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Tracking Skills


F. C. Selous DSO
May 5, 2011
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Of all the skills a Bushman has, none are more important, for both the scouting of game and in times of hostilities when we need to locate possible threats in the woods, before or after an event.

Tracking is a skill, some will equate it to an art, but it is a skill any person can learn given enough time, practise and a good mentor. It is not a skill that can be learned from a book or from a single post on a blog. However, these sources can aid you in learning some of the skills needed for tracking.

I studied tracking under a couple of different people, my first teacher came from Southern Africa, he was at one time a soldier, a game ranger and a hunter. He spent a great deal of time tracking enemy combatants in Mozambique and later in Angola & South West Africa (now Namibia). From him I studied mostly, what could be called “Unconventional” Tracking experienced in Africa in the 70’s and 80’s.

My other teachers were military instructors of the jungle warfare school in Northern Australia; they came from many backgrounds and were a wealth of knowledge when it comes to dense jungle and forests.

I love tracking; it opens your eyes to a completely new world, especially when you combine it with other scouting skills. A tracker is the epitome of the scout and woodsman.

What is tracking?

Simply put it is the application of observation combined with knowledge of the bush, to follow and catch a fixed quarry.

How do we track? How do you read the signs left behind?

These signs are called spoor, a 19th Century Afrikaans word (Spor) meaning “track”, as in animal foot prints. Spoor falls broadly into two areas, ground and aerial, ground spoor is anything that is found below the level of your ankle, aerial spoor is found from ankle to over your head.

Ground spoor:

- Foot prints

- Disturbed earth

- Kicked over rocks

- Crushed insects

- Embedded twigs

- Transferred mud/soil/sand

- blood

Aerial Spoor:

- Trampled grass

- Broken brush

- Broken cobwebs

- Scuff marks on tree trunks

Simply put you are looking for anything that does not belong in nature…

Ok, now you have found your sign, ask yourself:

- How many?

- How old?

- Which way?

How many?

Draw a line across the trail, then measure off 75cm (30 inches), the length of one stride, draw a second line. Count the number of prints in the “box”, this will tell you how many have passed through the area. This is a good exercise to do on a known game trail to help determine the number of people/animals who have passed through a set area. (Note: this will only work for groups of 10 or less people)

How old?

Aging is a little more difficult. Tracks lose their sharp defined edges over time due to the actions of wind, rain and sun, wind will erode them, rain washes them away, and sun dries and cracks the medium (soil/sand/mud/dust/etc.)

Ask yourself:

- When did it rain & how much?

- Has it been windy?

- When did the sun come up?

- How much moisture?

Which way?

Simple… use a compass. But, remember animals travel in a general direction. Also, when man tracking, you need to follow up for about 2000m/yrds to determine a true direction of travel.

So… you know, how many, how old and which way… now how do you follow up?

The first rule of tracking… NEVER follow the tracks! Huh? What!? Never follow the tracks… but I thought that was the whole point?

The short answer… no.

What you will need to do is look at the direction of movement. Squat down and look along the track; remember lines of drift… humans and animals are lazy. They will always take the easiest route possible, whether it is a cape buffalo or a team of guerrillas hauling ass from an ambush, why go up hill when they can go down? Why cross a creek when I can follow it? Why walk through a dense thicket when I can use the gap? (Get the picture?)

Ok, so the next step… get into the skin of the quarry.

Ask yourself, what would I do?

Ok, so its midday and it is getting hot… where would I want to be? A shady place close to water sounds good… what time do I normally eat? Do I have a fixed ritual? Am I going to or from a place of safety? Am I going to a place of supply (water/food/etc.)?

Getting inside their head/skin is the secret to a good tracker. If you do not know your quarry well enough to know what they are doing and feeling right this moment your skill as a tracker will be minimal.

Ok… we are inside their skin…. Now what?

- Do not walk directly on the track.

- Always try to track into the sun, it’s easier to see the spoor’s shadow

- If you must track away from the sun, look over your shoulder once in a while, it gives you the same view as tracking into the sun

- When tracking man, think about the terrain as you move also & ask: where would I lay in wait on this trail? Where would the best camp spots be? Where is the nearest water? Where is the nearest safe location?

At some point as a scout on the trail, you will run out of daylight, so you will have to sleep on the spoor until its first light and continue.

Now combine all the skills touched on here and add the skills noted in my scouting posts, this would add up to a good set of basic skills to start you off. As you get used to tracking you will develop your own way of doing things, no two trackers will do their job in the same way, since tracking is not a cookie cutter skill, but rather a personal interpretation of the basic skills.

As a tracker you will be most effective on the ground you know, once you move to a location you have never been before, your ability to track is reduced, and this is why you need to conduct regular scouts of the areas you hunt, etc. the more familiar you become with the area the more ability you will have to think ahead of the quarry, it will be easier to answer the questions asked above and head off the quarry.

With common sense and a degree of experience, you can track. You must develop the following traits and qualities to be successful.

- Be patient and steady.

- Be able to move slowly and quietly, yet steadily, while detecting and interpreting signs.

- Avoid fast movement that may cause you to overlook signs, lose the spoor, or blunder into a group that is counter tracking.

- Be persistent and have the skill and desire to continue the mission even though signs are scarce or bad weather or terrain is destroying the spoor.

- Be determined and persistent when trying to find a spoor you have lost.

- Be observant and try to see things that are not obvious at first glance.

- Use your sense of smell and hearing to supplement your sight and intuition.

- Develop a feel for things that do not look right. It may help you regain a lost trail or discover additional spoor.

- Know the quarry, its habits, equipment, and capability.

A simple pneumonic to help you whileT.R.A.C.K.I.N.G: the rules…


Tracker sets the pace.

Record the start point.

Always know your position.

Confirm on aerial spoor.

Keep in visual contact.

Identify the correct tracks.

Never walk on ground spoor.

Get into the quarry's mind.


David Scott-Donelan

(T.R.A.C.K.I.N.G pneumonic thanks to David Scott-Donelan - Combat Tracking Handbook)


Henry Arthur Readford
May 23, 2011
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Quote ""it opens your eyes to a completely new world""
how very very true
The traits and qualities you you mention how true slow and steady gets you over the finish line. also enhances your ability to process other things more clearly too not just tracking