Tracking Activities

The following activities can be used with almost any age group.
You can modify the activity if necessary.

Plaster Casting

Supplies needed:

Plaster of Paris
Mixing container
Stick or spoon for mixing
Thin cardboard strips (optional)

Find a good track that shows a lot of detail. If needed, gently remove any leaves or sticks that have fallen into the track. You can very gently blow away some of the excess dirt, but be careful not to destroy the track. If you want, you can use the cardboard strip to form a wall around the track to contain the plaster. This is useful if the track is on a slope and the plaster will run out. Pour dry plaster into your mixing container. Then, pour in some water and mix with a stick or spoon until you have plaster that is about the consistency of pancake batter. Slowly pour the plaster into the track, being careful to get plaster into all the toes and claw marks. You can let the plaster overflow the edges of the track. Let it dry for about half an hour. To check for dryness, knock gently on the plaster. If it has a ceramic sounding ring, it is dry enough to pick up. If the plaster is still mushy, leave it to dry longer. Some plaster, especially art casting plaster, can take an hour to dry. The plaster used by carpenters is best because it dries quickly. When you pick up the track, try not to grab the edges as these sometimes break off. Itís best to lift the track from underneath. I use a stick or knife to get under the track and lift. Be careful if you do this with a big track as this can cause the casting to crack. After youíve picked up the cast, let it dry overnight before trying to get the dirt off. Some dirt will not wash off. You can paint the casting if you want. Casting in snow can be difficult because the plaster generates heat as it dries. Try misting the snow with water from a spray bottle. Let the water freeze for a while. This may firm up the track enough to make a casting. Castings may be taken home or back to class for further study. Identify the animal that made it and look up information about the animalís life history.

Tip: To make the plaster dry quicker, add a little salt to the mixture. Be careful; it dries really fast. To slow down the drying process, add a little vinegar.



Supplies needed:

Pencils or pens

Making drawings of tracks forces you to look closely at the details of the print. This closer look will help you to remember that track if you ever encounter it again. I sketch tracks in pencil. If youíre a better artist than me, which you probably are, you can do pen and ink drawings, or even paintings. I stick to pencil sketches because I donít have great art skills. Drawings can be taken home or back to class where the track-maker can be identified. Itís helpful to look at the vegetation and note the environment where you find the track. This can help you identify some species.


Whole Track Collecting

Supplies needed:

Cookie sheet
Butter knife
Paper towels

(Kids - get your parents permission before you use their kitchen utensils for this activity.)

This is a nifty new trick that Iíve been experimenting with. I live near a river and have a lot of silt and mud available to track in. Recently, I tried picking up whole tracks in mud. I took a cookie sheet and a butter knife and a spatula out to the river bar and found a patch of nice soft mud. It was loaded with tracks. The mud should not be so soft that it is runny and not so firm that you cannot easily cut it. I found some mouse tracks that showed all the toes and claw marks. Using the butter knife, I cut a square in the mud around the track. Then, I carefully slid the spatula under the little mud brick and gently lifted it out. I pushed it very gently onto the cookie sheet. Try to keep the mud brick as flat as possible on the bottom. This prevents cracking as it dries. I find that small tracks work best for this. The larger the track, the more likely it is to crack as it dries. If you donít have a flat bottom to the brick, the mud will settle and ruin the track. I take these cookie sheets inside and set them somewhere where they can dry for a few days. Once theyíre dry, you can pick them up. I find that mud with high clay content works best because it holds together when itís dry. The sandier the mud, the more likely your track is to fall apart. I have tried spraying these bricks with clear lacquer to preserve them, but they are extremely fragile. These are best used as study collections. It would be best to make a collection and keep them under glass or something for study. Handling them too much causes them to fall apart. (Note: The paper towels are for cleaning up your hands after you have been playing in the mud.)

Along the same lines, you can, in some areas, find mud that has dried and cracked into big flat pieces. Sometimes, looking closely at these mud sections can yield some pretty good tracks. Iíve had some luck with just picking up the whole section and breaking off the part with the track I want.

Photographing Tracks


Supplies needed:

Tripod (optional)

Photographing tracks is best done without a flash. The flash will put too much light on the track and wash out the details. (Unless you can place a flash on the opposite side of the track from you, but most of us donít carry that kind of equipment out into the field.) You should try to keep the track between yourself and the light source. This viewing angle allows you to see the most shadows in the track. This helps the track stand out from the surrounding soil. You can use black and white or color film. I like to take close up shots of individual tracks and get pictures of trail patterns. These can be useful later for species identification.


Baited Track Plates

Preparation of track plates needed for this
activity should be done by an adult.

Supplies needed:

Flat sheets of aluminum
Acetylene torch and acetylene
Tripod (optional)
Bait (peanut butter, chicken or dog food)

The idea here is to coat the aluminum plates with soot from the acetylene torch. You can put the plates on two sawhorses and burn the torch underneath them to get soot on them. Be careful and only handle the plates by the edges so you donít smudge the soot surface. You might want to have a box to carry the plates into the field so that they arenít smudged by rubbing against each other. Carry your plates out to a place where youíve found tracks or seen animals. Place the plates soot side up on the ground. You should put the plates side by side to get a big surface area. Then, put bait in the middle of the plates. (It is best to do this activity when it is not likely to rain.) You can decide which animal you want to try and attract by experimenting with different types of bait. (I donít advise handling uncooked meat in the field because of the possibility of bacteria.) Leave the baited plates for a few days, or just overnight. When you next visit the plates, you should see some tracks in the soot. Collect the tracks by using wide, clear plastic tape. Take a piece if tape and place it sticky side down over the track on the plate. When you lift up the tape, youíll have a track on it. You can then stick the tape to a plain white sheet of paper. The track is where the soot was removed by the animalís foot.

A variation of this activity includes building a wooden box to house the soot plate. Use plain white contact paper (shelf lining paper). Put the paper sticky side up at the back of the box. You can attach it to the underside of the plate with tape. Put your bait in the back of the box. When the animal enters the box to get the bait, it walks through the soot, then leaves its sooty tracks on the contact paper. To collect the tracks, cut them out from the paper and put them in clear plastic bags so the tracks show through. These can be photocopied or scanned so a whole class can look at them.

Baited Sand Box


Supplies needed:

Sand box or area of clear dirt
Peanut butter or dog food for bait
Straight board

The idea here is very similar to the track plates. Clear a patch of soft dirt or sand of all debris (leaves, sticks, rocks, etc.) If youíre baiting a large area, use a long board and have two people handle it, one from each end. Drag the board across the dirt to flatten an area. Place your bait in the middle. If you have to walk on the flattened area, walk in single file and try to step in your own tracks as you walk back out. Leave the area for a day or so. When you return, you should have some tracks to examine. Experiment with different baits to attract different animals. If you have any good tracks, you can make plaster casts of them, or take photos or make drawings of them.

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Copyright © 1997, 2018. Text and drawings by Kim A. Cabrera