The P.A.W.S. Principle
How to learn to be a tracker
By Kim A. Cabrera

Summertime is my favorite time of year. It is during the summer that I work in a state park and teach animal tracking to campers. They often ask how I learned tracking. In response to those questions, I came up with some easy to remember tips that I can give them. I call it the P.A.W.S. Principle of learning to track animals. Although I focus on animal tracking here, most of these principles can help in the study of tracking people as well.

The PAWS Principle goes like this. Each letter stands for a list of skills that are useful to one learning to track the critters of field and forest.

Letís take them one at a time and explain further.


As with all skills, you must practice to get better. Anyone can learn tracking with a little practice. Thatís all it takes. No one is born a naturally talented tracker. You have to learn it. You also need to be persistent and donít give up. It may seem frustrating at times, but thatís a part of learning. You have to get through the frustration to reap the rewards of your practice. If you canít identify a particular track, donít let it get you down. Just remember the details and move on. You will probably encounter a similar track again and will eventually be able to identify it. It takes patience to stick with it and to realize that it wonít come to you overnight. No one can teach you to be a tracker. That might sound strange coming from someone who claims to teach this skill, but itís true. You can pay for classes at any expensive tracking school, but in the end it comes down to you and your willingness to devote time and energy to learning the skill. In other words Ė practice! Trackers call it "dirt time." You teach yourself by spending time in the dirt. A teacher can point out the various tracks and show you how to identify them, but it is you who must spend the time looking at those tracks and learning their variations. You must imprint those images in your mind. No one can do that for you.

Patience and persistence are necessary to stick with it long enough to learn this skill. The rewards are definitely worth it though. If you can find something that motivates you to practice more, do it. This could be anything from reading stories written by other trackers, to going to a local tracking club meeting and practicing with others, or participating in the online tracker groups. Whatever it is, if it helps motivate you, stay with it. Don't be discouraged if you can't identify every track in the beginning. That's all part of learning. Even experienced trackers cannot identify every track they find. They are endless variations in terrain, soil conditions, environmental factors, moisture, aging, and more. So many things affect tracks and their appearance that no two tracks look alike. It is also helpful to try not to get stuck on one single track. If you can't identify one, try to follow the trail a little way until you can find a clearer track to make your identification. Or examine the trail pattern and try to determine what kind of animal left that pattern. The bottom line is, don't give up. Your skill will improve over time.


Art? Why is this in here? Tracking is certainly an art form, but I am talking about actually using artistic skills to learn to track animals. You must first learn the ABCs, the vocabulary of tracks. Those are the prints found in your area and what animals make them. I found that the best way to learn these was to draw them. When I was in high school (I wonít say how long ago!), I used to doodle tracks all over my notebooks. Over and over again, I drew them until I knew their details. Drawing fixes in your mind the details of the trackís shape, number of toes, and variations in appearance. By drawing the tracks, you are training your mind to see the search image of that track. For example, when I find bear tracks, I always key into the search image of the kidney bean shaped heel pad. That comparison works for me when I see that shape on a trail. You may come up with your own comparison shapes for different tracks. The more time you spend drawing the tracks you find, the better those images become imprinted in your brain. It wonít be long before you have quite a large vocabulary of track images available to you. You donít even have to be a good artist to do this. The drawing only has to make sense to you. Since you are the one learning the track, you are really only using your drawing to fix in your mind that search image.

Alertness and awareness go hand-in-hand. If you pay attention to the environment around you, you will find tracks and signs everywhere. Be open to everything. Donít just look at the ground. Look up. Look at the vegetation, where you will often find feeding signs from the animals in the area. Look at the bark of trees for scratch marks. Look in places you wouldnít normally think of as good tracking locations. I often find raccoon tracks in very unconventional places, like the top of my truck, or on the railing on my porch. You can even find tracks in the city if you remain open to any possibility. I once found raccoon tracks in the bed of the Los Angeles River. If you know that river, you know that a lot of its length is paved. But there are often areas where soil is deposited and these are a treasure trove for the track hunter. So, look everywhere and be alert for those search images.

Aging tracks is a skill that takes some time to learn. As you practice looking at tracks, you will absorb details that may not be apparent at first. The tracks may look rounded and smooth on the edges. They may have little marks in them from raindrops. These details will register in your mind and eventually you will find yourself considering them right along with the identification of the track itself. In time, you will come to be able to identify the signs of age in a track with more accuracy. You can also practice by stepping on or breaking vegetation and looking at it, then returning later to look again and see how it has changed over time. Look for differences in color and moisture content. Do the same with tracks in different soil types. You can even make your own tracks and come back to look at them as they age. Take your time and enjoy studying aging. It is not something that can be learned in a day, but it is enjoyable to study.

Attention to detail is extremely important to a tracker. Look not only at the tracks themselves, but at their overall context in the landscape. Think about why this animal was here. Is there water nearby? Pay attention to direction of travel, or any variations in the stride or trail pattern. All these are clues that will help you interpret the tracks. The story of the tracks is read in the minute details you can find. Look closely and try not to rush. There are clues to be found and you have to look very closely and take your time.


W is for the willingness to learn that you put into your practice. Weekly practice is extremely helpful, if not essential to your development as a tracker. Even better would be daily practice. Any time spent learning is certainly not time wasted. This also applies to your willingness to learn from any teacher. I donít just mean those who teach tracking either. I learned a lot about tracking from the owner of a local sporting goods shop. He grew up here and spent his youth hunting the hills. He knows so much about the wildlife here and how to find them. Just casually talking to him about hunting taught me a lot more than I would have learned from any books. So look for those knowledgeable folks in your community and talk to them. W also stands for the wisdom of these folks, and the wisdom you will gain over time as you practice and seek out those individuals who have something to teach you. Donít hesitate to strike up a conversation with a long-time resident of your area. They are often encyclopedias of local lore.


Studying tracking is a lifetime pursuit. Take your time and enjoy the learning process. No one knows it all. Thatís the beauty of tracking. The more you learn, the more you realize that there is always going to be more to learn. Studying the tracks is important, but it is also important to get to know the animals you want to track. Reading about them at the library or in field guides is extremely useful. It will teach you where to look for them, what they eat, what sort of homes they build, how they raise their young, and so much more. The lives of wildlife are rich and complex. If you want to track them, spend a little time learning about them.

Signs are also a very important part of tracking. Even if you donít see the tracks of the animal, often you can find signs of its presence. You may find feeding signs such as chewed vegetation, nibbled berries, or half eaten apples. You might find scat, which can tell you not only what animal left it, but what it was eating. There are so many signs that it would take volumes to describe them all. Be aware of the various possible signs and look for them whenever you are out.

Stillness is important to a tracker because it will allow you to observe the animals. Our cultureís focus on action makes it difficult to feel justified just sitting on a log in the woods watching squirrels for an hour. But if you can get beyond that culturally ingrained reluctance to just sit and do nothing but watch, you may be treated to some amazing wildlife sightings. Think of it as a stakeout where your quarry is the wildlife of that area and your goal is to observe them when they donít know you are there. Make it fun.

Soil type is another important factor to consider when learning tracking. Obviously some types of soil are going to be easier to track in than others. Hardpan is not the best soil for a beginner to try to learn in. Beginners should start in easy soils, like sand or mud along shorelines and riverbanks. This helps you get used to looking for tracks and prevents early discouragement, which can stiffle your desire to learn to track. As you learn more, move off into more difficult soils. But donít stay away from the hardpan just because you donít think you can see tracks there yet. Try it and see what is visible there. You might surprise yourself. Donít limit yourself to one soil type. Try them all. Itís all a learning experience.

In conclusion, tracking is an endless, limitless learning experience. There is always that feeling of the joy of discovery when you make a new connection or observation about tracking. Cultivate that feeling. Practice and practice until you feel confident in your skills. Learn from anyone you can. But realize that there are no experts. No one knows it all. Tracking is a wide open field, waiting for your input. Remember the P.A.W.S. Principle, and go out there and put in some dirt time and join the ranks of the other folks with their noses in the dirt.


Happy Tracking! ........ And remember..... Animals Don't Cover Their Tracks!

Text © Kim A. Cabrera 2003, 2007, 2018


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