Tracking in a Forested Landscape
Photo by Dave Moskowitz

Tracking in a Forested Landscape

Challenging a Common Perception of Tracking

When most people think about “animal tracking” they imagine footprints.  But forested landscapes, such as the dense conifer forests of the West, often don’t lend themselves to recording the passage of an animal’s feet on the ground. Except during winter snows and occasional rare open grounds, the forest tracker cannot rely on just footprints to do their tracking.

I have heard it claimed that all great animal tracking cultures came from sandy environments.  I question whether this is true.  Clearly, indigenous peoples from forest environments have also developed highly refined abilities to detect and interpret signs of the passage and activities of wildlife.  As hunters, this is an essential skill for their material survival.  How people tracked in sandy environments, such as the deserts of the Southwest, would be very different from the skills used to track and find game in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, however.

Most animal tracking field guides are not adapted well to the needs of a forest tracker.  In these guides, one finds an approach that is mainly centered on an animal’s footprints. Even field guides focusing specifically on forested environments still have an extremely heavy emphasis on footprints.  Finding a clear set of footprints in dense forest is often like finding a rare jewel, a beautiful gift to be appreciated but not something to  be expected on a regular basis.

In reflecting on my experience, I have identified four key points to becoming effective at tracking in this environment.  These points are:

  1. Attention to sign tracking (clues other then footprints).
  2. Letting go of search images created for other environments.
  3. Developing search images applicable to the forest landscape.
  4. Adopting a method of tracking based on ecological relationships
Sign Tracking

I watched a snowshoe hare hop across dense forest litter, compacted in the spring by the weight of the recently melted snow pack.  I watched exactly where its feet landed and walked over to see what marks it left—nothing, not a divot, scuff, difference of shine, texture, not a single visual clue as to its passage their just seconds before…


In order to trail many of the smaller creatures of the forest, we must wait for snow to reveal the light feet of these animals.  But all animals leave signs of their passage, presence, and activities.  It is up to the diligent tracker to learn to see beyond the footprints.  For a tracker in the forest, the landscape, perhaps a simple context in which to locate tracks in the snow or sand, becomes the track itself.  In the mosaic of vegetation, vague trails in the litter, random tracks and scats, chews and scuffs on the plants and trees, calls of the birds, and activities of the small and common animals–the forest tracker must learn to see the details hidden by the forest litter.  For example, the height and structure of Vaccinium bushes and the presence of recent angled cuts on their branches speak to the recent presence of the snowshoe hare that left no “tracks” of its passage.

While ultimately the number of different kinds of “sign” a tracker might discover in the forest is nearly infinite, we can recognize several large categories to help guide one’s search.

Feeding Sign: This can include anything from clipped vegetation for herbavores to partially buried carcasses for carnivores.

Scat: Animal feces are often very distinct and can tell the tracker a great deal about the wildlife of the forest.  Different creatures deposit their scat in different places for various reasons.

Trails and Travel Routes: While clear footprints may be in short supply, evidence of well used travel routes may be quite obvious.  Look for packed down routes through brush or places where little or no vegetation grows in relatively straight lines through areas with overall abundant growth.  Again, the size, shape, and location of the travel route says a great deal about the type of animal that made it and what they use it for.

Shelters/Rest Stops: All wildlife, like humans, need to rest and need some sort of shelter to either protect them from the elements or hide them from predators.  They might be elaborately constructed subterranean dens, a well worn perch on a tree top, or anyplace in between.  Some may be associated with feeding sign or scat while others are meticulously separated from these things by the animal who uses them.

Marking/Advertising: A great deal of wildlife try to blend into their surroundings so as not to be seen by their predators or the prey they are after.  But wildlife will also leave clear evidence displaying their presence often for other members of their species to see.  This could involve scent marking, scraping trees, leaving scat in particular locations among other things.


Search Images

Making a shift from a focus on footprints to the many other forms of wildlife sign requires that the tracker examine how his or her observational process works.  If a typical tracker goes out looking for animal tracks on the ground, where does a sign tracker look (or smell, or listen) if sign could be anywhere and everywhere?  One of the answers to this question lies in what scientists have called search images. 1A search image is a image in the mind’s eye that a person tries to match with a similar image observed in the landscape. For example, close your eyes and imagine a dog track.  The image in your head is likely the search image which you would use to try to match with things you see in the landscape when looking for a dog track.  This is a vital tool for the tracker, helping us locate and recognize the animal tracks and signs which we have a search image for, especially those signs which are repetitive in nature, such as the shape and pattern of a canine track.  When trailing an animal through a fairly uniform landscape, it is often possible to refine a search image to help you recognize animal tracks quickly and often from a great distance, such as a half moon shadow made by the depression of animals tracks in the afternoon sun.

However, the use and reliance on search images can be especially limiting to the forest tracker.  Here the tracker has several factors working against them.  The first is that many trackers learn to track footprints first.  Books on tracking almost all have a very heavy emphasis on footprints and track patterns.  Therefore, our “file cabinet” 2of stored search images is often heavy on the footprints and light on other signs.  How many field guides out there show pictures of a browse line created by deer?  Some, but certainly far less then those which outline the shape, size, and characteristics of their feet.

The second detriment of the search image has to do with the amount of variability in the clues.  One of the reasons I find animal tracking so exciting and challenging is this variability.  I could never hope to have a search image which would fit all the wondrous variations of animal tracks, signs, and disturbances I might find in the forest.  Nor do I want to—it might take some of the mystery out of the world.  The complexity and numerous variables that all affect the shape and form of relationships in the forest makes making reliable search images that much more challenging when compared with the relatively consistent shape and size of an animal’s footprint.

Finally, in using a search image, while one may be increasing their chances of recognizing something which fits that image, one is also increasing their chances of missing things which do not (Worsham would call this “focus lock”).  Unfortunately, I can recall numerous times I went walking through the woods looking for something in particular and missing a myriad of other interesting things, many of which were probably connected to thing I was looking for.

Once, while trailing several deer through a dry Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir forest on the east side of the Washington Cascades, I was so intent on finding where the next tracks were that I failed to scan my surroundings and see the actual deer watching me as I came over the crest of a small hill.  The deer bolted—then I noticed them.

Letting Go of Search Images

When beginning to develop the skills of an effective forest tracker, or making the shift from animal tracking in other environments, one must recognize and let go of search images which may be acting like blinders for them.  One way to do this is to simply pay attention to what you look at, and look for, when you are out in the woods.  Do you look at the ground or only at eye level?  Are you looking for “animal tracks” (footprints) or a replica of a picture you saw in a book?  Perhaps you discovered a midden made by a Douglas squirrel recently and now that has become your search image and you look for something almost identical to this.  As you consciously recognize the search image in your head, let it go and look around you for details that clearly don’t fit into the search image.  Practice seeing what is there, rather than just searching for what you want to see.


Developing Search Images

Trackers create search images whether they intend to or not.  While recognizing their limitations and consciously trying to mitigate them, one can also use this perceptual process to their advantage.  As with tracking in other environments, there are several ways to develop accurate and useful search images for sign tracking in a forest landscape.  One is through field guides and books with pictures and descriptions of animal sign.  A second is by spending time outside with someone skilled in recognizing animal sign.  And the third, and perhaps the best, is to spend as much time as you can out there tracking yourself.  Whenever you find something of interest, spend the time to fully explore it.  Observe it from different angles, walk around it, sketch it, photograph it.  Use field guides to help identify sign and interpret it.  The more time you spend making observations, analyzing what you have found, and reflecting on those observations, the more abundant and detailed your search images will become.

Tracking Ecological Relationships

The concept of a search image comes from a scientific use of tracking skills.  The modern Western scientific approach to studying nature generally involves picking pieces out of the whole, such as gathering a very specific piece of information on one part of the environment and then extrapolating this data to make conclusions.  An example of this would be performing a random search for a certain type of wildlife across a vast region and then statistically analyzing your results to come up with an estimated population for the species. Science done in this manner looks at nature as something like a machine.  One can take apart all the pieces of a machine and discover how it works.  Put all the pieces back together again and you have your machine.  This metaphor works well for understanding some parts of nature and tracking.  For instance, one can dissect the anatomy of a canine track and understand all the different components of what identifies it as a canine: four toes symmetrically placed ahead of a relatively small heel pad, etc.

However, another, perhaps more indigenous approach, involves going in the other direction.  Rather than breaking things down into their components and looking at the discrete pieces, one focus primarily on the big picture.  An example of this is focusing your awareness on the patterns of the whole forest around you as opposed to looking at one tree and than another and another.  A second part in this shift in awareness involves changing one’s focus from objects (such as a canine track) to relationships (such as how the amount of sunlight an area receives affects the types of things which grow there).  This shift in perspective is also recognized scientifically in the study of complex systems such as a living organism or an ecosystem.

Looking at wholes rather than parts recognizes that forest landscapes are living systems.  If you take a dog and “take it apart” you will not be able to put it back together again and have a living creature again.  The whole of a living system is greater than the parts.   When the tracker leaves behind the relative consistency and repetitiveness of footprints, he or she must take in the entire landscape.  Does this landscape tell the tracker that there are deer within it or marten?  On a landscape level, the tracker should be able to surmise many of the constituent parts.

With a forest landscape, the tracker must recognize that the clues and evidence of wildlife, their presence, activities, and the time of their passage are more often found in the relationships between things in the environment as often as the things themselves.  Rather than the track of a marten, the tracker might discover the type of terrain (relatively dense canopy with a diverse structure of fallen logs, leaning logs, rock outcrops at mid elevations here in the west) that a marten might use, with abundant activity of its prey species (such as the gregarious Douglas Squirrel) to help determine its presence.  In this way, the forest tracker recognizes the presence of a species through the many relationships it has with other parts of the landscape.  If the tracker needs definitive “proof” of the animal’s presence, they can use this awareness of relationships to seek out places where sign such as scat, tracks, denning sites, or feeding sites would likely exist.

While a search image can be created for these relationships there is a level of complexity here that is far greater than that needed for a search image for an individual footprint.  With complexity comes diversity.  With diversity comes an increased likelihood that the search image the tracker is using is not relevant to all the different forms that a relationship can manifest itself.  A marten might choose to move through the landscape in numerous different ways depending on the time of day, what they are doing (hunting, traveling to a cache, return to their den to feed their young…), the season, and many other things.  Clearly developing a search image of what a marten travel route looks like would be far more complex than creating one for their consistently five toed,  asymmetrical foot.

Create an Observation System

Search images have their place in forest tracking—a very important place—but they can be limiting.  Rather than creating a search image for every possible set of relationships that could be encountered in the forest, better the tracker work to define a system for his or herself which can be used to recognize and analyze relationships in the landscape.  I believe such a system must incorporate the following things to be effective 3:

1. A mental tool for helping the tracker consciously recognize unfamiliar parts of the landscape, such as creating a habit of seeking out unfamiliar aspects of one’s surroundings, or consciously altering the physical vantage one observes the landscape from.

2. Focus on the big picture.  One of the most effective ways to recognize patterns and relationships is to sit down and just watch the entire landscape without focusing on any one detail in particular.  This allows us to recognize macropatterns which are larger than the detailed sphere of one’s normal awareness.

3. Time for processing perceptions and information (minutes to hours to days or even years depending on the scope). The tracker must take in new information (for which she could have no search image) and this takes time for the senses to wander the landscape.

4. Some familiarity with the landscape with which to help analyze information perhaps gained through background reading or time spent with “elders” who have a wealth of knowledge and experience in the particular area or similar areas

5. An awareness of one’s instinctual feelings about the landscape and perceptions one has which can help bring attention to things which one is aware of on a subconscious level.

6. A method for journaling or documenting observations in order to help build useful search images.

7. A mental tool for relating observations to theoretical knowledge and prior observations. Understanding in a relational sense involves making connections rather than just making recognitions.  Being able to compare one observation to another or to theoretical knowledge in new and creative ways is vital for seeing, thinking and learning relationally.  Using metaphors can help a tracker move in this direction.  “The condition of these trees reminds me of what the field behind the house looked like after that huge wind storm, with many plants knocked over or broken midway up their stalks.”  Here is a simplistic example of how a scene on a small scale (blown over plant stalks) might be metaphorically related to a forest that had been effected by a windstorm.

8. An understanding of basic ecological concepts is important, but this understanding probably flows out of forest tracking at least as much as it is necessary to have to begin with.


Ultimately, tracking is about the relationship between the tracker and the forest.  The specific makeup of any tracker’s observation system will and should grow out of this relationship, influenced by the tracker’s background and experience as well as the make up of the specific landscape he tracks in.

On the Trail in the Forest

It was a hot August day on the west side of the Washington Cascades.  I was exploring a roadless river drainage.  The river was low, with a number of beautiful clear pools of water, and exposed sandbars.  The banks overhung with dense old growth forest of hemlock, Douglas fir, and cedar.  Berries of all sorts could be found in the sunny edges and high bars of the river channel.  Due to recent rains and the lack of cover in these areas, the sand bars were relatively blank of tracks.  But, signs of wildlife were everywhere.  At the base of a well-used perch for birds I found scat of a robin that flew off as I approached filled with the seeds of black raspberries.  On the river cobbles I discovered the droppings of a coyote, also filled with berries, salal berries (salal, Gaultheria shallon, is a type of forest shrub which grows abundantly at lower elevations on the west side of the northern Cascades).

I was searching for signs of black bear.  In the back of my head, I was hoping to see beautiful tracks of the creature in one of the sandbars on the river, but I was finding nothing.  Finally, while sitting in the shade eating some trailing blackberries myself, I scanned the landscape: the ribbon of the river channel banked by an explosion of riparian vegetation; rising out of the floodplain seemingly endless forest rising several thousand feet in elevation up the steep glacially carved mountain ridges on either side.  I wandered into the forest, and began to ascend.  The riparian  vegetation gave way to a sea of salal bushes.  This is where the bear would be,  I thought as I moved on.  I found smashed down bushes.  There were berries everywhere, dark, slightly mealy, and sweet.  I traveled on, discovering more bushes that had been thrashed by something something quite large.  A little further on I found fresh scat, bear scat, filled with partly digested salal berries, twigs and leaves.

In the soft forest debris around the scat I found the rough depressions and marks of the bears footprints, but these were only an after thought in my tracking of this wild creature.


  1. The use of search images by trackers was first introduced to me by Dr. James Halfpenny of Gardiner, Montana.
  2. A term coined by Charles Worsham, Lynchburg, VA in his “Vision Chart”, unpublished.
  3. Personal conversations with Charles Worsham in which he recommended the creation of a systematic observation process and his thoughts on what this process should involve, which has influenced several points bellow.