Human tracking is a subset of one of the oldest skills on earth. It is the practice of being able to observe, recognize and interpret the footprints and signs left behind by humans. This skill set is most often utilized for search & rescue, forensic and military purposes.
It is helpful to break down this practice into parts and describe them to make them easier to understand. Tracks are one type of evidence, and can be described as any kind of footprint, hand print, scuff, drag mark or other kind of mark left in the substrate (ground) by a passing human body. Other types of signs includes things such as disturbed vegetation & rocks, tire tread, discarded clothing, and various kinds of trash.
Learning to track, whether humans or animals, requires keen skills of observation, as well as patience, persistence and determination. To begin, it helps to learn how to distinguish what is sign from what is not. This means doing some exercises to help you see what is the normal chaotic pattern of the landscape (called “baseline”) from actual tracks or signs from a passing person.
Have a friend help you practice the skill of observing disturbances by asking them to move through various landscapes around you and then observe how they have changed with their passing. This gets you to practice both “the art of seeing” and “the art of trailing.” The art of seeing is simply the practice and ability to learn to see tracks and signs. The art of trailing is using the evidence you see to follow where that person or animal went.
Have a friend walk across an area of sand, mud, or dirt while your back is turned, and then retrace their steps. Take note of how their tracks look different as the amount of moisture in the ground changes. Also ask them to move across the same area several times at different speeds and look at their tracks closely to see how things like the distance between steps and angles of their feet changes with speed.
You can also ask your friend to walk through an area of densely vegetated park or woodland. Then follow their trail and note every detail of their passing that you can. Take notice of things such as:
– Disturbed duff or leaf litter, such as indentations, creases or piles
– Crushed plants in the tracks
– Bent plants (called “flagging”) from their legs or bodies passing through
– Material such as mud or sand deposited onto leaves or plants from their feet (called “carry over” or “transference”)
– Displaced gravel, rocks, sticks or moss
– Broken sticks or branches
– Broken or disturbed spiderwebs
Looking for this kind of sign might seem logical, or even obvious, but it takes practice to learn to see these details, especially under different conditions affected by weather, temperature and other factors.