Footprints in snow
Footprints in snow

What can trackers tell from footprints?

I have heard that a skilled tracker can tell what a person ate, any injuries, and myriad other personal details about their life just from looking at their footprints. Is this true?

Footprints in snow
Tony Nester

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Tracking is about gathering visual clues from the landscape and then interpreting the evidence to work out the details of what occurred. It has little to do with mysticism. Rather, it’s about hard work out on the land, constantly refining one’s skills on a variety of surfaces and in all manner of weather. It’s a hallmark bushcraft skill, and one that in my mind represents the upper levels of bushcraft to strive for.

South African tracker Louis Liebenberg calls tracking humankind’s first science, and it is indeed an ancient one. Science isn’t something that came about in the laboratory with the microscope: our ancestors were all scientists. You can see this watching a skilled tracker interpret the messages from the landscape–inferring, reasoning, deducing, and putting together a hypothesis based upon the evidence before him or her.

A skilled mantracker can tell a lot from following a person’s trail (notice I didn’t say by looking at a single track). Details that come to light are the person’s stride, right or left-handed, gait (walking, running, et cetera), shoe size, the relative age of the track based upon weather patterns and erosion, and whether the person was Republican or Democrat (just kidding about that last one).

If you want to find out more, I would take a mantracking course (check with your local SAR agency) or check out books by Joel Hardin or Bob Carss, two renowned trackers and teach fulltime.

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