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My experience of human tracking began with simple curiosity. I was a child on the trail in the dead of winter when I had my first moment of total amazement, and for the longest time, I couldn’t grasp what it was that I was so intensely staring at—why, suddenly, would a set of gray squirrel tracks just seem to stop?

Human Tracking: Tell-Tale Tracks

Trudging through the snow on a lake as we approached an island, we could see where the deer made their way from the land to the island. As young children, we spent all of our free time in the woods, so we were familiar with the common tracks that most everyone knows: deer, rabbit, squirrel, duck and turkey.

When we came up alongside the well-worn path of deer hooves, we noticed that other animals had used the same path in the snow, and the one that stood out most clearly was the gray squirrel. However, one particular set of tracks just stopped exactly halfway to the island. We were baffled, looking in every direction around us in the snow, but there were no further clues—except these weird tracks about 1 foot to either side of the gray squirrel’s abandoned trail.

And then it hit us; we knew why the tracks just stopped—and this was my very first “holy crap” moment in my experience of tracking. A single track is a letter, a few tracks make a word, which leads to a sentence, which leads to a fantastic story.

Tracking Philosophies

The subject matter of “man tracking” is presented with various methods and terminology. Let’s not forget that tracking is a science. We’ll begin with the term known as the “baseline.” The most common definition for baseline basically breaks down into two primary categories: you (the tracker) and the environment around you.

First, let’s discuss the tracker himself. You actually break down into two categories, yourself. First is your emotional state and your awareness. Are you distracted or are you focused? Are you emotionally ready for this? You cannot see tracks if your head is full of fog. The second part of baseline within yourself is your physical self. What kind of shape are you in? Is your physical state going to be an advantage in a tracking case or a disadvantage? In certain cases, you may not have the luxury of time for rest. Your physical and mental well-being plays a huge role in your success as a tracker.

The second primary baseline category is the environment. The environment is always in flux; it can change swiftly or slowly. But as it’s always changing, it’s up to you as the individual tracker to pay attention to any disruption of the environmental baseline.

As a tracking team member, we understand the importance of the term baseline. Before starting on a tracking case, we establish the baseline within ourselves as well as establishing the baseline of the environment.

Tracking a Human

When searching for a man or woman, you must ask yourself a series of questions. What happened? Gather as much intel as you possibly can, from eyewitness testimonials to a point last seen (PLS)—also known as the initial start point (ISP). Is the person you’re searching for a missing or lost hiker? Is this person someone who’s familiar with the woods or someone who has no idea what to do out there alone? Has this person intentionally gone into the woods? Or is he or she a fugitive?

When it comes to tracking animals, we often think about normal animal behavior. Animal trails lead to and from resources, lays, feeding grounds, water sources, etc. But human trails are often designed for exploration, reaching a height or a good view or getting from Point A to Point B. These human trails aren’t so much based on the concentration of getting to and from resources, but more about recreational fun, a challenge or an adventure.

Begin by approaching the scene asking multiple baseline questions such as those already outlined. Slow your own personal baseline down so that you can pay more attention to the environment around you, because there are more indicators telling you exactly where that individual is other than the track itself.

A Ripple Effect

The art of human tracking isn’t just based on a footprint on the ground and some sign that goes with it. You’re using all five senses and then some. Trust your gut; an integral part of tracking is trusting your own intuition—your instinct. However, it needs to match the physical evidence.

If you have an opportunity, stand at the last known location and listen. Not only are you looking for tracking signs and any other physical indicators giving you direction and time, but you’re also listening for disturbances within the natural baseline. That means you’re listening for animal behaviors that would indicate any disruption—alarm calls or the absence of calls because of possible movement, which in itself is an alarm. If danger is close, the animals won’t say anything, therefore keeping their locations safe, or they’ll simply start making a ruckus to warn the rest of the forest that you’re there. This is also true when it comes to the individual you’re trying to track. So, even from a distance, one can tell disruption to the baseline just by listening.

This is known as the “concentric rings of communication” or the ripple effect. It’s like taking a rock and throwing it into a calm pond. No matter where you throw the rock, the waves will eventually hit the shorelines. The same is true in terms of the disruption to the environmental baseline. Nothing in nature can move without disturbing something else. Do you hear the wind? Or do you hear the effect of wind?

A RealLife Scenario

So, here you are getting ready to aid in a human tracking case. You have your gear, you’re dressed appropriately for the weather and you’re standing on scene preparing to track.

As you look at the brush line, you see an overall pattern and get a sense of the baseline as far as how the vegetation grows. The missing person entered through the brush line in one spot—this spot is going to be the disruption to the baseline. How will you know which spot that is? Look for indicators. Does it appear as though the individual walked straight into the brush? Does it look like a one-time trail use or a well-used trail? Or does it look like someone was fleeing?

Pay attention to the points at the brush line that feature creases or bends in the foliage or where brush has been parted to allow for an animal or a man to slip through. As you make your way to that point of baseline disruption, stop to reestablish the baseline once again—you’ll do this multiple times throughout your tracking endeavor, because if you don’t, you can easily become task blind or pick up a disruption or interference trail.

The Twist

Here’s an anecdote for you. I was conducting a tracking class in the middle of winter that was specifically offered for search and rescue members. There was 2 to 3 feet of fresh snow on top of a mountain that’s frequented by many. I told one of my volunteers to run a random pattern through the woods for approximately 60 yards. Again, this was virgin snow with no tracks of any kind. I sent a second volunteer with fake blood to zigzag while walking, crossing over the first set of tracks many times, all the while leaving not just a walking gait pattern opposite of that of the runner but also leaving drops of blood on the snow and occasionally wiping blood on trees that he passed, as if he was losing his balance due to a make-believe injury.

To review, there were two people leaving fresh tracks through fresh snow, one running while the other was walking; two different shoe patterns and treads; one with a blood trail and the other without. The purpose of the exercise was to find the injured hiker. Now, take a wild guess at which person my class found. Yes—the runner. This entire group of search and rescue individuals failed at finding the injured person. Instead, they found the happy jogger, and they were all shocked. They couldn’t understand how, in this snow, they were able to be misled with only two people involved. It was a great lesson for all of us on just how easy it is to be distracted or swayed by an interference or false trail.

The Necessity of Focus

The lesson here is of monumental importance. What occurred during that class and what often happens when people lose track of their target trail because they were distracted by a disruption trail boils down to task blindness. Because of the urgency, the need or want to provide help as soon as possible, one can easily pass by or destroy valuable evidence while rushing along the trail. I’ve seen this happen many times.

Human tracking becomes a physical dance. When I track, I like to move very methodically and deliberately. Every single movement matters. Just because I’m tracking and I’m on the trail of the track line, I could be moving too fast, thus creating a huge disturbance to the baseline. So instead, I like to move slowly. I try to step and sound like the natural baseline around me to stay within or below it. If I’m not mindful of that, I become the disturbance.

When it comes to missing or lost hikers, topography plays a large role in how people maneuver through the landscape. People naturally travel on the path of least resistance, like most animals.

However, when you’re dealing with fugitives on the run who don’t want to be found, their intentions will dictate their actions. To confuse the trail, they may choose to jump from substrate to substrate, from rock to log and other various maneuvers. This specific kind of tracking is a subject I won’t delve deeper into, and there’s an obvious reason why I won’t present the tactics of how to track a fugitive for all to read. Those skills remain a guarded secret that’s only given to those who have earned it. But when it comes to finding a missing hiker, lost person or child, I’ll teach you everything I know.

Final Thoughts on Human Tracking

I can go into great detail about human tracking. But the primary purpose of this article is to shed light on the biggest overall contributing factor when dealing with tracking humans, and that is intention.

To be an effective tracker, you must continue to press your skills every chance you get. Take as much training as you can, and practice even more. The journey to becoming a tracker is a fascinating and intriguing trail. Not only will you learn about the environment around you and begin to recognize rhythm and disruption, but you will also begin to discover the depths within yourself through this journey.

So, find a friend and go to the park or the woods. Take turns walking, jogging or running through the underbrush, and have your partner track you. It’s dirt time.

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