Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Encountering a foraging bear or a moose browsing in a pond adds an instant jolt of excitement to any hike. But sometimes seeing wildlife feels like a matter of dumb luck. Learn to recognize animal tracks, however, and all of a sudden, the the paradigm shifts. From deer’s favorite napping spots to a cougar’s scratching post, every tree, burrow, scat pile, and patch of grass holds a clue to who used it last. Here, we break down the essential skills to learning to read animal tracks, sign, and scat.
Where to Look for Animal Tracks
It sounds obvious, but the first step to identifying any animal track is to find it. Some trail surfaces leave you with perfect muddy impressions; others, like paved roads and hard-packed trails, are nearly impossible to find prints on. Your best best:
● In the snow. Thin layers of snow are best for viewing prints from larger animals, which tend to sink into deeper drifts, obscuring their tracks.
● In the mud. Search alongside streams and on or next to the trail after rainstorms.
● In the sand. Fine, wet sand holds tracks best.
● In soft, trailside-soil. Damp, impressionable dirt holds prints better than the firmly packed soil of well-worn trails.
When to Look for Animal Tracks
The sun can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. Early morning and late afternoon, when the sun casts shadows on the trail, are perfect for spotting tracks and showing slight impressions from claws and other features helpful in identifying the print. Overhead sun close to noon flattens tracks and makes them hard to identify.
Consider the recent weather. If a light snow fell the previous afternoon leading to a calm evening, a morning stroll is the perfect time to spot the first snowshoe hare tracks. The same goes for a light rainstorm. However, most animals hunker down during torrential downpours and blizzards, so you’ll want to give them several hours post-storm to scamper out for food before you stroll looking for tracks.
How to Look at Animal Tracks
Don’t be afraid to get close: Squat down next to the track so you’re close enough to make out claw marks and other subtle impressions within and around the track. Just make sure not to cast a shadow over the track or, worse, step on one of the prints.
How to Identify Animal Tracks
Start by asking yourself these questions:
● How big is the print? It’s hard to confuse a bear with a mouse. Quickly narrow down the wildlife possibilities by classifying the print as small (could be a mouse or squirrel), medium (could be a fox) or large (could be a bear).
● Was it left by a paw or a hoof? Hoofed wildlife include deer, elk and moose.
● Are all the prints the same size? Members of the weasel, rodent, and rabbit families have small front feet and larger, longer hind feet. Canine and feline front and hind prints are nearly identical in size and shape.
● Does the print have toes? If yes, how many? Felines, canines and rodents have four toes on each paw, while animals in the weasel family have five. Birds have three.
● Can you see claw marks? Canines, raccoons, bears and weasels show claw marks, while felines don’t.
● Can you see the mark of an opposable toe/thumb? Tree-climbing critters such as raccoons, opossums and bears have an opposable digit not found on other land-scampering creatures.
● Can you identify a track pattern? Different animals have different gaits, leaving different track patterns that are helpful in identifying them.
|Animal Family||Track Identifiers||Track Pattern|
|Canines (foxes, wolves, coyotes, dogs)||Paws with four toes and claw marks; identical front and hind tracks||Diagonal walkers: Simultaneously lift front and hind legs on opposite sides, leaving staggered tracks.|
|Felines (cats, bobcats, lynx, cougars)||Paws with four toes, no claw marks; identical front and hind tracks||Diagonal walkers: Simultaneously Lift front and hind legs on opposite sides, leaving staggered tracks.|
|Deer, moose, elk||Cloven hoofs||Diagonal walkers: Simultaneously Lift front and hind legs on opposite sides, leaving staggered tracks.|
|Most rodents (mice, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, voles, porcupines, gophers)||Four toes on the front tracks and five toes on the hind tracks; front tracks smaller than hind tracks||Bounders/Gallopers: Hop/jump, so hind tracks are left close to front tracks with a large space between sets of tracks.|
|Beavers||Five toes on front and hind tracks; webbed hind toes; front tracks smaller than hind tracks||More easy to spot: A beaver’s slide, the muddy run where a beaver frequently slides into or out of the water.|
|Mustelids (weasels, otters, minks, badgers)||Five toes; front tracks smaller than hind tracks||Bounders: Hop, so the tracks from their hind feet are just behind their front tracks|
|Bears, raccoons, skunks, and opossums||5 toes, including opposable digit; visible claw marks; front tracks smaller than hind tracks||Pacers: Lift the front and hind legs on the same side of the body simultaneously, leaving evenly spaced tracks|
|Rabbits and hares||Hind tracks more than twice as large as front tracks, with four toes on each print||Gallopers: Jump leaving their large hind tracks in front and to the side of their smaller front tracks|
|Birds||Three thin toes; large claw on rear toe (birds of prey); webbed feet (water birds)||Varies based on species|
Gallery: Animal Paw Prints and Hoof Prints
Identifying Animals by Scat, Scratches, and Other Sign
● Keep an eye out for scat. Pellets indicate deer or elk. A plop or patty is often from a bear, cow, horse or buffalo. Canines, felines and raccoons leave large tubular feces, where tiny tubular feces are likely from rodents or bats. White feces are usually from birds or reptiles. Don’t forget to look for remnants of the animal’s last meal in their scat. A plop of berry seeds indicates a bear, where a dry patty of grass is likely a horse.
● Find beds/lays, the temporary impressions in the brush or grass left by a sleeping or resting animal. The size of the impression can help you identify whether you’ve seen moose prints or deer tracks.
● Look for scratchings, or claw marks left on trees or the ground, often from animals foraging for food.
● Analyse vegetation breaks, including broken branches and abrasion marks on bushes and trees, which can help you identify the size of the animal based on the height that the damage is found.
● Identify animal tail marks left alongside the tracks.
● Research which animals are common to the area you’re hiking in. If wolves haven’t been spotted for 50 years, the canine prints you’re seeing might be from another hiker’s tail-wagging companion.
● Buy a field guide to carry with you on hikes.
How can I tell if tracks are fresh?
● Touch the track to feel if it’s warm. It doesn’t work. You’ll also risk adding the impressions of your fingers to the track, making it harder to identify.
● Consider the medium the track is in and recent weather conditions. Is the print perfectly outlined in mud from this morning’s rainstorm or are there cracks running through it from where the animal stepped in fresh mud several days previous that has now dried? Are the prints in a new snow layer or covered in last night’s dusting or partially melted?
● Look for scat and other traces left by the animal. If the animal droppings are hard and dried, the tracks likely aren’t fresh. If the scars on the tree the tracks circled are still seeping sap, the bear is likely close-by.
What should I do if a set of animal tracks is fresh?
In most cases, nothing. In the case you’ve identified a recent bear track, stay alert and remember these bear safety tips in case you do run across the track-layer. Likewise, be cautious if you see fresh moose tracks. While spotting a moose in the backcountry is a treat, some individuals get aggressive, especially during mating season.