Hiking in the winter can be a hard sell. I get it—gearing up for snow is a hassle (for kids and parents). But decrease the distance and increase the fun by tracking footprints and other signs of wildlife on snow, and everyone’s happy.
“Kids are lower to the ground than adults, which makes them especially adept at finding tracks.” says Andy Ames, a volunteer naturalist and docent at Rocky Mountain National Park and Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. "Plus, tracking can be done at a leisurely pace, making it family friendly, even if you have very young kids."
“You can see so much on a fresh slate of snow that you wouldn’t be able to see any other time of year,” adds Ames. Make the most of it with these expert tips.
Animal tracking combines science, creativity, and storytelling. “Since you probably won’t see the creature who made the track,” says Ames, “identifying a track can create a fun sort of puzzle.” What kind of animal made the track, and what was it doing? Where did they come from, and where were they going? What were they up to? Where did they live? Where they looking for food and, if so, what? “Kids could even draw a map of the tracks and tell a story, or pretend to be the critter and act out what it was doing,” suggests Ames.
Find the best time to go.
“The best time to go out is the morning after a fresh snow,” says Ames. “Most of the animals are active during the night, and you can see who’s been out doing what. Sun exposure throughout the day can degrade tracks. Tracks can expand quite a bit as they melt out. For instance, a coyote track can start looking like it came from a big dog.”
That said, mornings can be cold, so parents should weigh the benefits of seeing fresh tracks versus braving temperatures that are likely colder than they’d be at midday. Plus, says Ames, you can still gather a lot of animal intel even from older snow.
Teach them to track.
For starters, create your own tracks. At the trailhead or a few feet into your hike, have your child stand next to you on the trail. Take a step, yourself, in the snow and then step backwards out of it. Have your child do the same thing. Compare the tracks! Ask your children how they can identify whose tracks belong to whom. Have them look at size, shape, and depth—since you’re heavier, yours will be deeper in the snow.
Hike slowly, and look down. Tell your child to be on the lookout for any animal prints in the snow, and to point them out to you when they find them. If you spot any tracks before them, consider asking, “What’s that over there, next to that bush?” so they can feel the thrill of discovery.
To identify a track, have your child start by counting toes. “If it’s got two toes,” says Ames, “it’s probably a deer, elk or moose.”
A track with four toes and a heel pad is likely a wild cat, like a bobcat, lynx, or mountain lion, or a canine, like a coyote, dog (someone’s pet), or wolf. And the best way to tell a cat from a dog track is the presence of nails. “Cats toenails are critical tools for catching prey so they keep them retracted for protection when not in use,” says Ames. Most canine and other tracks have visible nail marks above their pads.
Five toes? It could be a raccoon, or something that uses its hands, like a mouse.
Assess the size and depth.
A shrew is smaller than a mouse, which is smaller than a squirrel, for instance. And the smaller and lighter the animal, the more shallow the track will be. Remind your child of the difference in depth between your footprint and theirs.
Among the cats, a bobcat track is smaller (and likely more shallow) than that of a lynx and mountain lion, with the mountain lions’ being the biggest, “like the size of an adult fist,” says Ames. “A lynx has a lot of hair around its pads, which makes its markings distinct.”
Dog and coyote tracks look similar, he says. “But coyote tracks are almost diamond shaped with what looks like an ‘X’ in the middle.” A dog’s track can be a little bit rounder than a coyote’s, with more space between the pads.
Check out stride patterns.
Animals move differently from each other, and the stride pattern of their tracks can be the final clue. Ask your child to show you how different animals move, and you’ll get all sorts of funny walks and hops down the trail.
“A squirrel or mouse hopping along will have parallel tracks,” says Ames. “While something like a cat or a dog is usually walking, and will have more of a stride pattern.”
Coyotes, he adds, are very efficient and will often place their back foot on top of where their front foot was. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, walk in a more zig-zaggy pattern.
“Rabbits are kind of fun,” says Ames. “They’re similar to squirrels in that their front feet are much smaller than their back feet, but even more exaggerated. They have a pattern of four prints and the two rear are really oblong shaped while the rounder front feet are a little off-set. ”Rabbit prints look sort of backwards, because their hind legs land ahead of their front when they hop."
Weasels hop, like a squirrel, but often drag their tails, leaving a central furrow. And snowshoe hares found at higher elevations have similar tracks to rabbits, but their tracks are much larger than their hopping counterparts.
Birds can be fun to track, too, says Ames. And while you can usually only see their footprints, sometimes you can see where one landed, and see its wing marks. “Sometimes you can tell different birds by the pattern of the track,” he adds, “whether they’re hopping, like a chickadee, or walking, like crow, raven, or magpie.”
Be on the lookout for clues.
You can discover animal behavior from a range of signs, says Ames. “I once saw a weasel track, and blood in the snow, which meant that it caught something,” he says. “Or you can see where an animal burrowed, or how far a mouse’s range is.”
Follow a track from log to log and have your child guess what the animal was doing. Maybe they were running back and forth, moving food to a den.
Other clues can be anything from manipulated snow (maybe a deer was eating the snow), to the seeds of a pinecone scattered about (squirrel lunch!), to yellow snow (yes, animals pee!).
Keep it safe for all.
What if your child comes face-to-face with what made the tracks? “Animals are scared of people,” says Ames, “and are aware of your presence even on a soft surface like snow. They’ll want to flee if you get too close.”
But, he says, if you spot the actual animal, don’t cut off its escape route for the safety of both you and the animal. To play it safe, just view the tracks and where they go from the trail. That way, others winter trackers and hikers can enjoy seeing the tracks without boot marks next to them.
When we are out on the trails or in the woods, we have entered the animal’s home and our presence can add stress to their lives," Ames says. "Always observe from a distance and if you are causing a change in an animal’s behavior you are likely too close.”
Whatever tracks you and your child find on a snowy hike are clues to an awesome winter treasure hunt, and will create wonder (and sometimes discoveries) about what sort of animal activity is taking place in the wild—or even in a park or backyard.