Tracking in Leaf Litter

by Craig Caudill

by Craig Caudill

Looking for tracks allows one to ascertain the story of a place – who was here, what happened, and even when it happened. Gaining this insight requires skills and knowledge, including the shape and size of the print, understanding how the spacing between prints indicates speed, and the environmental factors that would encourage or discourage an individual animal to act a certain way.

Often tracks appear in dirt, clay, or sand, and the print is easily visible. This article will address tracking in under less pristine conditions, when there is leaf litter or other organic material covering the exposed dirt layer.

Timing is important for tracking in leaf litter – you will want to track either in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is lower in the horizon. A lower sun casts more revealing shadows on the ground and leaf litter and will expose where disturbances have occurred.

In regards to positioning, you always want to have the sun be on one side of the tracks with you on the direct opposite. The order of “sun, track, you” will help you see more clearly any of the telltale signs of tracks, whether they be animal or human.

And what are the telltale signs? Well, to gain context for the area, one should look at a nearby section of leaf litter that is noticeably flat and uniform. This undisturbed area will look consistently shiny and is called the baseline.

In contrast, a disturbed area will have leaves that are standing up, casting shadows and indicating that something has recently moved through that area. In examining this area, it can be helpful to change your elevation – from standing, to crouching, to lying down – in order to better see shadows and to identify things that you might miss from a stationary perspective.

There will usually be a spot where the leaves have been completely cleared from a small area, uncovering the dirt underneath. Not only does this reveal the fact that an animal has passed through, but it also may, under closer inspection, give clues as to the type of animal based on the size and type of print.

Tracking is a lifelong pursuit, and the only way to become a good tracker is to get out and practice with people who are knowledgeable.

Thanks for reading, and happy tracking!

Craig Caudill is an outdoor survival contributor to Dan’s Depot. He is also a certified Survival Instructor

5 thoughts on “Tracking in Leaf Litter

  • January 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I am not sure I agree with the sun positioning statements. I have never had a issue tracking with the sun being a problem.

  • January 23, 2013 at 7:04 am

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  • January 23, 2013 at 6:23 am

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  • January 22, 2013 at 10:44 am

    We have a lot of wildlife around our house and I enjoy trying to identify their tracks. We have very few deciduous trees here, but even so, I never imagined you could follow tracks in the leaves.

  • January 21, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Tracking is such a great art. I am happy to see an article about it however nothing takes the place of practice, practice and more practice. This post and video encourages me to be even more aware of my surroundings. Thanks so much.


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