As with all worthy endeavors in life, the time and practice necessary to master any skill is measured in hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice. Any weekend “training”, regardless of the topic or instructor can only introduce the participant to the most basic of skills. Without continuous reinforcement, these skills will be lost. This is a quick summary of a short class I attended in 1996. If I forgot something, please forgive me since it has been 18 years.

This article is for entertainment purposes only. If you break the law, fail to evade capture, and spend the next ten years behind bars, it’s on you. I don’t want to get an angry email blaming me for your predicament. I do not claim to be a master tracker or even a practiced novice tracker. I just enjoyed the brief orientation our class received on the subject and wanted to share the highlights with interested readers since it is a unique topic.

Tracker vs. Tracked

There are two sides to every coin. On one hand, there are the tracker teams and on the other, the target. The tracker team is well rested, well fed, and well hydrated. Usually there is more than one team and they are professionally coordinated and in constant radio communication with each other. When working in concert with other teams and resources, they are almost unbeatable. However, the tracker teams are just doing their job. The target is highly motivated and fueled by a cocktail of fear and adrenaline. Food and water may be nonexistent. The longer the chase, the greater the affect on the target’s decision making. If the target is smart, the target will be headed toward something even if that is as simple as a cardinal direction representing a friendly border.

Dogs

Your goal should never be to wear out the dogs. That is nearly impossible, especially if run by professional handlers with teams changing out to stay fresh. You want to wear out the handler. If you wear out the handler, the dog/handler team needs to swap out. If a Tier 1 handler that runs 1/2 marathons every weekend is on your scent, I wish you good luck. However, there are couch potatoes and wannabee warriors in every county and country so don’t give up just yet. Maybe you will get lucky.

Contrary to popular culture, you will not hear the mournful barking and howls of bloodhounds as they close on you. Like the K9 units at airports, when they smell undeclared produce trying to sneak into the country they simply sit down next to the target luggage. Professional teams communicate with one another by radio and you can expect the dogs to be silent in their pursuit. You will not know you are being tracked until you see them and by then it will be too late.

Abandon the fallacy that crossing a river will cause the dogs to lose your scent. If you cross a river or body of water, the tracking team will simply move up and down both shores until they reacquire your track. The action might buy you some time and it is not a bad idea, but don’t expect it to work magic. Likewise, weather conditions can be your friend in evasion. They won’t necessarily wipe out your scent but cruddy weather and long tracking missions can wear down the morale of the handlers making them lose focus and become more easily distracted.

No Dogs

Tracker teams without dogs are a special breed. It takes a keen eye, incredible patience, and a focused mind. I have none of these traits but I admire folks who do. To the trained and practiced eye, the signs and spoors standout like a neon sign in the wilderness. Their tools are simple: a tracking stick, plenty of water, and a radio. They are tracking the target by looking for two key features: Disturbance and Transference. To see what I mean, just walk through the woods and occasionally stop and look behind you. If you look carefully where you just walked you will notice all the little signs you are leaving behind: twigs broken, little rocks that scrape the ground under your boot, dirt on top of rocks that fall out of the treads of your shoe. Examples of disturbance are broken or crushed vegetation and rocks/debris that have been displaced or flipped. By flipped, I mean the sun-bleached side is flipped onto its belly and the damp or dark underside is now on top. Transference is what happens when the treads of your shoes or body pick up sand, little pebbles, dirt, etc., and then deposits them where they shouldn’t be naturally. Examples of this is sand particles on leaves, grass, asphalt, etc.

Foreign Debris

Albeit a rare treat, if the target doesn’t realize a tracker team is in pursuit, certain “items” may be left for you to find. Cigarette butts, soda cans, chewing gum wrappers, etc., are examples. All these items “age” when exposed to the natural elements of sun, rain, and other weather.  In order to know if the foreign debris you discover is from a legitimate hiker from three weeks ago or your target from three hours ago, you need to become familiar with what common debris looks like as it ages outdoors. You can learn this by creating a Debris Garden in your backyard (see below).

Make a Tracking Stick

Thin wooden dowel about 3/8″ thick. You can improvise a hand-guard by wrapping one end with 550 cord or electrical tape. Slide two different colored rubber bands over the dowel and loop each several times over to make each one tight. I would recommend red and green because they are standard colors in my mind. Red is left or “port” if you are on an airplane or ship. I use the mnemonic “in the old days, ships brought red wine into ports”. Green is right or starboard. The rubber bands can function as a left or right foot identifiers of the target or the target’s walking and running stride length, whichever works best for you. You will use the rubber bands to draw your attention and focus to the radius around the last spoor. A spoor is the last definite mark or track signified by transference or disturbance.

Make a Debris Garden

Making a debris garden is an easy way to see the effects of time on foreign objects in nature. Mark off a 4×2 grid in your backyard with tape or twine (size doesn’t matter). Pick several common items you might find in the woods that people leave behind intentionally or unintentionally: cigarette butts, receipts, loose change, plastic bottles, soda cans, gum wrappers, etc. Each day place one of each of the objects in a grid square and note the date.  After a week you will have a seven day visual diary. You can keep it going for as long as you want.

You can try out tracking with friends and family. It can be a fun experiment. However, the preparation-minded folks have thousands of skills to practice and this is definitely a niche-skill so don’t have too much fun. Happy tracking!

Matt S
Matt is a former infantry officer in the US Army with a degree in systems engineering from West Point. He currently works as an engineering consultant integrating hardware and software into new applications. He is a graduate of Airborne School, Air Assault School, and SERE-High Risk (Level C) at JFKSWCS.

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