Intro to Tracking

On a snowy adventure, let footprints be your guide


Story and Photos by Becky Cushing serving with The Nature Conservancy

The first snowfall of the season means something different for everyone: Tune up your skis. Get out your shovel. Put on the snow tires. Dig out the long underwear.  For me, each fresh snow is a blank canvas ready to reveal nature’s secrets. The snow illuminates a world that is not obvious to most of us day-to-day, but if you look closely you’ll uncover a riveting story of sex, death, and strong wills to survive.

From countless hours in the woods with incredible trackers and naturalists I’ve learned just how deep into a story you can get with a single set of tracks. I’ve also learned that tracks only tell part of the story – animal hair, scat and urine, and rubs are all pieces, too. Last year I spent time trying to put into words the difference between the smell of bobcat urine and fox urine. I won’t get into that here other than to say that if you know cat pee, well … let’s start with tracks.

For those who are curious about the world of tracking, it helps to learn a few common tracks first. It can also help to learn track characteristics of a group of species, for instance, “dog” tracks versus “cat” tracks. As you practice differentiating between larger categories, you’ll start to notice subtle differences and can begin to differentiate among species.

Dogs include foxes, coyotes, wolves, and domestic dogs all in the same family, Canidae. Their tracks can be easily confused because they have a similar arrangement of toe pads and metacarpal (ball of foot) pad. The space between the toe pads and metacarpal pad is often described as forming an “X”. Once you have a search image for what a dog track looks like, size can shed some light on which dog species you are tracking:

Here in Vermont there’s a safe bet you can rule out wolf – if you have a track longer than 3 ½ inches long, you should assume it’s a domestic dog (or someone messing with you).

Tracks in the 2 ½ to 3 ½ inch length range are trickier because coyote and domestic dog both fall within this range, and either is possible. Look for a neater, tighter track to identify coyote, including a straighter line of travel. Like most dogs, mine loves to sniff side-to-side across the trail and so leaves a sloppier set of tracks. Looking closer, his toes splay out to the sides – a habit picked up by many domestic dogs for gripping slippery floor surfaces, like tile and hardwood.

If your tracks are shorter than 2 ½ inches and you’re able to rule out domestic dog, then you’re tracking a fox (red fox can be greater than 2 ½ inches long but we’ll skip that for simplicity’s sake). In Vermont we have both gray and red fox, which are difficult to differentiate, but not impossible. Red fox are larger, in general, with a more oval-shaped track compared with the round track of a gray fox. Red fox also have hairier feet, which show up especially well in mud, sand or certain kinds of snow. In general, dog tracks will register nail imprints and cat tracks will not (because they have retractable claws). The exception is gray fox, which has retractable claws that often do not show up in a track.

I’ve found that gray fox and bobcat tracks can be confusing because they are a similar size, both round, and show no claws. That’s when I look for the “C” (C is for cat). No really, instead of the “X” shape characteristic of dog tracks, I look for the “C” shape formed by the space between the toes and metacarpal pads of the bobcat. The metacarpal pad of a bobcat track is much larger relative to the overall size of the footprint, forming a “C” shape in the negative space between the pads."

The most important lesson I’ve learned about tracking over the years is to absorb a little at a time and then go practice in the field. Don’t be overwhelmed by the nuances at first. With time, they’ll begin to seem obvious. Get yourself a field guide (like Mark Elbroch’s Mammal tracks & signs) or find a local tracking geek to follow around the woods (in fact, I think I know someone). And finally, don’t get so caught up in the tracks that you lose the bigger picture. Each set of tracks is another life passing through that very spot. Was it a bobcat chasing down a snowshoe hare? Or was it a red fox marking its territory? Perhaps it was just Silas, my dog, wandering side-to-side across the trail in his own haphazard version of winter tracking.

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Try it Yourself!

Compared the two tracks: Which one belongs to a dog and has the "X"? Which one belongs to the bobcat and has the "C"?

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