Prepping to survive a long-term disaster involves the development of a solid self-defense plan. Learning how to shoot a handgun and rifle, to clean and fix the firearms, and to reload your own ammunition is an integral first step. The knowledge and skill to fire a gun, shoot a bow, and to wield a knife will help keep you alive and put food on the dinner table, but learning how to track, and not be tracked, could just as easily save your hide one day.
Tracking animals and being able to tell a deer hoof print from a bear paw impression in the mud is just one aspect of tracking. Any Walking Dead fan knows how useful the ability to track two-legged prey is during a survival situation. Being able to track humans could help you locate missing loved ones or keep the family hidden from view when marauders come into the area.
Military snipers are often rightfully regarded as some of the best-trained trackers in the world. The tracker training for the elite members of the military has changed very, very little over the past 60 years. Modern technology has not infiltrated the skills used by snipers when they are tracking or being tracked. Sure, advanced rifle scopes and night vision goggles significantly enhance the capabilities of the naked eye, but on the trail, it’s knowledge and detailed observation that will allow you to keep breathing another day.
Snipers are trained to look for “action” both on and around the trail. Even in the quietest and most remote area of the forest, action is going on all around — you just need to be able to see it. When I was a Girl Scout leader and teaching the young ladies orienteering skills, one of my favorite activities was always the wilderness scavenger hunt. At first, just like a good sports practice drill, the task seemed overwhelmingly difficult, and the challenge brought out a sense of self-competitiveness among the scouts. I placed items that definitely did not belong in the woods along the trail to disturb the natural environment and to create “activity” in the woods. You might think a pink piece of fabric would jump right out at you when slowly walking and looking with a keen eye, but more often than not, spotting all of the “do not belong” items doesn’t happen on the first try.
Garnering tracking skills is a challenge that takes both time and patience, but is well worth the effort. There are six common tracking concepts you must train yourself to detect: displacement, stains, weather, litter, camouflage and immediate-use intelligence.
Displacement occurs when something in the natural environment is removed from its original position. A footprint by either man or beast is one of the most obvious forms of displacement. Just noticing the footprint in the mud, sand, or dirt could be a life-saving find, but there is oh-so-much more to learn from the impression left in the ground. Upon more thorough observation, you could learn what type of footwear was worn by the individual. Both the size and type of the footwear can lead to determining the sex, overall age (adult, child, or tween) and weight, and any physical impairment or injury of the individual.
Careful review of footprints can also reveal if the individual is carrying a heavy load and stops to rest. Look for low spots along the trail that could illustrate a person had sat or lain down to take a break. The load could be one of equipment and weapons, food, or even a child or person who is injured and will therefore cause a distraction for the bearer during a confrontation.
Evidence of displacement can also reveal itself via a disturbance in the vegetation on or around the trail. Even the slightest disruption in the brush from the careful yielding of a machete can be noticeable to a well-trained and diligent eye.
When analyzing footprints, look for any indication of change in direction or depth change inside the print. Walking backwards is an old tracking trick designed to confuse or misdirect any watchful eyes from truly knowing the path being taken. If the tracks appear to be pointed in the opposite direction of your trek, pay careful attention to the heel indentation of the track. When walking backwards to deter potential followers, those who are not careful step too solidly on their heels and give away the otherwise stealthy tactic. Prints of this type typically have irregular lengths between them and are accompanied by excessive displacement of the soil.
If the footprints are both deep and highlight a long pace, the individual or group is most likely moving strongly and at a fast walk. If the prints are further apart indicating a long stride and shows enhanced depth at in the toe area, the person or group is running. Footprints that alternate between being spaced widely apart and close together and appear deep throughout typically indicate the person is carrying a heavy load of some type or is shuffling due to some type of physical burden.
Men tend to walk with a straighter strike or with feet that tend to turn outwards. Women more often exhibit a pigeon-toed step. As I learned during my years of coaching various sports and cheerleading, the feet of even tween girls are much larger than they used to be. When fitting junior high female athletes for shoes, some of the girls were ordering a size 9, and their feet had not yet stopped growing. Some of the same young women tapped out at a size 10 when I coached them several years later in high school ball. Boys’ feet are not immune from the super-size foot growth either. Young teen boys are often in a size 11 before they reach their freshman year of high school now as well.
Perhaps it is all the hormones and genetically modified ingredients in our food and milk that cause the larger size feet and onset of puberty at a much younger age. Nevertheless, it is more difficult to determine if the boot print you are examining was made by a man, a grown woman, or a teenage girl, than it was about 20 years ago. Women tend to have shorter strides than men, but 5’4” men and 5’7” women do exist, making determination about sex based solely on strike, at best, a guesstimate.
A 14-year-old girl or boy (or even a 12-year-old) could shoot you just as dead as a grown man, so do not discard any footprints you encounter as non-threatening. Rural children are frequently taught to shoot both a gun and a bow at a young age. A frightened young person, or one that was suddenly thrust into a situation where he or she is left to defend the home, may not hesitate to aim and squeeze the trigger when feeling threatened. The emotional toll of being forced to point a gun at a tween or teen, and having merely seconds to decide if diffusing the situation without violence is possible is something none of us want to think about, but we must prepare to deal with all situations that could arise during a survival situation.