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Man Tracking 101

In Search and Rescue, the main purpose of man tracking is to determine the lost or missing person’s direction of travel, thus reducing the search area in hopes of quickly locating the lost person. This is done by finding their footprints, analyzing them, measuring their stride, and then using that information to follow their route.

While professionals should be dispatched and caution used in an emergency situation/search, man tracking skills are a useful skill for any outdoors-person and can come in handy for retracing your own steps after a bathroom break or perhaps catching up with a trail-mate who’s roamed off the marked path. This article includes tools, tips, and tricks that may come in handy during your next outdoor adventure, or misadventure.

There are literally thousands of shoe sole patterns

Track Identification

Identifying and analyzing a track for direction can become as much of an art as it is a skill.  The first step is to find a shoe sole pattern, There are literally thousands of shoe patterns, in fact, there is a database (SoleMate footwear database) used by police and Search and Rescue that, at last count, had 42,000 different shoe patterns compiled from every major shoe manufacturer.

Once you find that first sole pattern or partial pattern, called a track, you can look for others that match it.

Analyzing a Track

When following another’s footpath, it is important to locate as complete a track as possible and then to learn as much as you can about the track.  In this age of technology, you may be tempted to just take a photograph of the footprint for reference, however, there is value in analyzing and sketching it on paper, because it will force you to pay closer attention to its distinguishing characteristics. These can be used to confirm that any future footprints you find belong to the same person.

In doing so, be certain to not touch the track as you sketch and take measurements of the overall length heel to toe, length and width of heel, width at the ball of the foot, record predominant patterns, and consider the following as you make your sketch.

  • What kind of shoe are you looking at? Hiking boot, cross trainer/trail shoe, athletic shoe?
  • Does the pattern have lugs or bars, herringbone, ripples, diamonds, circles or semi-circles, arcs, stars, other shapes?
  • Is it a flat track or does it have a heel?
  • Is the toe rounded, pointed or square?
  • Is the arch/instep high or low?
  • Does it have labels, numbers, or stitching?
  • Are there any unique features, like worn spots for example? (Anything that makes the track stand out)
  • Can you tell anything about the person’s gait? Toes in or out? Deep heel or toe dig? A limp?
Not all tracks are as obvious as this one

When looking for footprints, searchers look for “track traps” which are areas of moist dirt on a stream bank, wet sand, perhaps the dust of a dirt road or trail that can record and temporarily preserve an individual’s track.

You can make your own track trap to help you study the detail of your own shoe by placing a folded towel on the ground with a sheet of aluminum foil on top and then placing one foot in the middle of it, putting your weight straight down and lifting your foot straight up so the remaining print is as clear as possible. This is a good exercise to help contrast and accent a track in a controlled environment.

Measuring Stride

Measuring stride is important in finding and following additional tracks to see where they lead. Stride is the distance between the toe of the first print to the heel of the next print. You can take this measurement by using your trekking pole as a tracking stick and marking locations along it with electrical tape, which adheres well and is easy to remove after a rescue.

  • First, find two good prints and put the tip of the stick on the center of the front track
  • Then, put a piece of tape around the stick at the point where the heel begins on the rear track (closest to you).
  • Next, put another piece of tape around the stick at the toe of the rear track. This way, you’ve got two pieces of tape defining the length of the print and from there; the tip of the pole defines the length of the stride.
How to use a tracking stick.

Now, look for the next track:

  • Place your stick near the ground with the two pieces of tape framing the last known print. Then move the tracking stick back and forth in a sweeping motion. The tip of your pole or stick should be passing over the next print, so study the ground ahead at that point as it moves and see if you can pick it up evidence of the next print.
  • If the next track is a left foot, try moving your tracking stick slightly to that side, and vice versa to the right.
  • Move parallel to the tracks being careful not to touch your tracking stick to the ground. This can cause a disturbance or make even a faint impression that can confuse you when looking for an obscure sign. It’s good to mark each print to the side with flagging tape (placed under a rock, etc.), that way if you lose your direction of travel or are unable to see the next step you can go back to your last confirmed track.

Following step by step can be tedious and you can get burned out quickly. Search and Rescue units often work in teams of two or three people. While one is intently following step by step, another might hike ahead a few yards to “sign cut” or identify the tracks on the trail ahead.

Once the tracks can be confirmed with sketch and stick, the entire team leapfrogs forward on the trail. This technique allows you to cover ground much faster. The third person takes in the big picture, maintains situational awareness, watching for hazards, runs communications, and offers support to the other team members. To preserve the concentration of the group, team members rotate roles every 15-20 minutes.

Effects of Lighting

Lighting, time of day, and the angle of the sun are all very important considerations when man tracking. In fact, the type and quality of light can make the difference between seeing a very clear track and seeing no track at all. For example, when light hits the track at a lower angle, shadows are created which highlights the features of the track.

Dawn, dusk and bright midday sun are the most difficult times to use natural lighting for tracking because it creates a condition of flat light where there is no, or very little, contrast between the highlights and shadows. For me, tracking is almost easier at night than it is in full sun because I can control the amount and angle of lighting by holding a flashlight at a low angle to the ground, creating significant shadows on any track that’s in or near my path. Consequently, it’s pretty much impossible at night to look ahead for tracks or clues in the distance.

Rescuers fan out to look for track traps in order to find that first footprint.

For tracking at night I prefer an old-style incandescent flashlight light like a trusty Maglite. LED lights can be used at lower intensity however the color temperature of LED lights can again create flat light conditions which makes picking out track features more difficult.  Low light/incandescent lights can help to maintain night vision and reduce eye strain, but on a brightly moonlit night, a brighter flashlight might be necessary.

When tracking during the day, early morning and late afternoon are the best times because the sun is at a lower angle thus creating more shadows and contrast. Positioning yourself with your back towards the sun can help you see the shadows more easily. At mid-day, you can try using a wide-brim hat to shade the track and then use a flashlight or a mirror from a compass or emergency signal mirror to redirect light onto the track. It’s amazing how this can make a track just pop right out when it might otherwise be invisible.

Beyond the Tracks

When tracks are easy to see and the direction of travel is easy to anticipate tracking is fun and gratifying, but what about when tracks are hard to make out in whole or part. Maybe the ground is hard or they are walking across vegetation. What then? Tracking is taken to another level. Professionals keep an eye out for additional clues, such as:

  • Broken twigs or branches
  • Bruised vegetation
  • Compressed sticks, leaves, and soil
  • Rock or pebbles kicked or disturbed or displaced
  • Toe or heel only imprint
  • Trail bar or candy wrappers
  • Water splashed on rocks
  • Fuzz or threads from clothing
  • Dried mud that’s fallen off someone’s shoes
  • Dew or frost trails
  • Toilet paper or even human waste

The possibilities for clues are endless, so they watch for anything that “doesn’t belong”.

Man tracking is a core search and rescue skill and takes many years of training and practice to learn.

Tracking is Awareness

Tracking is awareness; it is retraining the eyes so that you will begin to see what otherwise may have been overlooked. It takes patience and practice.  As you can appreciate, man tracking can quickly become complex and complicated when the clues are hard to find or ambiguous. Whether you stumble across your big foot or the BIGFOOT print, take some time to make some tracks. Look at the contrast of a track in varying conditions, sharpen your pencils, and practice sketching. I hope that you will have fun with it, and you may learn a little about yourself and your tracks.

Basic Man Tracking Tools

  • Trekking pole or walking stick
  • Electrical tape
  • Notepad & Pen/Pencil
  • Flagging tape
  • Flashlight
  • Emergency Signal mirror
  • A small measuring tape

A word of caution: If you truly lose a trail mate, please contact your local Search and Rescue unit to coordinate the search. They spend hundreds of hours in preparation and save lives with their advanced training and experience.

About the Author

Sven Peery is an all-season outdoorsman who enjoys backpacking, camping, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing. He is also an experienced hunter and fisherman who is not afraid to wander off the beaten path. His wanderings have led him to hike and explore the vast trails of the High Uinta Wilderness, Wind River Range, and the Frank Church Wilderness in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho respectively. Sven spent 8 years with a county Search and Rescue team in Northern Utah. His training includes man tracking, wilderness survival, backcountry, cave, and high angle rescue. Whether hiking in National Parks with family, rising up to 13,527 feet elevation of Kings Peak, or dipping nearly a mile below the rim to cross the Grand Canyon, he is always ready for the next adventure!
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  1. I really like that SectionHiker is including interesting guest articles This is very well done. I’ve participated in several impromptu searches and one rescue, but thankfully all were resolved quickly. Even if we had engaged local law enforcement and SAR teams, I doubt they would have had serious backcountry man tracking training.

    It might be worthwhile for SectionHiker (or a guest) to write an article specifically on how to reduce the chances of getting lost and facilitate any search and rescue. Things like leaving an expected itinerary with a responsible adult, registering with park authorities, knowing how to contact the local search authorities, use of electronic beacons, carrying more than one map, etc.

  2. This was fascinating! It also made me think that I may take photos, sketches and measurements of my hiking buddies shoe soles and tracks before our next group hike. They all think I’m a little tetched in the head anyway so it probably won’t strike them as weird, or any weirder than normal… Hmmm… “normal” may not be a good word to use in conjunction with me!

  3. Why man tracking and not person tracking?

  4. Good article as usual Phil. Ironically I just completed a Tracking Evaluation last weekend, but was focused on animals. Very enjoyable to learn who made those tracks and signs we see when we’re in the outdoors. Here’s a link for animal tracks and signs and how to become more knowledgeable.

  5. All Section Hiker articles are informative and fun, but this was genuinely unique. Just when you think it’s all been written on the subject of backpacking….

  6. Your trekking pole with tape photo reminded me of my past with man-tracking. I spent over 30 years involved in mountain rescue and in the late 60’s and early 70’s we partnered with the US Border Patrol to develop man-tracking for SAR. At that time dogs were primarily used for tracking lost people. The two experts we worked with most were Ab Taylor and Jack Kearney. We crossed trained with them and honed our skills tracking individuals crossing the border near San Diego. Both Ab and Jack taught many tracking courses, and Jack (literally) wrote the first book on Man-Tracking. My claim to fame was at the time I started working with Jack, he was using a stick with rubber bands on it to measure shoe size and stride. That was pretty much the norm at the time. I had an old Scott ski pole (minus the basket) that I presented to Jack once as a much ‘cooler” stick than a piece of wood. As far as I know, this was the first use of ski poles–later trekking poles–as tools in man tracking. :-)

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