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How to Unlock the Secrets in the Sign

Before I took on this assignment, I traded e-mails with my ASG editor about exactly what is meant by the term, “sign.” This word is thrown around haphazardly on every outdoor program on television and in every outdoor publication—without anyone really willing to take the time to tell the viewer or the reader just what it is.

Either the media producers assume we all know exactly what “sign” is, or perhaps they really don’t know themselves. Maybe it is a little bit of both. With this article, I hope to clear up some of the mystery behind “sign” and help you understand how you can use it to your advantage in a survival situation.

What Is “Sign”?

Simply put, “sign” is the physical evidence left behind by something in, or passing through, an environment. Every living creature leaves something behind—some kind of evidence it has been there.

That evidence could be in the form of tracks (footprints), scat (feces), hair, fur or feathers. It could be wing marks in the snow, blood, urine, scrapes (marks in the dirt left by deer and turkeys) or rubs (where deer have rubbed their antlers on the branches and trunks of trees). These are all sign. Sign could also be any type of disturbance to anything in the landscape. Overturned rocks, a scuff mark on a fallen log or a broken branch are all examples of sign.

Each sign is part of a larger story. To truly be able to read sign, you must know how to put that story together. Think about it as being similar to a detective deciphering clues at a crime scene to determine where, what, why, when, how and to whom something happened. In a survival situation, your ability to read sign could mean the difference between life and death for you and those depending on you.

Learn to Read

I grew up in a rural town in New Hampshire and spent a great deal of my time hunting, fishing and observing wildlife. I observed what they ate, where they slept, the shapes of their feet, and other interesting and unique cues they left behind. How did they walk? Did they have a long gait, like deer and moose? Did they walk “normally,” or did they lope, like rabbits and squirrels? What did their scat look like?

IN A SURVIVAL SITUATION, YOUR ABILITY TO READ SIGN COULD MEAN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH FOR YOU AND THOSE DEPENDING ON YOU.

Detailed observation is the first step to learning how to read sign. Taking the time, you’ll learn things such as the fact that all cats, including house cats, lynx, bobcats and mountain lions, have the same type of track. The only difference is the size. The same holds true for dogs and their cousins—wolves, coyotes and foxes.

This Western deer was taken by Patrick Hanley, who used his ability to read sign. This proves that no matter where you are, understanding animal sign can put protein on your table. (Photo: Patrick Hanley)

These may seem like little things, but knowledge such as this means that no matter where you are, you’ll be able to identify the tracks of certain species whose paths you cross. You just need to know which members of that species are found in the area.

THE ABILITY TO READ SIGN IS A SKILL THAT WILL HELP YOU PUT FOOD ON THE TABLE AND COULD KEEP YOU AND YOUR FAMILY SAFE.

You can apply all this information to any animal—including humans. If you realize that dogs, cats and people are predators; and, if you have properly prioritized your concerns about food procurement and security, this is good information to know.

This buck, taken by Patrick Hanley, is the result of scouting the area prior to his hunt and his ability to accurately read sign. (Photo: Patrick Hanley)

Reading sign requires you to use all your senses, and it takes practice to get skilled at this. Today, humans rely mainly upon their sense of sight, but when you are trying to put the big picture together, your senses of touch, smell and hearing also come into play. Our sense of smell is the weakest; however, with some effort and practice, you will be able to pick up the scent of animals and people. For example, if you’re moving through the woods and you get a whiff of fresh balsam, fir or hemlock, you should carefully look for a broken branch on one of these trees. If you find it, that means something—or someone—is nearby.

Tracks

Tracks, as you have probably guessed, are simply the footprints left by animals, whether they have four, two or no legs. Tracks will tell you a great deal of information if you know what to look for. Things such as direction of travel, species, relative size of the maker of the track and the number in the “party” can all be revealed in the tracks. Just ask any Border Patrol agent about the amount of information revealed in tracks.

If you see something such as this—in this case, .22 casings—in your area, they are probably from a squirrel or rabbit hunter. Although they do indicate that other people are in the area, I would be cautious, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the intentions of the shooter.

Simply finding the tracks is not enough, although it is a good start. This is especially true if you are a hunter … or the one being hunted. You need to figure out if the tracks are fresh or old. For instance, if the tracks are dry around the edges, filled with leaves or covered by debris, the safe bet is that they are old—but is that a matter of hours or days? This takes practice to figure out, as well as a basic understanding of the type of soil in your area and the effects time and weather can have on it.

If you see .45 ACP casings, it could mean an increased possibility of a threat. Most people don’t hunt with .45 ACP, so this could be a potential human predator. At the very least, use extra caution and, if possible, leave the area.

A good example is when I’m tracking a deer in moist soil in my part of the country. If the track has started to fill with water, it is probably at least an hour old. If the track is moist but has no water in it, the deer might have passed by within the last few minutes and could still be in the area.

A hunter might or might not have left these .30-30 casings—but why take the chance? Conversely, if someone is looking for you, and you dropped these, you just gave away your location.

The size of the track and how far it is pushed into the soil will give you a good idea of the animal’s size. The distance between tracks will give you an idea of its speed: The farther apart the tracks, the faster the animal was moving.

The easiest animal to trail—by far—is the average human. When people walk, they are not careful where they put their feet most of the time. And most people don’t even make any attempt to cover their trails (see the ‘Cover Your Trail’ sidebar below), so it is like reading a roadmap. Very quickly, you can figure out the direction in which they are heading, how many people are in their party, and even if there are men, women or both in the group.

Other Signs

Scat, or feces, is another telltale sign that an animal has been in the area. If you are hunting deer and spot droppings (which look like raisins without the wrinkles), you are in the right area. Here, again, you must judge the age of the sign. Are the droppings moist or dry? If they are moist, you are close; if they are dry, they could be days old, and if they are still steaming, you are right on top of the deer.

WHEN ANIMALS AND HUMANS RUB UP AGAINST SOMETHING, THEY WILL OFTEN LEAVE BEHIND HAIR, FUR OR SOME OTHER EVIDENCE OF THEIR PASSING. IT CAN BE FOUND IN THE BARK OF TREES, ON BRANCHES, STONE WALLS AND BARBED WIRE.

This is a fresh deer track that is possibly only an hour old. Based on its size, the author can tell it was made by a doe.

This ground disturbance sticks out from its surroundings like a sore thumb. Because there are no deer tracks evident, this tells the author it was made by a turkey.

These deer droppings are pretty fresh, indicating that deer are in the area. If you find this type of sign, you need to be ready to make that perfect shot.

If you inspect the scat closely, it will tell you what the animal is eating. Predator scat will have bits of bone and fur in it. Deer, moose, and often, bear scat will have bits of the plants they are eating. This is valuable information, because it will tell you what you should be looking for. Find the food they eat, and chances are good that you’ll find the animal.

This is a fairly fresh deer track. The size of the depression and its depth tell the author it was made by a fairly large buck.

This is a fairly fresh urine mark. The ground was frozen, but this spot was free of frost and was clearly thawed, so it was left there recently.

These tracks, while old—as indicated by the color and condition of the surrounding soil—were made by a large deer.

These snowshoe hare tracks are accompanied by a bobcat track to the far left. While no blood was found, this tells a story of a predator tracking its prey.

Look for hair or fur on the trail. When animals and humans rub up against something, they will often leave behind hair, fur or some other evidence of their passing. It can be found in the bark of trees, on branches, stone walls and barbed wire. Be aware of this, and look for it. It is another helpful piece of the puzzle.

… KNOWLEDGE SUCH AS THIS MEANS THAT NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE, YOU’LL BE ABLE TO IDENTIFY THE TRACKS OF CERTAIN SPECIES WHOSE PATHS YOU CROSS.

This scat was made by a predator. Knowing the area tells the author it is more than likely from a coyote. Looking at the color and texture gives him an idea of what it has been eating.

This scat was definitely left by a predator. The size eliminates the possibility that it was from a bear. Close inspection of the upper piece revealed some animal remains.

Many animals leave behind sign in the form of scrapes and rubs. Both turkeys and deer dig up the ground, either in search of food or to mark their territory. Male deer, bucks and bull moose will mark saplings and the ground by rubbing their antlers, urinating or using their scent glands—all in an effort to find a mate and as a challenge to other males in the area. Bears often mark their territories by clawing trees. A successful hunter will notice, and be able to read, the nuances of these types of sign.

Tracking Humans

Whether you are trying to find someone or are hiding from others, there are things you need to keep in mind: Humans leave more sign than we would like to admit. We leave tracks, trash, clothing or gear, broken branches, carvings on rocks and trees, and a host of other indications of our passing.

Noticing some scat led the author to this porcupine den in the rocks. (If necessary, porcupine can provide a decent meal.) The sharp edges on the rocks and their placement indicated that this was part of a very old house foundation.

The tracks on the right were clearly made by a motor vehicle. The direction the grass is bent indicates the direction of travel.

When I was in the military, we were taught to police our brass. Why? Because it is something that can give away your position, identify the weapons you’re using and indicate your unit’s size, as well as other intel that’s better left to your enemy’s imagination.

This scat is fairly old and was probably left by a fox. Notice all the hair left over from its most recent meal.

The size and shape of these droppings make the author believe they were left by a fox. Each species has some distinctions that can help you learn which animal is associated with the scat you find.

Finding brass in your area is never a good thing. If it is .22 brass, it probably indicates a squirrel or rabbit hunter. Consequently, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. However, handgun or .223 brass could indicate an entirely different set of possibilities. If you find this in the area you are in, you need to be extra cautious. Better yet, find another area. So, remember, if you shoot, make sure to pick up your casings whenever possible.

Occasionally, you might get stumped by sign you find. This soil disturbance told the author that something was going on, but based on the limited evidence, he had no idea what animal did it. Even so, he could rule out some animals to get a decent idea of how to proceed in the area.

As hard as it is to see, there is a deer track under these leaves. Since the buck passed this way, it had rained a couple times, which is what caused the leaves to relax and conform to the depression.

This is a fairly fresh black bear track. A track such as this was found while the author was spring turkey hunting. In fact, the bear came past where he was sitting twice before he decided to leave the area.

The ability to read sign is a skill that will help you put food on the table and could keep you and your family safe. It is a learned skill, which means it requires practice to master. It’s one you can’t become adept at just by reading this article. And remember that the more you practice, the better you will get.

Cover Your Trail 

Watch most animals, and you will notice they are very careful to cover their trails. Your family dog is a good example. My dog spends more time covering where he does his business than he actually takes to do it. Why? Because it is nature’s way of helping keep him from becoming the next meal of something bigger and stronger.

Humans should do the same. However, while nothing is foolproof, here are some things you can do to cover your trail:

  • Don’t smoke. If you smoke, I will find you. Besides the smell or the glow of a match, lighter or a lit cigarette in the dark, people who smoke in the woods will leave butts and other trash behind.
  • Choose your steps carefully. By walking on rocks, through streams or on logs, you will leave less evidence behind.
  • Be aware of your scent. Humans give off a distinct odor. The food you eat will come out in your sweat and your urine. Garlic and asparagus are good examples.
  • Before you hunt, drink only water and stay away from spicy food to reduce your odor profile.
  • There are many products on the market designed to mask your scent. While they might or might not work, I prefer to use what is natural. I shower with nonperfumed soap, and when I get to the woods, I rub myself with pine, spruce or hemlock needles. I even rub myself with the soil in the area.
  • Walk slowly. When you walk fast, you’ll be less cautious about where you place your feet, and you will also make more noise. You will end up turning over a rock, leaving a scuff mark on a log, breaking a branch or dropping something. Your higher level of exertion can also cause you to sweat, providing yet another opportunity for nearby wildlife to sense your presence.

Can I Cover My Trail? 

If you have ever watched an old Western movie, you will see people trying to cover their trails by taking a branch and brushing away their tracks. Does this really work?

The answer is both “yes” and “no.” Its success depends on whom you are trying to fool. You might outsmart a novice, but a good tracker will see right through this.

Your first tracking mistake is breaking that branch; your second mistake is using it to create more ground disturbance. You are better off watching your foot placement in the first place. When you step, come down on the balls of your feet, not the heels. The balls of your feet are wider. As a result, they transfer your weight more evenly, leaving less of a mark. If you come down on your heel, you will leave a much deeper and clearer track that will take longer to dissipate.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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