The ability to detect, read and follow both human and animal tracks represents a valuable means of developing a more conscious awareness of the outdoors. In the very same manner, the capability to reduce, camouflage or even avoid leaving visible signs acquires greater importance, especially if it comes from necessity. Think about a possible bug-out situation or a SHTF scenario for which this might be a valuable skill.
“Because knowledge weighs nothing, any noteworthy lesson gained in tracking and, consequently, in anti-tracking techniques has lots to offer.”
In both circumstances, tracking is far from being an easy art to master in a short period of time. It requires lots of time, commitment and constant dedication, especially with bad weather and poor mental and physical performance. We learn through mistakes; and, for tracking, we make no exceptions: The more we fail, the more we understand how the logical process behind correctly minimizing tracks really works.
What makes this ancient skill still so remarkable is its potential to make the difference between life and death if you or any of your group are caught up in an emergency situation; or, if your intention is to bug out to a safe place. Because knowledge weighs nothing, any noteworthy lesson gained in tracking and, consequently, in anti-tracking techniques has lots to offer.
Of all the specialist activities relevant to the prosecution of a counterinsurgency campaign, none is more important than the provision of trackers. —Frank Kitson, British counterinsurgency practitioner and theorist.
“What makes this ancient skill still so remarkable is its potential to make the difference between life and death if you or any of your group are caught up in an emergency situation; or, if your intention is to bug out to a safe place.”
All the procedures and strategies engaged in order to deceive and slow down either a tracker or a combat tracking unit are usually defined as “anti-tracking.” On the other side, the term, “counter-tracking,” stands for operations that employ IEDs (“improvised explosive devices,” such as booby traps, trip wires, land mines and so on). Their aim is to physically injure or, in the most extreme case, to eliminate the trackers.
Deceptive tactics have been quite intensively developed and put into action within the tactical field. As I explained in my recent essay, Tracking, Anti-tracking and Counter-tracking during Colonialism, they surely obtained a notable resonance in Africa over the last century. Apart from that period, they have been successfully employed by the Special Air Service in the Malayan Emergency, the Borneo Confrontation and by U.S. combat trackers from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
This brief historical overview should give you an idea of the longevity and the real current viability of the subject. In fact, effective anti-tracking techniques put into use in a survival situation play an essential role when we find ourselves chased by ill-intentioned people whom we want to elude.
EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE
The starting point, both for trackers and anti- and counter-trackers, consists of the first principle of forensic science, as stated by Sir Edmund Locard at the beginning of the 20th century: “Every contact leaves a trace.” Simply put: Every time we move through any outdoor or indoor scene, we leave a sign of our presence.
“All the procedures and strategies engaged in order to deceive and slow down either a tracker or a combat tracking unit are usually defined as “‘anti-tracking.’”
I am not just talking about footprints. This also includes bent vegetation, body fluids or any other discharged material or item incidentally or purposely left behind. The amount and types of signs we leave behind are meaningful to an experienced eye. The signs, in fact, become clues. They can be used against us if the purpose of other people is to pursue us. Alternatively, we can take advantage of our tracking knowledge to alter clues we leave behind by minimizing them as much as we can or via other means, according to the scenario.
WHY WE SHOULD LEAVE NO SIGN BEHIND
Why should we want to leave a minimal amount of traces? If we are preppers and survivalists, the answers could be various and apparent:
To mislead our pursuers
To keep our trail secret
To avoid giving away the position of our bug-out location
To not reveal resources we discover (i.e., food or water)
To keep our items and gear secure and safe
To keep our stockpiled food safe from theft
No matter what our intentions are, we need to tune our senses and actions to the scenario we are in.
At the very core of tracking, as well as of escape and evasion techniques, are the terrain and ground cover. And, when it comes to covering our tracks, every action counts. Each time we make the decision to cross a specific area, it is mandatory to consider the main geographical features—variable altitude, steep slopes, terrain, fauna and flora, natural obstacles and the presence or absence of established trails.
THE CORE OF EVASION
Planning the trail to your bug-out location makes the ideal starting point. No one likes accidents, and being prepared means also being familiar with the place you carefully chose. If so, you are probably already aware of how the ground reacts to your passage on a given day during the various seasons and with different weather conditions.
“ … we can take advantage of our tracking knowledge to alter clues we leave behind by minimizing them as much as we can or via other means, according to the scenario.”
Some areas provide less evidence of your passage; for example, the presence of craggy or rocky ground and the lack of foliage. Reading tracks on them, in fact, is extremely tough and always time-consuming.
Based on this experience, when you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, you can actually scan the area with some accuracy by closely studying the ground for environments you’re familiar with:
Scan the whole area in order to get as much information as possible.
Look for any evidence of recent passage left by other people, vehicles or animals.
“Index” (test) the terrain to figure out how the soil reacts to you stepping on it.
Generally speaking, keep in mind the following facts:
Any soft soil acts like a trap for tracks (called “track traps”), retaining the imprint from your footwear.
Fields of high grass will easily give away your route, because grass blades will bend toward your travel direction.
Walking uphill or downhill on steep slopes will leave very evident and specific signs of your passage as a result of the release of more kinetic force. The more load you have on you, the deeper and more visible your footprints will be. Carry only essential gear so you will move more lightly; this will also help you leave shallower footprints that are less apparent.
Running will create more evidence of your passage, not only on the ground, but also to the vegetation you pass through.
Exploiting existing trails will make your prints difficult to pick up with accuracy.
APPLYING BRITISH ANTI-TRACKING PRINCIPLES
The British anti-tracking principles might come in handy when it comes time to fix in your mind the do‘s and the don’ts in any escape and/or evasion situation. Developed especially during the previously mentioned jungle campaigns in Malaysia and Borneo, these principles proved to be extremely effective for leaving minimal signs. No matter the features of the situation you are in, these principles are based on common sense:
Do not walk on anything if you can step over it.
Do not leave the geometry of your pattern (that is, the design of the soles of your footwear—or even a portion of it) on track traps. These consist of soft terrain and are more likely to capture and preserve the features of your sole design as a result of the high humidity level they have.
Do not bend any plant or twig if you can simply dodge it.
Do not break anything that you can easily avoid or flex.
Avoid making unnecessary noise, starting fires, using strong perfumes, toothpaste, chewing gum and lotions and so on.
If you‘re part of a group, communicate by hand signals.
OTHER METHODS TO MAKE YOUR TRACKS DISAPPEAR
There is a long list of noteworthy ways to conceal your tracks or, perhaps, to make them less evident. No doubt, Western/action movies, books, manuals and various historical accounts can help us with some ideas. The most well-known methods include:
Brushing out or camouflaging tracks
Walking in a stream, creek or river
Jumping from stone to stone or just walking on very hard surfaces
Abruptly changing travel direction
Leaving a false trail
Using well-traveled routes in order to confuse your tracks with others
Wearing footwear with no pattern design
Wearing socks over shoes
Wearing footwear with the sole mounted in the opposite manner (heel, instead of toe)
Wearing footwear that leave prints such as hooves or claws
Wearing a plastic bag over footwear
Changing shoes while on the move
Mounting a motorcycle, bicycle or a horse
The requirements, in terms of time and the availability of props, go without saying—but the legitimate question remains: Do all these techniques really work?
Some of them can surely help, but experienced and trained trackers do overcome each of these techniques.
For example, making your way through a stream will slow down a tracker, but they will focus the attention on the exit point. Even in a dry river bed, a good tracker can spot the outline of human prints, taking advantage of even a tiny portion of soft ground. The very same will happen with some soils that feature rocks.
Brushing out tracks is one of the most time-wasting and least useful things to do, because you will create even more tracks, and the branch you used will leave unnatural patterns on the ground. In addition, it can drop leaves on the ground.
Walking backward provides alterations from the heel-to-toe impressions. They are easily detectable, and your whole stride will appear shorter.
Custom-manufactured shoes with faux animal footprints still leave an impression that can be tracked; besides, ungulates are four-legged, not two-legged as humans are. And, wearing socks still gives away hints from bent, low vegetation and, on smooth ground, the complete outlines of your feet.
Last, but not least: Using well-used trails in order to confuse your tracks with others is somewhat pointless after your tread pattern has already been identified.
THE ‘KISS’ PRINCIPLE
If your purpose is to hide or minimize your tracks, the KISS Principle (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) still wins. Your actions—and options—depend on the features of the whole scenario, as well as on your physical and mental conditions and the material you have on hand. My suggestion is: Do not rush; rather, apply common sense and set up a specific plan before you move out. Take an objective look at your situation and consider honestly how your tracks and other signs of travel will look before you leave any evidence of your passage.
Concealing Your Tracks: What to Carry in Your Backpack
A pouch or any small bag dedicated to improvised anti-tracking shoes is an option to consider. Some very common items could come in handy when you need to conceal the sole design of your boots. Remember to always consider your weight and your physical features.
My personal list includes:
Paracord of different sizes
Woman‘s fishnet stockings
Rags of different sizes and textures
That is basically all I need to cover my shoes and move quite undetected on different terrains. Before committing myself to improvise any cover, I always consider all the options I have.
Creating a pair of anti-tracking shoes, in fact, is always a remote option. It requires time, not to mention that you might accidentally leave behind some clues of your activity. Even a small piece of yarn or thread, detected by expert eyes, could be evidence of your transition through the area.
Once I establish the characteristics of the soil and terrain I have to face, I figure out which of my items could serve me best. No single item is 100 percent applicable or reliable, so I must move very cautiously. In doing so, I also reduce or eliminate any possible sound that could give away my presence.
To achieve that, I adopt Tom Brown’s stalking position: I slightly bend my knees, take shorter steps and move more slowly. In this manner, I have full control of my footfalls, and I can constantly check if the improvised foot coverings still work or if they are coming apart.
Concealing Your Tracks With Natural Materials
Making anti-tracking shoes with natural materials is strictly connected to the abundance or absence of the proper vegetation you need to make your sole design disappear. By scanning the area, you will soon get the answers and materials you need. You need to rely on natural materials that are found consistently along your path of travel. And, once they are firmly attached to your footwear, you won‘t have to worry about losing them.
The first rule is always, “Blend with the scenario.” In the pictures above, you can see how I used local materials to make a very simple, but serviceable, pair of anti-tracking shoes. I try to blend in with the forest or other environment I am in—mainly pines and yews in this case—as well as being aware of my total body weight and my way of moving.
I grabbed some yew branches that fell down after a recent storm. Never break or cut branches from the tree, because these “aerial spoors” (signs caused by damaging or removing upper parts of vegetation) will immediately give away your presence in the area to an expert eye. Picking up branches from the ground not only makes more sense, it also reduces any unnecessary noise.
I only pick the branches of the proper length to cover, with a little excess, my whole foot. By making the covering larger, I can actually have some additional room in case the branches move a little bit when I’m attaching them. Then, I start to wrap them to the sole of my boots with some paracord. I make very sure not to leave any uncovered area of the paracord, itself, because the imprint left by a straight line of cord is easy for a tracker to identify. This is especially true on barren terrain. By following this process, the whole branch will adopt the form of a natural arch that disguises the soles of the boots.
After taking a few steps to get familiar with the new size and feel of my modified soles, I then fully tested them.
The tracks I left behind became barely visible, and the noise I produced was definitely more like the natural sounds in the surrounding area. The result was very satisfying. And, just by taking some steps and stopping, I additionally broke up the distinctive sound of a two-legged individual making her way through the woods.
Later on, I came back to the starting point in order to observe my tracks by backtracking them. My anti-tracking shoes seemed to just move and push aside the leaves and debris—without leaving the telltale signs that a human passed by. In some spots, some micro clues were present, but they were very difficult to find.
The general idea is that the environment has been untouched. Nonetheless, covering a considerable distance by wearing this sort of “natural coverage” has a lot of cons:
As part of the material wears away, the paracord will emerge and leave distinctive signs on the terrain.
This process reduces your natural walking speed.
You could leave behind some debris on your way.
Each change of terrain requires a new specific type of coverage for your shoe soles.
However, because this process is so simple, you can easily train yourself to manufacture your own anti-tracking shoes and put them into practice.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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