Tracking Basics for the Modern Scout

Tracking Basics for the Modern Scout

It is simply a given that those of us who want to be ready for disaster in a wilderness or an urban setting should have good awareness skills.

When considering awareness, we oftentimes think it is a gift some are born with and others not. Nothing can be further from the truth. Surviving is just as much about training as it is instinct. Much like any physical skill, developing your awareness will take time, patience and practice. The U.S. military has invested more time, money, and effort than any entity into making sure they have good awareness. The U.S. government wants to ensure the survivability of its soldiers. What we will do here is utilize some of those methods, add in our own research, and condense it down to a language that is usable by the everyday citizen like you and I.

The top five tools for observation and awareness.
The top five tools for observation and awareness.

Let’s first mention that the human body is an incredible sensor. We have the ability to take in information that is afforded us and make logistical, sometimes critical, decisions based upon it. Let’s consider each of the senses and point out some ways to increase your awareness utilizing them. Please note we will go over sight last and consider it in great detail.


We often overlook utilizing the nose to gather information, however it can lead to a number of answers. Your nose can detect food preparation, human waste, body odor, vehicle exhaust, determine the level of food freshness or decay, and animal detection. For those of us that spend much time hunting, scent control is key to remaining undetected.

Some animals use their noses to detect scent for their safety (coyotes, deer, scent dogs). If you have observed this, you will see them blow out a fair amount of air as they are trying to pinpoint what they detect in the air. The effect of this is to discard any scent particles in the nostrils so as to ensure they are getting an accurate scent rather than a scent “byproduct” that is hanging around in the nostrils. We can use this example for ourselves.

The author uses his sense of smell to detect the aging of sign.

When you think you smell something you’re looking for, make it a regular practice to exhale each time you attempt to take in scent. We teach students in our tracking classes to note the smell that herbaceous and woody material puts off when it’s broken and how long they can smell it. Consider that you are tracking a person or an animal in a hunting situation: You find a freshly broken limb and smell it. You note that it is incredibly fresh. This helps you estimate the passage of time of the subject you are tracking.


Ask any infantryman or Marine and they will tell you with certainty it is not hard to distinguish between the sounds of their small arms fire versus that of their enemy. This is one way that utilizing your auditory senses will serve you well in a similar situation.

You can also identify important information like vehicle sounds, gear sounds such as zippers or Velcro, and animal sounds. Even the lack of sounds or complete silence can be an indicator of something amiss. Additionally, simply cupping your hands around your ears will help gather sounds for your discernment. It is an incredibly valuable amplifier when you “think” you hear something but are not quite sure.

A wonderful example is one we use in law-enforcement tracking on a regular basis. When chasing/tracking someone in a neighborhood, you will often locate where they are running and sometimes hiding simply by the sounds of dogs barking. If a fugitive is running from yard to yard, dogs will be barking in each yard as they travel. This is an indicator you can use to set a more dedicated and accurate perimeter.


The author uses his sense of touch to determine the age of the fire.
The author uses his sense of touch to determine the age of the fire.

You can use your sense of touch to obtain important information about temperature. Feeling a vacated deer bed, the coals of a fire, the engine or exhaust of a vehicle, or the barrel of a weapon will give you indications of how long it has been since activity occurred with each. If you are in pursuit of someone in a vehicle and they get away from you and park, you can quickly assess which vehicle was most recently running by placing your hand near the grill or hood of a car and feeling for heat.


Each of the other senses can provide us with an incredible amount of information. However, it is our eyes, that provide us with vast amounts of information every second. Science has proven to us that the human eye passes approximately 10-15 million bits of data to the brain every second. The issue for us is knowing how to take that information and use it for our purposes. That is why considering the sense of sight is incredibly detailed and important to understand.

We are going to consider the following ways of utilizing our eyes to gather information and be more aware.


Before we detail those, lets first consider the difference between looking at something versus actually seeing something. Looking is when you direct your gaze in a specified direction. Seeing is becoming aware of something from a visual source. The world is populated with people that very rarely, if ever, do much more than look around them. Those of us who want to be more aware need to focus our attention into the pieces of information out there and put them into the filing cabinet of information we carry around with us, our brain.


Scanning is an even more deliberate use of the eyes than simply seeing. Scanning is done when there is a location you need to assess but the information you need is not obvious. This can be as simple as scanning an incredibly large area of ground to see if there is equipment or people that deserve your attention. Once you see something from the large area that needs your attention you can then focus on a smaller section.

To scan a large area of forest, large city, or open ground you should start closest to you first. Scan the entire width of the area you can see, then in your mind, step your vision out another 100 meters and do it again going in the other direction. Continue this stepping back and forth every 100 meters. This allows you to make a quick scan of the area for any threats or information that proves usable. Once you have made the initial quick and large scan, go back and do it again, this time taking much more time to see the area.

The author shields his optic from the sun to provide a better observation of the forest.
The author shields his optic from the sun to provide a better observation of the forest.

If you come to an area of interest, stop and focus on it. I focus by visually making a box around the place of interest. Once that is complete I then visually make an X through the corners of the box to see items of interest within it. In this manner I can focus directly on a specific spot. Again, I do this slowly and deliberately.


There are some simple points to consider about distance. If you are looking at something or someone on a contoured, hilly, or similar ground, that object will seem farther away. If you are looking at an object across flat ground, like a beach, ocean or open plain, that object will seem closer. You must also take into account the light conditions when looking at these objects. If you have the sun at your back, the objects you are seeing will be lit up by the sun and the object will appear nearer. If the object you are seeing has the sun behind it, the object will seem farther away.

To be more specific, we can utilize the human form to estimate distance. This is a valuable skill because humans are typically our biggest threat in most situations. I am fortunate to have had good precision rifle instructors who offered this information to me.

If you are observing a human with the naked eye at:

200 meters – their face will be visible and you will see good detail

300 meters – their face color can be seen and body outline is still good

400 meters – no facial details and body outline good, all other details are blurred

500 meters – body taper is seen; head is not noticeable

600 meters – body appears to be a triangle.


More often than not, trackers are well known to the general populace as a romantic movie-based persona — that is simply not true. Tracking is depicted as a skill that only a special few can possess — this is partly true. A good tracker is someone who has dedicated a lot of time and energy into seeing things when other people just look. There are five visual indications that a tracker looks for when detailing a track. You can begin to expand your ability in this area by looking for these as well.

OUTLINE – The outline of a track will help us identify the quarry we are after.

SHAPE – Humans with shoes always leave tracks with discernible shapes and 90 degree angles.

CONTRAST – Does an area look “different” from the area around it? Trackers refer to this as “disturbance,” something has changed the baseline of what was there.

COLOR – Transference is often seen in tracks. Water gets splashed on a stream bank; mud carried onto the top of leaves will be a different color that what was there and is often very noticeable to a trained eye.

TEXTURE – Whatever the baseline of the ground, tracks will change that. If it was smooth, a track will often rough it up; if was rough, then a track will often smooth it out.

With these basics you can begin to see more tracks around you. Another way to get better at tracking is to simply watch how people walk. Imagine them walking on a beach and what kind of tracks would they leave. Do they walk with their feet spread out, pigeon toed, drag their feet or something else? You can do this at the mall, grocery store, or in the woods. By watching people walk, you can get a feel for what kind of tracks they will leave.


The military utilizes the acronym SALUTE (Size, Activity, Location, Unit, Time, Equipment) to help individuals or teams pass on information to others from any given situation, incident or mission. SALUTE will help you organize the who, what, when and where of these situations.

S -SIZE. This can refer to the number of people. For example, you come across an abandoned house during hurricane aftermath such as Katrina. You determine, by the number of active beds, how many people are in the area. If there was an assault could you, or your group, defend the position?

A- ACTIVITY. This is where you note, even if it is only in your mind, the specific activities you see going on. An example is watching a crowd at a concert. Good security personnel will see the rhythm of how the crowd is working. When an individual or small group in that crowd are out of that rhythm, it is typically someone to pay attention to. If you are in crowded movie theatre and everyone is shuffling in and finding seats, but one person is pacing back and forth, that person is someone to pay attention to and discern what the issue is.

L- LOCATION. Pre-planning is a good idea here for disaster preparedness in particular. We all know people race towards grocery stores during a disaster. Besides the obvious notation of where safe travel corridors are away from such places, you should also note other areas to get supplies. Also note the location when you travel, even for a dinner out, how you will get out of an area if there were to be some sort of unexpected event.

U – UNIT. In military use, this helps the individual determine the abilities of those they are observing. It could also be as simple as observing body language and noticing how people carry themselves to see their strength, awareness, or lack thereof. After 25 years of doing martial arts, I could almost always tell, when someone walked into my facility, if they were a martial artist. If they told me they were new to it, I knew they were either lying or my assessment was incorrect. If they were lying, they were definitely a threat.

T -TIME. Mind the time. If you note times of activity, you will start to see patterns. Once you recognize patterns in people, groups of people and animals, you can then more easily predict future events. It is a reason that I never take the same exact way to and from the gym each day. My gym is in an area that you can access from several different routes. If someone wanted to pattern me, it would be difficult

E- EQUIPMENT. You can assess the supplies that others have, that might be of use to yourself, your group or family. Looking at a group do they look clean, hydrated, and fed? If so ask yourself, where are they getting supplies? How can you also get them? I trained a large group of Search and Rescue special operations personnel that were tasked with searching for survivors in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. That situation was so bad that even they were running out of fuel. They observed that some of their law-enforcement counterparts had plenty of fuel. They then observed where they were getting it and took some for themselves.

The author uses a monocular to observe the surroundings.
The author uses a monocular to observe the surroundings.

SALUTE is a military acronym that we can easily use for our purposes when seeing a situation and then using what is gained to then make decisions. Primarily this is used when we have need to share information with others. It makes the process more efficient when we can keep it in a standard format such as this. It is much easier for those that are analyzing it or making decisions based upon it. This also allows the individual on their own to be more efficient.

When doing reconnaissance or otherwise gathering information or intelligence you should know what info you must get. This allows you to get it and get out and make an analysis so you are not compromised or in extended situations of high danger.

It is our desire that you take these ideas and start to implement them daily. If done regularly you will become natural at being more aware of your surroundings.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the How To special issue of American Survival Guide.

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