One of my favorite activities that can be done year-round is tracking. Tracks are EVERYWHERE. However, it’s easiest to track in mud, sand, or snow.
Kids love learning to read the earth and it’s also a great stepping stone to reading. Tracking, after all, is the original form of reading and many believe it led to written language in the first place. People used to read the earth like a book – the weather, the movement of animals, how long ago did they pass, and much, much more. This meant survival to many groups of people across the world.
For a snapshot into what tracking was and meant to our ancestors, I highly recommend watching this video:
All a beginner really needs to start tracking is to find a muddy or sandy surface. Along streams, rivers, beaches, and roads are perfect. It’s also beneficial to wait about 24 hours after a rainstorm to head out. The rain acts like an eraser on the ground, clearing the previous tracks, making it easier to read new ones. With lots of dirt time and study, you can learn to read tracks in leaves, on hard surfaces, and on chaotic patches of earth. But when starting out, I recommend sticking to mud and sand the day after a rainstorm. You can then go out each day to watch what happens to those tracks you saw on day one – how they age and how weather changes eventually wipe them away.
If you’re ready to jump into tracking, you’ll want to put together a Tracking Toolkit with the following items:
- A Waterproof, Pocket Field Guide
- A Small Measuring Tape
- A Notebook without lines or graphic paper
- A Camera
- Plaster Mix
- A List of Every Mammal in Your Region
If you find a perfect track while you’re in the field, I recommend taking a photo of it, drawing it, then adding the dimensions of each front and hind footprint. You’ll also want to add the stride length and the width from the outside of the outermost tracks. If you don’t know what species it is, record as much as you can. The following questions are helpful:
- Does it have claws?
- How many toes?
- What is the overall shape (round or oval)?
- What does the heel pad look like?
- Do you notice hair in the tracks or any other unusual characteristics?
If you don’t know what it is right away, which is expected in the beginning, you can try knocking off families from your list of possibilities. Such as, if one footprint has five toes, you know it can’t be a canine or a feline.
After drawing the track and taking notes, you can make a caste of it by mixing your plaster powder with water. I use Plaster of Paris from the hardware store. Don’t make the mix too liquidy or your caste will be too thin and may break. Too thick will mean you’ll miss details in the track. Use 4 small sticks to form the frame of you caste and keep the plaster in place. Wait about an hour for the caste to dry, then use a stick to pry it out.
It’s especially fun for kids to have something they can bring home and put in their room on a shelf to help them remember and show off to their friends.
Can you make a caste of every mammal species in your state?
Before you move on to the next post, what is the track in the header photo? What about in the photo of the caste? Please put your guesses into the comment section below.