How to Track a Human

In the wild, human beings must stay in contact with each other to ensure their survival. This is a challenge that many people have wrestled with for centuries, but it’s even harder than originally thought when you’re trying to hunt down a single person who may be hundreds of miles away from your location and/or camouflaged in thick foliage. Technology has come up with some unique solutions that might help track someone at night or while they are on the move.

The “how to track animals and humans” is a question that often comes up during survival. There are many different ways to do this, but the most effective way is through tracking. Tracking can be done in many ways including using a GPS device or by following footprints.

Man tracking human footprints on river bed illustration.

In classic Westerns, it’s a popular cliché. A posse is gathered to track down some evil people who have fled to the desert to hide. They enlist the services of an Indian scout to hunt them down. To the cowboys’ surprise, the local guide can figure out how many individuals are in the bad guy’s gang, how long they’ve been camping at a certain location, and that one of the ruffians is wounded. It’s almost as if it’s magic.

However, this is not the case.

The scout was merely practicing excellent forensics and employing a set of sharp, field-developed senses.

One of my favorite courses at the ITS Tactical Muster a few years ago was on human tracking, delivered by expert combat tracker John Hurth. John was able to teach us how to figure out what’s going on with someone on the run and where they’re heading by merely looking at their footprints or noting a broken branch in only a few hours.

Why would you want to learn how to monitor a person? Although you’ll probably never have to embark on a search for a fugitive, it’s still a useful skill to have. Perhaps your child has wandered away from home, or you have lost a friend in a lonely wilderness location. Instead of anxiously yelling their name and walking aimlessly, you may learn how to look for them successfully and swiftly.

You may also reverse engineer the process if you know how to track a human; that is, you’ll be better equipped to make your own escape without leaving a trace if you know how to track a person. Just in case you end yourself on a deserted island, pursued by a stalker playing “the most deadly game.”

A primer on human tracking is provided here. Keep in mind that if you really want to learn how to accomplish this, you’ll need to practice for years. But with a little effort, you may be able to achieve the degree of tracking shown by the crack trackers in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, about whom the protagonists frequently exclaimed, “Who are those guys?”

Acquire Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the most crucial skill a tracker can learn. Without it, he would miss hints and signals that would take him to his goal.

Situational awareness is based on two things: 1) watching and 2) appropriately interpreting what you see.

It takes time and effort to learn how to become more attentive. It requires a shift in thinking, memory and sensory training, and daily practice in actually perceiving what you see. We have some wonderful tutorials on how to perform all of those things, fortunately:

  • How to Develop Jason Bourne’s Situational Awareness
  • Situational Awareness: A Sioux Guide
  • Boost Your Senses and Situational Awareness with These 10 Tests, Exercises, and Games

After you’ve honed your observation skills, you’ll need to know how to evaluate what you see in order to draw the proper conclusions about what’s going on. To accomplish so, you’ll need to expand and deepen your mental models.


Increase the breadth and depth of your mental models.

Mental models are just different ways of seeing and comprehending the environment. These paradigms help us understand what’s occurred before, what’s occurring now, and what’s likely to happen tomorrow by forming our expectations about how the world works.

The mental models that a tracker needs to widen and develop the most are those that will aid him in finding his target. Environment and psychology/habits are the two primary areas.


The area in which a tracker is tracking is the most evident topic he has to know inside and out. He must comprehend details such as how the way snow retains a track varies depending on whether it is wet or dry. He should be aware that spiders normally weave their webs late at night (if footprints are beneath an unbroken spider web, the tracker can assume that the target passed the point earlier in the day). He must be knowledgeable with the flora and geology of the region. He must understand how the wind blows. He wishes to know the average temperature of embers after a campfire has burnt out for a specific amount of hours.

He also needs to understand how things mature in different environments. A experienced tracker can examine at things or indicators in his environment and estimate how long they’ve been there since his target left them there. After being dumped in a desert or forest, he understands how long it takes for paper to turn brown or a plastic bottle to deteriorate. He should be able to look at a broken branch and predict when it was broken based on the color of the exposed wood. He even recognizes the appearance of human excrement 1, 2, and 3 days after it has been expelled by his prey. These mental models will take time and effort to develop, but making “aging stands” is one method to start building them up before you need them.

The Tracker’s Experiment: Aging Stands

Aging stand for learning human tracking techniques illustration.

Expert combat tracker John Hurth describes aging stances as “science experiments” for trackers. You create a one-row grid out of branches on the ground and arrange various things in its spaces. Each square should, in theory, be exposed to both direct sunshine and sections shaded and covered by trees. Week one involves placing materials to test in the first square, such as footprints, paper, broken twigs, water bottles, and yes, even excrement. Make sure there are duplicate samples in both the shaded and unshaded parts of the square.

Visit your aging stand every day and record how things have changed. What caused the exposed branches to become a different color? Is the paper starting to fade? What became to the poop? Have the footprint imprints altered over time?

The next week, go on to the next square in the grid and fill it with new examples of the same products. Compare them to the examples in the square from the first week. Make a list of the differences. The next week, replace the samples in the third square. Compare them to the squares from the first and second weeks. You’ll gain a general understanding of the aging process for both natural and manmade goods throughout time.


To study how seasonal fluctuations in humidity, temperature, and precipitation impact the aging process, perform aging stand studies at several periods of the year – spring, summer, autumn, and winter. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s necessary for developing the mental models you’ll need to monitor someone properly.

Human Behavior & Psychology

A tracker must be aware of not just what is happening in the area in which he is tracking a target, but also what is going on in the target’s mind. He must create mental models that deal with human behavior, which requires a thorough understanding of human psychology and sociology. Knowing your target’s thinking and cultural background might help you predict how he’ll behave and take you to where he is. Frederick Russell Burnham, a great scout, had this to say regarding the development of mental models like these:

“A scout must be well-versed in the history, tradition, religion, social conventions, and superstitions of the nation or people with whom he is assigned to work. This is nearly as important as understanding the country’s physical characteristics, climate, and goods. Almost without fail, some individuals will do certain things. Other options, although totally viable, will not suffice. There is no risk in learning too much about an enemy’s mental patterns. The opponent should not be underestimated, nor should superhuman abilities be attributed to him. Fear and courage are latent in every human being, but they may be stirred into action in a variety of ways.”

You must construct mental models for your specific aim in addition to basic cultural and psychological mental models. Is there anything in particular that he enjoys eating? Is there something wrong with him? Is he a smoker or a nail biter? Is he used to being outside or is he a city dweller? Do you think he has any worries or insecurities? Is there anybody he knows in the area?

Knowing this about your target can help you conduct your search and analyze the evidence you locate in the field. If you know what cigarettes your target smokes, for example, you’ll be on the lookout for cigarette butts. You’ll know you’re on the right road if you stumble across a pool of pee that smells fruity and has diabetes.

Scanning and Searching: Observing Your Surroundings

It’s time to start monitoring now that you’ve worked on enhancing your situational awareness by being more alert and establishing suitable mental models (this is an activity that should never stop).

When you’re out tracking, there are two visual modes you’ll use: scan and search.


The purpose of scanning the terrain is to gain a broad, big-picture perspective of your surroundings. Maintain an open mind. If you don’t have something specific in mind to search for, you’ll have “target blindness” and overlook other bits of evidence. Visually scan your surroundings for probable abnormalities like as footprints, trash, blood stains, and so on.


Tracking specialists David Diaz and V. L. McCann advocate splitting an area horizontally into thirds rather than scanning it haphazardly:

“Imagine the landscape in front of you is a two-dimensional painting of a natural setting. The horizon represents the top barrier, and the earth in front of you is the bottom limit. Divide the canvas into three equal sections: foreground, middle ground, and distant ground…

To’see’ everything in such a large space, it must be scanned in a methodical manner. Sweep the foreground from left to right, right to left, and left to right with a horizontal movement of your eyes, bringing your line of view up just enough to barely overlap the region above the previous sweep.”

This allows you to make your way up to the far terrain in a logical manner, ensuring that you don’t miss anything — close or far — that lies ahead of you.


“In-depth investigation of an area or thing,” Diaz and McCann define searching. Once you’ve discovered an anomaly, you may start searching at any time throughout the scanning process. Searching entails paying more attention to the abnormality and noting it down in your head or in a notepad for subsequent study.

Just because you’ve found one anomaly doesn’t imply you should abandon the rest of your quest. Continue searching for other oddities that you can investigate further. Continue your scan and search with extreme attention to avoid picking up any polluting indicators. Do not step over footprints and leave rubbish where you found it. You want to leave everything in their original places so you can piece together the puzzle and make a tale out of the evidence you find.

Scanning and Searching with Light

Man tracking humans using angle of sunlight to help illustration.

Use the light you have to better discover any abnormalities as you scan and seek. The sun, for example, throws lengthy shadows across imprints in the ground in the morning and evening, bringing them into greater focus. Position yourself such that the tracks you’re following are between you and the light source to get a clearer view of the shadows. This will need repositioning yourself in reference to the tracks. As you do so, be careful not to contaminate them with your own prints.

With the use of a light source such as a flashlight, tracking may be done at night. To prevent disturbing your night vision, use a colored light such as green or red. (As a side note, red was formerly the recommended nighttime light color, but many operators are now moving to green since it lets them to see things more clearly without significantly decreasing night vision.)

Using night vision to track someone in the dark.

When searching at night, if you stare straight at the thing you’ve found, you’ll most likely lose sight of it. Directly looking at things involves the employment of the cone portion of the retina, which isn’t highly active in low-light situations. To compensate for this shortcoming, employ what Diaz and McCann refer to as “off-center vision.” Instead of staring straight at the thing you’ve identified, glance to the left, right, above, and below it, stopping occasionally to double-check its qualities.


Understand What To Look For

As you scan and examine your surroundings, keep an eye out for a few clues that can assist you in tracking down your target. Hurth recommends keeping an eye out for the following visual signs (I didn’t mention them all; see John’s book for a comprehensive, extensive list):

Indicators on the Ground (on the ground)

How to track a person grass disturbed in straight line illustration.

  • Footprints
  • Tracks of vehicles
  • Grass trampled
  • Scuffs on boots and shoes
  • I flipped the dead leaves over.
  • Grass or soil that has been disturbed
  • Mud, mud, sand, and water from footwear were transferred to another medium.

Ground Indicators’ Honey Pot: Track Traps

Hurth recommends keeping an eye out for “track traps.” These are spots on the ground that capture your target’s tracks very well. Because they leave so much information behind, he refers to them as “honey pots.” Track traps include mud, sand, soft ground, and snow, to name a few. Track traps may also be found in bodies of water or oil spills. After walking in water or oil, a target will almost certainly leave tracks on the ground.

Aerial Indicators are a kind of indicator that may be seen from the air (above your ankle)

Broken spider web between two trees how to track a person illustration.

  • shattered cobwebs
  • Leaves that are detached or absent
  • Branches that have broken off and are pointing in the direction of the objective
  • Tree scratches or scuffs
  • Vegetation that has been cut or broken
  • Grass or vegetation that has been pulled down in an unusual posture.
  • Fabric for clothing in the branches
  • Branches with hair

Indicators of Litter (objects discarded intentionally or unintentionally)

  • Butts for cigarettes
  • Wrappers for candy and food
  • Casings from used ammunition
  • Medical supplies that have been used
  • Gum/tobacco
  • Clothing

Indicators of Blood

Blood indicators what type of wound identification illustration.

Your target may have been hurt, resulting in blood stains. The hue of the blood stain might reveal a lot about the damage he or she has and how long the blood stain has been there.

  • Blood drips with a dark crimson color. A venous wound is indicated by this symbol. Non-life-threatening.
  • Blood splatters in bright crimson. Indicates the presence of a probable vascular wound. Life-threatening.
  • Blood that is pink and foamy. Indicates a probable pulmonary wound.
  • Blood is a light crimson color with a terrible odor. Indicates the possibility of a stomach wound.

As blood is exposed to the environment, it changes color. Blood stains may seem brighter at first, but will fade to a brown or rust hue with time.

Indicators of Bodily Discharge

Vomit, excrement, urine, and snot may not be pleasant to think about, but they may not only point you in the right direction, but also create a picture of your target’s present state.

Vomit and feces might reveal what kind of food your target has consumed. There’s a likelihood he’s dehydrated if there’s a lot of fluids, clear vomit, or diarrhea.

If you come across a urine spot with a strong ammonia odor, the target is most likely dehydrated. There’s a likelihood he’s diabetic if it smells fruity.

How to track a person man's urine on the ground illustration.

Peeing man

How to track a person woman's urine on the ground illustration.

Peeing woman

The relationship between the location of a urine stain and a pair of footprints may reveal whether it originated from a male or a woman. It’s most likely a man if the pee stain is in front of the footprints. A woman who busted a squat to do her business if the stain is in the center of the footprints or near the heels.


Indicators of Hearing and Smell

You can’t only depend on your sight to track down your target as a tracker. Heavy breathing, chatting, weeping, brush movement, coughing, and other sounds might provide you clues as to where your target is.

Smells might also provide important information. Smoke may take you to a campfire where the target is now or has recently been. If the target hasn’t had a shower in a few days, he may also have a strong body odor.

Bottom line: don’t neglect your nose and ears while you scan and seek with your eyes. They may reveal vital information that you might otherwise miss if you relied just on your eyes.

Footprints: Identifying and Interpreting

While you should be looking for indications and indicators such as blood, trodden grass, and broken cobwebs, one of your key means of following and tracking your target will be via footprints.

A expert tracker is so skilled at following footprints that he can identify people only by looking at the imprints on the ground. They can also determine whether someone is sprinting, carrying a weight, carrying someone else, or even walking backwards.

It takes some careful study to be able to compile this dossier on a target merely by looking at their footprints. When recognizing and analyzing footprints, keep the following in mind.

Fill out a Footprint Data Card using the information you’ve gathered.

Your police drawing of your target’s footprint is on a footprint data card. (John’s book has a template.) On the card, you’ll draw the pattern of his footwear’s sole, establish whether it’s a boot, shoe, or sandal, and measure the length of the print overall, the width of the heel (and the length if it’s a boot), and the breadth of the ball of the foot. You’ll also want to look for any manufacturer or size markings, as well as if the toe is rounded, square, or pointed. You’ll want to keep track of the time and place where you found the print, as well as the direction of travel.

Hurth suggests giving the footprint data card a moniker based on its most important attributes. So you may name a print “Vibram” if it has a “Vibram” emblem on it.

If the target is barefoot, take note of whether he has a high arch, a typical arch, or flat feet. The breadth of the ball of the foot and the heel should be measured. Make a note of their toes as well – are there any missing digits? Toe hammer?

Footprint Interpretation

Determining meaning in footprints when tracking humans illustration.

If you examine footprints carefully enough, you may learn a lot about what your target was doing when he left them.

The spacing and depth of the imprints, for example, might provide information about the target’s stride, such as whether he was sprinting or strolling. The target was sprinting if the impressions were far apart and deeper in the toe or heel; the target was walking if the impressions were shallower and closer together.


The target was most likely wearing a backpack if the gait was shorter and the imprints were deeper. You may tell he was carrying a person if he has a short stride and deep imprints, as well as intermittent additions of another set of prints close to the target’s (and occasionally putting them down for breaks).

A set of imprints with a circular indention to the side suggests that the target is using a cane or stick to walk.

If one foot makes a deeper imprint than the other, the target is most likely favoring that leg while the other is damaged.

So, while you’re looking at footprints, don’t simply observe them. Try to piece together a tale about what your target was up to, since this will assist you come up with a hypothesis about what he’ll do next.

Footprints are used to estimate the number of people in a group.

Determining number of people in a group with footprints illustration.

Counting the number of persons in a target group may be simple in certain cases since there are separate groups of footprints to count. However, the footprints often collide and mingle. So, how do you acquire a count?

To acquire an estimate, one option is to utilize the Box Method. Make a line behind one print, then measure 48-60 inches ahead and make a second line. Between those two lines, count all complete and partial prints (round up if you end on an odd number). Divide the total number of prints by two to obtain a general approximation of the number of persons in your target demographic.

Learn how to read footprints.

Footprint reading and interpretation is a talent that may be learned with practice. Making a fake track trap out of sand and having your buddies go through it in various ways while you’re not looking is a terrific method to achieve that. They can run, pull a corpse, carry each other, stroll and then kneel, pretend to attack each other, and so on.

Go to the track trap after they’ve left their tracks and check at the traces to figure out what they did. After you’ve reproduced the situation your pals enacted, clean the track trap’s slate with a rake and have your buddies walk through it once again.

I had a great time doing this exercise with Hurth during the ITS Tactical Muster. It’s quite interesting to be able to tell if there was a fight or whether someone was carrying a firearm just by looking at footprints.

Putting It All Together: Telling Your Target’s Story

Tracking necessitates being hyper-aware of your surroundings while also directing your observations to mental models in your thoughts. Even if you weren’t there to watch your target directly, this back-and-forth observing and orienting helps you to construct a tale about what’s going on with them. You’ll be in a better position to figure out where your target is heading if you create this narrative about them as you gather evidence.




John Hurth’s Combat Tracking Guide (Take a course with John if you have the opportunity.) He’s a fantastic instructor and a wealth of information.)

David Diaz and V.L. McCann’s book Tracking Humans



Watch This Video-

The “how to make a tracking stick” is a tool that can be used for hunting or just as an easy way to track humans. It consists of two sticks, one with a piece of meat on it and the other with a piece of fur. They are tied together at the top and then set in motion by whacking them against something hard. The meat will attract predators while the fur will show signs of movement from the person being tracked.

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