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The purpose of a Combat Tracker is threefold; establish or re-establish contact with an elusive enemy, gather information about the enemy and if necessary, recover lost or missing friendly personnel. Tracking is the skill of following a person or animal by the signs they leave behind. When a man or animal moves over or through the natural environment, they alter the appearance of that environment and create disturbances in it. By detecting these disturbances or “sign”, and determining whether or not his quarry (target) created it, a tracker is able to follow the quarry.
Tracking is a simple skill in observation. It makes no difference where a tracker comes from, just because they grew up in a rural area doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be a better than one who comes from an urban area. It’s true some people will always be better than others, but most people can master the basics of tracking. Below are some suggestions that will help beginner trackers or those wanting to get into tracking.
Use Your Senses
It’s essential to understand that tracking is more than simply following sign. A tracker uses all of his or senses (visual, auditory, olfactory) to:
- DETECT and continuously identify the correct sign by the regularity, size and shape of the impression, flattening of a surface, color change of the medium the quarry passed through in contrast to its surroundings, transfer of one medium on to another, amount of disturbance made within an environment or litter discarded that may be associated with the quarry.
- FOLLOW the track line and reacquire the track if lost.
- INTERPRET the sign and track picture. This is the most important capability of the tracker. Anyone can learn how to follow sign, however, a true tracker thinks critically to interpret what he or she sees. This then forms a picture or hypothesis as to what the quarry did, is doing, or might do.
- ANTICIPATE the quarry’s intentions and where the track line is leading.
- LOCATE the quarry.
Know Your Environment and Target
Be honest with yourself and others. Be patient and persevere. Know your quarry, its characteristics, habits and gait pattern. Learn about the local flora/fauna and how sign affects the environment’s natural state of appearance.
Understand Natural Lighting
Learn and understand the importance of light and shadow and how to use it to your advantage. As the sun rises in the morning, it casts longer shadows that bring out visible details of impressions made on the ground. As the sun continues to climb, the details of the impressions will gradually fade away. When the sun’s position is directly over the earth’s surface (noon time), little or no shadow will appear. As the sun begins to fall after mid-day, again the shadows lengthen allowing the details of impressions to be identified more easily.
During the day, a flashlight can also help bring out impression details in a track trap that may not be seen from available sunlight, especially if you’re working under a forest canopy or the sky is overcast.
Be Mindful of the Track and Surroundings
Always be aware of your position as it relates to the track and track line. Never walk on top of or contaminate the sign and always keep the tracks between you and the sun.
Know Sign Variations
Know the difference between conclusive and inconclusive sign. Conclusive Sign is one that can be directly traced to the quarry you’re following such as a footprint with a specific sole pattern and size. Inconclusive Sign may be broken twigs, bent grass or an foot impression with no discernible sole pattern.
Learn the “Step-by-Step” Method
When learning to track for the first time, the most important technique for becoming track aware is through learning the step-by-step method of tracking. This teaches new trackers to detect each footstep (and every other footstep from then on) in succession by the disturbances made in the natural environment. This method is primarily a learning tool and a great learning tool at that. However, it’s not practical to use when time is a factor in pursuit of humans who may be lost, need help or have to be apprehended.
Follow The 7 Basic Tracking Principles
- Positively identify the tracks you’re going to follow.
- Keep the track-line between you and the light source.
- Observe and track as far out as the sign can be recognized.
- Never move further than the last known sign (LKS).
- Never contaminate the sign.
- Never track faster than your own ability will allow.
- Get into the mind of the quarry.
If you’re looking for hands on training to better hone your skills as a tracker, consider signing up for one of the many classes offered by TÝR Group. In addition to multi-day combat and visual tracking classes, they offer instruction on small unit tactics (rural or urban), weapons training, combatives, force on force, bushcraft and survival training.
Editor-in-Chief’s Note: John Hurth is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier who served with 1st Special Forces Group at Ft. Lewis, WA where he participated in multiple deployments overseas to include two combat tours in support of the Global War On Terror. He now uses his years of tracking knowledge as the owner and lead instructor of the TÝR Group where he and his staff conduct training on various tracking techniques.
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Thanks for tips I've been tracking for years was very good at the skill. Served as scout platoon sergeant for two deployments. Since retirement my tracking skills have gotten rusty would love to learn more about tracking classes
Consider volunteering for your local Search & Rescue teams. You will learn a ton of skills and help the folks in your community.
I was trained in sign cutting during my time with the US Border Patrol pre-9/11. It's a good skill to have.
I can highly recommend the Combat Tracking courses taught by John
Hurth and TYR GROUP LLC. If you want to learn how to track into possibly
hostile situations, using the sign left behind by your quarry to
develop a profile of the individuals and then find, fix and finish them,
acting as part of an effective team, this is the only school I know of
which is currently teaching these specific skills and techniques.
John Hurth packs instruction into every minute of his course. You will have no wasted time, no chaff, you will be on sign from daybreak to sunset. And the knowledge John will be sharing with you is not just something he picked up at some school, he will be teaching you the same skills and techniques he used when he has tracked men in combat situations during his Special Forces career and later in his work with law enforcement. He is willing to share this unique insight and experience with you during instruction in the classroom and the field, in two, five and ten day courses, as well as custom courses tailored to your specific individual or group needs.
In addition to this, John Hurth is just a damn fine fellow. A man to ride the river with, and he is the salt of the earth.