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Hiking Hack: How to Identify Big Animal Tracks on the Trail

Hiking Hack: How to Identify Big Animal Tracks on the Trail

Even when enjoying the peaceful solitude that nature can bring, remember that you’re probably not alone. Pay close attention to your surroundings, and you might see and identify animal tracks.

Some of those footprints on the ground aren’t from fellow hikers, but what are they? There are quite a few factors in figuring it out. For starters, take a close look at size, shape, and spacing.

Are you ready to learn how to identify those other footsteps you might see in the wild? Let’s get into it.

Animal Tracks Identification Guide 2020

Identifying Animal Tracks on the Trail

Most of the wild animals that you might encounter on a hike are harmless and prefer to keep their distance from you. In fact, they probably see, hear, or smell you long before you even know they’re in the vicinity. They’re not exactly gone without a trace, however. The animal tracks they leave behind can help you identify the species and determine when they passed through.

This is great information because some animals can be dangerous to be around. You wouldn’t want to set up camp among a family of bears, for instance, or where moose feed regularly. Identifying tracks can also help you observe them in their habitat and capture some terrific photos.

Where to Find Fresh Animal Tracks

Animal tracks might be in plain view along a hiking trail, but more likely, they’re less conspicuous. Look for them in places where the ground is softer and leaves a good impression. 

Set of two animal tracks, one large and one small.
There are many clues that you can look for when trying to identify an animal by their tracks.

Often you can find them on the edge, or shoulder, of a trail, and in mud, sand, or snow. You may have more luck seeing tracks in riverbanks, creek beds, beaches, marshes, and sand dunes. However, it would be rare to find prints where the ground is packed hard from constant foot traffic.

The best times to get a good look at them are early morning and evening when the sun isn’t directly overhead. That’s when the sun casts long shadows, making them easier to see. Waste droppings, called scat, are another telltale clue that animals are around. The scat’s shape and size can help you identify an animal, especially if you find footprints near it.

Pro Tip: Stay safe from animals while hiking or camping by not feeding the wildlife! We uncovered 5 Reasons to Not Feed the Wildlife While Camping.

Telling Animal Tracks Apart

When you do find tracks, you may want to take photos. These can help you study them closely later and match them with online images or those published in a guide.

However, sometimes the tracks don’t have a clear definition, so you can make a positive ID through elimination. To help you narrow it down, here are some common indicators.

Walking Pattern

How an animal walks, or its gait, can help you determine what left the tracks. Many animals, including canines, cats, and deer, walk diagonally. In other words, they move the front and rear limbs on the opposite sides of the body simultaneously. This distinctive walking pattern leaves staggered animal tracks.

Other critters, such as bears and raccoons, move both limbs on one side of the body, then the other. Rabbits are among the animals that push off with their hind feet but land on their front ones.

Persons foot next to bear foot print.
Count the number of toes on a print to help identify the animal track.

Number of Toes

How many toe prints you see is another determining factor. Canines and felines have four toes on each paw, and bears and raccoons have four.

You may have found bird tracks if you see three narrow, pointed toes. Look carefully, though–sometimes the little toe doesn’t leave a print. To positively identify an animal, look at more than one track, if possible.

Nail Prints

Can you see the claws, or not? If you do, this can actually rule out an animal that you might want to avoid. If you see a big paw print and think it could be a mountain lion, remember that felines retract their claws. Canines, bears, and raccoons, on the other hand, don’t. Usually, animal tracks often do have enough definition to show the nails.

Hand next to a set of moose tracks.
Print depth and width can provide clues as to how big the animal you are tracking actually is.

Print Depth

How deep an animal’s step sinks into the ground could suggest an animals’ weight. Consistently deep tracks, along with large size, may indicate it’s a big one you want to stay away from. Isolated deep prints near shallower ones may mean the ground is softer in that area.

Stride

Another measuring stick is the distance between the tracks. The space between the front and rear prints, and from side to side, can help you estimate an animal’s size. The length of the stride can also indicate how fast an animal was moving when it left the tracks.

Huge animal tracks can be harder to miss, and they might be more fearsome. Of course, what kind of larger creatures you may come across depends on your location. Here are typical characteristics of big animals you should watch for on your hikes.

Mans hand next to bear print in mud.
When hiking, you’ll want to stay alert and look for clues that a big animal might be close by.

Pro Tip: While out hiking and hunting for animal tracks, use one of these 7 Best Walking Sticks for Hiking and Why You Want Some.

Mountain Lions

Mountain lions, also called cougars and pumas, have claws, but they don’t usually show up in mountain lion tracks. They have four toes distinguishable by their large palm pad resembling the letter “m.” The foot has two lobes in the front and three in the back. Mountain lion prints are between 4 and 5 inches wide.

Identifying Mountain Lion Tracks

Coyote

Is that a dog’s tracks or a coyote’s? You may have trouble identifying these animal tracks, but coyote tracks tend to look more oval and round. And unlike domesticated canines, their prints tend to form a direct line, with little meandering. Their nail marks are usually less prominent, and their hind tracks reveal narrower pads.

Coyote Or Dog? How To Tell From Tracks

Wolf

Wolves leave much larger prints than a coyote or a dog. In fact, their size may startle you.

Wolf tracks can measure 5 inches long or more and 4 inches wide. The paw’s pad has a single lobe, and you can typically see all four claws. They look like a large dog’s tracks but are larger than any dog you’ve ever seen.

How to identify a wolf track: grey wolf track identification - Canis lupus

Bear

Bear tracks are the most human-like tracks you’ll likely see. However, they can be confusing because their big toe is on the outside of the foot, opposite of people.

They have a big round pad and five toes, but that smallest one often doesn’t leave an impression. So if you see what looks like a big footprint with just four toes, it could be a bear.

How to Identify Grizzly and Black Bear Tracks

Moose

The moose is the largest member of the deer family, and its prints reflect that. Like a deer, a moose leaves two-toed impressions that resemble an upside-down heart.

Moose tracks are massive, though, up to 7 inches long. They have sharp hooves that point inward. Because they are so heavy, moose tracks usually leave pretty deep impressions.

Identifying Moose Sign

Elk

These two-toed tracks look like deer’s but are larger and considerably rounder. An adult elk’s tracks measure at least 4 inches and sometimes close to 5.

In fact, some mistake them for cattle tracks. If you are in an area with cows nearby, look for cow patties. They can help rule out an elk.

Stay Safe While Hiking

Knowing what’s around you outdoors can be unsettling or give you greater peace of mind. Now that you know what to look for, you may identify a creature by its distinctive prints. We’re not talking about spots or stripes, but about the tracks a wild animal leaves behind.

 So next time you go hiking, you may want to scan the ground for signs of what’s gone before you. But don’t get so caught up in it that you lose your bearings or forget to look out for the animals that may have wandered close to your path. You don’t want to get lost in the woods, especially if dangerous animals live close by.

Have you ever spotted some animal tracks when hiking? Tell us in the comments below!

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