Recognize the signs of what creatures you’re sharing the woods with

There are many reasons to recognize and learn how to follow animal signs and tracks in the wild. They could lead you to water or a meal. They could also make you aware of nearby danger.

Be Aware

When I was filming a Survivorman episode in India, I came across a large set of tiger tracks in a dry riverbed. The recent tracks were a healthy reminder for me to be alert. But how did I know it was a tiger and not another animal?

Can you identify these tracks? Find the answers below.

Photos by Getty Images/Istockphoto

Often enough, it’s easy to categorize animal tracks within their species. Cats. Canines (this includes bears). Ungulates (hooved animals, such as deer, moose or elk). Rodents. Birds. Insects. All might represent food or danger or information about the environment.

For example, snow melts throughout the day in the sunshine. If you find a large footprint, the animal might be much smaller than the track indicates, due to the snow melting and expanding.

This, of course, requires understanding of when a track was made. There are several indicators to look for:

  • Does the track seem to have been melted by the sun?
  • Are there any leaves or debris inside the track?
  • If it’s in mud, is the mud dry and hard?
  • What signs of the animal exist by the track, such as leaves that might have been nibbled of?

A single animal track tells a partial story. In the area around the track might be all kinds of accomplice signs for completing the story.

Identifying Tracks

Once you learn that, for example, cat’s claws are retractable, it will be easier to figure out if the print is a cougar or a wolf. Canine claws always stick out and therefore almost always leave a mark in the mud, sand or snow.

Very simple differences make it easy to identify an animal within a given species. Moose hoofprints are heart shaped. Elks almost always leave behind markings from their “dew claws.” Deer hoofprints are much smaller and shaped like an arrowhead. When it comes to canines, it can be tough to tell the difference between a wolf and a domestic dog, so you have to take the whole picture into account.

Photo by Getty Images/Istockphoto

Become a wilderness detective and answer some questions: Are you anywhere near human settlement? When you step back and look at the line of tracks (several tracks leading somewhere), are they in a determined straight line or are they meandering all over the place? Wolves don’t have time to frolic, so they tend to walk straight to where they’re headed, maybe leaving a mark here and there by urinating on a stump or bush. Dogs lollygag all over the place, so large meandering tracks are more likely a big dog than a wolf.

One of my favorite tricks with animal tracks is figuring out how big their maker is. It’s really quite simple and often very accurate. Try to find all four paws showing clearly as tracks on the ground. Take your hands and put them beside the first and third tracks. Now, assuming you know what kind of animal it is, trace an imaginary line in the air to indicate how big you think the canine or cat might be based on the first and third paw placements. Simply outline the shape of the animal. Try it at home with your dog and your cat.

Other Signs

Further signs to understand are those that indicate animals’ habits, such as how they poop in the woods. Ungulates go wherever they please, so there’s not much rhyme or reason to finding big piles of moose droppings. Cats and canines, on the other hand, pee and poop with a purpose. It’s either to mark territory, seek out a mate or possibly warn of an intruder. Bears scratch trees, and the bigger the bear is, the higher up they scratch. However, ungulates rub trees with their antlers, so being able to determine if the markings are rubbings versus scratches helps you know if you’re in bear territory or there’s a big bull moose nearby.

Either way, it’s time to move on!

(Scroll down for the answers to the question at the top of this story …)

(Photo by Laura Bombier)

Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an adventurer and award-winning filmmaker and author. He’s writing a children’s book on adventure, hosting a new series on American Public Television and launching a podcast, “Surviving Life with Les Stroud!” Visit or follow him on social media @reallesstroud


  1. Mountain Lion, B. Wolf, C. Moose

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