Friday, February 15, 2013


When my bride puts a dab of Dioressence on her neck, it's a sure bet that she feels amorous. Not that she has to wear it to feel that way, but when she does…she does. It’s a little sign that I’ve learned to notice after thirty years of marriage. 
But we’re not here to discuss perfumes.
I’m supposed to talk writing—Western writing.
So, I thought I’d touch a bit on the art and science of recognizing sign—or tracking.

As a deputy marshal, one of my primary duties was man-hunting. Even in the age of iPhones and satellites, we law enforcement types still resort to tracking in one way or another nearly every day. Crime Scene Investigators are doing little more than looking for and analyzing sign. A patrol officer walking up on a car in the middle of the dark night has his or her eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. One of my best friends followed tiny nicks and scratches across nearly two miles of glaze ice to locate our fugitive—and the largest marijuana grow on record in Alaska.  I once helped to find a missing sheep hunter by backtracking from where the Troopers had last seen him (where he had shot his sheep) in order to find his high-mountain camp and give the other searchers a place to start.

Me with some of my team around 2001

Good trackers make it a habit to observe and study their surroundings. They see, hear, feel or smell the things left behind by the person or animal they want to follow.  I can tell from his blogs that Jim Griffin knows horses. I’ve seen photos of him riding on the beach and I’ll bet he could look at a line of tracks in the sand and know whether the horse that left it was walking, trotting or at the lope.  I worked as a horseshoer for quite a few of my younger years and got up-close and personal with many a hoof. I believe that learning how the shape and health of a foot translates into an animal’s gait made me a better tracker. The body mechanics are different, but much of the science translates to man-tracking as well as horses.

With my friend, Ty Cunningham, tracking along the Virgin River in Arizona
Knowing the weather can help determine the age of sign. Humidity and temperature make the ground and greenery react in a given way over a given time—and trackers use that knowledge to figure out how long it’s been since our quarry has passed before us.  When my kids were growing up, they had to endure many a walk where I broke various shrubs and branches, stepped on leaves and grass—and then checked the damage over a period of days to see how it aged in the rain or sun or snow.

When tracking a human, I’m not only looking at the footprint, but stride (length), straddle (width), and pitch (angle) of the prints against a line in the direction of travel.  A dragging foot can indicate injury or fatigue. When someone is becoming hypothermic, they tend to slap their feet flat against the ground instead of landing heel to toe—we call it clown-walking.

The tracks themselves can tell us a lot, but we don’t just depend on footprints. We look at any sign the quarry leaves behind: litter, scat (IE poop) and other impressions in the ground and vegetation—anything and everything that can add to the story that leads us down the trail.
I once found a band-aid wrapper than let me know the two lost girls I was tracking still had the mental wherewithal to take care of themselves.
Dark urine in the snow means the person we're tracking is likely running low on water, or at least not drinking enough.
In one of my Mark Henry Westerns, O’Shannon points out that men, when doing their business in the woods, tend to leave said business in a rounded mound. A woman, however, generally shy and uncomfortable at being so exposed, tends to look back and forth over her shoulders many times during the process, forming a sort of half moon of ‘leavings’.  A generality to be sure, and likely more than you wanted to know, but it’s that sort of tidbit I think readers enjoy.

With a team in Southeast, Alaska, tracking a guy who chopped off another man's head with a splitting maul.  We'd just found him and those are his tracks left when the local authorities took him off the skiff.
When I teach tracking basics here in Alaska, I like to start students out in the snow. The tracks themselves are easy to find and all they have to worry about is the story. I might lie flat on my belly on a high point, and watch them for a while with binoculars. This leaves a much different impression in the snow than where I’m watching them through the scope of a rifle. Try it. You’ll see what I mean by the placement of your elbows on the ground.  When you (or one of your characters) is tracking a bad guy, it’s nice to know if he’s watching his back trail through the sights of a rifle.

Speaking of rifles—try this: Walk empty-handed, checking behind you now and then to see if someone might be following you.  Next, try the same thing but with a long gun (or even a long stick held like a gun) in your hand. Empty-handed folks tend to check their back trail by looking over their shoulder, leaving little more than a slight angling of their tracks. Those carrying a rifle in their hands tend to turn all the way around, walking backward a step or two before turning to continue on their way. All this leaves a story in their tracks.

Many Western authors write about tracking, most seem to keep it to the basics—footprints or broken-twig stuff—but there’s so much more to it.

A couple of common mistakes I see in literature:
—Walking backwards to confuse the tracker. I can tell, pretty easily. 
—Putting sacks or some such thing over the horse’s hooves to hide the tracks. While this might work to cover the sharp outlines and details of a hoof or shoe, the sacks themselves will more than likely leave a track, and would wear out within a short distance, making the time spent putting them on not worth the effort.
—Scratching out the back trail with a piece of a branch. This just gives me something else to track, generally even more visible. It also lets me know you don’t want to be found. What this does do is take valuable intelligence information from me like how many of you there are, your stride and condition, etc. So there is some value in it, just not to keep me from following the trail.

So, there you go, a little primer to whet your appetite. There are many good books on the subject of tracking—and you are welcome to contact me if you have a question.

And with that, I need to go. My bride read this over my shoulder and just made tracks down the hall. Think I’ll go check for any sign of Dioressence on the air…

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published nine novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).  His present Jericho Quinn series—NATIONAL SECURITY, ACT OF TERROR and STATE OF EMERGENCY (available in April 2013)— features an adventure motorcyclist, Air Force OSI agent and renaissance man who spends his days sorting out his life and kicking terrorist butt.   Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
Visit him at:


  1. A fantastic, informative post, Marc. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us.


  2. Marc, this was a great post and one I'll save to my research files. I write western romance/mystery, and many of my heroes have to track bad guys. The book I'm plotting now has the hero tracking bad guys half way across Texas, so I really needed this post. Thanks for sharing your expertise. I expect I'll take you up on your offer to answer questions.

  3. Awesome!! I'm gonna need this some day soon. Thanks, Marc!

  4. Marc, as always, an AWESOME post that really gives a lot of us some very much needed information. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us. Yes, you can probably bet there are going to be a ton of questions coming your way!

  5. Thanks, Marc! This was extremely helpful. I predict that you're gonna see a lot of WF good guys in stories the next couple of years, out in the woods lookin' for round poop.

  6. Marc, Thanks for sharing. As always, very educational.

  7. Thank you for that great post, Marc. It seems quite serendipitous, since I am working on a story right now - and have just arrived at the point before the tracking begins. You have given me food for thought.

  8. A SUPER blog that I absorbed. Now you're gonna make me work harder (and be more entertaining) when I'm writing that tracking scene. Great nuances.

  9. Appreciated. Thanks. Naturalist Loren Eisely once was startled by the discovery of human-like footprints in the wild, and then realized they were his own.

  10. What a great post, Marc. Know where to go for research now so my characters won't track like a James Fennimore Cooper Indian. Troy's comment said it best, though.

  11. Thanks so much, Marc. This post is extremely helpful to me. I know next to nothing about tracking so usually try to find a way to write around it. Or have fresh sign. Round poop, eh? Sure wouldn't have thought of that!

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed the post, Marc. Thank you.

  13. Really informative post, Mark. And thanks for the praise, too. One thing I've learned from being a horseman most of my life is the conception most folks (and western writers) have that a good rainstorm will wipe out any signs of hoofprints is completely false. I've seen hoofprints left by my horse, and others, on sandy, hilly trails which have lasted for weeks or even months, despite there being several thunderstorms and downpours. Sure, they deteriorate over time and with each storm, but just about anyone could still follow those tracks. An expert tracker would have no problem.

    Jim Griffin

  14. Great stuff, Marc. Looking forward to meeting you in Japan. I also think you could write a book on law enforcement in fiction.

  15. Thanks for all the feedback.
    I often catch good-natured flack when we're showing visitors around Alaska and I can't shut up about this track or that bit of sign or some wild berry or edible plant... It's an illness, I reckon.

    You're right about the rain, Jim. Weather degrades tracks but often does not erase them.
    I believe that when we write about a tracker--someone who is really good at it--they have to be a good observer of all things--both nature and human behavior. Same qualities a good writer has.

    Dang, I knew the round poop anecdote would steal the show...

    For years I've been unable to write about the Marshals Service, but now that I'm retired, we're planning a spin-off character from my Thrillers. He appears in the book I'm working on now that will be out in February 2014. More to come on that, but he'll be a tracker. That's certain.

    Meant what I said about questions. Bring 'em. I have my experts I go to all the time. Ty Cunningham, the guy in the photo when we're in Arizona is one of the finest trackers I know as well as an master martial artist. I'm constantly going to him for advice and choreography.
    Looking forward to Japan as well, Charlie. Hoping the interviews and visits I have set up give the books a new depth.

    Thanks for allowing me to participate.

  16. How funny. Some one once said "So many words, so little communication." Here is a perfect example of how sometimes misunderstandings happen. I just finished a long go around with our beloved US Postal service regarding the tracking on some books I mailed, so when I saw the notice of the blog on tracking I thought it would be something about how not to loose our books in the mail. Glad it wasn't, although that would have been good too, this about real tracking was good information. A tiny bit of it I knew from being a country boy: a tiny bit. Thank you much. This was great.

  17. Amazing stuff here, Marc. I now know who to contact Thanks for a terrific post.