Special Unit Profile: Visual Tracking Tactics

Visual tracking, or the act of locating a quarry in a wilderness setting, requires different skills than those used in urban operations. Effective visual trackers must possess an acute awareness of the natural features of the area in which they are tracking — from being able to decipher the nuances of light to knowing how to establish a baseline. The following information is adapted from a book in progress by Deputy Mike Hull, a member of Virginia FOP Lodge #5.

Light is the most important element of perception. Depending on the position of the light source and its relation to the viewer, light can both reveal — edges, shadows and texture — and obscure. A tracker’s ability to manipulate the light source to his or her advantage is crucial.

Try this at home: Look for tracks on a wooden, cement or tile floor with normal lighting. Then turn the lights off and close the curtains. Now, turn on a flashlight and roll it along the floor. You may be surprised at what you see!

All tracks result from changing the characteristics of the area the foot contacts by making a depression, creating a texture change or transferring foreign matter to or from the area, which will result in a color or texture difference, or both. Color and texture reflect light differently than the surrounding area.

Other elements that trackers look for:

  • The outline of an object is revealed by differences in color, value, texture, depth or moisture content.
  • The shape of an object will reveal a familiar outline, such as a foot, heel, shoe or tread design.
  • The color of an object reveals differences in objects since colors reflect or absorb light differently.
  • The value of an object exhibits its degree of lightness and darkness due to the amount and angle of light projected on it.
  • A texture change will usually reflect light differently because the surface has been altered; a flat surface will reflect more light than a rough surface, for example.

A baseline, or the undisturbed area from which a tracker operates to discover disturbances, speeds up the tracking process but also requires frequent changes. Nature constantly establishes and alters baselines, and it is possible to cross many different mediums/baselines during a tracking operation.

To determine if a quarry has passed through an area, you can place a couple of your own tracks, using your full body weight, in the same general area and compare the damage you have created to the area of interest. By creating your own, fresh tracks, you can study what damage to search for in mediums or conditions you are not familiar with. This process is called indexing.

A common mistake beginning trackers often make is focusing only on the area at their feet. Limiting your peripheral view will hurt your deductive abilities and your ability to identify minute disturbances, as well as increase vulnerability to an unexpected attack. Trained trackers look up and around to discover the following:

Positive and negative space. The former includes physical objects such as rocks, tree trunks or vehicles. Negative space is an opening that allows the tracker to see beyond physical objects, such as an opening between tree limbs or the area between the body of a vehicle and the ground.

Movement. Moving bushes, grass in the process of standing up, plants seeping sap due to bruising, water seeping into a depression or insects or animals that have been disturbed can all indicate present movement. Signs of past movement may include vines that have been stretched out and are now lying on top of other vegetation, or tree limbs that have been bent behind other vegetation due to human passage.

A true tracker is defined by what he or she does when tracks disappear. The golden rule of tracking is never to go beyond the last known spoor (sign) without a systematic procedure. But what if the trail goes cold?

  • When you come to the end of the last track, pause and scan the area in front of you. If you do not see any tracks, mark the last one.
  • Proceed along an imaginary line that extends past the last known track for a short distance in the same direction of travel. The terrain may dictate this distance, but usually it will be about 30 yards. Search along the way for tracks or sign. If no indications of the quarry are found, return to the last known track by the exact same route.
  • Look for any other possible routes of travel from this location by observing route influencers and paths of least resistance. Then follow these routes out from the last track the same distance as in step 2 while looking for tracks and signs. Return by the exact same way each time.
  • Walk back along the trail from the last known track the same distance that you walked forward, and walk around the entire area in a 360-degree radius looking for tracks and sign the entire way. Use the last known track as the center and ensure that the ends of steps 2 and 3 are inside the perimeter of the circle (in the event that the quarry returned along its own trail or changed directions at an angle of more than 90 degrees). Once you return to the trail, either repeat the process in larger circles or go to step 5.
  • Cut for sign using natural terrain features. This process consists of identifying natural features that act as perimeters to the quarry’s last known movement. This could be the edge of two different mediums where there is a change in vegetation, such as where a field meets a tree line, or major terrain features such as a road, ditch, ridge, power line, creek or fence.

While these procedures have proven to be very effective, there may be times when you’ll track to a medium that is too challenging to be of any value due to time constraints, such as tracking to a field where short grass hinders your ability to find disturbances. In these situations, it may be prudent to skip from step 1 to 5.

Also, knowing where tracks are most likely to be found helps to establish places to look. For example, the side of a hill will often yield better disturbances than flat land because people dig in with the edges of their footwear for traction. But if your trail leads you to a road or path that is contaminated or does not expose tracks well, your only option may be to continue walking the road and inspecting the sides to see where the quarry exited. Practice and persistence are the keys to success.

The combination of a wilderness setting and long hours can make carrying a lot of equipment impractical for tracking operations. But there are a few tried-and-true tools trackers rely on

  • Night vision
  • Alternative light source, such as handheld IR illuminator and/or flashlight
  • GPS, preferably with topographical map capabilities
  • Compass and map for backup
  • Optics, ideally a quality pair of 8 x 30 power binoculars
  • Digital camera
  • Spare batteries
  • Large memory stick
  • Credit card-sized scale to confirm actual size in pictures of tracks
  • Thermal imaging
  • Hydration pack
  • Headgear
  • Ballistic vest
  • Face veil
  • Leafy wear suit

To read the full article, check out the Fall 2011 issue of the FOP Journal.

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