Tracking Animals in the Snow
Tracking in the snow is a fascinating and rewarding pursuit...
Tracks tell the story of an animal's life, its movements and habits, where and how it eats, sleeps and spends its time, and following these trails is a great way to become better acquainted with the creatures who made them.
Winter is one of the best times to begin your tracking adventure, especially if you live in an area where the ground is even occasionally covered in snow, as tracks are easily spotted and followed on this smooth, clean surface.
All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise noted.
Tracking wildlife in the snow is a great way to get out and enjoy the winter landscape
Beautiful, unspoiled snow just waiting for some tracks!
Whether you live in a remote mountain cabin, the city, a suburban neighborhood or anywhere in between, tracks are there for the finding!
During the winter in my area I frequently see the tracks of deer, elk, bobcats, foxes, bighorn sheep, birds of many varieties, beaver, muskrat, raccoon, ermine, marten and other members of the weasel family, squirrels, mice and other rodents, and occasionally, the large and majestic tracks of a mountain lion.
Regardless of where you may live, try getting out the day after a storm to see the new blanket of snow come alive with the tracks of rabbits, birds, deer and other creatures who had holed up during the wind and weather!
Tracking animals in the snow can lead you to some interesting sights...
Look what I found while following the trail of a squirrel!
A cache where a squirrel had stored its spruce cones for the winter. This well-used squirrel trail leads from the cache to a pile of cone pieces, where the squirrel sat and ate. You can see where the cache has been recently dug up to reveal fresh cones.
Not liking my presence and perhaps suspecting that I was there to steal a share of its carefully-stashed cones, the owner of this cache (a rather plump and healthy-looking fox squirrel) showed up and began scolding me as I looked!
Closeup of the squirrel's dining room...
More squirrel antics...
Follow the tracks and see where they lead!
Squirrel tracks bounding across a sparkling, untouched expanse of snow...
He was really making big leaps, wanting to get from a willow thicket to the safety of the spruces in a hurry. I wonder if he might have seen a fox or bobcat in the distance?
Fallen tree the squirrels had been using as a bridge...
Pictures of mountain lion tracks
I came upon these tracks one evening just before dusk, while exploring near an ice-choked creek in the heavy timber, spruce and fir trees closing in on all sides. It was apparently an area where the big cat felt comfortable, and judging by the rabbit sign I also spotted, it seemed he may have been hunting rabbits.
While these big cats are very people-shy in my area and seldom seen by humans, let alone closely enough to pose any threat, it does still give me a moment of pause to know that such a huge and powerful predator walked the same path I am now walking, and less than a day before!
One winter day, exploring a remote canyon where I had previously spent time and heading for a small cave which I knew to be up near the canyon's mouth, I came across the trail of a large mountain lion and began following it. Somewhat to my dismay, the trail led directly into the cave where I had been planning to shelter that night, and did not come out! I did not enter the cave that day, but went on out of the area...
Mountain lion track, front foot...
Hind foot is smaller than front...
Learn to cast and preserve tracks in the snow!
- How to Cast Tracks in the Snow
Here is a tutorial on casting and preserving tracks you find in the snow. While a bit more difficult than casting tracks in sand or dirt, this process will allow you to effectively carry your tracks home for identification and future reference!
- Plaster Track Casting Procedure
Also with information on wax casting in snow
Coyote bounding in the deep snow...
I wonder where he was going in such a hurry?
Chasing a rabbit for his supper, perhaps...
While his paws are neither as wide nor as furry as those of a lynx, they do act somewhat like snowshoes to keep him from sinking in the deep powder and having to expend too much energy when moving and hunting in the winter woods.
Determining the age of a track in snow can be somewhat of a complicated process involving the effects of sunlight, melting, wind and other factors on the condition of the tracks, but the sharp edges of these bobcat tracks indicate that they are very fresh!
Where the sun has been able to hit tracks and begin melting them out, you will find that they look deceptively larger than the original impression left by the passing animal.
Learning to judge the age of tracks - How long ago did that animal pass by?
This video gives a good introduction to the skill of aging tracks, both in the snow and under summer conditions.
An entire world hidden away beneath the snow-covered brush
Well-trampled and snow-free ground mark an area where numerous rabbits travel beneath the winter vegetation, pausing to nibble on twigs and leaving droppings as further evidence of their passing. Coyote and bobcat tracks will often be seen near these runs, as the larger animals seek a quick meal, and such well-used runs provide a good starting place, also, for humans who might be needing to snare a rabbit for food.
Another view of the rabbit run...here you can see many tracks, as well as fallen bits of vegetation showing rabbits have been nibbling at the twigs.
In addition to providing the user with knife blades, a wire cutter, a diamond file and a number of other useful featueres, this tool incorporates a ruler which I find useful in measuring and identifying tracks. It's a great item to have along on any tracking expedition.
This handy, lightweight folding yardstick is easy to carry and helpful for measuring an animal's stride.
This little magnifier is not only handy for inspecting tracks to pick up on details you might otherwise miss, it also doubles as a firestarting tool on sunny days!
Often one can find other non-animal sign in the snow that is every bit as interesting as animal tracks. The wind, for example, can move brush or low-hanging evergreen branches to sweep across the snow and form intricate patterns and snow can fall from branches and power lines to leave perfect impressions of those items in the snow.
While winter is a great time to get started with tracking, the other seasons offer many opportunities as well. No matter the time of year, you can begin your adventure into the fascinating and rewarding world of tracking, whether that means tracking a housecat through the snowy streets of your suburban neighborhood, or following the elusive meanderings of a mountain lion up a steep, timber-choked ridge. Get out, get tracking, and you will not be disappointed!