Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Apple #566: Covering Your Tracks

I'm reading the Hunger Games trilogy.  At the moment, I'm in the second book.  At one point Katniss said she covered her tracks, literally did something to obscure her footprints so that anyone trying to follow where she walked would have trouble finding her.  This reminded me that, ever since I was a teenager and read such things in books, I have wanted to know, how exactly do you cover your tracks?

If this guy really wanted to, could he hide or disguise his tracks in the woods well enough that someone wouldn't be able to follow him?
(Photo from Just This)

I walk in the woods a lot.  I've also walked on a lot of sandy beaches and snowy roads, and I've realized, it's got to be dang hard to make all evidence that you've just walked past completely disappear.  Yet in so many books and movies, the heroes seem to be especially expert at it, and they are able to foil the bad guys who are trying to catch them.  What do they know that I don't?

I absolutely loved this book when I was a kid.  Good Luck Arizona Man is about a white boy who grew up with a bunch of Apaches and gets curious about how he came to be there.  There's all sorts of tracking and following and disguising of tracks in this book. And there's a horse race. And gold.
(Photo and book available through Amazon, though it's a collector's item now and sells for $30)

  • Covering your tracks -- and I don't mean online, I mean in real life -- is referred to as "counter-tracking."
  • The people who are best at counter-tracking are those who are good at tracking. They know what signs people leave behind as they walk through any wild area, so they know how to erase those signs or change them so that they give false information.
  • According to what I've read, it is in fact dang hard to erase your tracks.  The books and movies which make it sound so easy are exaggerating.  To do it right takes a lot of time and even then, a good tracker won't easily be fooled.
  • Think about it. Every time you set your foot on the ground, you're disturbing something.  Grass bends under your feet and because of your weight, it stays that way for a while.  Sand or soil is displaced and you leave some sort of footprint.  Rocks get turned over as you push off so that the darker, moister undersides are exposed. Little branches get broken underfoot.  All sorts of things happen.  
  • To make it truly appear as if no one has walked there, you have to stop and put all those things back into place or else hide and disperse the evidence far and wide.  But even your dispersal can leave marks that may be easily read by a skilled tracker.
These tracks were made by a grizzly bear, but you can see how the grass gets smashed down with each step. Not so different when people walk through grassy areas.
(Photo from the Grizzly Bear Blog)

    • One of the common recommendations for counter-tracking is to walk backward in your own footprints for a while.  I tried this once, walking home from school when I was in eighth grade or thereabouts, and the tracks I left were completely obvious to me as the tracks of someone who had walked backwards.  
    • When you walk forward, especially if you're wearing shoes, the bulk of your weight falls on the heel. This makes your footprint deeper at the heel and lighter at the toe.  If you walk backward, most of your weight falls on the toe, so you leave a deeper impression there.  What's more, you're much more awkward going backward, so you tend to kick up a lot of snow (or dirt or sand or whatever medium you're walking in) and the tracks look really messy.  That won't fool anybody.
    This person is walking forward and you can see how the impression at the heel is deeper than at the toe. I couldn't find good photos of backwards footprints, so you'll just have to trust me when I say that walking backwards the impression is deeper at the toe.
    (Photo from Guardian Angel)

      • Some counter-trackers recommend walking in a zig-zag.  Walk in a zig-zag for about 30 meters, then walk in your straight line, then zig-zag some more. This works best on hard-surface areas where you don't leave as many footprints.  If you're in an area of tall grass you'll have to straighten the grass as you go, which is time-consuming.  If you're walking across someplace which is all sand or all snow, the misdirection may not help much at all.  But at the very least, you may be able to confuse a tracker for a while about where you've entered a hard-surface or grassy place and where you've exited.

      • Another method people talk about a lot is brushing out your tracks.  Lots of characters in books or movies take a leafy branch and brush away the footprints, or maybe they use a blanket or a shirt to wipe away the tracks.  
      • But, I thought, don't you leave tracks in the sand or dirt where you've dragged the leaves and branches?  And wouldn't a piece of cloth that gets dragged over the ground leave pretty distinctive marks?  Wouldn't that be obvious?  
      • Skilled trackers say yes.  Brushing out or camouflaging in these ways can leave signs of their own that are pretty clear to trackers. In fact, the main thing you accomplish by doing this is to give your tracker additional information about you, primarily that you're trying to camouflage yourself and you're not doing a very good job of it.
      • There is a more involved method of erasing your tracks. If the soil where you've walked has some substance to it, use a stick to dig out the footprint you've left, stir up the soil, sprinkle more soil over the stirred-up place taking care to use soil that is exactly the same color and texture of the place where you walked, and if any loose debris like fallen leaves or dead grasses are lying about in the area, sprinkle some of that over the place you just walked too.
      • But then, of course, you have to do the same obscuring sort of thing to the place where you were crouching where you were doing all this digging & stirring & sprinkling work, and that quickly becomes an exercise in ad infinitum insanity.
      • Use a stick to fluff up the grass where you've just walked.  You'll want to be careful that the stick doesn't make marks in the dirt or soil as you're fluffing.  Or if you are walking through tall grass, take the time to unbend the grass you've just walked through.  Very time-consuming, this.

      • In general, this one seems to be the most effective. If you happen to have an extra pair of shoes, switch them.  Of course you'll want to do this someplace where it won't be obvious that the tracks of one shoe stops and the other one starts.
      • If you're in an area where other people have walked, switch to the kind of footwear that the locals use.  In this way, your footprints will blend in with others'.
      • The types of shoes that are least likely to leave marks are -- no surprise here -- moccasins or else shoes with soles covered in fur.  I know that most of us don't have shoes like that, but if you can somehow approximate a softer sole, that will help. 
      • The best way to do that is to cover your shoes with some sort of soft material. Tying them in rags or other clothing, or even leaves if you can get them to stay on, will alter the shape of the footprint you leave behind, and the soft material will keep the shoe from making as deep a print in the soil.
      • An additional variant of this is to disguise your tracks. Cover your shoes with some soft material and then walk on your toes. Twist your foot as you walk or flick your toes backward. This will leave an impression that is something like animal tracks. You have to be good at this otherwise you will just look like a person walking funny and it will be just as telling as if you'd stomped around in big fat honkin' hiking boots.
      One option is to hide your tracks among lots of other footprints like these pictured here.  Hide yourself among the crowd, so to speak.
      (Photo from the Snapshot Travel Blog)

      • Try not to flex your foot as you walk but place your foot flat on the ground and pick it up just as flatly. This will disturb the vegetation and the soil much less.
      • Walk on surfaces where you're less likely to leave marks.  Paved roads are best, or else choose big stones or large rocks that won't turn over when you step on them.  Railroad tracks are good too.  This, of course, assumes your shoes aren't muddy and you're not leaving traces of dirt or mud or sand that happen to be stuck to your shoe.  Those kind of footprints are called "transfer prints."
      You might think you wouldn't leave footprints on hard, smooth surfaces like asphalt or linoleum or wooden floors.  But there's still the potential to leave "transfer prints" like these.
      (Photo from Katie Rowland's World Race)

      • Shimmy up fences and walk or scuttle along the tops of them.  Climb trees and go from the canopy of one tree to another.  Of course you may leave behind some broken branches, but if you don't snap off too many of them, a tracker may think those are part of the landscape.
      If you can manage to cross from one tree to the next and the next, you won't leave many tracks at all.  It can't be that hard. Squirrels do it all the time.
      (Photo from Public Domain Photos)

      Well, none of these suggestions is fool-proof.  I'm sort of disappointed that there isn't some special tracks-covering secret that's been lurking out there all these years.  But on the other hand, I'm glad to know I wasn't wrong in thinking that it's hard to cover one's tracks--and as it turns out, a lot more difficult than books and movies would have you believe.

      And this is just the visual stuff.  I didn't even touch on the whole problem of disguising your scent.

      Kim A. Cabrera and Universal Tracking Services, Tracking Glossary, Beartracker's Animal Tracks Den
      Karl, An introduction to Counter-Tracking. . . . The art of the scout, Ranging, Pathfinding, Bushcraft & Survival Notes, March 25, 2011
      Selous Scouts, Tracking and Countertracking
      Joseph Longshore II, Way of the Scout: Counter-Tracking, Wildwood Tracking

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