As you hike, you spy animal tracks in the soft mud along the trail. Having no idea if these belong to a harmless dog or something more worrisome like a cougar or bear, you fret inwardly as you continue. Let’s get you educated so you will know when to continue on and when to back away.

First things first: Get a basic understanding of the fauna in your area. If bears are not evident in the habitat where you are journeying, you can save yourself from purchasing a $50 can of bear spray. However, you may be in cougar territory, in which case you’d want to know how to discourage an interaction. Go online and do some research—knowing what wildlife lives in the area is part of the foundation of safe outdoor adventuring.

Got a handle on that? Let’s take the next step by learning how to identify tracks and signs so you can feel more secure on the trail. Listed below are the most common mammals that pose risk to humans when caught unaware and the features you need to help identify them before they are in sight.

– Bears –

how to identify bear tracks
Bear print: Front paw Photo: Matt Newfield

Prints:
Five toes (the smallest may not be visible) and overall oval shape. While black bears have a more rounded arc to their toes and their shorter claws rarely show in tracks, grizzlies demonstrate a straighter toe line and claws that are twice as long as their toes.

What to look for:
– Claw marks or stripped bark on trees
– Scat with berries/seeds (in season) or mammal caracasses
– Tree rubs (trees smoothed of bark and limbs or fur stuck to bark)

Most Active:
Early morning and dusk, especially during their primary feeding season of summer and fall

– Cougars –

how to identify cougar tracks
Cougar Print
Photo: Rosatte

Prints:
Four tear-dropped toes and a pad creates a square to rectangular print that is wider than it is tall. There are three lobes on the bottom of the pad and two on the top of it. Prints rarely display claw marks.

What to look for:
– Scrapes (pushed up debris using back legs; if fresh, the scent of urine can be present, or scat)
– Segmented scat 1.5” in diameter; may contain hair or end in a “tail”
– Caches (partially covered remains of a large kill)
– Killed animal presenting bite marks to neck and skull
– Tree scrapes 4-8’ off the ground

Most Active:
Dawn and dusk, but will stalk prey anytime and in any season.

– Wolves –

How to identify wolf tracks
Wolf Print
Photo: Powhusku

Prints:
Four symmetrical toe prints with claw marks on top; pad at the bottom has two lobes. Coyotes and dogs tend to have similar prints as wolves but wolves will measure roughly 3.5”+ (not including claws). Stride will also be in fairly straight line, whereas dogs tend to meander. Look for tracks that are taller than they are wide.

What to look for:
– Scat may contain hair and bone fragments of larger animals; “Cord” like in appearance. May be runny and dark if defecation occurred immediately after a fresh kill
– Bone fragments near a kill
– Long howls rather than the shorter “yaps” of a coyote

Most Active:
Seasonally dependent; summer they are most active in the evenings, winter during the day

– Moose –

How to identify moose tracks
Moose Print
Photo: Laurel F

Prints:
Split hooves of roughly 5” long, depending on sex of the animal. Hooves come to a point at the top.

What to look for:
– Trees rubbed free of bark from 1-4’ off the ground in early fall and bent or broken branches (or entire saplings broken from thrashing)
– Matted vegetation 4-5’ wide (from resting)
– Clipped shrubs from eating
– Scat is similar to cow patties in the summer and pellets in the fall.

Most Active:
Seasonally dependent; summer they are most active in the evenings, winter during the day

– Elk –

How to identify elk tracks
Elk Print
Photo: http://www.elkheaven.com

Prints:
Similar to moose (above) but slightly more rounded at the top and smaller overall (roughly 4”). Look for split hooves; may display dewclaws in soft material (mud or snow). Hooves may be splayed on smooth surfaces

What to look for:
– Trees rubbed free of bark up to 9’ off the ground
– Disturbed vegetation from thrashing with antlers
– Pits pawed into the snow during winter in an attempt to find food
– Mud wallows with urine scent or scat present
– Scat is often in the shape of pellets and approximately the size of a black olive

Most Active:
Early morning and late evenings. The spring finds female elk (cows) at their most dangerous because of calving; males (bulls) are most dangerous during mating season in fall

– Humans –

how to identify human footprints
Human Print
Photo: Lorna Mitchell

Prints:
Five toes creating an arc above a larger lower pad. Lower pad usually demonstrates concave feature on the inside of the foot, in line with largest toe pad.

What to look for:
– Plastic bottles, wrappers and other litter
– Smoke from campfires
– Loud music and talking

Most Active:
Mid-morning to late evening, with slumps in activity mid-afternoon.

Sources:

Bear:
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/black-bear/
http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm
http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/ndgbp_rubobjectbearsign.htm
http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/bears.html
http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_43573-146656–,00.html

Cougar:

Cougar Identification


http://www.cougarnet.org/Assets/pumafieldguide.pdf
http://www.mountainlion.org/featurearticlesign.asp
http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_43573-146656–,00.html

Wolves:

Signs of Wolves


http://www.wolf.org/wolves/learn/basic/biology/communication.asp
http://www.wolfcenter.org/biologist.aspx
http://www.dfw.state.or.us/Wolves/about_gray_wolves.asp

Moose:
http://www.web2.mnr.gov.on.ca/mnr/enforcement/interactive/moose_id/id_guide.swf
http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=moosehunting.moremoose

Elk:
http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/elk.html
http://www.bear-tracker.com/elk.html
http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/elkisland/activ/d.aspx

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Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Leaving home to journey westward alone, she chased the sun to Utah. Over the years, she was consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. But exploration continued to call. After closing her bakery — which funded college courses and adventure — she stored her possessions and hit the road again, on a quest to reach the distant places of North America. For three years she lived in her little Mazda 3 and skied the backcountry of Alaska, slept under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climbed Colorado's frozen canyons and rock climbed across the continent, photographed Nova Scotia’s coves, backpacked in southern US wildernesses and munched on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But living in a car started to feel limiting, so after seeing the many glories this continent had to offer, she chose the only place fitting for an explorer to spend a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is now making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.