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The Truth of Tracking

Discussion in 'Research' started by Ankari, May 17, 2014.

  1. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    This is a belated post in response to Malik's invitation on the subject.

    Here we go:

    1) Tracking is often described as following a path of change in the wilderness. Mostly, it's broken branches or snapped twigs. Is this the way trackers hunt a target? How can a tracker acertain these changes are not made by wild animals?

    2) I just completed The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. In it, a group is tracking bandits. A woodsman tells Kvothe (the MC) that a man's passage will damage the stem of leaves (think of it as being similar to breaking branches, but still attached to the branch). If there are different layers of coloration on a branch, that means a person has used the same path often. What are you thoughts on this observation? Again, how can the tracker know a wild boar isn't using this same path?

    3) How much of tracking is guesswork? I can imagine a person running into a bit of fortune that throws off a pursuer. A stream, a road, an plain of grass, or even crossing paths with another party of travelers. Wouldn't this result in the tracker making his best guess?

    4) Can a tracker really determine the sex/age/weight/injuries of a person by the footprints they leave?

    5) What steps can you take to throw off a tracker?

    6) Isn't the tracker at a disadvantage fromt he begining? Doesn't it take more time for the tracker to look for evidence of a target, thus making the distance between pursuer and prey larger and larger?

    7) How effecient is it to track a person in an urban setting? What are the different things a tracker will use to pursue his prey? I know this is an open question. Let's give some examples. A city at night. A ruined city in the day. A large foreign trading city at any time (assume the city never sleeps).
  2. Malik

    Malik Auror

    My tracking has been primarily animals. I don't have a lot of experience in tracking humans. Believe it or not, there is a 100-hour course on combat tracking in the military. A lot of the training is classified but I will share some common-sense details.

    1.) The only way to determine if the path is made by a human and not an animal -- or more to the point, that a human is following an animal path, because we tend to take the path of least resistance -- is to find a human artifact. A footprint, a gob of spit, scat, urine, a food wrapper, a mark the target uses to find their way back. In fact, one of the best ways to keep yourself ahead of a tracker is to use a well-worn trail, because the amount of sign from the other animals (or people) will increase the noise/signal ratio.

    2.) I've never heard of that theory. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me but it sounds cool.

    3.) A lot of it is luck, not so much guesswork. There are definite signs that people leave behind, and under stress, people fall into patterns. People rarely climb a hill after they've been moving all day, for instance.

    A big part of it is reading the terrain and paying attention. Squirrels are nature's burglar alarms; walk within sight of one and they will never shut up. I can tell where my hunting buddies are by listening to the squirrels. If a bird has a nest in the area, it will let out a warning, usually as they fly directly over someone. It's like having a UAV, especially if you can sit on a hillside and watch the birds. In a quiet valley, a squirrel and a crow can be enough to triangulate your quarry.

    The flip side of this is when the forest goes silent. When it's quiet, people are nearby. Animals think of us as predators and they don't want to draw attention to themselves. Except for the damned squirrels.

    We once thwarted an ambush because there was a hawk circling overhead, and I saw a rabbit bust out of a copse of trees below us and go running through scrub brush, uphill in the other direction. There was something in those trees that scared him enough that he was willing to take his chances with the hawk.

    4.) Injuries, maybe. Maybe. Generally, no; not unless they're grievously wounded and either dragging a limb or dripping blood. You might be able to tell the sex by the size and type of shoe; a size 13 cowboy boot is probably a male. A small Birkenstock is probably a female. Physical characteristics would have to be egregious to tell from a track. If a guy weighed 300 lbs, for instance, he would leave very deep prints; if he was really tall or super-fit his tracks would be further apart than normal.

    5.) Running water is your best bet. After that, rock-hopping and sticking to dry, hard ground. Leave the path by at least twenty yards to make a latrine call or to pick berries. Also, never spit. For some reason, when people move fast, they tend to spit a lot.

    I once threw off OPFOR in an evasion exercise by climbing a tree and then moving from tree to tree by changing branches. It was super-dangerous and I caught hell for it, but it worked great. I slipped past the observers and graders and went to the shopette at the edge of the field. I walked up to the objective from behind, smoking a cigar and drinking a Mountain Dew. "Do I win, sir?" (EDIT: So. Many. Pushups.)

    6.) Definitely. Humans are very tough to track, because we are varied in our behavior and frankly, we are all crazy. We all have patterns, but nobody does anything that makes any kind of logical sense; a huge part of tracking humans is learning the quirks of your target and looking for those. A good tracker will sensitize his team to the signs, recruiting more pairs of eyes.

    7.) Tracking people in cities is almost impossible. The noise/signal ratio is off the charts. There's a whole separate realm of tradecraft for tailing people in urban locations.
    Last edited: May 17, 2014
  3. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    Thanks Malik,

    I have a couple other questions.

    1) Fires. From The Wise Man's Fear, it suggested that a fire can still be used even if you're trying to avoid notice. One method, a wood that burns smokeless, seemed of fantasy. Another method, digging fire pits, is possible but doesn't make sense. Can you shed some light on this?

    2) What are some traps you can make in the wilderness to catch prey?

    3) What are some tricks you can use in the wilderness to get your bearing?

    4) Water. I have a hard time imagining people in the past/fantasy settings drinking water. I don't understand how anything found in nature is drinkable. Can you give some insight to this? If you were in the wild and needed water, what would you do?
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I have a hard time imagining them drinking anything else. If you can find a stream of running water chances are it will almost certainly be drinkable. If you're suspicious you can either skip it for something else or boil it (then again, fires...)

    Being the hippy I am I'd like to think that one of the main reasons we don't drink water found in nature is because of pollution. You can probably also get away with drinking it if you're used to the bacteria present in the water.
  5. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Nah, drinking water found in nature is still bad. Even without pollution you got animals pooping in it up stream. Running water IS better than stagnate water, but if you presume that just because it looks clean it's safe to drink then you can look forward to the runs. Back to the original question about water, you have to realize that in the type of medieval setting it most often comes up with they had no clue about bacteria at all. They blamed sickness on spirits or poor humors or stuff like that. So they had no reason to not drink the water. We know better now, so it's still not a good idea to do it just because they do it. Now, boiling water is the most often repeated advice, I don't know if it's accurate or not though, if you truly want to be safe you can set up a type of thing where you set up something above the pot for the steam from the boiling water to condense on and then flow / drip into a second container, that way you just get pure water. I believe rain water is generally considered safe as well, or at least you don't really need to worry about bacteria, but the easiest way to treat water is to get some of these, I think they're iodine drops? Or iodine tablets? I hear they make the water taste a bit funny but are pretty good for making water safe to drink. Of course, you should learn other methods of water treatment as relying on iodine tablets require you to have iodine tablets to rely on which isn't always possible in a survival situation.

    OH! Fun fact; In cities most people drank weak alcohol, even kids, due to the polluted city water.

    For the fire, a quick search on wikipedia came up with the Dakota smokeless fire pit; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_pit#The_Dakota_smokeless_fire_pit Other than that I know that the quality and amount depends on the material burned and the state it's in, but I'm not sure how. I believe that adding wet material to a fire produces a billowing white smoke useful for making a smoke signal, plastic or rubber such as say, a plane crash, leads to dark black smoke, and so on.

    I believe that where the sun rises / sets along with the season can give you a rough idea of north, east, south, and west, using the stars help more precisely, and it's generally a good idea to follow water to find civilization, but I don't know anything more specific.

    Can't give you anything specific when it comes to traps, sorry.
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    These are nonprofessional answers from somebody (me) who grew up on an Alaskan homestead right at the edge of the wilderness.

    You are looking for old (seasoned) wood. Wood from an old deadfall, but not rotten. We used to let the firewood for the firepit out front season a couple of years before using it. It usually burns smokeless.
    Mostly, we used the firepit for cooking hotdogs and roasting marshmellows...and for warming up after a dip in the (COLD) lake.

    Think three sided pit, you want to get warm, you sit by the open side.

    When I was a kid, I tried making a variety of snares and traps from branches and bits of rope. None of them worked that well. But I was a kid. The ones that worked best were simple loops of rope (lasso's) lightly covered with dirt and leaves.

    A couple of these.

    Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Hence, if its morning and the sun is low more or less in the direction your looking in, you are looking east.

    I used to be pretty good at spotting old roads and trails. (This area was/is covered with them - pipelines, seismic trails, old homestead roads, and more). Here, what you are looking for is a break in the tree line. Roads are wide. In a forest, that means cutting trees. Roadbuilders prefer straight lines. So what you are looking for are gaps in the treeline.

    Climbing a hill in a well wooded area to get your orientation usually doesn't work - or it didn't for me, anyhow. Thing is, trees run clear to the top of the hill, and tend to be densely packed as well. So what your going to see from a hill top is...more trees.

    Climbing a tree - especially one atop a hill - can work, but it needs to be quite a bit taller than its neighbors. And its also a fair bit of work.

    All this said, venture off the trails and even just a few hundred yards into the woods, and you can get good and lost. It is real easy to make a 90 degree turn without realizing it.

    As I understand it, you are in Florida - essentially a giant swamp.

    Swamp water is not good to drink.

    Growing up, I occasionally drank lake and stream water. With the streams, we looked for clear, moving water. With the lakes, we looked for clear water, and drew water from the surface. Yes, it is a bit of a risk. But, by and large the nasty stuff heads towards the lake bottom, leaving the surface area drinkable.

    Still, there was concern over what we called 'Beaver Fever'. Serious camping, you'd boil the drinking water first.
    Sheilawisz, Malik and Ankari like this.
  7. Malik

    Malik Auror

    The thing about fires is, you don't need a very big one. For some reason, we like really big, cozy fires. The Indians used to say, "White men make a big fire, sit far; Indians make a small fire, sit close." You can roast small pieces of meat over a very small fire -- finger-width sticks -- quite effectively. Small sticks also burn down to coals. When your fire is out in the morning, gather up the charcoal and take it with you. Charcoal burns hot, and long, with no smoke and very little light. Build a fire with small sticks over a bed of charcoal at the base of a rock the next night and you'll have a very small signature.

    Traps would be a book in and of itself.

    The best way I know of to get your bearing is to use a stick and make a sundial. Put a stick straight up and down in the ground, and mark the end of the shadow with a rock. Wait half an hour. Mark the end of the shadow with another rock. Now place a straight stick above the two rocks. The end above the first rock points west; the end above the second rock points east. Assuming, of course, your world spins the same way as ours does.

    In many areas, the weather comes from a specific direction most of the time. If it's a place you've lived for some time, you'll generally know direction just by the prevailing winds and the weather patterns. Here in Puget Sound, you can pretty much tell north by putting your back to the wind. Unless it's a very cold wind; the really cold wind comes from the north and has a distinct feel and smell to it. If it's not windy, the clouds usually come from the west.

    I grew up playing in the woods and drinking from a river in northern Montana and never had a single issue. But then, as an adult I once ate a sandwich I found in a drawer so maybe I have a trick metabolism.
    Ankari likes this.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    If water were bad to drink, our species wouldn't have survived very long. What do you suppose we drank before we invented wine and beer? Even after the invention of those potent potables, there were many people who quenched their thirst who didn't have access to same. Go ahead and have your characters drink water. If the plot calls for it, let one or more get sick from it.
    Malik likes this.
  9. Malik

    Malik Auror

    One other thing: your tracker, typically, will be an expert on the area. He will usually be someone who grew up in the area and has hunted it all his life. He will know every draw, ravine, hidey-hole, landmark, stream, and good place to lay up within ten miles. This will give him a tremendous advantage and helps his guesswork considerably. He will also never get lost.
  10. Malik

    Malik Auror

    I do believe -- and it has been mentioned -- that a childhood of drinking "bad" water from rivers and streams may be the reason that, as an adult, I can eat nearly anything, anywhere in the world. I rarely get sick. I think we may be babying our immune systems.
  11. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I *almost* fit that description up until the time I turned 20 or so and had to take up the working for a living thing. Except n my case, it was every road, track and trail you could get a dirt bike down within five miles, along with every lake, creek, pond, marsh, clearing, and abandoned cabin. But even then, I still got lost once in a while out there.

    Couple other things...

    ...you really don't want to burn wet logs. They sizzle, they steam, and they pop. You get one with a bit of water deep down inside and they can explode.

    And...not really related to the tracking, but of import all the same: Building ANYTHING out in the woods away from civilization is a really major pain in the butt, especially if all you got is a few hand tools.

    Log cabin? Cutting down a tree with an ax is a lot of work. Then you have to trim the branches (annoying), and cut it into lengths you can actually transport without getting a hernia. I used to be fairly tough, but even so, the best I could manage was a foot thick 'round' maybe twelve feet long...and that was dragging, not carrying. But the troubles are not over yet - you have to plane down the top and bottom 'sides' of each log, get them flat and level so they'll fit. Otherwise, you'll have cracks big enough to stick your fingers through.

    Used to be an old trappers cabin near where I grew up. The guy that did that one - probably back around 1910 or so - used six inch rounds. He made a 10x12 cabin with those, with a low ceiling - I could stand straight only beneath the ridge beam, then later on, he tacked another cabin the same size onto the front. I figure he spent a good three or four months, six or eight hours a day, for two summers building that.

    Others would get sneaky - instead of building up right off, they'd dig down first: find a steep sloped hillside and dig into it, so the bottom yard or so of their dwelling had dirt walls on three sides up to about waist high.

    I'm in no shape for that sort of thing anymore, but if I absolutely had to, I'd probably try for a notched frame wall (sort of like a modern frame house, except with six inch round logs secured with notches top and bottom) faced with split logs inside and out (crude lap siding), with loose woven grass for insulation in between. I'd also hope for a pile of three inch nails. Failing that, I'd have to use sharpened wooden pegs to hold the lap siding in place.

    If I had to do it in a hurry, I'd look for a couple of close set parallel dead falls that span a slight natural depression. I'd do a bit of shovel work underneath the deadfalls to square things out and get it to where I could actually stand up, then use the deadfalls as top frames for the walls and roof alike. Do something like that right, it'd be dang near invisible.
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  12. Jesse

    Jesse Dreamer

    Generally speaking, a species doesn't evolve resistance to something that kills individual members after they procreate. We're all exposed to fecal coliform far more often than we like to think about, with the most common reaction being no reaction at all. Fatal exposure occurs most often to people with preexisting vulnerabilities: the very young, the elderly, the otherwise ill, etc. For most of us, the worst that e. coli or other strains of coliform does to us is a stomach ache, vomiting or diarrhea that passes relatively quickly (though never quickly enough!).

    The real problem with drinking from a stream or pond is a longer term one - parasites. Liver flukes, for example, can thrive in the coldest, fastest running spring water in the mountains. They won't make you feel sick and they won't stop you from making dozens of fat children, but they will kill you eventually. But in the time period that I think the OP was talking about (wait, wasn't the original question about tracking?), 40 or 45 was pretty old, and if a bear hadn't already killed you, liver failure wouldn't be a surprise.
    Last edited: May 20, 2014
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