Have you ever been in the backcountry and run across an interesting animal track that you wish you could identify? With some instruction, a few careful observations and maybe a couple of measurements you can likely identify what animal left the track in question and gain some insight about wildlife in the area you are visiting.
  • Look for tracks in wet and sandy places like stream beds, beaches, or sand dunes. Snow also is a great place to find tracks. 
  • Good quality impressions make it much easier to decipher tracks.
  • Look at gait (an animals manner of walking) clues when you can. An animals gait can help you narrow down the range of possibilities. 
  • Try to pick out identifying characteristics (how many toes, are there claw impressions, etc.) 
  • A flashlight held at an oblique angle can help bring out details in a track.
  • Size can often be a defining feature. 
  • Take along a notepad to sketch tracks and relevant observations/measurements.
  • Animals like bears, skunk, beaver, opossum, badger, raccoon, weasel and otters have five toes on both front and rear feet.
  • Members of both the Felidae (cat) and Canidae (dog) family have four toes on the front and rear feet.
  • Claws are typically visible on prints from members of the Canidae family (wolves, coyotes, foxes, dogs, etc.).
  • Claws are typically not visible on prints from members of the Felidae family (mountain lion, bobcats, lynx, house cats, etc.) due to their retractable claws. 
  • Rodents such as mice, squirrels, prairie dogs, marmots, muskrat, chipmunks and porcupines have four toes on the front and five toes on their hind feet. 
  • Deer, reindeer, elk, antelope, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, wild boar and moose have two toes.
  • Raccoon prints have long toes and resemble tiny human hands/feet.
  • Opossum prints have the front fingers spread very widely and rear print has a distinctive thumb-like toe.
  • Beaver have large webbed hind foot prints.
  • To differentiate black bear tracks from brown bear tracks:  
    • #1 find the lowest point of the outside (largest) toe 
    • #2 find the highest point on the front edge of the palm pad 
    • #3 draw a line through the two points and extend across the track. If more than half of the smallest toe is above the line, the print is from a brown bear. If more than half is below the line, the print is from a black bear. 
  • Bird tracks can be classified as follows:
    • Anisodactyl tracks/ perching birds: 3 toes pointing forward and one long toe pointing backward. (eagles, ravens, hawks, doves, vultures, herons, etc.)
    • Game bird/ ground birds: 3 toes pointing forward with short/absent toe pointing backward. (turkey, quail, pheasant, ptarmigan, partridge, coots, cranes, grouse, etc.)
    • Palmate tracks/ water birds: 3 webbed toes (ducks, geese, gulls, terns, etc)
    • Totipalmate tracks/ ocean birds: 4 webbed toes (pelicans, gannets, boobies, cormorants, etc.)
    • Zygodactyl tracks: 2 toes pointing forward & 2 toes pointing backward (woodpeckers, roadrunners, parrots, owls, osprey, etc.) 
click image for larger view
(please note tracks are not to scale)

Here are a few tracks that you can use to test your track identification skills (scroll down for the answers):




Happy tracking!
Some great resources for more tracking info:

#1 mountain lion
#2 black bear
#3 turkey
#4 brown bear
#5 moose
#6 otter
#7 wolf