Dimples in the Snow

Dennis Deck

Winter tracking is both rewarding and challenging. Everything that moves will leave tracks in the snow. Often you can follow the trail of an animal for the entire day's hunt.

However, individual tracks are poorly defined. Rarely will you find the definitive track that shouts out the identity of the animal that passed by under the cover of darkness. Various forces distort the track, especially melting during the day and crystalline formation at night (hoar frost). Before long, fresh snow further obscures the track, leaving a trail of ambiguous dimples in the snow.


My approach to snow tracking is a little different than with other conditions. Well, maybe the strategies aren't all that different but out of necessity the emphasis is different. Here are a few basic principles:

  1. Study the gait. The gait often holds the key to identifying the family. Members of the weasel family, for example, typically use gaits that clearly set them apart from other families.
  2. Measure the gait. Confirm your visual impression of the gait with some basic measurements: stride, straddle, group, and intergroup distance as well as the size of individual tracks. I carry a "crib sheet" of selected measurements for all the possible animals I might encounter for reference.
  3. Pay particular attention to straddle. For example, I find the relatively wide straddle of a bobcat to be a helpful clue in distinguishing it from a red fox in snow. Keep in mind, however, that there is considerable variation within a species and usually much overlap with the measurements of other species.
  4. Follow the trail. Follow the trail as far as you can, looking for variations in stride, clear tracks (if there are any), and other types of sign. Often I find that my snap judgement about species was wrong if I am able to follow the trail far enough.
  5. Use all available clues. Fixation on a single characteristic of a trail in the snow frequently leads to misidentification. Develop alternative hypotheses about the tracks and systematically try to disprove them.


Study your field guides, especially any species that you are unsure about, before you leave home. You won’t want to be spending a lot of time in the wet and cold struggling with a field guide. I highly recommend reading Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow by Louise Forrest to orient yourself to snow tracking. She has excellent diagrams of gaits along with brief but useful discussions of the winter habits of each species. For further study, review the gait section in a book from the Scats and Tracks series by James Halfpenny. Other useful references include Murie's classic A Field Guide to Animal Tracks or Rezendes' comprehensive Tracking and the Art of Seeing. As with other forms of tracking, however, there is no substitute for extensive time in the field under different conditions.


With a little experience, even the ambiguous dimples of old tracks covered by fresh snow will start to reveal their story for you. If you haven't tried snow tracking, it is high time that you strapped on a pair of snowshoes and take a hike.