HOW TO TRACK YOUR
BY JOHN EARLY
stings tired, dust-filled eyes. Adrenaline throbs like an electric river through
your body as you search the near by bush. Every nerve feels for the enemy you
know is there —
unit has been ambushed and the guerrillas have broken contact and fled. At
least, that’s what you think. If your unit is lucky or well-trained or both,
you may have few or no casualties and your blood is up to get the bastards.
problem: how to track your enemy.
mercenary soldier is usually the product of NATO-styled,
technologically-oriented armies and as such has had little experience in
tracking people. He is usually a foreigner, brought in to stabilize a desperate
situation or to bail out some well-heeled bigwig, and is operating on strange
terrain, under difficult conditions with marginal troops.
you should think back to a few months earlier when you first began this
operation and let’s assume you are operating on a fairly long-term contract.
first concern is the terrain. You can’t track in it, if you don’t have a
rudimentary knowledge of the Lay of the land. Prior to operating in the area,
you should, ideally, have spent a few days acclimating your troops, if they are
not local boys. During this period, thorough map studies with available maps,
air photos, and even touring guides can be helpful. Extract detailed briefings
from the local police, military officials, and population. Talk to local
farmers, natives, anyone who has been in the area in which you will be
Your equipment should be organized during this
period as well, and any remedial training necessary conducted. Pay special
attention to camouflage. Secure all your gear, discard the inessentials, and
inspect the troops for the same. Carry food, water, and ammunition
and go as light as possible. Some trackers dress like
the enemy and
use captured weapons. This is helpful if you are tracking outside your own
country and into enemy-dominated countries.
caution. A large number of people, dressed in the correct uniform, have been
shot in error by their own troops. Weigh the pros and cons carefully. Also try
to learn as much about native fieldcraft as possible. How do they use the
terrain to survive? Where do they get food and water, and what do they use for
expedient tools and weapons?
all information on local weather. It will have a definite effect on your
operations and hence your tracking. By enlisting the natives, if possible, to
teach you about local vegetation, you will gain excellent survival information
which may help you make decisions as to enemy movements. If he is far from his
supply bases, he will attempt to live off the land to sustain or even expand his
operations, especially if native assistance is denied him.
ever, do not assume that the enemy is an excellent bushman just because he is
indigenous to that continent. In Rhodesia, Angola, and Mozambique, terrorists
have been found wandering, lost and starving, because they were also strangers.
My tracking instructor in Selous Scouts once
related that he could track and live most anywhere but that his effectiveness
would be greatly reduced outside his native area and consequently his confidence
in his ability would suffer. And he was considered to be the
best tracker in Rhodesia. If you know the ground and are comfortable in it, you
already have a 30 percent edge on the enemy.
during your terrain study, note native customs and attempt to learn some of the
language and folklore. This takes time and effort and on short-term jobs will be
nearly impossible, but if you have the time, it will pay big dividends. It may
give you the
necessary edge to come out of the next contact as the “champ” rather than
as much information as possible about animal wildlife in the area, It will be
invaluable in tracking and if your next supply column is ambushed or the
quartermaster sells it and retires to the south of France you can still feed
KNOW THE ENEMY
know your enemy. The better you understand him, his motives, aspirations,
traits, habits, tactics, and attitudes, the greater your tactical edge on him.
As a result, you will be able to run him to ground sooner. Once you understand
the enemy, your task will become much easier.
possible, keep notes on tactics employed against your unit and other police and
para-military groups. Look for patterns of the enemy in general and specific
commanders in particular. Watch his standard operating procedures and record his
responses to your tactics. Intelligence is usually extremely limited to a
mercenary, so be your own S-2. Absorb every piece of information available to
that you have some idea as to the enemy and the situation, you may investigate
the feasibility of using native trackers. Seek out local authorities as to who
the headman, local chief or Kraal head
is and his location. Then with one of the officials, who is known to the chief,
approach him for the assistance of the most reliable, efficient trackers in the
area. You may have difficulty since he may be in sympathy with the guerrillas or
just plain scared. Allay his fears if possible, and be prepared to offer top
wages and protection for the trackers and their families. This is the only way
to assure some semblance of loyalty. Investigate any native male of military age
who might be seeking revenge against the terrorists. Use this to your advantage.
dealing with native troops, be firm, fair, and honest. Be friendly but not
familiar and treat them with respect and accord them the dignity due their
station in the tribe; Treat them well but not lavishly. Make sure they
understand exactly what is expected of them and guide them adequately in the
field. Never assume anything and always be decisive. Never promise them anything
unless you can deliver immediately and never lie to them. In many situations
only mutual trust and respect will keep
them loyal to you.
you have employed your trackers, you may be puzzled as to how to gauge their
effectiveness. Probably the most positive way is to see how often they track
into contact. If they are constantly being fired on first, then your troops are
only marginal types. Good trackers will be able to tell how far ahead the enemy
is and alert you to this fact so you can request air cover or more follow-up
troops to reinforce your patrol.
of the premier trackers in Rhodesia, an African NCO in Selous Scouts, has
personally tracked into and killed 80-plus terrorists since the war began. What
is even more remarkable and clearly demonstrates his prowess is the fact that he
has tracked and located twice that number of terrorists without the enemy
realizing his presence until the follow-up troops attacked. He is so valuable
that he is now responsible for training tracking personnel for the entire
Rhodesian Army and is only called out when specific terrorist commanders are
suspected of operating in the area.
article has been written to help you if you wish to become a better tracker or
to know enough to properly employ and command tracking teams. This knowledge
will not make you a tracker: Only practice, practice, and more practice, under
expert supervision, will do that.
HOW TO TRACK
for the most important aspect:
How to track. First, psychologically and
physically prepare for the hunt. You should
be in good physical condition with excellent reserves of stamina, alert,
well fed and above all confident in yourself and your men. You may be forced to
travel for days under adverse conditions, without food and with little water, at
a fast pace and tinder tremendous mental stress. Tracking requires intense
concentration, stamina and an eye for detail.
you must know what to look for when reading spoor (tracks). When you begin
tracking, try spooring large groups in easy terrain for short distances. Usually
soft ground with knee-high grass is best. Send out three or four people with
instructions to walk for about five to 10 minutes, depending on the bush growth,
and then rest until you find them. Your attention span at first will be short
and you will tend to discourage quickly. You will lose the spoor often, but
don’t worry. No-one is a born bushman. Be patient and concentrate on the
spoor. As you become more aware of what to look for, the legs of spoor can be
lengthened until your spoor layers are given a 30-minute head start. This can be
extended to hours until they are laying spoor in the morning and you are
tracking later in the day.
you are tracking, look for evidence (track signs) of disturbed grass; bent blades will reveal
the direction of travel. The top of the grass will point in the direction the
person is walking. if the enemy has passed through after sunrise the dew will be
disturbed and a faint darkened area will reveal his trail. Watch for broken
spider webs or cobwebs. When examining spoor always keep your head slightly up
and look 15 to 20 yards ahead of you. It will enable you to see the spoor
better, determine the direction of movement, and keep alert for likely ambush
areas, If the terrorist knows or suspects he is being followed, he will try to
set you up.
alert, patient, and careful. Watch for rocks that have been overturned. The dark
side will be up or you will see the impression on the ground where it once rested.
Although mid-day heat will dry the rock quickly, it tells you the terrorist is
only hours ahead of you. If you find it in the morning, then he has been moving
prior to sunrise. The darker and wetter the rock, the closer your quarry.
of’ tracking means noting what is out of context in nature and realizing the
cause. Move from sign to sign and always be sure of your last confirmed sign
before you move on to the next. There are, of course, the obvious: footprints in
the mud near streams and water holes and along sandy rivers; leaves on plants
that have been broken, knocked off, or turned so that the light underside
contrasts with the surroundings; scuffed tree bark or mud scraped from passing
boots and the impression of rifle butts being used as crutches or canes up
steep slopes. Of course, there is the old favorite, blood on the
vegetation and trail.
for discarded ration packages, food tins, and even dropped or discarded
documents. U.S. troops in Vietnam were easily tracked, not by recently cut
jungle foliage but by their inevitable trail of Kool-Aid packages. Once you have
identified the spoor, try to identify the type of foot gear. Often different
guerrilla groups wear different type boots. Terrorists in Rhodesia have been killed and captured carrying two or three types of
shoes and wearing two or three shirts and pants, at the same time! Make sure the
print is not one of your own people or security forces and keep a record of the
different type prints you encounter. Plaster impressions, drawings, photos or
even a copy of the soles themselves should be on record with local intelligence
people. The Rhodesians and South Africans make copies of all terrorist footwear
and distribute these drawings to the local population. Village police, hunters,
and farmers walking in the bush have often discovered the trail of terrorist
gangs who have crossed from Zambia or Mozambique and have alerted the security
depth and space of the tracks will also tell you something about your foe. Women
take smaller steps, as do heavily laden men. People running will leave more
space between tracks and men walking in each other’s tracks will make deeper
impressions. Also, they will cause the edges of the tracks to be less distinct.
Drag marks could indicate wounded. Once you have identified your particular
track, follow it even if the group splits. Sometimes guerrillas will split up or
bombshell, until you are left following one set of tracks.
you have the personnel, you can assign tracking teams to each set of tracks. If
not, pick one and run him to ground, then pick another. Try to stay with the
main body, if possible. You may get lucky and nail the commander or political
officer or you may end up following the spoor to the RV point where you can ambush
the entire gang.
will also have some effect on reading spoor. If you are tracking into the sun
and are experiencing difficulty in seeing the sign, look back over your shoulder
every few yards to confirm your spoor. Never walk on your spoor and caution the
follow-up troops behind you also to walk to one side of the tracks.
you lose the spoor, it is imperative that you go back to the last positive sign,
confirm it, and then begin a search pattern to relocate the tracks. Watch for
the absence of insects or wildlife. Most wild creatures are shy of man and will
seek shelter if he has been in the area. Birds are great indicators of men as
are baboon, impala, and many types of deer. Listen for animals snorting or
running and note the
direction. Something is there.
you lose the trail, there are a number of search patterns used to relocate
spoor. The most common are the cross grain, the box search and the 360-degree
sweep. Go back to the last positive spoor and mark it. Then look up to about 25
to 30 meters in front of you and sweep from center to left out about to 45 degrees
and then sweep back to center. Repeat the process to the right, each time coming
back to your feet and the last confirmed spoor. Look carefully and slowly and
most times you will pick up the spoor again.
not, brief the troop commander to alert his men to the fact that your trackers
will be circling to the front and flanks and possibly to the rear.
CROSS GRAIN METHOD
use the cross grain method the tracker moves laterally from the spoor either
left or right about 100 meters and then doubles back toward his original line of
march. Each time he turns, the tracker should advance about 50 to 75 meters
before doubling back. (See the accompanying
If you have
moved approximately 500 meters ahead of the last spoor and still cannot find the
tracks, resort to the 360-degree method, gradually expanding your circle until
you find your spoor.
the 360-degree method, the tracker makes ever increasing circles from his last
confirmed tracks back to his point of origin. When you lose spoor, be patient
and keep looking. Some trackers have been known to circle as far as five
kilometers from the last confirmed spoor until they cut the trail of their prey.
(See accompanying diagram.)
used is the box method of search in which each half of the area is boxed off and
examined on the two sides of the spoor. This time-consuming method is confusing
and is not frequently used today. (See accompanying
important point is to determine the age of the spoor and the number of personnel
involved. To determine age, note the way in which vegetation is disturbed. Grass
blades will remain green for about a day after being broken. Prints in mud will
usually take about an hour to fill with water, depending on the amount of
moisture in the earth. Disturbed dew drops on grass and plants will indicate
passage of something within the last few hours. Dew usually stays on for about
four hours after sunrise. Overturned rocks take a couple of hours to dry in
direct sun. Cobwebs and spider webs usually take about an hour to be replaced by
Rain can also be used to your advantage to
indicate age of spoor. if you know the last time it rained in the area, you can
tell how old tracks are. Animal prints superimposed
on the spoor will tell you that the spoor was made prior to nightfall, since
most animals move at night. The reverse is applicable. If you see the spoor on
the animal prints, the spoor was made sometime after sunrise.
twigs and vines are also good gauges of time since it requires about 10 hours
for the pulp inside to begin to turn brown. If you discover a resting area,
check the campfire’s heat. Look for cigarette butts, ration tins, documents,
letters, or diaries. If your terrorist is communist oriented, he will usually be
carrying a diary. Look for human feces near the camp. Interrogate all the locals
you meet. They may be hiding the guerrillas, feeding them, or know where they
are camped. The trail itself can be used to tell age. If it is erratic or
circuitous, your enemy may be walking in the dark.
AND AFRICAN COUNTS
second most important factor is the number of people you are tracking. There are
two methods I have seen used. The first is taught to Special Forces and Ranger
graduates and is used by the U.S. Army; the other is popular with Rhodesian and
South African Defense Forces. In the U.S. method, take the length of an average
pace and measure it on the ground next to the tracks. Now lay out a space about
18 inches wide across the tracks so that the prints are enclosed in a box that
is 36 inches by 18 inches. Count all the whole and partial prints in this box
and then divide by a constant of two. If you count 10 prints inside the box,
your answer is five people.
Rhodesian method uses the length of the
FN rifle or G-3 rifle and the same 18 inch (45cm) width. Using this method, count only
the whole prints you see inside the box. If the answer is four
or less, that is what you report to the team leader or headquarters. If
the answer is five prints, then add two to the number and report that number. If
you read six, add two and report eight. This is a safety factor that seems to be
right most of the time.
you discover a resting place, count the places on the ground and no matter what
the number, add two and report that number. Should you be operating more
conventionally, call in periodic tracking reports to your headquarters. These
can be plotted on a map and a general pattern determined. It will also allow
different terrorist groups to be plotted together to determine if this is some
sort of coordinated action. It will also establish what routes are being used to
funnel enemy troops into and out of the area.
A sample of a tracking report might follow the
following format. Use the code word NDAT. First give your location using the
standard military grid system. The “N” is the number you believe to be in the enemy
unit as determined by your print count. “D” is the general direction of
spoor expressed by magnetic bearing. “A” is age of spoor, if possible. And
“T” equals type of spoor followed, boots, shoes, bare feet, etc.
let’s discuss tracking team assignments and duties. First, the team leader: He
is responsible for the control of the team and all follow-up troops until the
time of contact, when control of the follow-up units reverts to the ground
commander. Once the trackers have found the enemy, conventional tactics can be
used to close with and kill him. The team leader relays information to the CO
follow-up troops and the next higher headquarters. He is responsible for
briefing the troops in the team operation and what duties he will expect of the
ground follow-up unit. On contact, he extracts the team, if possible, and allows
the infantry to engage the enemy. Trackers are too valuable to risk in a fire
fight and should not engage unless there is a serious manpower shortage. He is
also the tail gunner, if the team is working alone.
tracker: He is responsible for reading the spoor and interpreting it to the team
flankers: These two men, who are also trained trackers, are responsible for the
forward and flank security of the tracker. As the tracker becomes fatigued, they
rotate duties with him so that all the trackers remain fresh and alert. The team
leader does not pull tracker or flanker duty. The flanker’s function is most
important; he will probably see and engage the enemy first. He must be alert and
ready for instant action.
troops: These men are under the control of the team leader until contact is made
or the enemy pointed out to the CO of the follow-up unit. Follow-up troops
should be in close proximity to the trackers, although reinforcements can be
vehicle or airborne and on call.
for general rules concerning tracking teams:
All members of the tracking team should be trained, experienced trackers.
Four men seems to be the best number for team size.
If possible, never separate a team once formed. Teamwork saves lives and
Get the trackers on the spoor as soon as possible.
the tracking team commander is on the ground, be he private, lance corporal or
general, he is in charge. More tracking scenes have been blown by
operations-room signal officers and helicopter pilots with Napoleon complexes
than I can count. Until contact with the enemy is made or
spoor is lost,
the team leader is boss! If this rule
cannot be adhered to, have no qualms about packing up and going home.
6. Rotate tracker and flanker often. Tracking
concentration and the pressure is terrific. The team leader should watch for
these signs always.
operating, use hand signals at all times. If you must confer, take cover and
whisper. You can devise your own signals but use the same ones
8. Rest your teams as often as possible. Once on the spoor, they may be forced
to travel for many
days. Tired people make mistakes.
9. If a general pattern is discernible by the intell chaps, you may wish to try
to leap-frog to get ahead of the
guerrillas. While one team is tracking, have another check a few kilometers
ahead for the same spoor. If found, up-lift your team and continue the trail
there. Use this technique carefully and don’t try to hurry.
If you have the teams, you can saturate the area being tracked.
about all standard infantry tactics apply to tracking teams with the exception
of the crossing of obstacles such as rivers, streams, roads, trails, or rail
lines. Instead of the flankers crossing to recon the other
side and then
calling the rest of the unit over, the team, after carefully observing the far
side, crosses together under the cover of the follow-up troops. This is done to
keep any spoor on the other side intact and undisturbed. The risk imposed upon
the team by use of this tactic is less important than staying on the tracks of
what could prove to be an important guerrilla leader.
The standard tracking formation is Y shaped, with
the flankers forming the open legs of the Y and the tracker at the junction,
with the team leader directly behind him. The team leader remains about five
the tracker, and the flankers remain forward of the tracker and to the side as
much as terrain and vegetation will allow. (See diagram
the follow-up troops will be in file behind the team; however, 4 Battalion, The
Rhodesia Regiment, has developed a unique formation that seems to work well in
African bush. (See diagram
contact is imminent, troops can move to a skirmish line behind and to the flanks
of the tracking team. This allows the troops to move forward at once and leaves
the trackers a gap to fall back through. If you are short of men, the trackers
can maintain their place in the sweep line and reinforce the infantry (the
trackers seem to prefer this idea so they can get a few shots off as well).
have also seen an “off-set” formation used as well. On contact, the troops
swing out and up on the flanks until you have a complete sweep line and then all
move forward together. (See diagram 6.)
techniques for anti-tracking are as varied as your imagination. You may be the
one being tracked some day, so give some thought to covering your trail. Here
are some possibilities:
the same boots as the enemy, if
operating in his territory. If he
you could be in for some
animals or cattle to cover your
Move in the rain if possible.
streams and rivers, roads and
cover your spoor.
Walk on rocky or hard ground.
through villages to get lost in
(Note: If you are desperate
enough to try to
penetrate a village, do
carefully at night and only as a
up or bombshell and circle back
out your tracks with bushes,
hats, or neck
9. If dogs
are after you, try using CS or
tear gas powder
or pepper laced with
ammonia on your
10. If you can, booby trap and ambush
SCOUT DOG TEAMS
we come to an aspect of tracking that has been used extensively by NATO-style
armies in Europe and Asia:
If you have the use of scout dog teams, by all
means , employ them. They are there to support the ground
troops in locating the enemy and to provide silent warning. They may also be
used as listening and observation posts. Once you know you are going to use
dogs, have them assigned to the unit as far ahead of the mission as possible.
This gives the team and the dogs time to adjust to each other. The handler should
let each member of the patrol touch the dog to eliminate fears the men might
Scout dogs have
limitations which should be borne in mind. Dogs have acute senses of smell, good
hearing, and are attracted
quickly to movement. Dogs are subject to periodic retraining and are as
sensitive to the elements as humans.
The best position for the dog team is directly in front of the patrol. Wind
conditions may require that the team move to windward to take advantage of the
dog’s sense of smell. Some dogs can, depending on weather and wind, sense the
enemy 200 meters away.
The dog can
be used to locate sentries and determine the extent of positions and
emplacements and may assist the patrol leader in setting up his men without
being detected by the enemy.
following are some general rules
for dog teams:
If the handler is killed, leave the dog with him and report it to your
If the handler is a casualty, try to lure the dog away so you can treat
him. If you must evacuate one, send the other as well.
Treat the team as one of the unit. Support them and keep the handler
informed of all tactical moves.
Let the handler select the dog’s position in the line of march.
the handler’s advice in employing the team.
Do not expect the team to perform miracles and do not relax your
alertness because they are with you.
Do not feed or play with the dog.
the information in this article will not make
you an “ace” tracker, it will give you a better awareness of tracking and
the tactics employed by tracking teams and the Selous Scouts.
way to become a competent, reliable tracker is to use the method of the natives:
practice, practice, practice. It is a skill that can stand you in good stead on
your next operation, enhance your combat effectiveness, and perhaps save your
was among the skills that Capt. John Early, SOF contributing editor
for military affairs, learned in his 12 years with the U.S. Army and three years
with the Rhodesian air force and army. In the Army, Early spent 4½ years in
Vietnam as a Special Forces NCO and officer with the 5th and 10th SFGA. His
Rhodesian tour included service with the elite Selous Scouts.
The source for this article was from SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, July 1979, page 52.