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Proper Spoor Identification When Hunting Big Game

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Proper spoor identification is key in an active hunting strategy

Proper spoor identification is key in an active hunting strategy

Part of being a successful hunter is being a successful tracker, and tracking is not a skill that’s learned overnight. In some types of hunting, such as duck hunting, tracking is really not necessary; you’ll post up somewhere in a marsh and wait for ducks to take flight, or you’ll call them with a specially made duck call. In some types of deer hunting, you can lure the animal with a salt block, or even use a tree stand and wait by an active game trail until that trophy buck comes ambling by.

Having said all of that, keep in mind that simply waiting for an animal to come to you via bait or calls is a passive hunting strategy. Some big game such as bears, moose, elk, caribou and other such game will never come to you; you have to find them. What you need in this case is an active hunting strategy – you need to find where the game is, rather than having the game find you. Overwhelmingly, the method used by successful hunters is proper spoor identification.


No, spoor is not an acronym; spoor simply means any evidence of the prior presence of a game animal to include tracks, scat and environmental clues to its presence. Let’s look at each aspect of spoor independently:

1.      Tracks

When most people think of finding animals, they think of tracking, which is the science of discerning characteristics about the animal by observing its tracks. Tracking, however, is only one aspect of spoor identification, albeit an important one. By looking at an animal’s tracks, you can discern:

  • The direction of travel of the animal.
  • The type of animal that left the tracks.
  • The approximate size and weight of the animal.
  • The number of animals present in the group, if there is more than one set of tracks.
  • How long ago the animal left the tracks.

All of the above might seem obvious, but for the beginner, it’s not an easy thing to determine, say, how old the tracks are. That skill takes lots of experience. More on that later…

2.      Scat

Scat, or animal feces, tells much about the animal. Realize that animals must defecate as part of their digestive process, and thus leave abundant evidence of their presence. By looking and carefully observing animal scat, you can discern:

  • The type of animal that left the scat.
  • How long ago the animal left the scat.

Again, it takes experience to identify the above characteristics.

3.      Environmental Clues

Perhaps the most underutilized aspect of spoor identification for novice hunters, experts are keen on the environmental clues that animals leave behind, such as:

  • Broken tree branches that signal where an animal went off a trail.
  • Evidence of an animal’s presence, such as scraped off tree bark or claw marks.
  • Evidence of an animal’s den or bedding area.

Experienced hunters use these clues as well as tracks and scat to be able to arrive at a complete picture of where the animal they are looking for happens to be.


If all of these skills seem elusive to you, or you think that these skills are reserved for only the keenest of African Safari hunters, you’re wrong; you can easily learn them by creating a spoor grid yourself. The easiest way to do this is to camp in the area which you plan to hunt in; spend a few days just taking in the area, and while you’re there, construct a spoor grid.

Spoor grids are the way you learn how to identify the age of spoor. Start by choosing an area by your campsite that will be undisturbed by other campers, a place that matches the setting in which you will hunt. Using a sharp stick or even construction tape, create a grid on the ground. Think of it as a rectangle that is broken up in to squares; try one row, and four columns first. When you are done with the grid, it should look like four squares side by side, of approximately 24” x 24”.

On day one of your camping, go ahead and step in the first square, leaving a track, an imprint of your own shoe. Then, take some branches that are growing in the area, break them, and put them in the grid. Finally, defecate in the first square, or have someone else do it. Make sure that the feces, branch, and tracks don’t touch each other. Repeat this process for each of the four days, being careful to not disturb the previous day’s grid.

At the end of day four, you will now have four days of tracks, four days of feces, and four days of broken branches. So what does this bizarre ritual accomplish? Well for starters, you get to see what four-day-old, three-day-old, two-day-old, and fresh tracks look like! Even though they are your shoes, you can still see how the imprint ages; by seeing these signs, you will get an idea of what an older animal track looks like. Same thing for the feces; you will clearly see the difference between fresh feces and four-day-old feces. Finally, you will see how broken branches age, and how you can immediately tell the difference in age by having the samples right beside each other.

Spoor grids are used by special forces units around the world to learn how to identify spoor in a controlled environment, and they give the novice tracker a method of comparing the age of spoor. Using this method, you can teach yourself to be proficient at identifying spoor very quickly, and very accurately.

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