Tracking a person through the wilderness is a difficult task. The person you’re looking for may be young or suffering from dementia or some other mental handicap. They may not be thinking clearly due to fear, injury, panic, exhaustion or a combination of those and other factors. Here’s a detailed guide on how to help bring that person back to safety. (h/t to SurvivoPedia.com)
The first thing you need to do before you even head out is gather information. Obtain a topographical map of the area and find out who the quarry is. Obtain photos of them and distribute it, making sure every member of your tracking party knows what they look like. Figure out when and where they were last seen, what they were wearing, what kind of gear they had on them, and what their planned route (if any) was. Also be sure to ask how fast they can move and if they are injured or have some kind of medical condition you should be aware of.
Next, find out their age and if they have any experience with the outdoors. A child or a teenager will behave differently when they’re lost compared to an expert outdoorsman.
Lastly, before you even begin venturing out, search any items the quarry left behind for any indication of their location. Perhaps they have a vehicle or a tent with a detailed map of their route. Ask their friends, family and the people who were with them last if they had left a trip plan or any other indication of where they’re heading.
Experienced trackers used the word “sign” to mean any physical evidence of disturbance to the environment left behind by the person or animal they’re tracking. Detecting a sign is called sign cutting. For beginners like yourself, this’ll mean finding footprints left behind in the dirt. For more experienced trackers, they’ll be looking for rocks that have been moved, depressions in the soil, fibers of clothing left behind and any other changes in the environment. To start you off on your search, look for sign at the person’s last known location.
A tracking stick is an instrument you use to figure out which direction the quarry may be heading. Any hiking staff or trekking pole can be used. Once you’ve encountered their tracks, determine the length of their stride by setting two rubber bands on your tracking stick. Lay the stick along the direction of travel to determine where the next sign should be. If you find another sign, use the rubber bands to check if the print looks similar to the previous one. If they match, then continue in that direction.
Don’t just fixate on visual signs. Your other senses are also vital. Listen for a whistle or any call outs, sniff the air for the smell of a campfire or any other indicator. Not focusing too much on visual signs may help speed up your search.
Whistles are great because they’re loud and they can signal to your quarry that you are close by. This is especially true both for small children and for expert outdoorsmen who have built survival shelters to block out the harsh elements, both of them will be difficult to spot. Whistling will let them know that you’re in the area and will help you conserve your voice.
To properly use your whistles, learn a few codes for them. One three-second whistle blast means “Where are you?” Two three-second blasts mean “Come here” and three three-second blasts mean “Help.” You and other members of your party need to blast your whistles often. It’ll help you locate each other even if you’re not within visual range. (Related: Survival is about more than gear and food storage: Your team and mindset are crucial.)
If the person you’re tracking has experience with the outdoors, they may create signals or leave notes of their presence, trail signs or blazes. A blaze is made by removing a bit of bark from a tree. They may also put a sign up by using whatever personal effects they have on them to mark that they had just passed by an area, such as using brightly colored flagging tape or retroreflective tape. Consider doing this as well if you ever get lost in a forest in the future. Leaving sign everywhere by breaking twigs in the direction you’re traveling or lining up sticks or rocks on the ground to make an arrow sign will help search parties find you easily.
When you’re out tracking, be sure to not do it alone if possible. A good, well coordinated team of trackers, even ones with little to no experience, will work better than a lone wolf looking for one lost soul in a vast wilderness. If you follow these basic tips, your search may finish a lot quicker.