Coyote or Fox? P.S. It's super gross.

Teaching About Tracking

Fox tracks and coyote tracks are really hard to tell apart – especially in the snow! For our Fun Fact in this week’s podcast, naturalist Claire Dobie described how she helps kids determine the difference. Want to find out yourself? Well, I won’t leak the secret here, but ur-ine luck! Make a pee-line – I mean, a bee-line – to this week’s podcast. After my conversation with Jim DePompei, Claire fills us in. She’s our number one!

In All Seriousness…

Tracking is a great outdoor skill to teach, but also a great metaphor. As an outdoor educator, I loved teaching different track shapes. Scat – feces – can tell you a lot, too, like if it’s got fur in, the scat is from something that eats other animals. There’s a great Paul Rezendes book all about that art – how to read the natural area around you for its signs.

There’s a lot more to tracking, though. When I worked as an outdoor educator, I used a very broad definition of tracks – more than just prints and poop. To me, a track is anything that tells you what went before you. I remember one spot where our chaparral trail suddenly went through a cluster of willow trees – the only trees in that area that grew over our heads. Through some dialogue, I led my learners to discover that the willows were a kind of track, too – the water-loving willows were a sign that water ran collected along that part of the trail during the wet season.

Anything out of the ordinary can be a track. Start with learners’ everyday lives. A package on your doorstep? That’s a UPS driver track. A sour smell in front of the school? The cafeteria delivery truck just left.

Then you can move on to natural tracks. A large scar on a tree trunk? Some large animal put that there – look for signs of deer or vandalizing teenagers nearby. One particular spot where a lot of mushrooms are growing? Maybe something died there!

Another great place to start tracking activities are classic nature scavenger hunts. If you find a pine or cypress cone, look around – are there any trees nearby it might have come from? If not, then what is that cone – that track – telling you? How did that cone get there? You can start these hunts with a specific list (“something with 3 colors,” “a seed,” “3 feathers”). But your end goal is to get students to look for tracks you didn’t suggest – to look for “anything out of the ordinary.”

That’s the lesson of tracking: learning about what’s not there anymore by exploring what was left behind. It’s an incredible life skill, and one that demands the kind of novel environments that informal educators employ.

Find out more!

  • Rezendes, P. (1999). Tracking and the art of seeing: How to read animal tracks and sign (2nd ed). HarperCollins.
A coyote standing on a fallen log.
Did anyone smell a coyote?
Photo by Patrice Schoefolt via Pexels
A coyote standing on a fallen log.
Did anyone smell a coyote?
Photo by Patrice Schoefolt via Pexels


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