Snow Tracks

Black Bear Cubs
A wide and even downhill trough in the snow is the mark of a playful otter at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois and Missouri. Watch otters slide in this Nat Geo video. (Photo: USFWS Midwest)

Who goes there?

Winter is a great time to find out.

Even if an animal stays out of sight, you can find clear signs of its presence by its tracks and imprints in the snow.

Mount Rushmore
A youngster kneels to get a close look at animal tracks in the snow at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, a national wildlife refuge in North Dakota. (Photo: Marsha Samson)

Snow prints may reveal clues to an animal’s size, diet, gait and habits. Some prints even tell stories of resourcefulness and struggle.
If you’re hunting, reading animal tracks can mean the difference between finding your quarry and leaving empty-handed. If you’re simply enjoying nature, interpreting snow tracks can be a source of wonder and fun.

Holt Collier
Snow angel, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota. (Photo: Lee Kensinger/USFWS)

Why did a large-winged bird leave such a deep impression in the snow at Tamarac Refuge?
Did a hawk or other raptor swoop down to seize a mouse or rabbit? Hard to say. But the imprint left behind offers a magical glimpse of the feathered creature’s size, form and power.

Black Bear
Muskrat calling card, Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming. (Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS)

Talk about a distinctive track. No ski made that furrow in the snow, especially not one framed by alternating paw prints. The telltale tail dragging helps identify the track of a muskrat in fresh snow at Seedskadee Refuge.  

Tracking has its own language. Here are some common terms used to describe wildlife tracks, from the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

  • Trail: a path or the series of track patterns
  • Straddle: the total width of the trail, all tracks included
  • Register: when a back foot lands in the print of a front foot
  • Dragline: a print left by a foot or tail dragging over the surface

Pick up wildlife sleuthing tips from these animal tracking cards from Princeton University.

Tensas River Refuge Hunter
A nice find for a wildlife tracker: the track (left) and print (upper right) of a bobcat at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana. (Photos: Bobcat track and print: Steve Gifford; bobcat in snow: USFWS)

Bobcats are secretive animals and are rarely seen, but you might just get lucky enough to spot their tracks. Note the paw print has a rounded appearance and there is no claw imprint. Claw imprints are left by dogs and their wilder cousins (coyotes, wolves, foxes), not by cats.

Want more help in identifying animal tracks? Some of the best free online resources come from state fish and game departments.

Many of these guides are useful outside their state of origin. This guide to tracks of fur-bearing animals from South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is a good example.

Panther Swamp
Snowshoe hare tracks at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Vermont. (Photo: Ken Sturm/USFWS)

Two large flat prints, parallel with one another, point to the top. A smaller, close-set pair follow.  What hopped by? A snowshoe hare darted across the snow at Missisquoi Refuge. The big prints are the hind feet, four to five times the size of the front. The double prints of the front feet show that the animal stopped and rested here before continuing on its way.

Hares are among animals known as “gallopers.” They plant their front paws, then bring their hind legs up beyond their front. Then they do it all over again.

More about the snowshoe hare’s gait.

Mathews Brake
Even one of nature’s slyest creatures can’t hide its tracks at Mississquoi Refuge in Vermont. (Photos: Weasel tracks: Ken Sturm/USFWS; weasel and baby: Wayne Watson/USFWS)

Weasels earn their “sneaky” reputation by using their long, slender bodies to follow prey into spaces too small for other predators.
Weasels and minks move across the snowy landscape by leaping or bounding. Look for tight groups of prints, in which the front pair falls directly behind the back.

Mississippi Delta Scenes
Human footprints and wildlife tracks converge at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (Photo: Greg Weiler/USFWS)

If the bird left its mark first, who could blame a visitor for wanting to investigate this beauty of a wildlife snow print left behind at Arctic Refuge? Did the bird drop down after seeing or hearing movement beneath the snow? Did it catch its prey? How could you tell?
Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers some useful tools to help you interpret such scenes.  

Mississippi Delta Scenes
Two views of coyote tracks at McNary National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state. (Photo: Jaynee Levy/USFWS)

If you look closely, you can make out the claw marks — characteristic of tracks left by animals in the dog family. Distinguishing coyote tracks from dog tracks can be tricky. One clue: Consider the animal’s line of movement across the landscape. Dogs tend to zigzag in play. Coyotes are all business; they are much more likely to take a short and straight route. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources offers these tips on telling coyote tracks from dog tracks and cat tracks.

Mississippi Delta Scenes
At left, a black bear’s paw print appears clearly in mud at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia. At right, the track of a greater sage-grouse shows in wet earth at Seedskadee Refuge in Wyoming. (Photos: Bear print: Ken Sturm/USFWS; sage-grouse track: Tom Koerner/USFWS)

What about tracking during warmer weather?  Damp areas are great “traps” for tracks. Look in sand or mud wet enough to hold animal prints.

Louisiana Black Bear
Sea turtle tracks make their hard-to-miss way to the ocean at Cape Island at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. (Photo: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS)

Tidal beaches offer lots of opportunities for spotting wildlife prints. At Cape Romain Refuge, turtle tracks in the sand look almost as if they were made by a wide-bodied truck.
Happy track hunting, wherever you are.
Snow prints Flickr photo album

Compiled by, February 1, 2017