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“There is nothing that sharpens a man’s senses so acutely as to know that bitter and determined enemies are in pursuit of him night and day.” — Frederick Russell Burnham, Scouting on Two Continents
Tracking is more than an outdated science seen in movies or documentaries about Native Americans. Its applications span centuries; tracking was employed in the tactical arena from the American Indian Wars to Vietnam, Rhodesia, and Afghanistan, to name a few. It continues to prove its value on the battlefield and in search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, even compared to more sophisticated methods involving high-cost assets, such as helicopters, drones, and working dogs.
Man-tracking can be used to great effect in preventing criminal and terrorist actions in an urban environment. We tend to think of tracking in the context of spotting broken twigs and muddy footprints in the woods, but tracking isn’t only useful in rural areas or off-grid scenarios. Taking advantage of in-depth observation and collection of clues, a tracker will prevail in the most difficult terrain: the concrete jungle.
My personal “dirt time,” for example, requires nothing more than a handful of minutes spent in the city where I currently live, constantly looking for tracks and focusing myself on their interpretation. With a population of more than 2 million, I get plenty of practice daily.
The essential starting point for both rural and urban tracking is Locard’s exchange principle: “Every contact leaves a trace.” In other words, any person who moves through an environment will leave behind some evidence — however small and easily overlooked — of those movements. The primary differences lie in the nature of the scenario.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, human trafficking affects between 7,000 and 9,000 victims annually, with 49,000 cases reported in the last 10 years in the United States alone. Widen the scope to kidnapping and the numbers skyrocket to thousands reported daily. Roughly 800,000 children go missing each year in the U.S. Then, there’s bounty hunting and locating fugitives, another enterprise where tracking skills are invaluable. All of these situations are prime examples of scenarios where skilled urban trackers can save lives.
According to Fernando Moreira’s Visual Mantracking for Law Enforcement and Search & Rescue, urban tracking is a “fast-paced man-tracking effort in urban environments for military, law enforcement, and SAR teams.”
Even if observing and following clues in this kind of context represents a real challenge, the experienced tracker knows many of the tracking techniques used in rural environments can also be used in urban environments. Still, infrastructure differences — such as concrete and asphalt roads as opposed to dirt trails — “provide an entirely new medium upon which signs must be identified,” according to John Hurth. In his book, Combat Tracking Guide, Hurth classifies urban areas in four main categories: villages (population of 3,000 or fewer), large cities (what we can easily identify as “megalopolis”), towns (not part of a bigger urban complex), and strip areas (areas of connection between major urban locales).
Considering the peculiarities of each category, it soon becomes obvious it’s essential for a tracker to do a careful follow-up on all leads in urban settings. This means taking advantage of every detail they can collect through intelligence as well as through an accurate observation of the entire scenario, even if these details are continuously changing due to the characteristics of the heavily populated environment they’re operating in.
Tracking in an urban setting has more in common with rural tracking than most people might think. It’s all based on the proper observation not only of footprints, but also of every kind of sign left by the quarry. Locard’s principle is perfectly relevant in an urban context. A tracker can run across footprints as well as tire tread evidence, or any number of other indicators of people who “engage in other activities that leave multiple residues to capture footprints,” writes Moreira. This can include leaving behind trash from food or drinks, but also spitting, bleeding, or losing or deliberately jettisoning personal items.
All of these elements indicate the passage of a person and provide valuable clues, as do the flagging of leaves on a playground, the partial tracks left on the sand inside a building site, the geometry of a shoe pattern captured by the sap of a green leaf, the scratches on the moss that partially cover an abandoned structure, the transfer of water/mud/snow, and so on. While signs left by feet are often the most plentiful, don’t forget all the disturbances made by hands and the upper body. Last but not least are tire treads, which can actually reveal more detail than most imagine.
For instance, tire tread evidence played a key role in solving the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing case. FBI Special Agent William J. Bodziak gathered and studied evidence left by the truck McVeigh and Nichols used to transport the bomb “to determine the axle belonged to a specific truck that had been rented to an individual who listed his name on the rental agreement as Robert Kling,” as described in the book Tire Tread And Tire Track Evidence. Kling was the same name used by McVeigh to register in a nearby motel. Later, Bodziak made track-width measurements of the vehicle, adding additional evidence to the case.
Recognizing, following, and interpreting all these clues is imperative in an urban scenario. The tracker should facilitate his own research by looking for so-called “track traps,” areas where tracks/signs are most likely to be found.
Hurth compiled a good list of urban “track traps,” which include the following:
My tracking mentor, David Michael Hull, wrote in his book Man Tracking in Law Enforcement, “Vision is the most important sense used in the art of tracking. Although most of us can see, we differ in our perception of what we’re looking at. This is because of the acuteness of our physical eye, our ability to focus on the task at hand, and the perceptions we have from previous experiences and training.”
Being able to locate the right tracks to follow is one of the biggest challenges of a tracker in an urban scenario, due to constant changes of medium — asphalt, concrete, mud, metal, puddles, grass in a garden, and so on. The more obvious thing to do, and a good starting point, is to proceed by “elimination tracking” — identifying areas where people have not passed. As Hull explains, “The lack of evidence is evidence in itself.”
This convenient method, mostly used in search and rescue, can be successfully applied in certain areas of an urban environment.
Once the correct tracks are identified, the tracker should pass all the information gained to the rest of the team in order to compare the evidence found with any data already archived, like measurements, photos (if available), length of stride and straddle, and so on.
A skilled tracker is perfectly aware that following a quarry into the often nonexistent boundaries of an urban scenario includes knowledge of the principles of stalking as well as counter-tracking. A known case of this is the manhunt of former SAS trainee turned murderer Barry Prudom (aka “The Phantom of the Forest”) in England in the summer of 1982. Prudom was able to evade the police for 17 days despite a widespread manhunt. Eventually, he was successfully tracked down by Eddie McGee, a former paratrooper and SAS operator.
The first, and most obvious, approach to an escape and evasion situation inside a city is to move rapidly without being seen or detected. This is much more relevant in an urban context than a rural one. Counter-tracking procedures can be applied as well, if the quarry is conscious of being followed. However, the application of countering methods consumes precious time in all cases and with most types of trackable evidence.
Understanding the details a tracker must follow — especially if deception is practiced — and also interpreting them properly to predict subsequent actions and movements can become exceedingly difficult. For this reason, the tracker should follow the golden rules of stalking — “take risks early” (per Bob Carss in The Complete Guide to Tracking) and, perhaps more importantly, “put himself into the mind of the quarry” (per David Scott Donelan in Tactical Tracking Operations: The Essential Guide For Military And Police Trackers). The latter requires effective post-analysis of a found track not just to figure out the quarry's immediate movement pattern, but also to estimate their possible long-term intentions.
Above: “track” doesn't have to be a footprint or impression. Everything from fluid spills to discarded trash and fibers can inform a tracker about their quarry's movement or intentions.
Basically, counter-tracking techniques are used “primarily to slow down, confuse, lose, or eliminate a tracker. Culture, religious affiliation, and the amount and quality of training the quarry received will determine how he reacts to the pressure of being hunted,” according to Hurth. If he’s aware of being followed, the quarry may adopt extreme measures to increase the distance between him and the tracker. In an urban context, this generally means walking in packed streets to avoid possible “track traps” — favoring dry asphalt or concrete, changing direction very often, and paying extreme caution not to lose anything, even hair, mucus, or blood that could be easily traced to the quarry.
Separate from counter-tracking, anti-tracking methods (minimizing the signs of passage) can be very effective in a metropolitan area due to the nature of big cities and the chaos generated by an unending mob of residents and tourists. In a rural environment, the “speed and distance” technique would immediately produce more noise and more signs on the ground, due to the kinetics of movement. However, in a populated area, these disadvantages are greatly mitigated, making urban tracking extremely strenuous for any team following an experienced quarry.
Just as in rural areas, once the trackers have observed a footprint pattern and wear that clearly leads to the quarry, they focus on preserving further tracks, avoiding contamination from the rest of the team. Wear is the gradual erosion of the shoe’s outsole material as it contacts the ground.
According to agent Bodziak’s writing in the Journal of Forensic Identification, “Erosion of the shoe’s outsole is influenced by many factors, including but not limited to the way a person stands and walks, the amount of time the shoe has been worn, the surfaces over which the shoe passed, the type of soling material, the weight and flexibility of the wearer, and whether the footwear is used for jogging, walking, tennis, or just everyday usage.
In other words, the particular wear makes any shoe unique and represents sort of an identification of the quarry. This is what happened in the O.J. Simpson case. The New York Times reported “an expert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified today at O.J. Simpson’s trial that the person who left a trail of bloody shoe prints along the walkway in front of Nicole Brown Simpson’s home last June wore size 12 shoes, the same size worn by Mr. Simpson.” The witness, Bodziak, traced down the model of the shoes that left the prints to two factories in eastern Italy, the NYT reported.
Thanks to the FBI Footprints Database, a tracker can send photos of a single track taken from different perspectives to the federal law enforcement agency and find out if the pattern of the found track can be matched to a suspect based upon the wear patterns of the footwear.
According to Dave Brewer’s and Wes Hoekwater’s writing in the FLETC Journal, “Footprints are much like latent fingerprints in that no two wear patterns are the same. Additionally, footprints can show many things to include the speed of the individual leaving the scene.”
Tracking has always been, and will likely always be, at the intersection of science and art. It’s an indispensable skill for both professional teams and prepared individuals alike who want the ability to locate and identify potential signs of human predators in their vicinity. The urban and suburban environment adds additional challenges for the tracker and need to be considered carefully, especially when involved in a real-time pursuit of determined adversaries. But the task is far from impossible and, with proper education and the right resources, urban tracking allows citizens to be more aware of the human terrain around their homes. For military, law enforcement, or rescue teams, these same skills can take much of the guesswork out of finding those who can’t or don’t want to be found.
Kyt Walken is a European-based instructor for the U.S.-based Hull’s Tracking School. She has been an outdoor enthusiast and tracking worshipper since childhood.
She attended her first Man Tracking class with the Scott Donelan Tracking School’s European Division in 2015. In June 2017, she took part in the Tactical Acuity C-IED Class held by Hull’s Tracking School. She now teaches her own basic and advanced tracking classes all over her home country of Italy.
She leads classes around Europe, collaborates with a forensic lab located in Rome, is practiced in the South African tracking method of spooring, and an author and podcast host, spreading awareness about the benefits of tracking and the importance of wildlife and environmental conservation.