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All visual tracking is dependent upon cutting and interpreting sign (or, as some refer to it, reading spoor). Despite what the movies want you to think, that interpretation is not necessarily an analysis of someone (or something)’s footprint. It doesn’t even have to be outdoors. Take for instance the tracker that notices an otherwise normal-looking individual who abruptly alters his path in order to pass in front of a storefront window, then crosses the street and does it again. That tracker is cueing in on a change in the environment, a change in the most common natural state: in other words, the tracker is cutting sign.

That said, ground spoor is the foundation of visual tracking, which means the ability to interpret ground sign is a crucial skill for those who are hunting humans – and remember, this holds true whether you’re running down a fleeing suspect or trying to find an Alzheimer’s patient after a “Silver Alert.”

In simplest terms, sign interpretation (“reading spoor”) is the process of identifying and interpreting marks and impressions left on the ground and changes to the natural state in order to recreate the actions that took place in a certain area. There are three main reasons a tracker must correctly interpret sign. They are:

• To identify behavioral trends or mental/physical disposition of the person/prey.

• To gain essential elements of information relevant to the tracking task.

• To anticipate direction/destination of movement.

• To anticipate possible future actions during movement and potential risk.

Spoor left in strange places - like tracks in the dust atop a parked trailer - answer some questions and answer others.

Someone climbed up on this trailer, which was slick metal overlaid with dust – clearly not someone infirm or unable to climb. But why climb it? (From an actual criminal case for which Greenside provided consultation.)

Basically, the process of interpretation organically provides us a checklist that allows us to determine if we are on the correct track and so whether it is worth our time and effort to follow. Lots can be learned about a person from what they left behind, whether you call it “reading spoor” or “cutting sign”, but most of it can be loosely grouped into six areas.

Spoor: Six things it can tell us about humans

  1. Who – approximate height, weight, profile, ID, footwear type or similar identifiers
  2. What – action, activity, possible intention
  3. When – date, time, estimated duration or time lapse
  4. Where – location, estimated destination or goal
  5. Why – intent, disposition, mindset
  6. How – method of movement

As funny as this scene is, there’s some truth to it:


We’d love to share more on the subject with you (and will, in the coming weeks). Visit us here again, join our discussion group on Facebook, or take one of our classes:

Situational Awareness Training

Tactical Tracking

One of our other courses.