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Wolfpack 104 –Jungle Man Art vs. GI Science


Is tracking an Art, or a Science?

2012-01-a-xlarge web-1000Hubble Space Telescope image: science, art, or both?

Some people call tracking an art.  Others call it a science.  This is a case where the opinion actually matters.

Many professions have these discussions.  Military Science or Martial Arts, is the art of war.  Last week, I was privy to a conversation that included about a dozen serious military thinkers, when a retired veteran Colonel posed the question, “What is war?”

They arrived with many thoughts.  I remained quiet because I do not know a suitable definition that withstands simple challenges.  Despite all of my time with art and war, I cannot define art, war, or the art of war.

IMGL9651-1000Practically none of our billions of dollars worth of counter-IED gear will work in this environment. Approximately 80% of IEDs found in Afghanistan are found by the human eye. (Image from Northern Thailand.)

The American military does not like art. It likes science.  It likes to reduce matters to algorithms and computer simulations to predict battles.

The Pentagon wants to factor people out, not in, with a clear line of march toward the kriegs-utopia of a predictable war, where we fight gadget vs. gadget, or gadget vs. man, but not man against man.

A reality of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it often remained man vs. man.

suntrackyouIMGL4582-1000Moose track at Norwegian Army tracking training. In Norway, the sun hangs low in summertime, and so every hour is a golden hour. Notice the direction of the shadows. (STY.)

Back down on Earth, the morning sun is often perfect for shadows.  In most cases, the tracker keeps the sign between his eyes and the sun.  He sometimes is looking ahead, or even back over his shoulder to keep a good angle.  The rule is STY: Sun. Track. You.

The angle is crucial.  Sign that is nearly invisible up close might be obvious a hundred meters distant, or the inverse.

You can experiment by making a footprint, and walking a spiral around it from various distances.  At some angles the print can be obvious.  As the Sun-Track-You angle changes, even from the same distance, the sign can disappear.

But if you are on the equator at noon, the sun is straight overhead.   The shadow cast by a pole twenty feet tall might be measured in inches.

A telephone pole at noon on the equator casts almost no shadow.  If you are not on the equator, you will never see a shadowless fencepost on a sunny day.  A person who does not believe this may go insane trying to disprove it.

The closer you are to the equator, the worse the light becomes as it heads toward noon.  There will be little shadow in a footprint, and it will be tough to see unless the sign is large, such as in mud.  This does not make tracking impossible, but can slow it considerably, and the tracker will miss evidence.

Cornelius Nash, Operations Director at the renowned Scott Donelan Tracking School, points out that the tracker should always be aware of the sun’s location, and to maintain STY at all possible times, and not to accept “good enough” simply because you can see the track.

STY is a golden rule for spotting evidence.  Terrain and other realities often defy obedience.  Combat has its own golden rules that might clash.  The veteran must use judgment on which golden rules shine the brightest at the moment.


As a photographer, it has become apparent that sunlight hours best for artistic photography tend to be best for tracking.  All times are possible, but some times are golden.

Wearing my photographer hat, I have noticed that the farther away from the equator, the more golden hours there are per day. Unless of course it is winter and the days are shorter.  Opposite for southern hemisphere.  (As a writer, distance from the equator makes no difference.)

Places that are challenging for artistic photography, such as splotchy light on jungle floor, are more challenging for tracking.  The glaring sun, midday on the equator, is harsh for artistic photography, and tracking.  The summer in Norway brings great sun angles all day unless there is diffusion from the clouds.

Image-a-1000Experiment: Crumple paper and change light-paper-eye angle. This image was made yesterday using afternoon daylight.

Ground sign tends to be naturally camouflaged.  White on white.  Orange on orange.  Black on black.  We need contrast, making shadows a tracker’s friend.

If you are in a city and cannot experiment easily with tracks, just crumple a sheet paper.  Now flatten the sheet with your hands.  Invest 30 seconds and make it as smooth as you can.

Take it outside in the sun, or use a light indoors, and change the angle of the paper to the light.

The flashlight on my desk makes a nice sun-simulator.  By shining the flashlight from a low “morning” angle, the crumples are obvious.  As the flashlight moves in an arc to “noon,” directly over the paper, many creases disappear.

The flashlight then arcs off the other side for “sunset,” making dramatic changes in the shadows.

Image2-a-1000Same paper, same sun. This image was taken about one minute after the first, but the angle is altered.

Nothing is mystical here.  This is physics meeting eyeball.  A first-grader can learn this reality of tracking in the time it takes to peel and eat an orange.

Farther from the equator, time of day matters less.

At noon this December day in Chiang Mai, Thailand (only N18º), I walked outside my office to check the shadows.   Just now the shadows are about as long as the objects are tall.

photo-1000Today at 1300hrs local, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Here, at noon on easy tracking ground, footprints pop out.  Even a passing glance is enough to get on track.  Afghanistan is far more north, making it easier still.  This will vary with season due to inclination

To my mind, I see no real difference between art and science. Yet it is doubtful that art theories will be admissible as courtroom evidence.

Cornelius Nash will call tracking a science.  He insists that anyone with good vision, an open mind, and willingness to learn, can be taught effective tracking for law enforcement or combat.

Cornelius makes the point that natives often take tracking into the realm of art, but they lack the scientific thought processes — or at least in a language that we understand – to convey what they are seeing and doing.

Some people can learn to ride a bike in one day.  They do not need a professional school.  After a couple of weeks, they can ride on smooth ground with little difficulty.  They are not ready for a mountain bike race, but they are travelling under their own power.  A kid can read a dozen books about bike riding, but unless she is a two-wheeled savant, truly riding involves truly falling, and many hours on the saddle.

Tracking is similar.  Professional teachers accelerate learning. After one week of training by professionals, nearly everyone will say, “I am already tracking.  I can do this.”

As with martial arts, there are many styles of tracking.  Books and courses will use vastly different techniques.  Which is best?  This is a fair question, like asking, “Which is the best type of dog?”  The answer can only be “that depends.”


In closing, local trackers can be helpful.  Yet nothing can replace well-trained law enforcement who must reduce evidence to scientific explanation that will withstand courtroom scrutiny.

Likewise, nobody can replace globally deployable combat trackers, who can survive in wildly different climates and ecosystems, and who can bring tracking into the realm of military science, and art.

Stay tuned for more on Wolfpacks.

For more on combat tracking, see Pencari 

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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