October 22, 2020
I’m often asked how to age tracks. The tracks in the photo below were made by the same foot of the same person wearing the he same boots, however one was made 3 weeks prior to the photo, and the other was made 30 seconds prior.
A simple trick used to help age a track is to compare the subject track to those just made by the observer, or to tracks of a known age.
Tracks erode or decay over time causing sharp edges and steep slopes to soften. Tracks in different substrates will age differently, as will those exposed to different environmental / weather conditions. Find or make a fresh track, then return daily to observe how it changes with age. Tracks made in wet clay followed by a long stretch of dry weather may age/decay/erode very slowly, but will show other signs of aging such as cracking and litter accumulation. Tracks made in snow may age/decay/erode very quickly depending on photo period, ambient temperature, wind conditions, and the type/condition of the snow itself at the time the track was made.
You can also use environmental events evident in the track, or not evident in the track, to help age it. For example if you know it rained yesterday, and the tracks you see have evidence of being rained in, you can deduce that the tracks were made before it rained.
Tracks made by some animals will age differently than others. Hard footed and heavy animals like a moose for example can make tracks that will last for years because they are capable of leaving an impression in hard and erosion resistant substrates due to their weight and the hardness of their hooves. The tracks of a soft-footed animal of similar size, like a bear for example, are likely to age/decay/erode faster than those of a moose, in the majority of substrates. A light and soft-footed animal like a snowshoe hare may make tracks that age very quickly in many substrate types.
As you can see, as with most aspects of tracking, there are a lot of variables to consider when aging tracks, and the answers sought are often not just in what we can see on the ground, but in our awareness of the environment, our knowledge of local species and region, and in the breadth of experience we bring with us.
It takes some practice, and even so, some studies suggest that the best even a very good tracker can do with reliable consistency is to classify tracks into either fresh, or not fresh.