Instructor Corps Pro Tip:
Of all the casualties of the smartphone age, three of the most important, and the most tragic, losses are awareness, attention, and focus. These three qualities, once possessed by the majority of society, have been absolutely decimated by the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) world of sound bites, microblogs, and minute-long videos we live in today. These same three qualities, incidentally, are among the three most important ones to cultivate as a tracker.
Whether tracking humans or animals, being able to tune out the distractions and noise inside your head and direct your undivided attention to the task at hand is paramount. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Even trackers (most of them) have iPhones. So how do the pros shut off the distractions, and allow their minds to pick up on the minute details left behind by man and beast?
They practice mindful meditation. No, seriously. They center themselves in their environment and allow the data from their senses to flow through their minds. By focusing on what they can see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste, they can flip the switch of the constantly-racing mind that’s been trained to jump from thought to thought in an instant. If you’ve ever watched a professional tracker do his thing, he’ll usually ask for a few minutes to himself before he begins his work – this is what he’s doing. And you can train your brain to do it, too. Here’s how.
Go out into the woods. Pick a spot. Doesn’t really matter where. More isolated is better, so step off the road or trail a dozen yards or so where you won’t be disturbed. Just don’t get lost. Find a place to sit. Bring a foam pad or something else to sit on if you like. If your butt is cold and wet you’ll have a harder time staying focused. Bring a pad of paper and a pen or pencil. And most importantly, turn off your phone, or at least put it on airplane mode. We typically send students out for fifteen or twenty minutes to complete this exercise. It needs to be at least that long, and you can stay out longer if you like. But I can tell you from experience that if you’re used to the constant high-level stimulation of modern life, fifteen minutes is going to feel like an eternity. Your task? Write down everything that you see. Start with the topography of the land around you. Are you on flat ground or a slope? Down in a bowl or on top of a hill? Write down what kind of trees and plants are around you. Sketch them if you have time. Make notes of the weather. Is it cold, hot, or pleasant? Sunny or overcast? Is there a breeze? What direction is it coming from? Write down any wildlife you see, and make notes on what evidence they leave behind. Write about what your senses are telling you. What do you smell on the wind? Do you hear anything moving around? What’s the texture of the objects around you, and how do they feel? Do you see anything interesting like weird trees or rocks, or any valuable resources like firewood, tinder, or wild edibles? Write it all down. And if you’re thorough and take your time, you won’t get anywhere close to finished in fifteen or twenty minutes.
The idea is to force yourself to notice details. The woods are rich. There’s a LOT going on out there at any given moment. But your modern brain probably isn’t tuned to see it. Writing things down is critically important, because otherwise your overstimulated mind is going to gloss over it all and say “Yep. Nice patch of woods. What’s next?” Once you start to notice the details, your mind starts to tune itself to see more of them. And the more you do this, the more natural it becomes – to the point that all you’ll need to do is “take five,” center yourself in your environment, and you’re ready to go.
And this exercise has practical applications far beyond tracking. I say this a lot, but situational awareness is one of the most underrated skills in the outdoors. Being mindful and aware of your surroundings is valuable for identifying resources, avoiding getting lost, and beyond that, just cultivating a greater and richer enjoyment of the wild. No matter what your chosen outdoor activity, this will help increase your enjoyment and your safety as well.
If you haven’t heard already, we’re hosting Tracking Essentials on Saturday, December 1st from 9am-7pm! And as it happens, we’ll be doing a more in-depth version of this exercise as a group, as well as a lot of other cool hands-on techniques that will build your tracking skills. Interested? Reserve your seat now at https://www.sarcraft.com/course-registration/tracking-essentials!