Get ready to follow that footprint

People love to share stories about the bear that visited their campsite late one night. They tell of waking up to hear a bear outside their tent going through their food and trash. After giving some frightful growls and tearing apart food bags with its claws, the bear wanders off.

However, the big question is: Was it really a bear? Or was it a raccoon? Could it have been a coyote or bobcat?

Let's find out.

Animals come in all shapes and sizes. So do their feet. While we easily recognize a human footprint, how readily can you recognize the footprint of various animals?

While spending a day or night in the forest, look around you. You are likely to find many different types of tracks. They may be in dirt or dust, in snow, or on muddy riverbanks. Depending on where you are, you might see deer, elk, raccoon, bear, or coyote tracks.

So how do you tell these animal prints apart?

Take a closer look at the tracks. Do you see pad and claw marks or hoof prints? Is the track small or large? Are the tracks close together or far apart? These are all clues to what type of animal made the tracks.

Bear tracks are large and, depending on the age of the animal, can be the size of your hand or larger. Bear tracks have five toe prints with claw marks above them.

But was the track made by a black bear or grizzly bear?

Black bears have shorter claws that appear as dots close above the toe prints. The toe prints of a black bear are spread out a little.

Grizzly bears have claws almost four inches long. Their claw marks are farther away from the toe print than a black bear's, and sometimes you can see the outline of the long claw. Grizzly bear toe prints are very close together.

Deer and elk have hoof prints that are broken into halves.

Deer tracks are between two and three inches long. Their tracks are narrow and pointed at the top.

Elk tracks are larger, about three to four inches long. They're wider and rounder than deer tracks.

However, deer and elk aren't the only animals that make hoofed tracks.

Bighorn sheep have hooves that are straight and blocklike. Their tracks aren't as pointed as those of deer and elk, and they're shorter, about two inches long.

A mountain lion's tracks look much like a house cat's, only larger. They can be three to four inches wide. A mountain lion has a padded foot with four toe prints.

Bobcat tracks resemble a mountain lion's but are smaller, less than two inches wide.

It's rare to see claw marks in the tracks of a mountain lion or a bobcat because cats retract their claws when walking.

Coyote tracks are a bit larger than bobcat tracks, about two to three inches wide.

But you can tell a bobcat print from a coyote's by looking at the padded part of the print. The top of a bobcat's footprint pad dips down, while a coyote's points upward. Coyote prints may also have toenail impressions.

Raccoon tracks are easy to identify. They look like small handprints, with five long "fingers" at the top. Looking very closely, you may see a tiny claw print at the top of each finger.

Raccoon tracks come in pairs. As raccoons walk, they leave right and left prints next to each other.

So if you really want to know if that was a bear outside the tent, check the tracks once the animal leaves. Small fingerlike tracks will let you know that the late-night food searcher may have been a raccoon looking for a snack.

If the tracks are larger than your hand and have five toe pads and claw marks, maybe it's time to store your food up high in a tree – so bears can't reach it.

Tricky Tracks

Can you guess which animals these paw prints belong to? Take a guess and check your answers below.

Track prints

1. Raccoon
2. Deer
3. Bobcat
4. Coyote
5. Grizzly bear
6. Bighorn sheep
7. Mountain lion
8. Black bear
9. Elk


1. C; 2. B; 3. G; 4. E; 5. A; 6. F; 7. D; 8. H; 9. I

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