How To Tell Which Way Elk Tracks Are Going? A Beginner’s Guide

Tracking elk in the wilderness can be an exciting adventure, but it’s not always easy to tell which direction they are traveling just by looking at their tracks. As a beginner tracker, learning how to determine the direction of elk tracks takes patience and practice. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover all the tips and techniques you need to hone your skills and become an expert at tracking elk!

Understanding Elk Behavior

Before hitting the trail it’s important to understand elk behavior so you can better predict and interpret their movements. Here are some key facts

  • Elk are grazing animals that prefer open meadows and clearings to feed but also browse leaves and shoots in the forest.

  • They seek thick, wooded areas to bed down and feel secure

  • Elk move between bedding areas, feeding zones, and water sources each day via direct travel corridors.

  • Ideal elk habitat is near drainages where evergreens transition to aspens, shrubs etc.

  • Elk avoid going more than 100 yards into any one habitat type.

  • They are herd animals that migrate seasonally in search of food, shelter from weather, and calving grounds.

  • During summer, elk go to high elevations to keep cool. In winter, they descend to lower areas with less snow.

Identifying Fresh Elk Tracks

When you come across elk tracks, look for these signs they are fresh:

  • Crisp edges and clear indentations in the top of the print.

  • No debris like leaves or sticks in the tracks.

  • Distinct texture and color from the surrounding earth.

  • Evidence of rubbing and scraping on nearby trees and shrubs.

  • Shiny, soft droppings that emit a sweetish organic smell.

Conversely, prints that are partly filled in, blurred at the edges, or overlaid with debris are likely more than a day old.

Reading the Direction of Elk Tracks

Once you confirm the tracks are fresh, it’s time to decipher which way the elk was heading. Here are some tips:

  • Elk tracks are longer and wider than deer, making them easy to identify.

  • Don’t just focus on the direction of the prints. Elk often double back to confuse trackers.

  • Analyze the terrain to predict where elk would go based on needs.

  • Look for signs like broken branches and displaced pine needles pointing their travel direction.

  • Note the wind direction – elk walk into the wind to sense danger ahead.

  • In mornings, prints generally lead downhill towards feeding areas as winds shift downhill overnight.

  • Around midday, prints typically go uphill to bedding sites as winds change direction.

Following Elk Trails Step-by-Step

Putting these tracking principles into practice while trailing elk takes patience and a sharp eye. Here are the key steps:

1. Find a Fresh Trail

  • Focus your search at dawn in clearings elk passed through overnight.

  • Identify fresh tracks based on crisp condition, texture, and coloring.

  • Analyze track size, shape differences, and stride to guess age and sex.

2. Move Back Into Timber

  • Retreat from chaotic jumble of prints in open areas.

  • Funnel points along game trails will isolate direction of travel.

3. Look for Signs Along the Trail

  • Watch for displaced leaves, broken branches, fur tufts pointing the way.

  • Subtle disturbed debris, scat, and beds confirm you’re on the right path.

4. Interpret Difficult Terrain

  • Adjust strategies in areas with poor tracking surfaces like dense brush or pine needles.

  • Maintain focus on last known direction of travel.

  • If lost, circle back to pick up the trail again based on evaluated age.

5. Confirm the Trail

  • Continuously check for signs to verify you’re still following the right elk.

  • Leave old trails crossing your path and focus on the freshest set.

  • If you lose the trail, walk parallel likely areas to reacquire it.

Using Wind and Weather to Your Advantage

Pay close attention to wind and weather patterns when tracking elk:

  • Elk walk into the wind to detect danger, so note wind direction changes.

  • In mornings, prints generally lead downhill as winds flow that direction overnight.

  • Around midday, prints typically go uphill as daytime winds reverse uphill.

  • Elk seek thick cover during heavy rain and will bed down.

  • During windy periods, elk move into the wind when shifting between elevations.

  • Elk behavior changes based on temperatures. Account for this in your tracking strategy.

Persistence Is Key

Tracking elk takes patience, persistence, and practice. But with a methodical approach, close observation skills, and understanding of elk behavior, you can correctly interpret their tracks to determine the direction of travel. Be patient with yourself as you learn – the reward of trailing these magnificent creatures through the backcountry makes it all worthwhile. Happy tracking!

Hunting Tips: How to Age Tracks


How to tell which way an elk is traveling?

The larger, rounder track on the right is the front. Elk usually travel in an alternating walk with a step length of 1 1/2 to 3 feet, and a trail width of 7-13 inches.

How to read elk track?

A bull’s front hoof tracks are rounder, wider and bigger than a cow’s, whose track will have a thinner, more pointed front. If the tracks are meandering or circling back it means the elk are looking to bed down, so you should slow down. If the tracks are single file and moving with a purpose, you should get moving too.

How can you tell the difference between bull and cow elk tracks?

You may also be able to tell if the tracks are from a cow or bull elk. Bull tracks will be slightly longer and wider than cow tracks and will sink deeper in moist soil because of their heavy body weight.

Where do elk hang out during the day?

Midday Hunting After a night of eating, watering, and socializing, the elk will typically retreat to a thickly wooded area to sleep for the day, often near the top of a high ridge. Resist the urge to pursue the animals into their bedding areas. The chance of getting a shot before the elk sees or hears you is very low.

Where can I find elk tracks?

Open parks and other sunny clearings in the timber are great places to find tracks. Elk feed and bed in these exposed areas only at night, pawing through light snow to search out sedges. The animals will be gone before dawn, but you will have a good chance of finding fresh tracks at first light.

How do you know if an elk track is old?

Tracks are a bit harder to age compared to elk scat. The wetter the dirt, the longer the track will last, so even old tracks can look fresh in muddy ground. Here are some good ways to tell how old a track is: Sharp, well defined edges are the sign of a fresh track. If possible, compare the edges of tracks you know are older for a baseline.

Are elk tracks rounded?

Compared to moose or deer prints, elk tracks are more rounded. In addition, the spacing between the toes is also a good way to identify elk tracks. For example, if the gap between the toes is further apart at the tip than in the center, it is more than likely an elk track. Cattle, moose, and deer all have even gaps between their toes.

How do you find Elk?

Begin by scouting potential elk habitat, looking for signs of activity such as tracks, scat, rubs, and wallows. Once you’ve located an area with promising signs, set up a vantage point and use binoculars or a spotting scope to scan the terrain for elk.

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