How to Spot and Track Deer

Deer hunting is a sport that requires skill, alertness, and a ton of patience. While it sounds as simple as picking up a gun or crossbow and heading into the woods, hunting deer requires a lot of preparation, observation, and time.

Deer are rarely hanging out in plain view waiting to be found and often need to be tracked and stalked in order to be able to get a shot at them.

Before we get into the how-to of tracking deer, let's go over some of the essentials you'll need before getting started.

Things You'll Need Before Deer Hunting

Hunters will want to bring the following items to help them stay one step ahead in tracking and stalking the deer: 

Scent killer spray to control odors

Deer have very strong sense of odor and will smell you a long time before you see them. It’s important to control your odors with something like this scent killer body wash and shampoo.

You’ll also want something to eliminate the fresh odors from cleaning your clothes with something like activated carbon-lined bag which helps eliminate the odors that will give you away. 

If you want to get really fancy, make sure your hunting clothing is lined with activated carbon layers to help lock in your natural odors, kind of like this Realtree ScentLok Savanna Crosshair Jacket.

Safety Equipment

The first, and probably most important thing, is to have a bright orange vest or jacket for safety. This orange vest is one of the most popular because it has a lot of extra pockets for you to store your basics. 

A good Small First Aid Kit for Hiking is absolutely essential. If you don’t have one at home, make sure you add a tourniquet because you never know when you’ll have a severe injury, accidental weapon discharge, or get attacked by an animal causing you to sever an artery.

A good survival day bag is essential because you can store your food, water, and other accessories in it.

Then obviously you need to have some spare clothing for survival situations. Make sure you include:

  1. An extra pair of thick Smartwool Socks or something that is synthetic and water wicking.
  2. A Poncho with grommets  (because it can turn into a makeshift hooch if you have to spend the night)
  3. At least one thick layer of clothing because temperatures drop at night.

Navigation

While getting a GPS that works on satellite and not cellphone towers is really important if you’re heading into the woods, it’s also important to have a compass.

By doing a proper map reconnaissance before going, you’ll be able to determine a “panic azimuth” that allows you to find some sort of parallel structure, such as a road, that regardless of how lost you get, heading that direction will get you there. 

This is absolutely life-saving.

Also, a good pair of binoculars is always essential not only for spotting prey but for seeing distant objects to aid with navigation.

Now that we got through the basic equipment you need let's get on to the actual nuts and bolts of tracking deer.

How to Track Deer 

The best deer signs to look for are hoof prints in the dirt or snow. The shape of the print can help to tell the direction that the deer is traveling, and larger hoof indentations typically signal large bucks.

Scratch marks are also key clues that deer are in the area. Moss-covered logs along the trail can also be an indication of a deer's path. When deer jump over these fallen trees, they may leave marks in the moss.

Male deer will rub their antlers against the trees to scrape off the velvet, release aggression, and mark their territory. The higher on the tree the rubs are, the larger and more mature the buck likely is that made them.

tracking deer marks

These bucks will also scratch at the ground and urinate in order to spread their scent to other deer and make their presence known. It is likely that a hunter will smell these scratches as well as see them. When the scent of urine is especially strong, the buck is likely very nearby.

Along with the scratches, urine stains can be an easy sign to spot and track when the ground is snow-covered. In addition to indicating that deer are nearby, it can also indicate what type of deer you are tracking, as bucks will urinate between their tracks and does will urinate behind.

Similarly, droppings are clear deer signs that indicate they have been in the area. If the excrement is fresh, it is likely that the animals are still in close proximity and likely to be found. Groups of droppings in a given spot can indicate that a bedding area is nearby.

Bedding areas are key to figuring out where the deer are most likely to be found at ease and still.

Trampled grass or depressions in the snow or dirt can indicate a location where deer are sleeping. Concentrated areas of urine, droppings, rubbing and scratching can indicate that a bedding location is nearby.

How to Find a Deer

One of the best ways to stalk deer and to learn their patterns is to visit the hunting area prior to the beginning of the season. Getting familiar with the hunting area can also provide clues as to where deer might be found.

Deer are most likely to bed in areas with overhead cover, so these areas are good places to look for depressions and other signs that deer have settled in.

Conversely, deer prefer to be in the sunlight when they are awake in order to keep warm. Finding areas without a lot of trees obstructing the sunlight could lead to where the deer can be found during daylight hours.

Deer tend to return to the same places over and over, and discovering where they bed and rub can help to stalk them more quickly and easily when the season begins.

Unless spooked, deer tend to take the easiest routes up hills or mountainsides and will likely follow the same paths back and forth from bedding and feeding areas. Identifying these paths and observing them carefully can lead the hunter to a herd of deer.

Avoiding Detection When Deer Hunting

This is why dull colors and camouflaged prints are recommended for hunters when stalking deer. These patterns and hues blend into the landscape to mask the fact that there is a person standing there.

Deer have poor eyesight and use their peripheral vision to detect movement and sense potential threats and predators. They are unable to see the full color spectrum or make out specific parts of a human body, which can be used to the hunter's advantage.

Wearing bright orange is best, as the deer will not notice but hunters will be able to recognize one another.

Deer hunting avoiding detection

In addition to blending in with their clothing, it is recommended that hunters keep as still as possible in a standing posture with their arms down to the side. This makes the body resemble a tree trunk, making the hunter more likely to blend in with the surroundings and avoid spooking the deer.

Slow movements are essential when out in the field. Sharp or jerky motions will tip off the deer that a potential danger is nearby, and it will be likely to run off. Moving at a slow pace will also enable the hunter to search for tracks and clues that deer are nearby.

It is also crucial to keep noise to a minimum, avoiding too much conversation and stepping carefully. Walking heel to toe will keep the noise from the hunter's feet to a minimum and help to avoid stepping on twigs or debris that will startle the deer.

While their eyesight is poor, deer have an incredibly sensitive and keen sense of smell. A shift in the wind can give away a hunter's position and put the deer on high alert. Controlling their scent is one of the most important precautions a hunter can take.

Clothes lined with activated carbon can help to keep natural scents and body odors from wafting toward the deer. Keeping body shaved and the hair on the head short will reduce areas for odor-producing bacteria to grow. Unscented soaps and deodorants are also essential to masking smells. 

Hunting is About More Than Shooting

In order to be a successful hunter, it is necessary to understand how deer behave in order to know how to spot deer and track them. Knowing how to identify rubs, scratches, droppings and bedding areas will ensure that a hunter will be able to find locate deer when hunting season begins.

Putting in time prior to hunting is the best way to set up the hunting trip for success. Searching for hoof prints, tree markings, and covered areas where deer might bed will narrow down locations to track and stalk.

Finally, dressing in the correct attire and covering body odors are crucial for allowing the hunter to get up close and personal with the deer. Wearing bright orange or dull colors and reducing scents will keep the deer off of the hunter's trail, and let the hunter successfully make the kill.

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