Trails Found: an Overview of Some Really Cool Training


Next week I’ll be heading to Arizona with the Breach Bang Clear crew to learn a new skill: tracking. This is something I’ve never even been exposed to before, I’m going in as a complete noob. If anyone has any advice, please lay it on me.


“Horses, mules, and donkeys were the original all terrain vehicles. While they’ve largely gone out of style as a mode of transport or drayage in many parts of the world, they remain extremely important in others (and we’re not just talking about pulling beer wagons). Law enforcement and search & rescue units use them in places as varied as Times Square and rugged, remote stretches of the US-Mexican border. Military units use them as well, if only in very specific locations and usually for SOF (Special Operations Force) missions — as they did when ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) 595 and their attached Combat Controllers mounted up in October of 2001 to hunt down the Taliban.

There only a handful of places the skills needed to successfully, tactically, employ horses can be learned. On of those is (or was) the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California, where horsehandling is the purview of Marine NCOs with a background in riding. Another place, is Trails Found.

Trails Found is the training organization of Jim Grasky, a man who has spent a lifetime in the saddle. Laconic, lean, and weathered man,Jim Grasky is old enough to be the great grandparent of nearly everyone he teaches. He’s a former Vietnam Green Beret who became a smokejumper (and then a smokejumper squadleader) after the war, spending some time working abroad in unfriendly areas on behalf of some unique governmental agencies. He is a retired US Border Patrol agent, one of the founding members of the USBP’s BORTAC, was one of the USMC Combat Hunter – based Border Hunter SMEs and one of just a handful of old school mantrackers left in the world.

When specialized military or OGA personnel need to learn horsehandling before deploying to some faraway land, many of them quietly visit Jim in the backcountry of Arizona.

So, we figured we needed to do the same.”
Read more:

2 Responses to “Trails Found: an Overview of Some Really Cool Training”

  1. A few lessons learned on tracking, first-hand, on the border, and from SMEs at it:

    1. People cannot fly: Pay attention to the track you found last.
    Don’t let anyone obliterate it until you find the next one.
    (having your “slack” – see #3 – stand next to it to mark it without fouling it may be helpful.)
    Somewhere within 36-48 inches of the last sign, most times, is the next one you need to find. Lather, rinse, repeat.
    2. People display their skill level by how hard they make tracking them:
    If someone is leading you across hard ground and/or through cactus, thorns, swamps, over fences and under culverts, and such, you’re dealing with someone who thinks or knows you might be after them, and is trying to make the lemon not worth the squeeze.
    If you’re trailing sign through terrain that makes finding it easy, either you’re after utter amateurs, or someone who may want you to find their trail, in order to ambush you. If they were formerly making it hard, and it suddenly becomes easy, start seriously considering the latter possibility.
    3. Tracking is hard work, and worse if you’re operating solo, because it’s hard to look down and look outwards at the same time. If you have two trackers who can switch off, with one on the sign, and one as their slack to watch their back, it’ll go better.
    4. People who aren’t trackers need to stay alert, and off the sign, so they don’t screw it up.
    5. People who are trackers but aren’t tracking need to stay alert to other sign they find, which could turn out to be other groups, other trackers, a group of people splitting up, someone peeling off to set an ambush, or simply evade the tracking party by sending out a small group laying easy sign, while the bulk of the party slips away over tougher ground.
    6. In the daytime, it’s easier to track down-sun (tracks between you and the sun) from the sign, if possible.
    At night, it’s easier if you have a light down low shining parallel to the ground.
    (This is why CBP field vehicles have a separate light mounted down below the door pointing forward: it throws sign into better relief from the driver’s seat perspective.)
    This works with IR lights and NVGs as well as visible light.
    7. The other details, i.e. distinguishing features, sex, speed, heavily laden or not, the age of tracks, etc., are out therein books, and will probably be covered in your class, but are best seen first-hand when they explain it.
    8. If you want to get a better feel for sign, and you have a suitable non-lawn area in your yard, walk across a patch every day for a week, offsetting each day’s sign by a couple of feet. Then, after a week, compare what sign looks like after one day, two days, three days, four days, etc., as well as after foggy days vs. dry and hot.
    Do the same unladen, and then heavily laden with a backpack. Then slow and deliberate, versus fast walk, jogging, and running flat out.
    Have you wife or kids lend a hand.
    If you want to kill electrons and be precise, take some digital photos, and start a tracking scrapbook.
    9. It’s a learned skill, and it wants practice to keep sharp.
    You can do it when you have time off and you’re enjoying a natural setting, in a park, on a trail, along a sandy river, etc.
    You can also practice on animals, and get used to what animal tracks look like in your area.
    10. Talk to the CBP guys a bit about what crossers and groups do to evade tracking: e.g., blanket “booties” wired over their shoes’ soles are cheap and hellishly effective.
    They also do simple brush-outs with local vegetation, which works pretty well too.
    (But if they leave the booties in a pile, or you spot either the brush used, or the place where they tore it off a bush, that’s still sign you can follow!)
    Any decent tracker will tell you, then show you, that’s it’s awfully hard, even for a careful person trained in making tracking difficult, to avoid leaving sign when traversing an area, even with booties and brush-out guys.
    11. Bonus: If you have a trained tracking dog or dogs, your odds of finding your quarry go up about 600%. Dogs cheat, because they can smell better than you can see.
    12. Double bonus: CBP guys in your neck of the woods are the SMEs on man-tracking. But have a chat sometime with the local wilderness SAR guys, to glean some insight into how people, both adults and children, move when they’re lost (usually downhill and along streams or roads with adults, for instance, whereas a lot of kids just hunker down and sit bewildered), just like you’ve probably already had instruction on how people fleeing through urban areas behave (right handers making right turns, and travelling in circles, etc.). All of that should go into your mental man-tracking file.
    You may just as easily be putting this to use trying to find a lost child someday near a state park, as trying to find a bad guy or guys in heavy brush.

    Best wishes, and have fun in class.
    It’s a lot more fun to learn when people aren’t going to die or try to kill you if you mess up.

    And thanks for the write-up.
    I and/or some friends may have occasion to look up Jim Grasky.

  2. 2 Phil B


    A bit off topic but for night work, you might want to read a translation of a 1913 (no – that isn’t a type, that’s nineteen thirteen) Japanese Army handbook on training for night operations. It was translated by a British guy after the Japanese/Russian war in Manchuria.

    I find it astonishing that the American campaign in the Pacific and in Vietnam (where the Viet Kong used the same handbook to train their troops) were surprised and caught off guard by the tactics used. It was all there, over a quarter of a century before.

    Anyway, here is a link to the complete text:

    It MIGHT give you a heads up on the night training (or there again …).

    best regards


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: