animal tracks: identify and make a cast

While camping, we woke up one morning to see these wolf tracks on the beach at our campsite!

Identifying animal tracks is easy and fun, and can be done in the winter and summer.

What Lives Near You?

Learning animal tracks can be a fun project. It can be done with Google or a book (which we prefer) and a pair of boots. Head to the backyard or woods!

You can use a field guide, like Peterson Guides or make your own – see below for a free download.

When you spot some tracks, write the dates and notes in your field guide, or in a separate journal (purchased or make your own).

Not all types of tracks will be in your area, so it’s a great project to learn what animals live near you.

You can make your own guide and draw the tracks yourself.

Part of identifying animal tracks is not just about the shape, it’s about the pattern of the way they walk.

For example: dog tracks are very similar to wolf tracks. But dogs usually walk crazy erratic patterns (they’re having fun), while wolves and coyotes usually walk in purposeful straight lines (concentrating on being stealthy for hunting).

Free download

animal tracks north america

Plaster Casting: Supplies

  • Plaster of Paris (also available cheap at local hardware stores)
  • Water
  • Water bottle for misting or hair spray
  • Plastic cup or bowl for mixing the plaster
  • Plastic spoon for mixing
  • Optional: for creating a wall around the tracks, you can use flexible plastic (like an old piece of a blind, edging or we cut the bottom of a plastic planter – see photo), and tape if needed

Plaster Casting: Dirt and snow

1. Reinforce the animal print area first

  • Wet dirt or wet snow: dust it with some powdered plaster and let it set while you mix the plaster
  • Dry, powdery dirt or powdery snow: gently spray with a mist of water (a hard stream will destroy the print)

Tip: some use hairspray instead of water

2. Build a little wall or dam of dirt around the track to keep the liquid plaster from flowing everywhere, or surround it with a flexible plastic wall (like vinyl blinds, edging or what we did was cut off the bottom of a plastic planter).

3. Measure out the dry plaster into a bowl

  • Mix the water and plaster 1 part water to 2 parts plaster (read the instructions on the box)
  • We just dumped some plaster in a bowl, and slowly added water until it looked like thick pancake batter
  • Consistency should be thick, like pancake or cake batter.
  • Stir for about 3-4 minutes so it’s no longer lumpy (as you can see we forgot a mixing spoon!)
  • Once done mixing, put the bowl on the ground and tap the bowl a few times to get rid of bubbles

4. Start pouring from beside the track and not directly on it (to avoid destroying the print), and let it flow into the track

  • Once mixed, you’ll need to work quickly as it will start to harden within 10 minutes (faster in hot weather, slower in cold weather)

5. Leave a little extra on the top. You can smooth out the top if you want for a flat surface but not necessary

  • Let it sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour. If it’s very cold, and the plaster freezes before it sets, wait 30 minutes to an hour and then bring it inside to finish setting

6. Once it’s hardened after the hour or overnight, dig around to get it out and bring it inside

  • You can gently wipe some dirt off but be gentle (as it can still crack since it’s not fully set) but don’t scrub it

7. Wrap in paper towels and dry overnight indoors

  • Let it dry for a few days, then wash or gently scrub the rest of the dirt off – but leave some as it provides a contrast, or you can paint it.

Plaster Casting: keep experimenting!

Try casting your own hand, feet, or anything!

Just follow the same instructions for sand or snow!

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