Tracking Apps and Old School Maps


Way back in the old days, we used a paper and pencil to make our maps for tracking. But today…… we use paper and pencil! Ha, gotcha! In the days of so many apps, why do we still do it “old school” for tests? There are a few reasons:

  • Detail of mapping required with ‘on the ground’ and visible landmarks for turns and articles
  • Maps must be hand drawn and turned in to the CKC with other information about conditions, timing and tracklayers
  • Judges know their own paces and measures and while it may not be perfectly dead-on, they ensure that every track is equally measured
  • The path of the dog is noted on the map when judging – by hand – as the judge watches and follows
  • Technology can have glitches

I re-measure my own stride every year by walking along with tracking students between markers. It has to be measured on the field, and on hard surfaces, because it will sometimes vary. Paces can also vary depending on your well-being, ground cover and time of year, time of day and if you are tired, gear carried, and the degree of difficulty of the terrain (flat, hilly, steep, wet). Soldiers also include the degree of danger of a mission.

This spring, I used a soccer field on morning one of a seminar, because soccer goals are suppose to be 100 metres apart. I pre-measured it using Google Earth just to be sure! We also measured our stride on a college asphalt parking lot.

30 m flags
One tally. There is a 30 m directional always set out for a TD. On this track, for seminar purposes, there are flags set out every 30 m with one just before a left turn, to show what 100 m looks like. The tracking team is Debbie with her GSD Kona (who did a great job!) Click on the picture to see a large version. Flagging tape on the flags shows wind direction.

I like to count paces because in the Tally System (used by engineers, foresters, other outdoorsy types) only every LEFT footstep is counted. Lower numbers work for me! The Tally System is tried and true for measuring distance and also for estimating travel time and is based on the number of paces someone would take to travel a measure of one kilometre.

The average paces for 100 m in the Tally System are:

  • 1 step = 2’6″ or 762 mm
  • 1 pace = 5 feet or 1.525 m
  • 65 paces = 100 metres or ONE TALLY
  • 10 Tallies = 1 kilometre

If you’ve ever used the symbols at the top of this post, you have used this old, old method of counting tallies.

Tracking measures – rough distance in km and tallies (and CKC rules):

  • TD = ½ km or 4.5 tallies (400-450 m)
  • TDX = 1 km or 9-10 tallies (900 – 1000 m)
  • UTD = 1/3 km (3-4 tallies) (300 – 400 m)
  • UTDX = 2/3 km or 7-7.5 tallies (600 – 750 m)

On average it takes 40 minutes to travel one Km or 10 tallies. Experienced bushwhackers use a small length of string called a Tally Cord, tying knots for every 1 km. Other people use beads on a string. Their advice: if you lose count, start counting at “30” and you will only be out by a half-tally or 50 m – which is great if you aren’t tracking, but for tracking we need much more precision.

Not everyone who tracks knows about the Tally System. However, it is very commonly used in Bloodhound Trailing. I learned about it from a student in my tracking classes who was a member of the North American Search Dog Network with his Bloodhound. To this day, when I lay a long track, I fold one finger for every tally. It works!

Since our tracks are roughly structured around fixed lengths and metres, the Tally (100 metres) is a great tool. Not only is it old school, it is ancient school! In a book called Mathematics in Civilization, the authors H. Resnikoff and R. Wells note that a tally count like the one pictured at the head of this post, was found inscribed on wolf bones that are 30,000 years old.

My paces are as follows:

  • 64 paces = 100 m in the field
  • 60 paces = 100 m on hard surfaces and for urban tracking

And of course, I have measures for the important tracking test distances like 30 m and 50 m. When plotting with inexperienced tracklayers, I usually tell them to use the average paces if they have never measured their stride (even though I am making my own map and placing out stakes in the field which they will remove on test day, it is a good exercise for tracklayers to make their own too).

Measuring wheels are available from hardware stores and can also be wheeled along to measure distances. These are great on urban surfaces, but not that easy to use in the field. They are a bit pricey and people who use them recommend the bigger wheeled version. I have never used one but have played with measuring wheels owned by friends. This is the Lufkin Pro available from Home Depot.

Before I go to judge a test, I play around with Google maps at home or printed versions on the plane. It saves a lot of time to have a game plan. Every tracker should download a free copy of Google Earth, mentioned and linked above, and learn to play with the path feature to pre-plot tracks and measure tracking areas.

BUT experience will show you that it MUST be plotted on the ground to make sure it is accurate, doable and that you have significant landmarks on your map. Google Earth maps may be out of date, and don’t show new fences, snow fencing, construction or new roads and buildings. Other pitfalls are that sometimes, for urban tracking, a flat building roof can look like a parking lot! I know of one judge years ago who pre-plotted urban tracks on building rooftops. The newer version of Google does allow street views and 3-D. Use it!

GPS, Smartphones and Tracking

Who knew that tracking would force us to keep up with internet technology? I absolutely LOVE using new apps and GPS for tracking. It is fun, and way easier than drawing a map by hand. If I am training my own dogs, I use this technology all the time. It has really served to broaden my understanding, or ‘spatial awareness’ of where I am tracking. When I make a map by hand, I look at my immediate surroundings only. The bird’s eye view is given by Google Earth, but it is really enhanced by GPS mapping that shows exactly where you are in real-time, in relation to all of the obstacles and opportunities in the area.

It has heightened my appreciation of the complexity of urban tracking. That one building beside me is not the only thing affecting scent movement or the scent environment. Depending on the day, there can be a domino effect of scent leaping and bounding and swirling and moving, caused by the many other things just beyond what we see from the ground.

I love the app Tracking Dog, which is a German app available for smartphones. It isn’t free, but is not expensive (about $5.00). This app even gives the total metres, weather conditions, and allows you to put tags where you have left articles. The downside is the amount of data it uses on your phone. By the time I lay a track, I sometimes need to charge the battery of my iPhone to take photos or record (or – use a camera or separate device!).

After chatting with another tracking judge, I purchased a TomTom Runner’s Watch with GPS. This will do something similar to Tracking Dog without using my iPhone data and battery life. The runner’s watch has GPS and can calibrate your map, distance, and speed. Using a USB connection, it gives a report to a website that you can access on your computer or smartphone, including a detailed map. It is waterproof (resistant) and has a 10 hour battery life.  It retails for roughly $130 but can often be found on sale (like mine!) Nike and other brands including Garmin have similar runner’s watches or GPS devices.

I can hardly wait to try using it to plot, and then to run my dogs, and overlay these (thank you Laura McKay for the idea!) The downside of GPS? The battery will eventually need to be recharged. Some weather and environmental conditions prevent a good GPS connection (glitch!) And it is not “on the ground” accurate.

I often tell this story at seminars: I was plotting tracks for a field tracking test a few years ago with great volunteers. One person had a Garmin and was using it. I don’t mind, because I know that the tracklayers have stakes to guide them when they rewalk in the morning, plus their own maps. And of course, as the judge, I know where every turn and article is placed using landmarks and paces. I enjoy using apps, and I love to see dedicated trackers trying and enjoying every aspect of the sport.

As we plotted I mentioned, “OK, that’s 100 metres.” The tracklayer checked the Garmin and said, “Actually, it is 94 metres.” I paused, and then decided that as a judge, I would use MY measure. This tracklayer was not with me to plot every track. To be 100% sure I was plotting equally for every participant, my counts had to preside.

Old school mapping benefits the exhibitors because a very detailed map can be produced for each one showing the exact locations of turns and articles. By the rules, every exhibitor (pass and fail alike) gets a copy of their map at the end of the test as ribbons are presented. I always write ‘not to scale’ on my maps because when I draw them, a 100 m leg might look shorter than a 60 m leg, as I try to fit the map into that square page provided by the CKC. Trackers always pour over their maps with great interest. Judges spend hours (HOURS) on the evenings before tests translating their rough field maps into works of art for the tests, giving the distance, landmarks, timing, weather, terrain and other information.

I do not think an exhibitor would like a general ‘Map my Run’ – style map. Whether they pass or don’t pass, everyone likes to see a good representation of the test they entered. As a trainer it is important to build these skills and not just relay on technology and apps. The apps give us a great perspective and context and they are fun – and easy! But the hand-drawn map gives the detail.

Science of Hand-writing v. Using Technology 

Science shows that there is a connection between the brain and the hand that is not replicated when we use technology. Hand drawing a map actually fires connections in the brain that help us to remember detail and visualize the on-the-ground environment.

No app can duplicate how our brains and senses work in concert! Science shows that there is a unique neural circuit stimulated when we write or draw by hand. We remember better, we generate more ideas, we are forced to record detail we may overlook, we are less distracted, and more complex areas of the brain are stimulated (the ones associated with learning and memory). Scientists and Psychologists actually worry that these areas of the brain are not stimulated when we use technology – even when we type on a keyboard.

How does this apply to trackers?

It is good news! This is a sport about relating to the conditions around us and on the ground. While the apps are a great tool (and I love them) , we need to train ourselves to be aware of our surroundings. The more we make this a practice, the more it will become a habit and it will improve your tracking, as you learn to recognize, take in, and interpret conditions and surroundings quickly! This will help you in a test.

Got an app you wish to share? Or a question? Please leave a comment below! Thanks!

Happy Tracking!


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