I will tell you, I am a hobbyist and by no means am I an expert. I have a very few rules I adhere to that work for me, but they allow me to enjoy my woods outings all the more by being track aware.
At it's heart, tracking is an ancient skill and art practiced by throughout the history of mankind. We humans got to the top of the food chain by cunning and intellect...and our ability to track and understand animal behaviors and sign. Many people's around the world like the Bushmen of the Kalahari still survive, hunting food animals through the use of this skill. Military, Police, and Search & Rescue organizations still rely on tracking in their operations.
A good first step toward becoming a tracker is to purchase or borrow a book on North American mammal tracks and then familiarize yourself with animal tracks and their characteristics.
There are some excellent guidebooks, however many can be quite pricey. Sometimes you can find inexpensive animal track pamphlets at your local state or federal parks. One booklet that I have used and recommend is "ANIMAL TRACKS [and using the track tracer] by Barry Breckling. I bought it many years ago but [I think] it may still be available from the Pine Ridge Association [ www.coepark.net/pineridgeassociation]. It has diagrams of common animal tracks, gait information, and also has a handy ruler scale on the rear cover.
Another excellent book I own and enjoy is TRACKING AND READING SIGN by Len McDougall. This is a large hardcover book filled with photographs and information on how to track. He's also a member of the International Society of Professional Trackers [www.ispt.org], an organization that studies and promotes tracking skills.
Besides a reference guide, some tools to carry with you when tracking are a tape measure or pocket ruler, some sketching paper and a pencil, A digital camera is nice to retain images of tracks you find, but not necessary.
Learning to track requires that you put in "dirt time"... you have to get outdoors and get on a trail and start looking in the dirt. Most animals are active at dawn and dusk, and I find that the best results come from getting out early before people and vehicles start obliterating tracks from the night before. Again, be knowledgeable of what animals live in your area and study their tracks in advance. You'll pick it up faster with some knowledge going in.
"Track traps"...these are any area that can capture and retain a print for later evaluation. Check the dirt shoulders of roads and trails...predator animals tend to hunt along cover and prey animals hug cover for protection. Look under brush at the shoulders of roads and trails and you will likely see prints. Muddy edges of puddles and ponds and streams are really good for retaining prints in the wet soil.
Study and learn to recognize the other signs and behaviors of animals: scat left on the trail, territorial rubbings and scrapings, game trails and bedding areas...all tell a story of an animal's passing through the area.
The most common track you'll encounter is that of humans. You'll become acutely aware of fresh shoe prints and disturbances that will convey the presence or passing of another person in the vicinity. With time and practice, you'll be come somewhat adept at aging tracks and knowing how recently the person was here, whether they were running or walking [pressure release/exaggerated toe dig], or even if they were tired or wearing a pack [dragging toe and or heel]. It's really gratifying when you follow a set of tracks and come upon the person wearing those shoes and realize it is who you have been tracking.
So those are my suggestions. Now get out on the trail, start looking and learning, and be TRACK AWARE!
Raccoon tracks on a muddy roadside. Raccoon tracks look like little
human hands, especially the front paws. Back ones are longer.
Possible Mountain Lion track, Montana de Oro State Park, CA
Same track with a Quarter for scale.
Deer track. Probably from a calf born this past season.