|Sixtymile - Grand Canyon Notes|
About the Theory of Least Energy
Animal tracks and game-trails are an extremely important aid to the off-trail hiker. The skill of recognizing a track and staying on it should be practiced at every opportunity. These tracks are helpful in a number of ways. One is that they have been gradually leveled and cleared of loose material, making foot-travel faster. Another is that they save time picking the best line across difficult terrain. Finally, if there is an obstacle or single approach to a destination, the track will always connect with the easiest access and become better defined at the point where the correct route is needed most.
Recognizing a track takes practice. When it is not an obvious track, the subtle signs are: 1) fewer loose rocks; 2) a slight surface depression; 3) a slight difference in color (from wear) in the rocks and soil; 4) a firm surface underfoot (less crush than adjacent ground); 5) less vegetation, broken dry branches or nibbled green ones; 6) hoof-prints, turned rocks and droppings. Each of these signs may be present only faintly, but by scanning for them, finding them in combination and connecting them into a line, the easiest way can appear clearly before you. The benefits of experience and skill in this cannot be underestimated. Number 4, for example, works even in the dark.
As you follow these tracks they will teach you to about the landscape and help you learn to recognize a good way... the easiest way... the only possible way. Then, when there are no tracks you can make your own.
George Steck writes about this subject in GCLH-II: Sometimes it seems as if a game-trail that goes up over ridges or down into a drainage is not a very appealing route. The fact is, however, that in these harsh and sparse conditions any creature that wastes energy in travel will not survive over time against the smarter competition. Animal trails in Grand Canyon are the result of millions of votes cast by tiny feet equipped with the proven instinct for survival. Anyone who has often played the game of trading the cost of in-and-out against that of up-and-down will appreciate how uncertain the difference can be to the eye. No matter how brutal the route may seem at times... stick to that track! Remember that the best of the survivors have led the way, and the survivors are, and always have been, those who spend the least energy in total travel.
Like most rules, there are exceptions. One is when many people have made the same mistake and established a clearly-traveled path to noplace, where everyone has to turn around and go back again, making it seem twice as used. Another exception is an open grazing area where there may be many tracks or where the track follows a line through the middle of the best grass and not the shortest distance.