Thursday, November 27, 2014

Trapping Wisdom of the Past

I think most people fail to understand that most trappers in the older days carried few traps, Steel traps were generally hand forged and expensive. In the 1700's era the standard would have been about 4 Beaver Size Traps per Man/Horse. Later in the 1800's during the boom in Beaver trapping still 6-8 steel traps would be the norm. As trappers began to trap other fur bearing animals, they realized that steel traps being heavy as well as expensive would need to be supplemented with traps from the landscape. Trappers were experts at not only catching animals in steel traps but also experts at utilizing the local resources to improvise traps from the landscape, these skills were carried as knowledge gained not only from their native homelands in the early days, but also taught to them by the indigenous peoples of the region and  then passed on from father to son. Today we have forgotten so many of the valuable skills needed to be truly self reliant, that we must re-learn these forgotten tactics for gathering not only fur but also fair for the table. Below I will attempt to pass on some of this past knowledge to help you become more self reliant. Pictured below are examples of traps from the early 1900's 2 are considered Beaver Size or #3 and 2 of them are a bit smaller considered a #2.

Below are 5 Trap Triggers that can be made from the Landscape and scaled to be used for the particular target animal and trap set desired. Only by practicing these things in the a real life scenario can we re-learn these skills. Primitive trapping is illegal in many states but trapping by modern steel trap methods can still be practiced in some form in most states. The important thing is studying animal behavior and sign so that we can understand how to bring animals to a set and where to place our traps to be effective.

Figure 4 Trigger
Piute Dead fall Trigger

Reverse Figure 4 Trigger

L7 Trigger
Promontory Peg Trigger

Creating Sign Posts-

This step in the trapping process is not necessary if you have already found much sign and realize what you are after and what is in the area. The rationale behind a sign post is to discover what animals are frequenting an area you plan to use for trapping. To accomplish this is pretty simple. Select a good area of possible frequent travel and set a stick in the ground. Clear the ground around this area for about 2’ square so that tracks will be visible if an animal come to investigate. Once this is set up any type visual or scent attractant can be used on the stick to bring animals in. A good practice is to use both if possible examples of this may be the entrails of a frog and a feather or bright piece of cloth tied to the stick. Animals will notice things that change on their daily routes just as you would if someone moved something or placed something new in your living room. This will cause the animals to come investigate and hence leave tracks enabling to you to identify what type animals frequent the area and better cater traps and baits for those type animals.

Landscape Tracking-
Landscape tracking is the ability to understand what areas of the wilderness animals are most likely to use and why. If you think about what animals need this is the first step in the process. Animals like us need 3 things daily; they must drink, eat, and sleep. The area that provides these situations as well as travel routes to and from these areas is what landscape tracking is all about. Understanding that animals need water should tell you that concentrated water sources like ponds or water holes are key areas to both ambush prey for hunting or to trap prey if you are setting traps. Obviously water sources also provide many other game species like fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Areas that provide food for the animals you seek are also good places for hunting and trapping activities. If for example you are in an area that has a lot of squirrels or chipmunks then trees providing nuts will be likely to have these animals frequenting them. It is important to understand what different species of animals eat because this will provide many clues that you can follow as stated in the last example for you to find the best areas for you hunting and trapping. Animals need to sleep so dens and lairs are always good areas to set traps or to even ambush prey if you are patient. Remember there are minimal calories spent waiting in a hide near a den or lair. Travel routes to and from the above listed areas will be great places for both trapping as well as ambushing your prey, but you must understand a bit about animal behavior to understand when these animals will travel so that the timing is correct for you hunt or for setting traps.
Edges are always a great place to trap and sometimes to hunt, an edge is an area where the landscape changes like the area of high grass and weeds just next to a field or the dry semi wet area at the side of a pond or stream. These areas are the places where game can most often be spotted during a hunt but can also be the place the animal is the most wary.
Travel Routes are the trails or highways that animals use to go from sleeping areas, to water, to food, and back. These are the prime areas to look for as animals are creatures of habit just like humans and animals traveling are less wary because they are usually on a mission to find one of the 3 needs they have. Setting traps and ambush on or just off these travel routes is one of the most effective ways to secure meat sources.
Ridges are used as much as possible by most animals so that they can maintain high ground advantage from predators as well as see their surroundings just as you would like to see yours. These areas if also incorporated as a main travel route or “Game Trail” can be the big bonanza for trapping.

Animal Sign-
Identification of animal sign is a key element of trapping and hunting it can tell you many things that when combined with landscape tracking equal great success at gathering and securing meat sources. There are seven types of animal sign we teach in the Pathfinder System and they are as follows;
Tracks-These are physical tracks left behind. Understanding what animal left these tracks and even how long ago will greatly increase your knowledge base of a potential hunting or trapping area.
Scat-As above scat that is left behind can give you great insight to what the animal is eating or even his general health.
Remains-Carcasses of dead animals can leave clues as to what animals are in the area as well as often times what predators are in the area as well. Don’t overlook the fact that remains can also provide tools needed in an emergency situation.
Refuse-This is basically things left behind by the animal like un-eaten food parts (nutshells etc. ;) these clues can help you find bait for traps as well as areas that will attract animals for trapping or hunting.
Disturbance-This type sign is usually caused by the animals activity in an area, it could be a small hole that the animal was digging in to find food, or even a chew where an animal was sharpening his teeth. The freshness of this disturbance can give you clue to how long ago animals were present in that area.
Sluf- This is some part of the animal that has been shed, sluffed, or lost. It could be hair left on a fence, a feather lost while preening, or the skin of a snake after he had shed.
Scent or Odor- This type of sign can sometimes come from a visual type sign like scat or urine but could be the scent of a Deer during rut or a skunk that was startled not long ago on a trail.
All of these signs along with Landscape tracking will help you to zero in on not only where the species are located but what they are and when they are there. These are the true keys to success when hunting and trapping. As I said this type of tracking is an art and can take years to perfect. You must go into the field and practice these skills just as you would building fire and shelter because only through trial and error will you figure out what actually works and what does not when the need arises.


  1. Hi Dave,
    good article as usual. I'm just curious about using deadfall type traps for securing meat, not fur. I remember a survival book that strictly recommended to avoid using deadfalls on animals you plan to eat, as the heavy falling trap usually crushes the guts, which will contaminate the meat. I can't tell from personal experience, as I've never used a prmitive type trap, but it sounds logical. Me and some buddies once ate a rabbit from a fresh roadkill and it took a while to clean all the meat, some of it we had to discard anyway. What's your opinion on this?

    1. Dead falls are truly not the best for animals you plan to eat, but the dead fall only needs to suffocate the animal through weight not necessarily pulverize him ;)

  2. Oh, so those are ment to suffocate the animal....I always imagined they rather do a quick crushing job, sort of like conibears. Thanks for the clarification,