What is a Game Trail? (2022)

A trail in a field with trees.
Table of Contents

    If you are new to the sport of hunting or you are only just starting to pip your interest in wildlife in general you may have come across the term game trail. In this piece, we will explain in detail as to what a game trail is. Answering questions such as what causes them and why they are there. Not only that but we will let you know what you can do after it’s discovery. 

    A game trail camera may be employed in order to monitor the activity upon the game trail to see what’s really going on along its tracks. If you want to improve upon your hunting abilities or even if you’re just curious about what’s going on in nature, then read ahead. You’ll find out what a game trail is and how to use a game trail camera to see what’s going on


    A trail in the woods.

    When you’re on one of your regular walks through the forest, keep a sharp eye out for game trails.


    What is a game trail?

    The short answer to the question is that game trails are pathways and routes that are formed by animals treading on top of them. The hooves and feet overturn the ground underneath causing it to form a common path. Time and time again animals will walk over these routes which causes a permanent path to be formed. They walk over them so much that these routes are often part of an animal’s daily route.

    Game trails circle around in various ways, sometimes linking up with other ones and sometimes petering out. They tend to link where an animal sleeps, their feeding grounds are, and where their watering holes are. They may use different trails depending on the season such as being closer to the lower ground than on a hillside in the wintertime. This is due to the snow on the higher ground driving herbivorous to where there are still spurts of grass growing. 

    Game trails do not only point out the directions that the animals go in but they also show us which species live in the area. Hooves from deer will leave a deep mark on the ground. Additionally, deer and other herbivores often travel in herds which means that more are walking on top of the same path which deepens the marks that they make upon it. 

    Carnivores such as bobcats, on the other hand, do not tend to travel in groups and tend to travel in solitude if they are not with their young. The exception to this is wolves who travel in large packs in search of their prey. Because predators tend to travel solo their trails are harder to pick out. Also, they are lighter than deer or moose so their feet don’t create as big an impact on the ground below. Paws also distribute their body weight more evenly than the hoof of a deer which digs into the ground churning the dirt up.


    Why do animals use game trails?

    When a deer runs through a game trail, they can do so at speed. This is because they have already cleared the way over the years. If they were to run through the thicket they risk tumbling and ignoring themselves when fleeing from prey. But when they are skipping along the same trail as they have hundreds of times before, their feet will find the spots where their hooves fit into place with natural ease. Therefore, game trails are also a thing of comfort for deer as it is their means to escape from danger.


    How long can a game trail stay for?

    If you live in an area that faces heavy snow in the winter, take a walk in the forest when it’s covered in a blanket of snow. Due to snow lying on an area for a few days you will soon be able to notice where the animals game trails are due to the snow making it obvious. It is particularly easier to spot the game trails of predators due to paw prints becoming a lot more apparent than they would be if there was no snow. 

    It can also be harder to spot game trails if you are in an area that is more prone to heavy rain. The rain creates mud which can wash away from the obviousness of the trail. However, this can also make it easy to pick up trails as there are prints left behind.

    Overall though, game trails can last for generations. As long as deer keep following along a trail that works for them they will keep doing so and as will their young. As long as these trails link the deer between food and water sources then they shall continue to use it. Why change something that isn’t broken right?

    You must also consider that many animals have much poorer vision or a different type of vision for humans. Also, they don’t tend to have the same type of instinct for exploring and are quite territorial. Thus, they are likely to stick to the same trails as they are used to and they know that it will take them to comfort and safety.


    A trail through the forest.

    Remember to carefully examine the leaves on the ground to check to see if deer are treading across it.


    How to spot a game trail

    There is quite often a bit of confusion between what trail has been made by animals and what ones have been made by humans. Your first point of reference to decide who it was made by is to look at the rest of the ground. If there is not too much of a difference between the trail and the rest of the ground then it is more likely that an animal made it. A human trail greats more of a distinction due to the treading down from shoes and hiking boots.

    You should also take a close look at the makeup of the trail. You will perhaps notice a ‘tramline’ running through the middle. If it is fairly wide then it is likely to be from a deer. Think about when you are walking. Your feet are not spread far apart thus the trail left behind by humans will be more central. 

    Pay particular attention to leaves and other debris on the path. If there are leaves stuck to the trail within the mud then it is more likely to be because deer are treading across it. This is because the hoof of the deer will push the leaf down into the mud and the mud will stick to the topside. The flat sole of a shoe shall not penetrate the leaves as deeply however. 


    What to do when you find a game trail

    When you find yourself a suspected game trail you should start to think about installing a trail camera. A trail camera shall confirm to you whether or not it is a game trail by the passing of fauna over a set period of time. 

    Choose a discreet spot somewhere along the path. You must make sure that it is likely to be out with the deer’s direct line of vision. It is recommended to fasten your game camera to a tree or to a branch at around three feet high from the ground. This is approximately the shoulder height of deer and offers the best shots to tell you the size, sex, and health of the deer. 

    Make sure that there are no obstructions for your game camera when you’re installing it. If there are any branches or bushes within the game camera’s line of vision then these could set off the motion sensor when the wind blows. Your game camera should also be positioned so that it gets a clear view of the trail so that it will have at least a few seconds to get some snaps. For example, if it is facing sideways with a low field of vision you are only likely to get some brief, blurry snaps that only show part of the deer.

    You should also face it in a direction where the sunlight won’t affect it as much. The majority of the sun’s brightest glare comes at sunrise and at sunset, so make sure that your trail camera is not facing east or west. Depending on the location and general brightness of the area you are in you should consider whether or not you should face your camera to the south. This is the sun’s peak position throughout the day so if it is in a clear area and the sky doesn’t tend to be cloudy and overcast then perhaps it is best to face your camera to the north. This means that the light is coming in from behind and it will minimize the amount of glare on your trail cameras footage.

    Also, take the general terrain into consideration. If it is in a heavily wooded area with limited light this can often be an ideal spot for your game camera. If it is dark then an infrared camera is one of the recommended ones to get the job done. These best sellers have no glow infrared, low glow infrared, or a gentle red light, none of which deer can see on their color spectrum. When the infrared flash goes off you will get a clear photo when the light is lacking or if it is a night shot.


    What to do once you have set a camera by the game trail

    You must also be tactful when it comes to checking on your game trail camera. If you visit it too often then it could perhaps ward the deer and other wild animals away from the trail if your scent becomes apparent and there is too much general activity. Deer can smell your scent from around half a mile away. So even if you don’t see any when you are checking on your camera you can expect that there is one further up the trail that knows you’re there.

    One of the other things you should not do is to visit your game camera on consecutive days. A deer can hear your car door shut and can hear you trekking through the thicket. If you do that the next day the deer shall remember you and know to stay clear of the area for the next while. We understand that when you find a suspected game trail you want to know for sure that it is one, but being patient shall always yield better results. 

    Ideally, you should only pay a visit to your hunting camera once around every three or four weeks. The less the better. The only things that you should be checking it for is to take your memory card out of the SD card reader to check for results and to change the battery when it’s required. 

    One tip that we have so you don’t have to change the battery too often is to only use the recommended lithium batteries for your trail camera. If you opt for the cheaper alkaline batteries then the picture quality of your will often gradually diminish. With lithium batteries the power it takes to create the megapixels for the shot will stay consistent until the battery fully loses its power. This should last for many months and there should always be a constant 1.7 volts running through your hunting camera.

    We know that many of you will have itchy feet to find out what walks down the game trail that you’ve come across. One way of knowing pretty soon without having to physically check on it is by investing in a cellular trail camera. These have a SIM card installed within them and when a photograph is taken of the game trail it will send the photo directly to your smartphone. Although this is an expensive option it means that you don’t need to visit your wildlife camera as often and thus you don’t disturb the game trail as much.

    After you do the first check of your camera’s SD card you’ll soon know whether or not you’ve been successful in discovering a game trail. Deer and other critters tend to use the same trails on a routine basis, sometimes even every day and night. After a few months of espionage on the trail, you’ll soon be able to figure out roughly how many deer use it, how often they pass along it, and at what time they do it. With this information, you can begin to carefully plan how you will go about getting the kill that you want.

    You can also pinpoint if there are any particular animals you want to go for. Maybe there’s an old buck that keeps passing by that’s long done his time and is no longer an essential member of the circle of life. These are great ones to target, and a 12 pointer shall look great when you place it’s antlers up in your trophy room. With careful management of your trail camera, you can turn this discovery of a game trail into a whole summer – and even longer – of fun.


    A brown deer in a field.

    Carefully researching a game trail before the hunting season starts can land you with a big buck.


    Final Verdict: 

    Coming across a suspected game trail is a very exciting prospect. You want to find the routes that the deer and other wildlife love to roam in order for you to be on top when the hunting season opens. When you discover what you think is a game trail, first of all don’t tell anyone. You don’t want people to be walking near it or along it as this may scare away all of the deer. 

    Worse still you want to make sure that you’re the only hunter that knows about it. There would be nothing worse than finally getting to the day that you set out to get that big buck only to find out that it has vanished and that someone else has beaten you to the kill. The best game trails are the ones that nobody else knows about. You can have years of fun hunting along your favorite hunting grounds. Be sure to not overdo it though – you’re going to need some deer for the future seasons! 

    Remember to keep in mind how to make sure not to spook the deer on the trail. Infrared cameras should not spook them as they will never notice the flash when the camera goes off at night. Also be wary of approaching your camera to check on the memory card too often. The last thing you want to do to the game trail that you’ve invested so much time into is for the deer to be scared away from it.


    Bonus tip: Here’s a quick video of a well set up hunting camera on a game trail. This is what you can expect if you set everything up just right!



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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.