Examining a Wild Camp – Tracking and reading the story the ground is telling you

A story of tracking, site interpretation and a lesson for investigators

So there I was, wandering through the woods with the dog. This is one of several woodland sites that we occasionally rent to run some of our bushcraft, survival and other wilderness skills courses in North Wales. I am far from any of the footpaths, both the public ones and the ones made by locals through the trees. It’s about 15 minutes after sunset and the light is poor – nearly time for the head torch.

After ducking past a couple of low branches I come to a more open area near the top of a small hill. There are a couple of mature oak trees, a dead-standing Rowan and a surrounding screen of Western Hemlock Spruce enclosing an area roughly 5m in diameter. Something seems ‘different’ about this site, and I pause to quickly look around. I’m fairly sure that I haven’t visited this particular glade before, but something is tickling my senses in a way I can’t vocalise…

Down at the foot of one of the mature spruce trees is a short, blackened and partially burned length of wood. This isn’t unusual near the areas where we run courses, but out here in this relatively untouched corner of the woodland it stands out – there is a reason for it being here, and I am suddenly compelled to investigate further.

A little bit of background information

As I have mentioned on this blog before – a good portion of the work that I do as an instructor and consultant in various outdoor fields doesn’t end up on the website as a public course or event – we even have a seperate website for that kind of thing: outdoorprofessional.co.uk.
Something that we do occasionally is to create bespoke training events for clients who want to be trained in a particular skill or activity. Following a series of connections and conversations we were asked to create training events especially for AFOs (Authorised Firearms Officers – armed response Police officers) and those they work closely with. They specifically wanted to have some training in tracking of subjects through woodland and mountainous areas – and particularly how to perform Site Exploitation (SE, other common terms are also used depending on the force or role) on areas where people had created camps or bivvy sites in conjunction with other criminal activity. Anybody familiar with the Raoul Moat incident in 2010 will have an understanding of why these particular skills were of interest to these particular clients. My own experience in SAR/Mountain Rescue and subsequently teaching tracking for search operations combined with experience teaching people how to camp in the woods without leaving a trace probably puts me in a good place for this kind of training.

Other Notes

This is, of course, just a bit of fun and in no way is an example of how to examine a site like this. The photos taken are quick shots on a phone camera, illumiated by an LED torch. There are no in-shot reference items or scale, and no other records taken.

tracking campfire uk
Spotted a semi-burned log deep in the forest away from footpaths

The Tell-Tale Log

So this was the item which first drew my attention – other than that weird, tingly spidey-sense that trackers and searchers get when they get close to something interesting. It’s a small lump of wood, partially burned on one side and cut to length with a saw of some kind. The marks on the end of the log suggest a chainsaw rather than bow-saw or similar, so it was probably lifted from a log stack elsewhere in the forest.
Partially burned firewood is a common piece of evidence in these kind of sites and disposing of these blackened, charred logs is a key problem for disguising a camp fire site. Best practice to burn them all away completely, gradually reducing the size of the fire until only ash and small lumps of charcoal are left behind.

This log was my IPP (Initial Planning Point) for the site analysis, but I knew that I would probably change that once further evidence was uncovered.

tracking site exploitation
More charred firewood

The Circumference Sweep

I look over at the dog, who is now whining gently in the softly-falling rain. It’s pretty dark now, so I break out a small-but-powerful LED hand torch and start walking slowly around the edge of the small glade that the log is on the edge of. I want to see what there is to find in the transition zone where the ‘clearing’ stops and the dense woodland begins. This is the area where something may be thrown to, or placed ‘out of the way’ whilst activity occurs in the camp.
On the opposite side of the clearing I find a few more charred logs – longer, thinner pieces that have been burned through at some point.

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The fire scar was easy to find - a prominent pile of rocks where no others exist

Gridding it out

The rest of the circumference sweep revealed nothing obvious, at least not in the conditions and using this search method. Now it’s time to move into the clearing and methodically move across the area to identify any key features that may remain – specifically the site of the fire that charred those logs.
The easiest way to do this is to walk directly across the site along one edge, carefully stepping on the leaf litter rather than pushing it to the side and potentially covering something that is lying on the surface. Once you reach the other side you move across slightly and sweep across in the other direction, parallel to the first track.
I repeated this, moving slowly and sweeping with the torch, until I had covered the entire width of the clearing. One area interested me in particular – where some stones were clustered together at one edge – but I wanted to sweep the rest of the area before starting to mess around with the leaf litter and uncovering the stones.
Next I repeated the series of parallel sweeping motions – but at 90° to the original tracks. This gave me a different perspective on the terrain and made it more likely that I would spot anything unusual – the ‘break in the pattern’.

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The tell-tale sign of shale rocks being heated by flame - scorch marks and fracture lines

Examining the Point of Interest

Nothing else was coming up in my cursory examination, so it was time to investigate that pile of stones. It was made up of shale, very common locally but not often seen in small piles like this. The pile is partially covered by fallen leaves, and easily missed.
Kneeling down to get a closer look I could see that some of the stones were fractured and had slightly blackened edges. Common advice is to “surround camp fires with rocks to prevent the flames from spreading”. This is terrible advice with rocks like shale – they have a tendency to explode like grenades when heated by fire. Whoever made this fire had probably never experienced it before – but evidently had some knowledge of how “things should be done”.

camp fire signs tracking
A bit of excavation shows a small fire pit, with a depth of about 50mm.

Digging deeper

Under the layer of stones I found the blackened soil and vegetation residue that is always found around fire scars like this – something well known to archaeologists looking for evidence of human activity in the layers of excavated soil. There was no residual heat, dryness or any other sign that this fire was recently burning. In fact there were insect larvae/egg cases under some of the stones and other evidence that these stones had been undisturbed for several months at least.

Tracking knife fire
Removing the leaf litter in a spiral around the fire site reveals something more interesting...

Spiraling Out

Satisfied that I have discovered the likely fire site I can create a new IPP (IPP2) in my mind and base my search from that. The most effective method here is to ‘spiral’ out from that focal point and uncover anything that may be left under the leaf litter – scraps from food packets, pieces of foil or discarded plastic or maybe something like a cigarette butt.

Or a knife…

Yes. A knife. A folding, locking-blade knife with wooden scales and brass trim. It was buried under the leaf litter, roughly 100cm from the centre of the fire scar. It was open, laid out as it is in the photo above.

tracking courses uk
It's a folding knife, fairly cheap and with a stainless steel blade

Closer Examination

As this is not a forensic analysis (but a fun way of practicing skills for real) I can of course pick the knife up with my bare hand and take a closer look.
It’s an inexpensive, Chinese-made stainless steel knife with wooden scales and tarnished brass trim. It’s quite well made for the type, which suggests an older knife rather than one of the modern, flimsier types that you will find on the market today. Maybe mid-1990s vintage?
The blade itself has been modified by the looks of it.

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The blade has at some point been re-ground and is now about 60mm long

Modified Blade

It has been significantly shortened, and is now around 60mm in length. It looks like it has been re-shaped to make it into a slightly narrower profile, and a longer tip. There are scratch marks where it has been sharpened with something coarse, possibly a rough file or dry oilstone.

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Some hatchet marks on a nearby Western Hemlock Spruce

Moving Out

Nothing else comes up after removing the leaf litter for the surrounding 3m or so, and the dog is still gently whining (in the way that only a German Shepherd can). It’s time to cast the net wider and look up rather than at my feet.
The spruces surround the clearing have been trimmed of their dry, dead lower branches – probably for kindling in the same way that I do it in this video. A little further out there are signs that larger branches have been snapped off, and marks where a few tentative swings with a hatchet or large knife have been made against a dead tree.

tracking course north wales
Broken lower branches on another spruce - probably snapped off and used for kindling
tracking course wales
More broken branches a little further away

Reading the rest

A wider sweep reveals more of the same – broken or sawn branches and evidence of firewood collection. There is no apparent sign of shelter-building from natural materials, so if somebody did sleep out alongside this fire then they probably used a bivvy bag, tarp, tent or hammock. There was no obvious evidence of rope marks on the trees, but I only gave them a very cursory examination – there were certainly quite a few that were substantial enough to support a tarp or hammock setup.

Just how much detail one would go into for a site like this depends very much on the reason for you searching it. If it is a possible crime scene then a forensic analysis must be made and records taken of all associative, trace and transient evidence found. The records of the movements and actions of the initial searchers will need to be accounted for too – Locard’s exchange principle still holds true, even in the middle of nowhere.
If however the site is discovered whilst in active pursuit of a subject where time is critical then a rapid analysis to discover if it is relevant to the current investigation can be made within a few minutes. This will at least help those officers decide if it is worth further investigation and exploitation, or if it is just an unrelated or historic site.

This particular camp was probably made sometime between late 2016 and autumn 2017, judging by the depth of leaf litter covering both the knife and fire scar. This is based on my experience in this particular woodland though, and of course is a very vague estimate. As sites like this age it is increasingly difficult to accurately age them as time passes, especially without other evidence that could be used to date it (expiration dates on discarded food packets maybe, or algae/moss growth on items moved or used during the camp activity).

Anybody missing a knife?

It looks like somebody has gone to some significant effort to modify or repair this knife, and if you think you know who owned it then please get in touch directly.

Our Courses

If you work in a law enforcement, investigation or security field and think that we could do something to help you do your job then please get in touch directly.
Not all of our tracking courses are open to the general public – but the courses and events with public dates should be listed below:

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17 Different ways of making fire

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