Mesenchymal cell migration in interstitial tissue is a cyclic process of coordinated leading edge protrusion, adhesive interaction with extracellular matrix (ECM) ligands, cell contraction followed by retraction and movement of the cell rear. During migration through 3D tissue, the force fields generated by moving cells are non-isotropic and polarized between leading and trailing edge, however the integration of protrusion formation, cell–substrate adhesion, traction force generation and cell translocation in time and space remain unclear. Using high-resolution 3D confocal reflectance and fluorescence microscopy in GFP/actin expressing melanoma cells, we here employ time-resolved subcellular coregistration of cell morphology, interaction and alignment of actin-rich protrusions engaged with individual collagen fibrils. Using single fibril displacement as sensitive measure for force generated by the leading edge, we show how a dominant protrusion generates extension–retraction cycles transmitted through multiple actin-rich filopods that move along the scaffold in a hand-over-hand manner. The resulting traction force is oscillatory, occurs in parallel to cell elongation and, with maximum elongation reached, is followed by rear retraction and movement of the cell body. Combined live-cell fluorescence and reflection microscopy of the leading edge thus reveals step-wise caterpillar-like extension–retraction cycles that underlie mesenchymal migration in 3D tissue.