Offgrid Survival Camouflage and Concealment 101: Honing the Art of Sensory Defeat
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Concealing your presence isn’t just a skill needed for military operators or backcountry hunters. Knowing how to defeat observational efforts is a lifesaving skill that can be applied in downtown Manhattan just as easily as the jungles of Panama. Predators, both man and beast, seek out their prey on a daily basis, and being able to disappear as a target has wide-reaching implications. Freddy Osuna, expert tracker and former U.S. Marine Sniper met up with a small group of students interested in the art of hiding in plain sight at a Michigan Defensive Firearms Institute (MDFI) training site in the middle of a remote forest to do just that. Our group was diverse, with a wide range of experience and skills, including a former IT engineer, a retired cop, a few bushcrafters, and even a bladesmith. None of us had any formal training in camouflage craft beyond wearing some forest-patterned attire. Each of us, armed with our own optics and a bag of camouflage materials, eagerly settled in to learn the art of sensory defeat.
Whether it’s an animal with heightened senses beyond that of a human, or a person seeking to do harm, the number-one goal of this course is to learn how to defeat an observer. In our case, we had to learn how to stealthily maneuver to a target near trained observer Jerry Saunders, another former U.S. Marine sniper. Right off the bat, in the presence of two formidable instructors, it seemed like a daunting task. However, Osuna and Saunders remind us that we’re starting from square one, and they’re confident we’ll develop the skills needed to accomplish our objective. To kick off the training, we’re given our first nugget of wisdom: It’s not what you wear, but how you manipulate your environment. This ties directly into how we perceive the environment around us.
Above: Freddy Osuna, owner and head instructor of Greenside Training, starts the class at the MDFI training facility by explaining the history of camouflage and sensory defeat.
Since we’re trying to defeat an accomplished Marine Sniper from detecting us, we focus mainly on the nuances of the human eye. Humans have central, or full field, and peripheral vision, which detect things for three primary reasons: movement, shape, and contrast. Central vision is our daytime, color, detailed vision, which should be capable of identifying a human head at 65 feet in medium contrast shadow. Medium contrast is a baseline of light and shadow you would notice outside on a normal, sunny day. Our peripheral vision operates a bit differently, having mostly black and white vision, and is best at detecting movement. Since Osuna and Saunders will be looking for fragmented shapes of a human body and their equipment, understanding how the human eye perceives the world gives us valuable insight on how to trick that visual perception.
Humans have another unique eye feature going on, known as saccadic eye movement. Ever try keeping your eye trained on something in the distance while you travel in a vehicle? If you have, then you might have noticed how the eye doesn’t track smooth fluid movements, but rather quickly ticks along its target. That’s saccadic movement in action, and it’s a survival mechanism that harkens back to when our ancestors were constantly on the lookout for what was going to try eating us next. Trying to focus on just one spot is not as easy as it sounds. Even with training, being forever vigilant is fatiguing, so humans have also developed a blind spot between our central and peripheral vision to conserve energy. This keeps our focus concentrated on where it’s most beneficial. The reason we do not notice this blind spot is because our brains paint the rest of the picture in with a phenomenon known as perceptual fill.
Above: By using dark colors on more exposed facial features, and light colors in the recesses, we can confuse our brains' visual recognition of a human face.
Knowing that even trained observers will have a tough time fully concentrating gives us some hope we might actually be able to sneak our way through the course successfully. Other factors that affect visual acuity are diet and fitness, drugs, and alcohol, fatigue, and really anything that influences blood flow to the capillaries in the eyes. People who stare at one thing for a long time, such as optics or screens, would benefit by glancing at something green nearby when their eyes are feeling strained. Green colors relax the eyes, perhaps because humans have adapted to distinguish between more shades of green than any other color.
Above: Students fine-tune their optics to be able to read a letter at 1 MOA.
For those doing the observing, having the right tools and techniques can help keep the eyes sharp. Optics, like binos, monoculars, or scopes can keep the eye and mind focused where it needs to be. There is no limit to how much you can spend on a pair of optics, but Osuna reminds us that the most important optic is the one you have, and not to get caught up on having the latest and greatest. To highlight this, Saunders cites the fact that, other than some modernized weaponry, the 4x rifle optic has been the most lethal addition to the U.S. military arsenal. Just being able to see a target, even a little bit better, has resulted in exponentially greater success. For the class, the standard to reach is being able to observe something clearly at one minute of angle (1 MOA). To do this, we test our optic’s capabilities by clearly identifying a letter “E” written with 1-inch-thick lines, at 100 yards.
Correct posture is vital to scanning success. It’s tough to notice discrete details, or slowly moving objects if the sight picture is shaking due to muscle fatigue. Eliminating the poor field of view is as simple as keeping the body comfortably relaxed, erect, with your head over your center of gravity. Sitting or standing in this position will optimize blood flow to the eyes and reduce the negative effects of straining. Using a mounting device like a camera tripod is ideal, but in the absence of a stand, ensuring that the weight of the binos is being supported by bone is the next best thing.
Drawing a hillside on a dry-erase board, Osuna runs us through an example of the Overlapping Strip Search. Searching in this manner is much like reading a book, from left to right, going down to the next line and observing from left to right again. While we’re scanning, we’re looking for high-traction points. High-traction points can be anything, from a bush in the middle of the field, to a vehicle or building. In other words, it’s something that interrupts the flow of your search by catching your attention.
Above: Former Marine sniper and survival instructor Jerry Saunders describes the Micro-Point Scanning Clock method. This way of picking apart a traction point is meticulous and thorough.
Once the scan reaches a high traction point, a new searching method is utilized: the Micro-Point Scanning Clock method. Using a bush as an example, we center our vision in the middle of the bush, then starting at the 12 o’clock position on the top of the bush, we pick apart the edges clockwise around the center. As we’re doing this, we’re looking for things that don’t belong; this is often referred to as “cancer.” Any movements, shapes, or color contrasts that’d indicate a fragment of a human body or its equipment. Since objects in nature aren’t two-dimensional, we must also adjust the focus of our optics as we observe a high-traction object to see further into or behind it, a practice known as “burning through” or “stacking screens.”
As creatures of habit, humans tend to travel in somewhat predictable patterns. We also tend to take the route that offers the least resistance, otherwise known as natural lanes of drift. To help us focus on where observation might pay the most dividends, we’re taught to use the Marine acronym KOCOA (Key terrain, Observation/fields of fire, Cover and concealment, Obstacles, and Avenues of approach). Keeping these natural lanes of drift in mind, moving to change the angle at which you’re observing can reveal sought-after objects that you couldn’t see from your original position. Think of it like trying to get the best view of the stage at a concert through a crowd of people. Sometimes you just need to find the right view through the tangle of whatever is in front of you.
Above: Veil under construction. Notice, even though the veil is under Saunders' hands, without a caption, it would just look like two people picking through the duff. Veg is the edge!
Beyond physiological factors like poor nutrition, other things will affect your ability to detect something out of the ordinary. When we’re exhausted, we have a tendency to speed up what we’re doing in order to get it over with. Haste will leave tons of search areas checked improperly. Discomfort also ties into fatigue, and when we ignore how crucial comfortable posture can be, our muscles quickly reach failure. Not being able to stay focused on your search is a detection killer. If your mind is distracted, you’re not going to truly see what you’re looking at.
Above:Students spend a small break improving their veils and getting ready into the position for the next stalking lesson.
Contrary to what we see in movies, practitioners of concealment don’t usually dress head to toe in a ghillie suit that’d make Sasquatch envious. Although full suits can be useful in certain situations, they’re cumbersome and uncomfortably hot after a short amount of time. Instead, we focus on headgear and learn the nuances of constructing a veil. Veils are ideal, because as we’re moving to get eyes on our target, the only over-exposed portion of our body will be the top of our head, and the front of our faces. Veils also allow the wearer to view a target through optics without sunlight glinting on the lens.
“Veg is the edge” is our mantra as we set to customizing caps and boonie hats. After draping and securing some form of netting to our hats, burlap cordage or earth-tone 550 cord is loosely tied in random patterns to the net base. We avoid using black, because black in nature isn’t truly black and stands out as a highly contrasting color. Everything is faded to eliminate any shine, and lighter colors are used to reduce any high-contrasting shadows. This is done with earth-tone spray paints, or simply by rubbing the veils into dirt or campfire ash. Cordage is used to tie leaf litter, or freshly picked ground growing plants into the veil. Veg is the edge! Even after a few short minutes, our veils become difficult to identify if they’re left on the forest floor.
Above: Osuna verifies a students observations after utilizing scanning techniques during and observer drill.
While working diligently on our newly camouflaged headgear, our instructors talk about some interesting ways to stay concealed. Tyvek house covering spray painted tan, for example, makes for an excellent way to stay hidden in the desert. Wood ash from a campfire can help mask the scent of a human from search dogs, or even be used as a form of face paint. High-traction points, the same areas that our gazes are drawn to when searching, are what we need to avoid while staying concealed. While concealed, we want to appear as nothing in particular.
Since birth, our brains have developed a knack for identifying faces, making our facial features high-traction points. We even see face patterns in random objects when no face is present. Our veils will work partially, but under certain lighting conditions, a trained observer will notice a face almost immediately. Breaking up the recognizable image of our face with some kind of camouflage paint is a must if we’re going to try staying hidden. Using light colors in dark recesses, like the eye cavities, the hollows of the cheek, or in the ears and under the neck, and dark colors on high ridges like cheekbones and the forehead creates the visual effect of flattering the face. Leaf litter can be used to smudge or create random lines through the paint, further breaking up face patterns. By using a combination of striping and blotching, someone looking at a properly camouflaged face will experience the unnerving sensation of their vision gliding right past without the familiar recognition.
Above: Using high-powered, Meopta optics, Saunders searches for a camouflaged stalker who is describing the image being held up.
Somewhere between observation theory and concealment techniques is the art of stalking. It’s relatively easy to stay hidden when vegged out and sitting as still as a bush. Things get a lot dicier when moving is involved. Movement is one of the primary reasons our eyes decide to focus on something, and it’s the reason that relatively few people escape the gaze of a trained observer.
Above: Trek, owner and senior instructor of Michigan Defensive Firearms Institute, strikes a pose with Osuna, Saunders, and the class before maneuvering to their final stalking lane.
Four main movement techniques help keep detection to a minimum. From fastest to slowest, we’re taught the weasel walk, high-crawl, low-crawl, and, everyone’s favorite, the skull-drag. Weasel walking, or walking in a low crouch, is the fastest way to get around unseen, but even this is a slow and deliberate movement. Care is taken not to break branches or make too much noise that would draw attention, and it’s emphasized that no matter what position the body is in, you should be able to freeze in place without being overly uncomfortable. Although, standing or walking in a crouched position for an extended period of time will certainly cause a fair amount of leg fatigue.
The version of the high-crawl we’re taught is simply moving on all fours, like if you were giving a kid a piggyback ride. It’s a useful position given that you can easily drag a pack, gear, or even an injured buddy behind you by rigging it/them to the back of your belt. High-crawling is also a relatively fast movement, and allows you to get closer to your target while staying below dense vegetation. Moving into the low-craw involves dropping your hips to the ground, and using your upper body and arms to propel yourself forward. Low-crawling is the preferred method to move just within visual range of the target, or if the vegetation or topography doesn’t allow you to move using any of the faster methods.
Above: Concealed on the left of the photo, a student practices the art of staying perfectly still while observing with optics, while Osuna informs the rest of the class he is less than a meter away.
Skull-dragging gets its name because using this technique means trying to melt yourself, including your face, flat against the ground. Moving is meticulous and slow and requires using your fingertips out in front of you to pull, while your toes are simultaneously pushing. No heels sticking up either. The skull-drag technique is for moving while under direct observation, and is so slow, the shadows cast by the sun will move faster than you are able to. All of these movements can be further concealed by using environmental anomalies to mask any noises or movements, such as gusts of wind, or vehicles passing by.
Above: As students trickle in from their stalking lane, they take the opportunity to hone their observational skills by searching for the remaining fieldmates.
Putting all of our newly acquired knowledge together, we were tasked with one final challenge: move close enough to a high-visibility panel so that we could read a 1 MOA message written in front of it … all while trained observer Saunders, armed with 8×56 binos, attempts to catch us in the act. Camouflaged to the max, and donning our veils, we’re secreted to a location in the forest, given a bearing to Saunders’ approximate location, and told to execute our mission.
Above: Moving in pairs, students weasel walk into position before attempting to stalk an area under direct observation.
The topography of our stalking lane requires that we crest a hill, into the V-shape of a corner of the forest edge before being able to see our blaze orange target in the distance. With eight people in the class all jockeying for an ideal position at the same time, it seemed we already had the odds stacked against us. Osuna warns us not to get caught in “pig-trails,” trails that stalkers in the lead have already made. Sure, pig-trails are easier to traverse, but it has the visual effect of a comet leaving a tail, and it’ll quickly attract an observer’s attention. Overpenetration, or getting too close to the observer, is another common mistake that can get you caught in a hurry. Ideally, a stalker wants to use as much natural phenomenon, or screens, between them and the observer as possible, making it much more difficult for an observer, even with high-powered optics, to detect a skull-dragging stalker maneuvering into position.
Above: At the tip of Osuna's extended fingers, a student reads a 1 MOA sign more than 100 meters away with optics.
It takes a little over an hour before everyone completes the stalking lane, with only a handful of our class being detected. Mistakes that got people caught were moving too fast, moving parallel to the observer, not being sufficiently concealed, following natural lanes of drift, or a combination of all of these. Students who pulled their veil down too soon found that its limited visibility slowed their movement too much, and they were stuck behind crisscrossing stalkers vying for position. There was one point where those of us who didn’t get in place quickly enough were practically writhing over the tops of one another like a nest of pit vipers in an attempt to get eyes on the target. Those who experienced the greatest success were students who timed their movements efficiently, without hesitation, and were settled into ideal observation posts before the others.
Above: Dave Wenger of Wenger Blades receives the coveted Black Wolf patch for decisive actions taken during the final stalk, and his overall enthusiasm throughout the course.
Hunters and military snipers have been manipulating the environment to their advantage since sneaking up on prey has been a tactic. These same camouflage and concealment concepts can be used to blend into a crowd (aka gray man theory), hide your loved ones from invaders bent on violence, or keep your equipment from being discovered and stolen. Proficiency in concealment also means understanding how observers recognize the hidden, and how to defeat their efforts. Camouflage and observation theory are essentially two sides of the same coin, both skills needing to be practiced to increase the chances of success. With a little creative ingenuity, and careful strategizing, anyone can transform from something, into nothing.