Getting stuck in the mountains can lead to dangerous consequences....
Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published by our sister publication RECOIL, and appears here in its entirety with permission. For more articles on guns, training, and gear, go to RECOILweb.com.
Humans are not equipped with the natural ability to see well at night. However, the advancement and proliferation of night vision and thermal devices has allowed us to not just get by — but now own the night. Even in an environment without bad actors, simple mobility problems whether on foot or by vehicle are remedied by using Night Vision Devices/Night Optical Devices (NVDs/NODs). Taking it to the next level, exploring off-road in a tricked out overland vehicle under the infrared light spectrum is a memorable experience.
After the recent Overland West Expo in Flagstaff, AZ, I was on-hand for some nighttime shenanigans hosted by Lightforce and TNVC. Lightforce was showcasing their infrared (IR) only driving lights and brought in Chuck Pressburg of Pressburg Consulting to host a mini-course on driving at night under NODs. For the experience, TNVC had an assortment of loaner binocular NVDs and helmets for all participants to use. All the vehicles had Lightforce dedicated IR lights or white lights with IR filters in place. These were all wired for auxiliary control separate from the main driving lights.
Chuck began his session with a brief on how NVDs work and then led into vehicle setup and configuration. He identified the two biggest challenges to working under night vision as photonic barriers and field of view (FOV) restrictions. A photonic barrier is a light source that is bright enough to create a shadow, or barrier, that conceals what might be behind or concealed by the light source. Additionally, night vision devices will pay attention to and amplify the brightest sources of light that further exacerbate the problem. In respect to driving, this can conceal holes, ditches, cliffs or other dangerous situations. The counter to this is more of and judicious use of IR lights.
Whether driving, walking, shooting or performing any other task, the FOV is limited to in most common NODs to 40 degrees with a single or double tube. A dual tube setup will provide the same FOV but adds the second eye to help with greater perceived depth perception and identification. To help cope with the limited field of view and lack of peripheral vision while driving, scanning with head movement is required to maintain situational awareness. Unless necessary, the mirrors are not generally helpful due to having to re-focus the NVGs to the very close range. If a vehicle is particularly wide, the 40-degree FOV also won’t see the right edge of the vehicle when looking straight forward. Bringing a buddy in the vehicle is of great benefit as it adds another 40-degree field of view to be on the lookout.
The normal white driving lights of a vehicle are easy to switch off, however the internal lights and brake lights require some form of masking. If a vehicle will normally be driven at night, a cardboard template can be made and placed in the dashboard easily. In a pinch, dim the lights as low as possible and use a towel or other cloth for draping across or taping to the dashboard. If that isn’t enough to prevent glare, shift forward and put the NODs past the interior lights to reduce the close glare. For regular night driving some form of a kill switch for the brake lights would also be beneficial. If only occasionally driving blacked out, the use of painter’s tape then 2-3 layers of duct tape over the brake lights would sufficiently cover them for driving. Leaving one less layer of tape in a section of the brake light would allow minor light bleed through that would be picked up by NODs for a brake indicator.
Some other tips and notes on driving under NODs are:
With a little bit of ground school completed, vehicles configured, and people assigned to trucks, we made a caravan to the Cinder Hills Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) Area outside of Flagstaff. This OHV park is a 13,500-acre park of volcanic cinder cones, craters, and forest that lets people explore off-road with their favorite vehicles. The park is mostly covered in volcanic cinders, which are small, dark rocks leftover from ancient volcanic eruptions. During the day it is a unique look, however, at night we would come to find that these rocks absorbed light much more than most other terrain would.
With everyone at a staging area, Chris Doering from Land Ops off-road club briefed everyone on a night navigation exercise he set up. Land Ops conducts several large-scale land operations in the Southwest that are a sophisticated series of geocache and information sharing exercises between multiple teams across wide areas. For our purposes, we had a much smaller scale exercise, but it would require the use of GPS locators, driving and some walking under NODs and then communicating by radio between the two teams. Once briefed, Alpha and Bravo teams went on their separate ways to find each cache with information on where to go next.
We set off navigating through the night with all the vehicles blacked out. For the first hour of our travels, the moon was not high enough to provide much ambient light in the cinders, so we drove with the Lightforce Striker IR lights on. We had a bright beam stretch out many hundreds of yards in front of us and some flooding on the diagonals off the front of the truck. Once the moon was up, it was nearly a full moon and we were able to turn the lights off to get a different perspective. Instead of seeing mostly what was in front of us, we could see through the woods and across the terrain around us. Once all the caches were found and checkpoints reached, we linked back up at the original staging area. Adjacent to this was a large, open field of cinders that allowed us to try different light combinations and just have some fun racing through the open while blacked out.
Driving at night is not always the easiest with bright white lights on the pavement, let alone off-road and under NODs. It’s a task that requires the right equipment, access to a location that allows it and some practice. If you ever get the chance to drive a blacked-out vehicle with friends and night vision, take the opportunity. Without going on about reasons and applications for doing this, if anyone ever asks why would you want to do something like this? The simple answer is because we can.
Many thanks to the crew at TNVC/Night Goggles Inc for providing the NODs, Chuck Pressburg for the expertise, Chris at Land Ops for the fun course and finally Thomas Carlson of Lightforce for being the mastermind and pulling the experience together.
Lightforce IR Lights available to buy here:
Night vision equipment available at TNVC: