What you need to know about camo – The Art of the Unseen

In Bugle, Gear 101 by Ryan Newhouse3 Comments

On the walls of the Shakhty Caves in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia there are paintings of hunters adorned in animal skins hunting wild oxen with bows and arrows. Drawn in red ochre, as if it were the very blood of a slain ox, these images date back to the late Paleolithic era (8,000 BCE). They are perhaps the earliest records of humans using camouflage to hunt their prey.

Not much has changed. Though modern hunters may not bear the hides of bison or wolves on their backs, as Blackfeet Indians were known to do, they are still finding ways to blend in with their surroundings by wearing suits that look like sticks, stones, leaves, or more recently, blobs of blurry computer pixels.

In nature, camouflage is a method of cryptic and deceptive coloration that allows animals to be relatively indiscernible from their surrounding environments. A simple, seasonal example of this is the short-tailed weasel, which turns white in the winter. 

The breadth of camouflage patterns used by today’s hunters was designed on this principle of mimicry. If a hunter looks like his surroundings, it would stand to reason that prey would have difficulty spotting the hunter. Until recently, camouflage patterns have primarily been interpretations of how humans see the world around them, literally. What if hunters could see the world through the eyes of an elk? Would they change the way they hunt, or the clothes they hunt in? 

Indigenous hunters not only built their camouflage out of their surrounding environment, but also patterned it according to how they were going to hunt, either sitting and waiting or spotting and stalking.

“Camouflage was really developed based on the intimacy of the shot,” says Bill McConnell, founder of PAST Skills Wilderness School in Bozeman, Montana. McConnell routinely teaches courses all over the United States on primitive camouflage, traditional living skills and native hunting traditions, and he is a former instructor at the famous Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness School in New Jersey.

With primitive camouflage, “you’re actually using the elements of the forest you’re in,” McConnell explains. “You’re taking your color scheme from the background itself. You treat yourself as a canvas and create depth and dimension using mud and clay. It’s like a watercolor painting.”

When native hunters sometimes used animal skins instead of earth and leaves, it was as much for ceremonial reasons as for practical ones. “They were becoming these animals,” says McConnell, “taking on a movement signature that was not human. Sometimes you’re camouflaged by letting animals think you’re something else, and that’s different from being invisible.”

“Nothing’s going to ever beat those old traditional skills,” continues McConnell, “People hunting in an old flannel shirt are getting closer and getting away with more, based on knowing how to move as opposed to what they wear.”

McConnell sees a gap between the traditional ways of hunting—and the camouflage that was used with them—and the modern camouflage that developed as new big weapons pushed hunters farther away from their prey. “Most of today’s commercial camouflage development has come from a military perspective,” notes McConnell. 

It wasn’t until roughly a century ago that camouflage started being used by the military, and much credit for this partnership is given to an American artist named Abbott Handerson Thayer. 

Thayer was first and foremost a painter, but he was also an amateur naturalist, a hunter and a trapper. During his life, Thayer wrote articles, letters and several books that discussed “counter-shading” in nature, whereby animals were made to appear “flat” by the use of graduated colors and inverted shading. Thayer’s theory, which soon became Thayer’s Law, stated that animals with dark fur on their backs where they received greatest illumination by the sun and lightly colored fur on their shadowed underbellies lost their appearance of contour, and therefore better blended with their surroundings.

During the Spanish-American War, Thayer and a friend proposed the use of “counter-shading” on American ships, wanting to model the ships after the coloration of a seagull. The war ended before they started painting, but before World War I began, Thayer’s patented “counter-shading” ship camouflage was again approved for use on American ships.

As Thayer aged, however, he and his ideas began falling out of favor with the American public, mostly due to his opinionated and publicized debate with former President Theodore Roosevelt over animal camouflage. Both Thayer and Roosevelt were vying to be known as expert naturalists, and hotly disputed each other in their writings. Thayer’s eventual public downfall came when he wrote in his book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, published in 1909, that all animal coloration, no matter how flamboyant, only served to conceal an animal from detection. Lacking any valid scientific proof for his opinions, Thayer could not be trusted as a reputable scientist. He was simply an artist.

Thayer’s impression on the field of military camouflage, however, could not be undone, and multiple styles of camouflaged military apparel were being used when World War I and World War II dominated global headlines. From specialized patterns for planes to the ragged ghillie suit, camouflage became a military commodity.

Born in the highlands of Scotland, ghillie suits were first worn by shepherds and hunting guides. Deriving its name from a Gaelic word meaning “servant,” a ghillie would wear long robes designed to resemble heavy foliage and sometimes be hired by a landowner as a gamekeeper, hiding and waiting in the woods, ready to attack would-be poachers or stave off predators. The loose strips of fabric on a ghillie suit looked like leaves fluttering in the breeze and broke up its wearer’s outline.

The ghillie suit made its first appearance in warfare in South Africa when a Scottish Highland regiment of the British Army used specially trained soldiers, under the command of Lord Lovat, to fight in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). These Lovat Scouts, as they were known, became the British Army’s first sniper unit in World War I and were used again, with much success, against the Germans in World War II.

Military camouflage continued to change over the years, being adapted to different environments and climates. In the late 1970s, a revolutionary new digital camouflage made an appearance. Called “Dual-Tex,” it was a product of Lieutenant Colonel Tim O’Neill (U.S. Army, Retired). A former West Point professor of engineering psychology, Colonel O’Neill now works as an independent consultant on topics ranging from camouflage technology to counterterrorism. He is widely considered to be the “Father of Digital Camouflage.”

“Digital camouflage, or what I call spatial match,” says Colonel O’Neill, “is a systematic way to match the texture of one’s background so a pattern doesn’t look too fine or too coarse compared to that background.” A lot of digital camouflage is based on fractal geometric algorithms, which is part of the reason why the patterns have a “blocks-and-dots” look, and the goal for these types of patterns is more to fool the enemy’s eyes than exactly match a shrub next to which a soldier happens to be standing.

When hunters are out in the woods, however, they simply want to hide from their prey. For 25 years, hunters have relied on camouflage patterns from manufacturers like Mossy Oak and Realtree to make them blend in with their hunting grounds. Still built on the principles of intuitive mimicry, a lot of commercial camouflage owes its roots to Jim Crumley’s Trebark Camouflage pattern, which was Bill Jordan’s noted inspiration for starting Realtree.

“Bill Jordan realized that deer don’t buy camouflage. People buy camouflage,” says Dodd Clifton, Realtree’s marketing manager. “So he went about creating very versatile camouflage patterns that didn’t look like any one thing, but had the right colors and right pattern to work across a broad spectrum of habitats.”

“It’s hard to have any one pattern to cover an entire palate,” says Clifton, “but Realtree AP (All-Purpose) comes close, and as the name implies it works in all instances, from duck hunting to deer hunting.” Realtree AP has been a top-selling camouflage pattern in the industry since its release two years ago.

And in regards to the camouflage industry, “five years ago, you could have said we’re all reproducing elements of nature and printing them on a fabric,” explains Clifton. But now there’s a little different trend toward this digital look. However, I’m not going to be a believer that anything is going to be more effective in the field than what is in the field itself—the actual bark, leaf, limb, elements—which you find in a traditional camouflage pattern.”

The new “digital look” in hunting camouflage is being produced by W.L. Gore and Associates (makers of GORE-TEX), in partnership with Sitka Gear. Known as GORE OPTIFADE Concealment, this new digitally-based camouflage drew on Colonel Tim O’Neill’s extensive camouflage expertise and Dr. Jay Neitz’s (see sidebar) ungulate vision research, with both men serving as advisors for Gore.

“For the development of OPTIFADE,” says Colonel O’Neill, “instead of taking actual things—leaves, branches and moss—from an imaginary background, we extracted the ‘invariant properties’ in the environment—things that don’t change—like some baseline colors and general shapes.”

The GORE OPTIFADE pattern is a blend of micro and macro-patterns printed in muted colors. The result is a camouflage with a fractal-based, “digital” look that both blends a hunter with the surrounding environment (micro) and breaks up the symmetry of the body so the hunter is not recognized by ungulates as a predator (macro).

Leopard’s spots and tiger’s stripes illustrate the differences between micro-patterns and macro-patterns. Leopards have a micro-pattern camouflage that aids them with their hunting style, which is to sit and wait for their prey to get close before they ambush. A tiger’s stripes suit its own hunting style, which is to stalk its prey, by breaking up its outline as it moves in closer to its prey.

“Sitka’s concept was to create a paradigm shift within the industry,” explains Jonathan Hart, Sitka Gear’s co-founder. “We wanted to couple the highest-quality clothing with a different way of seeing camouflage.” Gore introduced the idea of its science-based OPTIFADE Concealment pattern to Sitka Gear, “and our brands were in line enough that it made sense,” Hart explains. “There’s nobody else doing what we’re trying to do.”

This rich and unfolding history of camouflage aptly illustrates the age-old saga between hunters and the hunted. “As predators get better,” says wilderness instructor Bill McConnell, “prey need to evolve. As prey evolve, predators have to evolve. This has been going on for a long time.”