“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” – Ernest Hemingway
The ability to move through the woods without being detected is a lost art. Once upon a time, it may have meant whether you were bringing food home (hunting) or whether you might live to fight another day (evasion). If times change, however, will you have the skills to stay hidden while traveling on foot?
Speaking as a professional tracker, if your objective is to stay hidden and move undetected, I have some advice on how to make my job of finding you more difficult.
A Brief History of Tracking
Our ancestors discovered and consequentially developed the benefits of the art of evasion as their needs were mainly focused on finding food as well as protecting their communities. In such a way, they started tracking animals by following their trails from feeding areas. They also commenced to patrol the borders of their villages in an effort to forecast the attacks of enemies and predators. Once acquired, they passed this skill to their descendants, recognizing the high value of it.
While largely a skill of the past, it still exists in some parts of the world today. Within primal communities, the art of tracking is crucial to hunters. In secluded villages of all over the world like Dogon (West Africa), Himba (Namibia), Papuasi (New Guinea), or Ayoreo (Paraguay). Tracking became – and is still today – an essential part of everyday life.
As a skill, reading and following tracks has been successfully handed down during the centuries. It has shown noticeable military and reconnaissance applications. For example:
- During the American Indian Wars (1609-1924), a large number of Native Americans were employed as Scouts.
- in 1755, Robert Rogers founded the well-known Rogers’ Rangers, excellent frontiersmen and highly skilled trackers. They transcribed the first main guidelines on the application of tracking in tactical context.
- Later on, trappers opened the way to uncharted territories also thanks to their tracking skills, often developed through the strict connections they had with native population.
This art has been a trustful companion to many soldiers, from Vietnam War to Malaysia, Rhodesia, Borneo, and Cyprus.
After some decades of oblivion, the United States Marines decided to reintroduce a specific program based on Tracking in 2007 inside “Combat Hunter Program” at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. In fact, it happened to be extremely useful in detecting any disturbance of the soil due to the insertion of C-IED (Improvised Explosive Devices). Tracking officially came back in style.
Tracking, Detection, and Evasion
The ancient art of tracking is still a remarkable skill to have when it comes to detecting, reading, and following human, animal, or vehicle tracks. Not only can you track missing persons or find prey, it can also help you understand the basics of moving through an area (in the great outdoors as well as inside a metropolis) without being spotted.
The first step in learning how to reduce the signs of your passage is to keep in mind that when we move, we always leave evidence (macro, micro, or both) of our passage. This evidence can be the result of our footprints as well as something caused by any other part of our upper body (touching trees, disturbing moss, sitting on logs, etc.).
The Role of the Terrain
Your ability to successfully evade pursuers depends on the movement you are doing, by the thickness of the vegetation, not least of all by the gear you are carrying. Tracking and evasion must be examined through the whole scenario. I am speaking of global geographical features, like steep slopes, vegetation, natural obstacles, presence – or absence – of routes. Terrain can be our best ally as well as our worst enemy.
If you are acquainted with a certain wooded area because of the ordinary time you spend in the woods, practicing survival, becoming a bushcraft prepper, or any other kind of activity, you are more aware of how the terrain reacts to your movements during different seasons and with various weather conditions. Subsequently, you are more conscious of which sections of that specific area are more likely to offer minor evidence of your passage thanks to the massive presence of craggy or rocky terrain, which make any tracking job extremely difficult.
If you have already gained and developed the mindset of a tracker, you are more prone to consolidate a sort of mental database of how tracks appear in a determined area, keeping in mind to always consider the variability of weather conditions. Weather can quickly affect the “aging” of tracks until it makes them completely disappear.
General Evasion Strategies
If you need to move through the woods in pursuit of wild game, to bypass potential human threats, or some other reason, there are some basic steps you can take to stay hidden.
Planning your actions is surely the first step to consider since a meticulous preparation always makes the difference. The British S.A.S. saying “take risks early” represents a remarkable starting point.
Get a GPS and a Map and Compass
Getting a map of the area of your interest is the very first step. Relying on a good GPS is ideal as it eliminates noisy paper maps that can quickly give away your position either to animals or humans.
In case you can’t have a GPS available (or the signal appears to be poor, or you just want to save batteries), you can proceed by using a topographical map and a basic-yet-decent compass, always considering the traits of the terrain. Of course, you should have a paper map regardless as a fail-safe way to find your way when electronics inevitably fail. Just make sure you know how to use map and compass before you need it. (See Map Reading and Land Navigation.)
Travel the Correct Routes
Keep away from the main roads, open areas, and steep slopes. Make sure to choose a less-traveled path which may be safer and more secluded. You may think you are saving time by using slopes, which may be true, but the declivity of the terrain will surely show more evidence of your movements due to the release of a major percentage of kinetic energy and may cause physical injuries (rolling an ankle, for example).
Staying low in the woods, implementing a stalking style of walk (which means to slightly bend on your knees, moving silently and smoothly throughout the vegetation, as recommended by the legendary tracker Tom Brown, author of Science and Art of Tracking) is unquestionably the better strategy to adopt.
Camouflage, Noise and Light Discipline
A proper camouflage is highly recommended if your purpose is to blend into the surrounding greenery and foliage. Choose camouflage that accurately reflects the surroundings and season you are in. Account for the types of local trees, plants, and bushes.
The importance of blending includes the need for a massive reduction of any kind of mechanical sound which does not exist in nature. Examples include the use of zippers. You can remedy this to some degree by having a can of all-purpose wax. Apply a light layer to all your gear and eliminate or replace any gear that produces a distinctive sound.
Forget the idea of bringing bulky gear with you. It will be immediately noticeable from far away. Carrying an ergonomic backpack will work far better, and it will be not only lighter to carry, but it will facilitate all your movements. This is particularly true when you will approach stalking techniques or if you want to set any outpost or observation point. Remember that sounds appear to be four times closer than the reality.
The use of flashlights must be massively reduced and regulated for obvious reasons. I would highly recommend you consider the possibility of employing a camping light, applying crepe paper to make it more blurry, or using a flashlight with red and filters.
“Moving quietly, yet quickly” will be your motto if you want to achieve the goal of moving like a ghost.
Leave No Trace – Tracking Evasion Strategies
A meticulous tracker gains experience throughout his/her “dirt time” (in tracking terminology, time spent tracking people or animals). In this way, they can consolidate a mental database of how tracks appear in certain context. They are also better able to account for the variability of weather conditions and their effect on the “aging” of tracks and how long they will remain visible.
Nonetheless, if you find yourself in an unfamiliar place and you want to move across it leaving minimal signs, you need to:
- scan the area in order to get as much information as possible,
- look for evidence of recent passage by other people and/or vehicles,
- index the terrain in order to understand how the soil reacts to your stepping on it, and
- carry only essential gear in order to be lighter and leave more shallow footprints.
Sticking to these simple rules will provide you with the essential cornerstones for reducing evidence of your passage in an area.
In case you find yourself in a brand new area, you necessarily commit yourself to a list of basic actions in order not to leave macro signs of your passage. This includes:
- not walking on any wet terrain that you can otherwise step over (by that, you will avoid to leave the regular design of your shoe sole pattern),
- walking on rocks and/or pebbles,
- not bending any plant or twig if you can simply move them out of the way,
- avoiding the breaking anything that you can easily flex, and
- not cutting wood, starting fires, or using strong perfumes (even toothpaste).
Other Creative Methods
In the attempt to reduce or even erase the track line you left, there are a lot of other creative ways you have probably noticed in good, old western movies. This includes brushing out or camouflaging the tracks, walking backwards, walking inside a river or stream, crossing a wadi (Arabic word which stands for dry river bed), wearing shoes with no shredded sole, wearing socks on shoes, or even wearing shoes which show hooves or claws! These, collectively, are called anti-tracking shoes.
Some of these odd shoes can be find on sale online, but most of the time are the result of individual craftsmanship. Shoes with undefined pattern, instead, are easily found in military surplus stores. I am pretty sure you can find them with a little effort. An Italian brand called “Superga” fabricates tennis shoes with that kind of pattern. You will have no issue grabbing a pair on Amazon!
Stay Hidden Summary
Do all these techniques really work if you want to move through an area like a ghost? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It all depends on the terrain and thickness of the vegetation. At the end of the day, experienced trackers are pretty well-trained to spot and identity any deception technique applied, as they are an evidence of passage in themselves.
Before committing yourself to the goal of reducing all your tracks in any kind of terrain, you should become a proficient and smart tracker. Nothing works better for this than experience and some good dirt time.
My recommendation is to always use common sense and intuition. If you know how to track, you will be able to understand where exactly your tracks will be less evident.
Keep in mind that anti-trackers are, in fact, excellent trackers.
Have you tried tracking – or evading?