Aany survival sites discuss being visible in a survival situation. They talk about signaling for rescue with smoke or signal mirrors. They talk about the fastest way to be spotted by other people.
What if you do not want to be seen? What if you have escaped from captors and are on the run? What if you have bugged out into the woods and do not want others to steal your resources. These are very real scenarios for which everyone should prepare.
One of the easiest things to be spotted when bugging out is your shelter. Often, bugout shelters can be large and can easily be spotted against the horizon or a wooded background.
If you do not properly hide your shelter, you could have people storming your camp in a matter of minutes. There are several ways to keep your shelter hidden, and I will cover the most important strategies.
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Ready-Made Hidden Shelters
The easiest way to keep your shelter hidden is to use shelters that Mother Nature provides for you. This is especially effective if you only plan to spend a few nights in the shelter.
Caves are a great example. People walking by would never know that it was a shelter unless they spot you inside.
Many caves are deep enough and dark enough that you can remain invisible all day. It may not be the most comfortable option, but you can always drag some leaves or spruce boughs in to make a bed.
Be cautious with fire in a cave. The heat can crack overhead rocks and cause them to collapse.
If you are dealing with deep snow, the base of a spruce tree is a good option. Typically the branches of the spruce have kept snow off of the ground at the base.
There is going to be a layer of dry needles on the ground for bedding and the overhead branches provide some protection above.
The deep snow shields you from the side so you are not visible. You can even remove a few branches and stretch them across the opening so you are completely hidden. It is a quick, dry, and well camouflaged option.
Trench shelters are a great way to stay invisible in any climate. These are shelters where you dig a trench just wide enough and deep enough to fit your body.
You line the bottom with natural bedding material. Then once inside you pull spruce boughs over top.
This shelter is great to protect you from the wind or snow. In the cold it helps hold in your body heat without a fire. In addition, somebody would almost have to step on you to know it was a shelter.
Another option for deep snow is building a snow cave shelter. This is where you dig in to the side of a snow drift at least four feet deep and carve out a cave in which to sleep. It will protect you from the wind, and you can even light a candle for a little warmth if you build it right.
From a distance, a snow cave is not going to be visible. If you are in a pinch, this shelter could save you from hypothermia and frostbite while keeping you hidden.
Building onto Natural Structures
The second best way to build a hidden lean-to shelter is to build onto a natural structure.
For example, if you find a dead tree that has broken off four feet up the trunk, lean some branches on the fallen portion, then pile insulation on top. This is as quick of a build as you can ask for and it blends fairly well:
If you have a rock overhang, build a bed underneath and lean branches at an angle against the rock.
Again, this is super simple and blends in fairly well. Using the resources you are given is one of the most important strategies for efficiency in a survival situation.
If you are going to build a shelter in the traditional fashion, make sure you use natural materials.
Tree branches, rocks, and leaves all blend into the natural colors of the forest. If you build using these materials, you will still be camouflaged from a distance.
If an intruder gets close enough they will notice that the structure is man-made. However, the odds of them stumbling across your natural shelter are much less than if it were visible from a distance.
If you feel the need to use man made materials such as a tarp or a tent, make sure you insulate it with natural materials.
Any shelter can be made warmer with a thick layer of insulation. This also happens to be great camouflage.
Once you construct your tarp shelter or erect your tent, use leaves or spruce boughs to cover the synthetic material.
Be cautious not to poke any holes, but a layer that is 2 – 3 feet thick will make you invisible from a distance, and make your shelter much warmer.
Principles of Camouflage
So all of this information is probably pretty fascinating, but if you don’t already have a solid understanding of camouflage theory it isn’t going to be very actionable for you.
Understanding the principles of camouflage will enable you to properly assess your shelter in context and apply the correct adaptations to reduce visibility. If you already have a shelter that is well camouflaged, naturally or otherwise, it will allow you to take its concealment factor to the next level.
Don’t worry, we aren’t going to be getting too far in the woods, if you’ll pardon the pun, regarding the hard science of camouflage but will instead be dealing with it in plain language using concepts that are easy for anyone to understand.
All you need to know is that by striving to understand these principles you’ll have the tools you need to hack the senses and perceptions of people who are looking for you, or those who might notice you inadvertently.
Concerning camouflage theory, the basis of visual concealment, our six principles are movement, color, shape, shine, shadow and silhouette.
There are few things in existence that will attract the human eye with more certainty and greater rapidity than movement. Any movement which is sudden, rapid, or jerky will attract the eye with a near supernatural compulsion.
We jump at sudden movements, and can instantly detect a rapid shift in the visual composition of our field of view. Your grandad knew that it was essential to sit perfectly still when hunting deer if you wanted success.
You might not be hunting deer, and you might not even be around, but movement in your shelter can betray its position. It might be the gentle swaying or, even worse, sudden flapping of some material, maybe an entrance to your tent, perhaps a poorly placed piece of cut foliage used for camouflage.
It is essential that you assess both your shelter itself and any camouflage measures you have taken for movement, and not just in calm conditions.
The very first thing you are likely to notice about a thing you’re observing is its color, and it is no wonder that color is the foremost element of camouflage so long as the item in question isn’t moving.
Generally speaking, the color of your shelter should match the environment you are in. lush vegetation mandates varying shades of green, whereas dying or autumnal vegetation will range from reds to browns. Desert conditions will result in a variety of colors, but typically light tans, yellows and ochres.
Physiologically, the human eye is hardwired to notice colors that clash or contrast with the environment, and particularly inclined to notice certain garish, high visibility colors.
Yellows, reds, day-glow greens and vibrant orange are particularly noticeable, and it is no wonder that these are the colors most commonly employed to indicate caution, danger or otherwise draw attention. Conversely, other colors do not draw the eye, particularly tans and medium gray colors.
It stands to reason then that your camouflage efforts should be primarily oriented toward matching the shelter to the color of the surrounding environment. Exact is best, but getting as close as you can as usually adequate, at least from a distance.
The best way to do this is by employing natural vegetation from the immediate area, but keep in mind that as that vegetation dies it will change color and not for the better.
Shape is another crucial principle of camouflage, or more specifically breaking up, disrupting or otherwise completely hiding the shape of the thing that we are trying to conceal from prying eyes. This concept works in layers, and is quite complex physiologically, but in practical terms quite simple.
Consider a hunter. A hunter is looking for the shape of his quarry among the background visual clutter of the environment that his quarry resides in. If one is hunting deer, then we will be looking for the shape, or outline of a deer. But what does a deer look like?
A deer looks different from the front and back then it does from the sides, and each part of a deer has a distinct shape. Much of the time, it is enough to visually recognize the shape of only a part of something that is hidden in order to reveal it.
If you hunt, or anyone in your family hunts, they will be happy to regale you of a time they spotted their prey when they recognized a small part of it, the tail, the ear, snout or something else.
Accordingly, your shelter might be completely concealed, to your eye, but if any component of it or an obvious feature of it is recognizable this is what might betray the whole thing to an observer.
Therefore, you must stop at nothing to completely disrupt the shape of your shelter and particularly the shape of any typical, regular or especially recognizable components. This is most easily done using a variety of means, either physically blocking line of sight to it, boldly contrasting colors and shadows achieved through a pattern or something else.
If the human eye is drawn to one thing more than anything else, it is light.
Our entire visual system functions because of its interactions with light. It is no surprise then that it is light, specifically the presence and interplay of light on a surface where it should not be, that could betray all of your hard work you have done here to four camouflaging your shelter. What I am referring to is shine, the reflection or visual appearance of light striking any given service.
Glossy, shiny, reflective surfaces are the enemy. Most natural features in nature have a very low reflective index, and it is difficult to summarize just how many things could betray you and your shelter.
Metal buckles or stakes, the glossy, plasticized surface of a tarp or tent, a surface that becomes especially shiny once it is wet, anything. Your very own skin is another highly reflective surface, especially when you are sweaty.
More than you might think, these reflective surfaces can be especially noticeable in dark conditions, even if it is only moonlight or starlight reflecting off of them.
Reducing or eliminating shine is a matter of using specialized camouflage paint, abrasion, soil or other materials to eliminate this reflective quality of the materials in question. Metal components can be blackened with soot or given a matte finish using any number of paints and coatings for the purpose.
Shadows are a double-edged sword when it comes to our concealment efforts. Real live shadows generated in the environment can help conceal you, especially in times of darkness or stark differences in the level of illumination in the environment.
You can even use simulated shadows painted on your equipment or your shelter to help conceal, typically represented by the darkest colors in the palate.
But be warned, shadows can work against you. The shadows that your shelter casts can actually serve as a visual indicator to the presence of an obstruction in the environment that shouldn’t be there. Particularly egregious shadows might very literally point to your location like a giant, cartoon arrow.
Learning to maximize the use of shadow while minimizing detrimental shadow is difficult, and takes considerable practice.
The best thing you can do is take the time to observe and assess your camouflage efforts on your shelter from various directions at various times of day while paying close attention to any shadows that seem to grab your attention. Only then can you work to eliminate them.
Silhouette is a factor that is closely related to shape, and maybe thought of as the outline of an object, the perimeter of the shape if you will. Silhouette can inform us about the nature of an object and its presence even if no other visual details are discernible.
Consider the classic example of skyline, seeing an object moving or standing at the crest of a hill sharply backlit by the setting or rising sun.
In the right conditions, silhouette can betray your presence utterly despite how good your other efforts are. Perfect, high-fidelity color, concealment of shape and total elimination of shine may come to nothing if the viewpoint of the observer can silhouette you in such a way that your shelter becomes visible.
Approaches to Concealing Your Shelter
Now the time has come to actually apply the principles you have learned to your specific shelter situation. Various camouflage approaches have varying levels of merit depending on the environment and the materials you have at hand.
No matter what, though, there is always a way to implement effective camouflage if you can put in the work.
Consider the following methodologies and you’re bound to find at least one that will work for your shelter.
Countershading is a method of camouflage designed to spoof the signature of an object’s shadow against the background it resides in.
Done correctly, the eyes of observers will move right past it completely unawares. Countershading is one of the most common and popular forms of camouflage, both for human endeavor and found in nature.
Consider the tan over white or cream coloration of the common squirrel. The tan upper surfaces contrast with the light under parts to make them effectively invisible in their natural habitat when they aren’t moving.
That is a great example of countershading in action! Counter trading is also commonly seen on aerial vehicles and even on ground vehicles operating in steep or mountainous terrain.
You can use counter shading on your shelter, especially a man-made shelter, to create a contour line that better blends in with the shadow and shady color of the surrounding environment, preventing the color of your shelter, even if it matches closely, from sticking out too much.
Blending is a technique that is designed principally to take care of concerns regarding the shape and silhouette of your shelter.
Effective blending can make the object being concealed nearly invisible if it matches the background color and text her with a high degree of fidelity. Blending is also a camouflage technique that appears time and time again in nature.
Consider the stealthy, sneaky Copperhead lying motionless on the forest floor amid the leaves of fall. The scaly texture and matt, matching colors make these reptiles invisible for all practical purposes, as many unfortunate woodland travelers find out too late!
Blending is most easily accomplished for your shelter by making use of the natural materials found in the immediate area. Cut vegetation, foliage, mosses, soil and even rocks can all be used to help your shelter or the entrance to it fade away completely into the background.
Well chosen man-made options like camouflage netting may also work well as they can cover the all important textural component of blending.
Mimicry is a method of camouflage that will make your shelter or the entrance to your shelter look like something else that is typically found in the environment.
You might use a natural looking pile of sticks, twigs and even small logs covered with undisturbed mosses and leaves to conceal the entrance to a dugout or bunker. Done correctly, you’ll find that mimicry is among the most effective methods of camouflage.
However, care must be taken because a botched mimicry job will have the opposite effect, attracting attention instead of avoiding it. The item you are mimicking must appear in all ways natural and in an expected place.
Ruption is a simple technique that is intended only to break up the shape and outline of the object being camouflaged.
Ruption is more effective at a distance, and less effective up close, but has a major advantages and that it is easy to implement using a variety of materials for large objects or small, and this makes it perfect for improvised or field expedient camouflage jobs.
In short, whatever is camouflaged using ruption techniques is it far less recognizable or even noticeable at a distance. This technique is found semi-regularly in nature, typically among reptiles and insects, but is extremely popular in both commercial and military camouflage.
One great example of a ruption-centric camouflage pattern is the time-honored, time tested and it greatly loved US military temperate woodland or M81 pattern. Bold, interlocking blobs or patches of environment appropriate colors serve to disrupt both shape and outline.
Supplies to Hide Your Shelter
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There are items that you can purchase that may help you camouflage your shelter. They do make tarps with a camo pattern. This can be used to actually build your shelter, or you can drape it over your tent to help it blend in.
You have also probably seen the camouflage netting that the military uses to hide their camps from surveillance planes. As long as you get netting that matches your environment, this can be very effective.
However, it can be expensive and it is easy for it to get tangled with other items in your pack.
Angle of Observation
Do not forget that you are not just hiding your shelter from people and vehicles on the ground. It’s very common for helicopters, planes, and drones to be used for searches.
In many cases, it is easier for your camp to be spotted from above than from the ground. Try to build your camp in an area with decent overhead cover.
If you cannot find overhead cover, camouflage your shelter on both the sides and the top.
It is important that you are careful to avoid any objects that will tip off other people as to your location.
Do not use any brightly colored cordage for constructing your shelter. If you have no other choice, cover it in mud once it is tied.
Do not leave any shiny objects outside of your shelter that could reflect light back to other people. Try to find a tent or tarp that has dull colors so it is easier to disguise. You can also bring some camo duct tape to cover up any spots that may stand out.
Hiding your Fire
Another aspect of your shelter area that must be mentioned is the fire. Flames from a fire can be seen for miles, and some smoke columns can be seen for dozens of miles.
Sure, you can build the fire inside your shelter, but this is tricky: it needs proper ventilation, and should be tall and wide enough so it doesn’t catch fire. You’d have to keep the fire quite small, too.
The Dakota fire pit is the solution. Find a spot under a tree thick with foliage and dig a pit about two feet wide and two feet deep.
The branches of the tree will break up the smoke so it is much thinner as it rises above the tree line. Dig a second pit six inches from the first. Then tunnel at the base to connect them.
You can build your fire in the bottom of one pit, and the other will draw in oxygen. The flames should then be below ground level and no longer visible to outsiders.
If you plan to say with one shelter for several days at a time, it is important that your actions do not lead people back to your shelter.
When travelling from your shelter to search for water or food, try to avoid using the same path more than once. This will make it harder for people to track you back to your camp.
Also, make sure your appearance is camouflaged. Use camo clothing or mud to cover skin and help break up your profile against your background.
If moving at night, use soot from your fire to black out your face and hands. Do not make any sudden movements and you should not draw much attention.
None of us want to think we would ever be in a situation like this. What could we ever do to have somebody or a group of somebodies chasing us through the wilderness, right? It could happen. Desperate people do desperate things.
When SHTF people will be frantic and will go after anybody who might have the resources to help. Most people will not be prepared.
The average American would not last more than a few days without running water and electricity. Those that do not prepare will try to take from those that do prepare.
If that situation does happen, you want to disappear and leave no trace. When you bug out there needs to be zero chance of anybody finding you. This is not something you just stumble into.
Proper camouflage takes a good plan and good execution. There would be nothing worse than putting hours into building a shelter only to realize that it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Take the time to do it right. This shelter will be your only real security for whatever amount of time you spend on the run. Make sure that it is secure.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.