Vehicle Camouflage for Preppers

Throughout my time writing for Survival Sullivan, I’ve gotten many requests by fellow preppers to cover an important subject when it comes to bugging out: vehicle camouflage. While camouflaging your vehicle is not easy, it is possible with the right amount of patience and materials.

Why camouflage your vehicle? The answer is simple; vehicles have very distinct characteristics that are easily identifiable from long distances. The most distinct ones on a vehicle are its shape, light reflection from glass, noise, and tracks. While vehicle tracks are very difficult to camouflage, it’s possible (with cooperating terrain).

There are many situations where camouflaging your vehicle can come in handy. Remote controlled drones with cameras are very popular in today’s world, so you can’t rule out aerial surveillance by looters when SHTF.

Without the proper camouflage, your vehicle will stick out like a sore thumb, even at great distances from above. Vehicle camouflage can also come in handy when you’re at your BOL against passerby’s who may not know about your hidden location.

Thankfully, camouflaging your vehicle is not as different from camouflaging yourself as you may think. In my article “Camouflage for Preppers”, I cover key camouflaging basics that can help you as you transition from camouflaging yourself, to camouflaging your vehicle.

Contouring areas on your vehicle have the same principles as contouring ridges on your face. If you do enough research on how to camouflage yourself, you’ll have a much easier time learning how to camouflage your vehicle.

Test Paint Patterns

Painting your vehicle is an excellent base of camouflage, but shouldn’t be used as a primary source of camo. Contouring your vehicle can dramatically help break up the distinct shape of your vehicle, making it difficult to identify at great distances. However, with paint alone, it’ll just look like a vehicle with paint at closer distances.

Before you waste a perfectly good vehicle by painting it, make sure that you test out different paint patterns first. Perfecting camouflage patterns takes a lot of practice, so you’ll want to have a few large-sized panels of wood to paint different patterns on.

When you’re practicing your patterns, try different variants of shapes, circles, lines, and abstract patterns. This way, you’ll know what works best for each type of terrain that you may find yourself in, as well as what works best for what type of vehicle you have.

You should never do something for the first time when the SHTF as a prepper. Use this valuable time to practice.

If you’re not very comfortable using a complex camouflage design for your paint job, no worries. You can always just spray a single-tone coat of paint on your vehicle. Any type of paint that you lay on your vehicle should be a dull matte color. This way, you’ll reduce the shine that your vehicle’s paint gives off.

Remember, any type of metal has somewhat of a shine when it gets wet. For this reason, you’ll want to look at another type of camouflage to compliment your paint job.

There are many different color variations to choose from when it comes to painting your vehicle, as there are many different colors in the wilderness. Seasons, climate, and foliage all dictate which colors you should choose from, so you don’t want to pick the traditional “Military BDU” color scheme as an end-all-be-all paint pattern.

Luckily for you, I’ve done some research for different color schemes for different areas:

  • Winter, US-Verdant: Forrest green, field drab, sand, black.
  • Snow with trees and shrubs: Forrest green, white, sand, black.
  • Snow with open terrain: White, field drab, sand, black.
  • Summer, US-Verdant: Forrest green, light green, sand, black.
  • Tropics-Verdant: Forrest green, dark green, light green, black.
  • Red Desert: Earth red, earth yellow, sand, black.
  • Gray Desert: Sand, field drab, earth yellow, black.

These are just some examples of different color schemes depending on your area, but you can play around with different colors to fit the area that you’ll be in. The area you’re in, as well as that area’s color scheme, will depict what color will be your primary color when you’re laying your paint on your vehicle.

Once you’ve painted a color scheme, as well as a pattern on the wood you’re practicing on, place the wood against an object matching the color scheme. Then, step back and observe how well it blends in.

If it’s highly visible, then play with different schemes until you’ve gotten a base-line of knowledge down on how to use color schemes to your advantage depending on the area you’re in.

Improvised Camo Paint and Other Solutions

Having the right tools for any job is only going to make the work easier, but sometimes through either happenstance or a lack of preparation we won’t have what we need to do the job properly. In such a case, any good prepper must be ready to improvise.

Luckily, improvising paint and other environment specific camo colorings is actually pretty simple, and often uses commonly available materials. You can even whip up stencils and other masking tools for developing a truly impressive pattern when required!

When it comes to field expedient paint, the U.S. military has already figured all of this out for us.

Consulting Field Manual 20-3: Camouflage and Concealment gives us several options that can be mixed and matched for use in any environment and to achieve any pattern required. It even helpfully provides detailed proportions and preparation instructions.

One thing you must be careful of, though: several of the ingredients shared on these lists are flammable, and you should take great caution that you don’t prepare or apply any of these paints near a source of ignition, like a hot part on a vehicle, perhaps. And try to keep the paint off your skin!

Matte Paint

Combine a bar of soap with 3 gallons of water, slowly add one gallon of oil. Add clay and soil in varying amounts to change color. Canned milk or powdered eggs will increase adhesion of paint. Fine gravel or sand can add texture.

Gloss Paint

Combine 2 gallons of water with 1 gallon of oil and 2 gallons of clay. Slowly stir in earth for color, thin mixture as needed with gasoline or water. Canned milk or eggs will increase adhesion of paint. Fine gravel or sand can add texture.

Gray Drab Paint

Combine soot and paraffin. Separately mix 8 gallons of water with 2 bars of soap. Slowly combine soot and paraffin mixture to soapy water. Add soil as needed for color. Canned milk or powdered eggs will increase adhesion of paint. Fine gravel or sand can add texture.

Combine these paints with some stencils made from heavy sheet cardboard or old, cut up tarps and you can quickly add or modify your vehicle’s existing camouflage. Speaking of tarps, it is possible to field improvise a camo tarp to cover your vehicle using these same paints, or any spray paint you might have handy.

All you need to do is find a cloth tarp and then paint it thoroughly with any of the paints above or some other paint. It helps prevent cracking if the paint is thinned down, first.

If you are starting off with a camo-colored tarp, so much the better. Browns and olive drab greens are among the best for this purpose.

Off-the-Shelf Vehicle Camo Options

You don’t always have to go through the painstaking assembly of a handcrafted vehicle camo net or the sometimes persnickety process of camouflaging your vehicle utilizing picked vegetation from the immediate area.

I must emphasize again that nothing will really replace these skills for adaptability and performance, and for the simple fact that knowledge weighs nothing, but you should rejoice and make use of off the shelf vehicle camo options to supplement these skills and procedures.

First, you can purchase camouflage netting, either military surplus or new commercial production, from a wide variety of retailers, locally from military surplus and outdoor or camping superstores and online from innumerable retailers. This netting is available in a variety of textures and colors to suit any environment and application. 

Although rarely possessing as much efficacy as a handcrafted version, they can work well, especially in tandem with proper camouflage paint and some choice additions of vegetation. Lightweight and easy to transport, they are an indispensable addition to your repertoire, especially for mobile operations and for camouflaging large or oddly shaped vehicles or trailers.

Another option that might be worthwhile is a professionally applied vehicle wrap in a camouflage pattern suitable for your area. These must be chosen with some care, as the plasticky material that these wraps are made of are typically glossy and can reflect light in a highly artificial way, making them stand out more.

They have the advantage of being relatively cost effective and can serve as a good base coat for camouflage that can later be removed just as easily in order to change the appearance of your vehicle back to factory normal.

Camouflage Netting

Camouflage netting has been used in the military for decades, and is highly effective (if used right) against aerial surveillance, as well as ground surveillance at a distance. I highly recommend pairing a camouflage paint job with camouflage netting to increase your concealability.

While you can purchase camouflage netting, I recommend making your own. Store-bought netting is definitely effective, but it can become quite expensive. By all means, if you have the money to spend, buy the netting. This will save you a lot of time and effort, thus giving you more time to practice other prepping techniques.

To build camouflage netting, you’ll need to dedicate at least a week of your time until the netting is ready for use. This is because of scent concealment, which is a crucial factor when it comes to camouflage.

The netting you’ll use is shrimp net, which can have quite the odor if you buy it used. No worries, I’ll go over how to get rid of this scent as well.

How to Build a Camouflage Net

Materials:

  • Anti-Rot Treated Shrimp Net (measure your vehicle for measurements) – if you need to purchase multiple nets, you can attach them together using parachute cord as long as you do so very tightly.
  • Non-Scented Laundry Detergent
  • Scent-Concealment Spray (optional)
  • Natural Foliage

Instructions:

  1. Cut the netting to size. If it’s too small, refer to the direction I gave you in the material section.
  2. Wash the netting in your bathtub with the detergent referenced above.
  3. Dry the netting on a clothesline outdoors.
  4. If the netting still has a distinct smell to it, repeat steps two and three until the scent is gone.
  5. Weave twigs and branches through the net (your vehicle may get scratched during the process of laying the netting on it). Ensure that the foliage is natural to the area you’re in. If you don’t have a lot of trees nearby, use tall grass.
  6. Weave leaves through the netting so that they cover the base metal of the vehicle. If there are no leaves around your area, refer back to step five, section A.
  7. Leave the netting outdoors hanging for three to five days to help rid the net of any remaining scent.

Making your own vehicle camouflage netting isn’t as difficult as you may think; however, it’s very time consuming. Make sure that you’re able to compact the netting after you make it, to ensure easy storage in your vehicle when you need to drive it.

If done properly, camouflage netting is a very effective way to conceal your vehicle (if paired with a base coat of color-schemed matte paint).

Living vs. Dead Vegetation

As described above, vegetation makes a great resource for concealing vehicles of all kinds. So long as the vegetation belongs in the immediate environment where the vehicle is located, and is correct in context you’ll rarely go wrong with breaking up the shape and outline of a vehicle with plant matter.

However, we would be remiss if we did not discuss the issues attendant with the use of vegetation for camouflage.

Generally speaking, if you were going to make use of vegetation for camo you’re going to need to cut or remove plants or parts of plants to do the job.

You shouldn’t need me to tell you this, but any part of a plant that you cut off, pull up or otherwise remove from the host, to include whole plants, will begin to die pretty much immediately.

Dying and dead vegetation looks radically different from living vegetation. The texture changes, the shape changes and perhaps most importantly at distance the color changes, going from a verdant green or yellow to a crispy brown.

This might not be an issue during the fall or against the backdrop of an area that is completely covered in deadfall and other detritus, but if you think this will pass muster against a background of living plants you are sorely mistaken.

What this means is that any plant matter you use for camouflaging your vehicle will have to be periodically replaced, and depending upon the ambient conditions and the type of plant it might need to be replaced often, making the continued use of such camouflage logistically challenging.

For long-term stays in one place or just in a local area, this can provide additional indicators to your presence as spots begin to become properly defoliated thanks to your scavenging!

There are a few things you can do to offset this, however. First, by harvesting your plant material first thing in the morning before the sun is up you can take advantage of plants that are likely gorged on moisture thanks to condensation occurring at dusk, through nightfall and into the morning. This will keep them looking fresher for longer. 

Also consider taking a little bit from nearby plants at a time, instead of removing entire plants wholesale to fuel your camo usage.

A few missing branches here and there is far less obvious to an observer, especially one who is familiar with the area, compared to a radically altered landscape.

Additionally, in all regions, be they jungle or forest, some plants are well known for remaining green long after they have begun to die, and these can make excellent choices for vehicle camo.

Vehicle Foxholes

In my article “Foxholes in a Tactical Defense”, I cover the basics of digging different types of foxholes that you can use to your advantage when you’re in a defensive posture.

When it comes to your vehicle, foxholes play a similar role. However, unless you have a weapon mounted to your BOV, foxholes are used more to conceal your vehicle compared to the defensive aspect of personnel foxholes.

If you plan on digging a foxhole to conceal your vehicle, plan on digging for hours (or even days). To successfully conceal your vehicle (depending on the size), you’ll need at least an eight-foot-deep, ten-foot-long, and eight-foot-wide hole.

This doesn’t include the ramps in the front, and rear of the vehicle that you’ll need to ensure that you can get the vehicle in (and out) of it. You don’t want to have only one ramp for your vehicle foxhole, in case your only entry/exit point becomes blocked off.

If you have access to the materials, make sure you place wood (or another sturdy material) over the dirt that you just dug into. This way if it rains, you don’t have to worry about trying to dig your BOV out of a mud pit.

While you still run the risk of being bogged down, you’ll greatly reduce the risk if you have another material adding traction over the dirt.

Once your vehicle is in the foxhole, place the camouflage netting over the hole itself. This way, if there is any type of aerial surveillance, the enemy won’t be able to distinguish between normal ground and your foxhole.

Other Indicators

Camouflaging a vehicle is not just a matter of changing its color and concealing its shape and outline. You’ll need to take care to eliminate or minimize other visual indicators that will present because of the vehicle’s presence in the environment. 

Shadows are a big one, particularly the ones cast by tall vehicles like box trucks or enclosed trailers. Also, the sharp, prominent shadow cast by any long materials carried on top of a vehicle or on attached carriers, be they poles, boards or something else, are especially likely to stand out against a well-lit background.

Reflective surfaces are a second likely culprit that can give away the presence of a vehicle, particularly windshield and window glass, chrome or other metal trim and even glossy plastic.

These reflective surfaces can be damped down by completely concealing them with something opaque or lightly glossing over them with anti-reflective treatment or even thinned mud. Note that you must still be able to see out of your vehicle before you can drive and operate it safely, so plan for that eventuality!

Consider also that many vehicles generate their own visible light in the form of lamps, LEDs and other convenience or utility functions.

You might have perfectly camouflaged your SUV for its immediate environment, but a tiny, blinking LED light on the dashboard representing an anti-theft system or just a charging device could be enough to betray its presence from quite a distance. You must be diligent and thorough in eliminating these sources of light.

Placing natural foliage over the windows is a very effective way to conceal your vehicle’s glass. Simply tuck some tall grass where you can in your window creases, along with other natural foliage you can find before placing your camouflage netting over your vehicle.

For snowy areas, pack snow on your vehicle (make sure you allow your vehicle sufficient time to cool down before placing snow on it, or it will melt).

For your headlights and tail lights, you can use many methods of concealment. The easiest method, however, is buying some matte duct tape. This tape won’t give off a shine like regular duct tape will. If you can’t find any, simply place large branches against your vehicle where the lights are.

Use common sense though, make it look natural. If you’re in the middle of a low-grass field (which you shouldn’t be, anyways), don’t cover your vehicle with branches. You’ll just look like a big blob of branches that don’t belong there, which will alert the enemy as much as it would if you didn’t try anything at all.

You should have many different colors of paint, in case you need to change your vehicle’s camouflage base coat during the change of one season to the next.

For a simple base coat to cover the old paint, use black. A darker color will conceal most (if not all) paint already on your vehicle. For this reason, you should have more matte black paint in your vehicle than any other color.

When you’re not in the vehicle, make sure you turn the engine off. This may seem like it’s common sense, but some people prefer to leave the engine running in case they need to make a quick escape.

If concealment is your primary concern, then you need to use noise discipline as well. It’s a small detail, but it could make or break your concealment scheme when it matters most.

Out of Sight is Always Best, but Beware of Leaving Trace!

Camouflaging your vehicle from stem to stern and top to bottom is always a good idea, and when done well can practically make it indistinguishable from the environment around it.

However, vehicles are large and heavy and that means that they often leave telltale indicators of their passage that one should be careful to remediate or conceal if one wishes to remain truly hidden.

Tracks are the most obvious, and are the most likely to be detected especially when made in soft substrate or over impressionable surface coverings.

Snow, mud, sand, grass and the like will leave a beeline to your position. Also take care that you don’t rub against or scrape branches, twigs and other vegetation when trying to squeeze your ride into a tight spot in or near a wooded area.

These “rubs” become more and more noticeable over time, and are easily detectable by a seasoned scout or tracker.

Also, driving across dusty surfaces, be it sand, soot, dirt, or even fine, talcum powder-like debris from destroyed rubble can leave a highly visible lingering cloud that might betray your position and passage for quite a while after you pass.

Some of these traces can be removed or swept away, like tire tracks, but others, like dust in the air, must settle naturally.

Are You Going to Try This?

Camouflaging your vehicle is only as complicated as you make it. Either way, use it as a learning experience while you can. Personally, I don’t recommend spray painting your brand new “A to B” vehicle. You could buy a cheap car or truck to use as your BOV, and use that as your guinea pig for your camouflage paint jobs.

Make sure you have sufficient time if your bug out plan includes digging a foxhole for your vehicle, as these foxholes take a very long time from start to finish.

I suggest you use the prepping time you have now to dig a foxhole near your bug out location (if it’s hidden in the wilderness), this way you can simply park your BOV inside of it when you arrive. To expedite the process of digging, try to outsource to someone who has a backhoe.

No vehicle is completely immune to detection, no matter what you try. However, by using the methods I described in this article, you’ll have a greater chance at keeping it concealed when it matters most.

As I always say, practice makes permanent. If you know of any other legitimate ways to conceal a vehicle that I didn’t describe in this article, feel free to share them in the comments below!

Stay safe.

updated 02/15/2022

5 thoughts on “Vehicle Camouflage for Preppers”

  1. Many years ago I was in an Army Reserve unit. We received orders to change the paint on our vehicles from OD green to camouflage. We had an auto body man in the unit, and he came out in his spare time and did an absolutely beautiful paint job on several. It was a work of art. We had some sort of inspection, and the person doing the motor pool saw the vehicles he had painted and just laughed. Turns out, like the article says, it isn’t just the color, but the texture. He had us re-paint every vehicle using a brush. Put a stencil on the area to be painted and slop it on. Looked like hell, but it was much more effective.

    1. Frank-
      Absolutely. The texture and what type of paint it is (matte) is just as important as the color scheme itself! Give it a try! To try color schemes it will cost you less than $30 if you have your own wood. Let me know what you think!
      -Reaper

  2. Reaper,
    For once I have to take exception to some of what you have written in this article, but what I have to say about vehicle camouflage and concealment is based on Southwest desert and mountain terrain, including canyons, arroyos and washes with steep banks.

    Regarding the use of camo paint, very few guys are going to spray or brush over their brand new, $50,000+ 4WD truck with a flat, olive drab or desert tan coat. I know a few fellows who have gone the camo paint route, but their vehicles are invariably older model (and generally well maintained) trucks that are used for a specific purpose. The important issue here is that camo paint is only (partially) useful for a stationary vehicle. Any vehicle in motion, regardless of paint pattern, is easily detectable by an alert OP during daylight hours. Moreover, night travel is a dead giveaway if the driver relies on headlights. The only exception would be vehicles that use IR beams and thermal night vision to illuminate the road or trail ahead. Even in these cases, I have observed “blackout” vehicles when they used their brakes.

    This brings up an important point: An OP that is equipped with thermal imaging will be able to detect your vehicle from a significant distance because of the heat that your engine is emitting. Aerial surveillance (think Border Patrol and military aircraft) are equipped with thermal imaging gear that can spot vehicles from a distance of 15 miles or more. In this case, it matters little that you spray painted your truck with a liberal coat of flat, desert tan paint.

    Regarding camouflage netting, this is an invaluable piece of gear for stationary vehicles, whether day or night. By itself, however, netting is insufficient to prevent detection by unwanted observers. As you have properly noted, windshields, windows, side mirrors, headlights, chrome bumpers and shiny metallic wheels are highly reflective during daylight hours. At night, a bright moon can reflect off an exposed portion of a vehicle, giving its position away to an observer. I personally know of OPs that have gone south because someone in the team did not effectively cover their vehicle.

    So what is the answer to preventing sun/moon reflection? The answer is really pretty simple – cover your vehicle with a base layer of dark colored blankets before you overlay the camo netting. These blankets need to extend all the way to the ground so that all parts of the vehicle are covered. Once the netting is on you can add foliage if needed to help it blend into the surroundings more effectively. I use reversible camo nets that are forest green on one side and desert tan on the other.

    Another point worth considering for concealment is to park your vehicle as far away from a road/trail as possible. Position it in a location next to a steep hillside, canyon wall, deep wash or under dense foliage. Whenever possible, park it in a location that will be aided by shadow, including moon shadow.

    Regarding vehicle “fox holes,” this probably makes sense if you are going to be at your bug out location long term. Otherwise, it seems to be a terribly labor intensive and impractical tactic. I favor the use of natural cover, such as steep canyon walls, overhead foliage, etc.

  3. Ben-
    As I noted in the article, I recommend not spray painting a new vehicle, or a nicer one. I recommend doing it to an older, bug out vehicle. A side note to that, when the SHTF, I’m sure it won’t matter how much your vehicle is worth, you’ll paint it.

    As far as IR is concerned, it’s too impractical to try to negate thermal imaging, and much too costly. I tend to focus my articles purely toward the every day prepper with a median income.

    The vehicle foxhole is definitely meant for bug out locations for the long term. I don’t recommend trying to dig a foxhole every time you park for the night. For those instances, I referenced using natural foliage to the area to camouflage your vehicle.

    OPs will appt your vehicle no matter what you do if you drive close enough. The camouflage paint is to help conceal your vehicle while it’s stationary when combined with other camouflage techniques.

    I do, however, agree with your statement on blankets under the camo netting.

  4. I know several preppers who went the single color route. Mostly a darker green to black and always in matte. Here in Florida we also see Palm Frond camo.

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