It’s amazing when animals have no idea you’re there. Recently I waited as a wallaby, despite stopping to look around three times, hopped right up to me and stopped a metre away; I could have prodded her with the muzzle of my rifle. I’ve watched a fox cock a leg against a pine three metres away as I stood there. Rabbits have scurried playfully past me as I crouched beside blackberries. Best of all, though, was when two red deer crept cautiously on full alert through a forest, straight towards me even though that they had me out in the open.
The camouflage I wore then was a design which broke up my outline very well and probably blended neatly into the background of broken rock and bushes, helped a little by the dappled shade filtering through the leaves above. I simply waited without moving a muscle until I had a shot so easy it was hardly sport. I dropped one before the second red, utterly surprised, scampered even closer then stopped broadside! I didn’t go to the butchers for months after that haul.
Camouflage has become a nearly essential accessory for hunting in the 21st Century. There’s a degree of fashion to it, and some fashion victims among us, but only the most cynical would argue that there’s no genuine, practical value to hunting in a can’t-see-me suit. The trick is knowing when you’re hiding properly and when you’re only fooling yourself. Camo gear has to be selected intelligently and used properly to be anything more than a drain on your wallet. Get it right and you’ll just about have sambar licking honey from the muzzle of your magnum.
Animals see the world quite differently to us because most perceive fewer colours than we can. In some cases, they will detect colours we can’t, such as ultraviolets. Deer can see a bit of yellow and blue but no reds, and they’re capable of seeing ultraviolent, which is why you should avoid most clothes-washing detergents; the brighteners they use create an ultraviolent glow in the clothes.
Birds often have better colour vision than we do. Even most breeds of dog, as well as foxes, see some colour – though not much – so to think of all creatures as seeing just black, grey and white is underestimating them. Yet the generalisation of colour blindness is fair enough, and this is why blaze orange is okay.
With fewer colours to see, contrast plays a significant role in how animals detect things. How light or dark a camouflage design appears against the background is at least as important as its pattern and arguably more important than the colours used.
Another import thing to know is that animals react to threats. They might see you but if you don’t look like a threat, ie, a human, they will not spook. So camouflage doesn’t have
to make you invisible, it only has to make you unrecognisable.
Can you see me?
There are two methods used to create camouflage: macro and micro patterns. A macro pattern uses large areas of contrasting colours, with the intention of breaking up your overall shape so you’re not distinguishable as a person. A micro pattern is much finer, often with a lot less contrast, in an effort to have you blend into the background.
Typical examples of macro patterns are a tiger’s stripes and the Blackfoot design that you’ll often see on Aussie hunters. The concept is to use the macro design to confuse your prey into thinking it’s looking at a bunch of small shapes, not at one big human shape. Animals are not deep thinkers, relying on instinct, so if their defensive instincts are not activated by what they see, they will often ignore you. It’s not that you look like the bush, it’s that you don’t look like anything.
Micro patterns include the speckled cheetah and the grass- or reed-like designs favoured by duck hunters. A cheetah lying in ambush on the ground or a duck hunter nestled into a reed bed will simply blend in, indistinguishable from their surroundings.
You can say that macro patterns are for stalking and micro patterns for lying doggo, but the thoroughly modern way to make camo is to combine the two into one universal design to get the best of both. Actually, it’s not such a new idea. The Germans had a very effective pattern in WWII, made up of slabs of contrasting colours overlaid with dots, although it’s unlikely they thought in technical terms like macro and micro back then. The US military has recently forged ahead with the concept, and their current ‘digital’ uniforms are the result.
Military patterns aren’t necessarily any use to hunters because they’re developed to fool human vision. Gore, the company responsible for Gore-Tex, has used the same technology (indeed, some of the same military experts) as the US army to create Optifade, a digitised design now available in the US and Europe. Interestingly, each market has a different design, reflecting the different types of country in each continent.
Photo-realistic and mimicry patterns that do their best to copy the appearance of real flora have become popular for hunting. Tree trunks, branches, leaves, reedy blades, it’s all there. There are some excellent mimicry camouflages available, but steer clear of those that lack contrast because at ranges of 25m or more they’ll blob into one solid colour – in a human shape – and be no good at all. Some quite dark US-market patterns might as well be blacksuits when worn in the Aussie bush.
Like digital designs, any camo mimicking the bush can have both macro and micro aspects to it, as long as the basics are correct. Good ones have large sections of contrasting shades (tree trunks against a neutral background, for example) as well as the little details such a twigs and leaves. Ridgeline’s Buffalo pattern and Lamellar’s Contracam Fade are two examples that achieve this, even if it’s in a more ‘analogue’ way than the digital ones.
With any camo, adding a three-dimensional aspect – leafy shapes hanging off it and similar tricks – usually improves it further.
Know your needs.
Study the country you’re hunting before you splurge on camo. Australia has enormous variety in its countryside, from jungle to desert, forest to savannah. Think about whether you’ll be in dark, deeply shaded places where a darker camo will be best, or perhaps you’ll be in farmland where lighter shades will work. Is it thick stuff with little depth, or open ground where breaking up your shape is even more crucial?
Choose your camo to suit.
Darker styles might be very effective in wintery Victorian High Country forests, while lighter patterns do a great job in the rolling hills west of the Great Divide. When you look at the gear on the rack in the gun shop, remember that you’re looking at it at an unrealistic range.
How often do you let your game come within a metre of you? Up close, many patterns looks awesome to our human eyes, but don’t make your decision based on that. Try to imagine whether it’ll do its job in your usual hunting grounds when game’s 50, 100, even 200 metres away.
And remember that shade and contrast are more important than the colours. After all, some makers feature blaze orange in their camo (an idea which deserves more widespread use), and they could use hot pink if there was any chance it’d be commercially viable.
I’ve had excellent results from several types of camouflage. I was wearing my Blackfoot gear when I shot those two red deer as well as when that fox cocked a leg. In the latter case, the fact I was in a dark pine forest indicates how well a macro pattern can absolutely obscure a human outline, even when the shades don’t really fit the surroundings.
I had that wallaby come right up to me when wearing a Euro-pattern Optifade suit supplied by Scandinavian manufacturer Harkila. Before Ridgeline adopted the Buffalo pattern, it used the similar Sniper Africa design, which has kept me and my girlfriend well hidden in various Aussie bush settings.
Sometimes, I’ve spoiled the best camouflage by believing too strongly that I’m invisible and becoming complacent. On the other hand, I’ve been in plain civvies and still managed to get up close to game. It’s all in how you use it, because camouflage is just another aid to hunting success. If you don’t get everything else right too, it’s not worth the cotton it’s printed on.
Choose and use camouflage intelligently and you’ll see much more game before it sees you.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, November 2010.