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Don't lose sight of camouflage innovations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's fun to disappear. In a manner of speaking, we hunters do it all the time.

We dress in clothing that blends into the surroundings. We climb into tree stands perched high above the forest floor. We mask our scents.

And there we sit, silent and still, our eyes taking in what takes place before us. We watch deer, unaware of our presence, browse slowly toward us. Birds perch on branches just inches away. Squirrels scurry up and down the very trees we inhabit.

It's as if we're invisible.

Our invisibility allows us to witness nature's little-seen behaviors. Rutting bucks spar for dominance before our very eyes. Tom turkeys breed hens in our presence. Bears turn over rotting logs and browse on beetle larvae.

An ever-growing industry supports our woodland voyeurism. In research-and-development suites scattered far and wide, scientists and engineers toil to create the latest and greatest in concealment technology.

Camouflage, you've come a long way.

What began with soldiers and hunters dressing in earth tones and festooning their clothes with leaves and twigs has become sophisticated almost beyond belief.

For a while, camo innovations were driven by the military. The U.S. Marines' island-hopping campaign in World War II's Pacific theater led to development of the simple pattern of earth-tone splotches that became known as U.S. Woodland camo. For more than three decades, U.S. Woodland was the industry standard, concealing the movements of soldiers and sportsmen alike. Seeking alternatives, men such as Trebark's Jim Crumley, Realtree's Bill Jordan and Mossy Oak's Toxey Haas drew up new, innovative camouflage patterns, marketed them and triggered a "designer camouflage" craze that began in the 1980s and hasn't slowed down since.

All of a sudden, general-purpose camouflage patterns were out. Habitat-specific camo patterns were in.

The trend spread to the military. Soldiers in the first Gulf War crossed the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in curious-looking brown-mottled "cookie dough" or "chocolate chip" camo uniforms.

It probably was inevitable, then, that someone got computers involved in the camouflage-design process. In 2001, the first digital camo - dubbed MARPAT for "Marine pattern" - appeared on the U.S. Marines' battle dress.

Designed to maximize the time-tested principles of disruptive coloration and countershading, digital camouflages employ light and dark splotches with stair-stepped "pixelated" edges. They don't look like anything in particular, and perhaps that's the secret to their success. As long as their colors match the surrounding terrain, they never appear out of place.

No doubt the ever-inventive community of techno whiz kids will lift the science of camouflage to even greater heights and render us sportsmen even more invisible to our quarry.

Or maybe not. The most effective camo I've seen to date is one of the old-school designer patterns, Green Deception by Predator.

A turkey-hunting partner showed up one morning decked out in a full outfit of it - pants, shirt, jacket, gloves, hat - the whole shebang. The camo's rather bold markings got me wondering just how effective it might be, so I hung back and watched as my friend stepped off the road and into the tree line. He hadn't gone 10 feet when he just ... vanished.

I smiled. Camouflage is fun, even when you're not the one who disappears.


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