Ghillie Suit

The ghillie suit is a type of three dimensional camouflage meant to blend into the environment, break up the visual outline of the wearer and move in a manner similar to the surrounding environment.

Ghillie Suit

The suit in its current form. The dye has helped somewhat with darker, more lush environments (bamboo on the left) but the suit is still primarily designed for and does best at the edges of fall woods and in scrub (grass on the right).

Expectations

I’m not a soldier or paintballer or airsoft warrior. I generally have no need to conceal my location from other humans. As a result, I have no need for a full ghillie suit. While hunting, I rarely lack the opportunity to keep my legs and boots concealed with foliage so I quickly decided that a camo pattern on clothes below the waist was sufficient. My observations of animals in the field also suggests that concealing my presence from the wildlife is a worthy goal but that concealing my exact location or identity will often do. I have had young turkeys come closer to investigate what I was when an inopportune movement on my part has revealed my presence. Geese on the river have sometimes seemed more baffled by my canoe than scared by it and wearing a face mask to conceal my nature — even if I am wearing my life jacket orange side out — seems to be more important than any other factor. That being said, I am not sure that I would have had quite as many close encounters with wildlife as I have with my ghillie suit. Even if the hunt itself returns nothing, there is something exhilarating about sitting against a tree while a turkey vulture on a low branch carefully looks your area over with the apparent knowledge that something is there but being unable to resolve any form or a songbird lands close enough that you could grab it and only flies off when you whisper a greeting.

Construction

Traditionally, those building their own ghillie suits start with a Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) or similar garment as a base. I took a different approach, as many of my hunts are during warmer weather. I will often go hunting barefoot, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Even the November 2005 controlled hunt for deer had one day where it was so warm that I ended up wearing my orange vest overtop of just an a-shirt. Only very late-season hunts are reliably cold. I wanted to be able to add the camouflaging benefits of the ghillie concept without automatically adding more insulation than was necessary. As a result, my suit started with an old fishing vest. On top of that I sewed netting to which I could tie lengths of jute pulled from a large roll of burlap. The arms of the suit were constructed from lengths of burlap sewed to the shoulders of the vest as well as elbow pads and wrist straps to keep them in place. This provides a strip of 3D camo on the outside edges of the arms but leaves the inside of the arms clear. This was of great use when I was hunting with a compound bow, is still of some use for the unencumbered manipulation of a crossbow or firearm, and will be of great use again once I begin to include a recurve bow and my slingshot more in my hunting activities.

Early Ghillie Suit

An early iteration of the ghillie suit, pre-colouration. This version did an excellent job of breaking up my outline but was unsuitable for a lot of the habitat in which I regularly hunt and relied a little heavily on my target species being unable to fully interpret what they were seeing.

The initial suit was all simply naturally coloured jute pulled from burlap. I then ensured that it was rained on, dragged through dirt and mud and generally abused to dull down the uniformity of it a little bit. While this showed great promise in the field and did allow for some very close encounters with non-target species, I recently had an opportunity to put it to a far more rigorous test for which I needed to improve the look of the suit. The lighter colour of the jute wasn’t going to blend in well with the environment I would be in and wearing it over a dark camouflage smock ensured that the darker, recessed portions of my figure would be dark and the more prominent, lighter features would be lighter. This is exactly the opposite of what one wants if trying to implement a good camouflage scheme.

Pressure Cooking Black Walnuts

Cooking black walnuts in water under pressure for 20 minutes creates a natural black dye.

In order to darken the suit, I used two dyes. The first was a dark green fabric dye that I had purchased at a charity shop a long while back. It will undoubtedly fade with time but serves its purpose for now. The second dye was one I made by pressure cooking walnuts. As anyone who has ever dragged a walnut tree by its roots or handled ripe walnuts will attest, walnut trees produce a dark and robust pigment. Traditionally this has been used as a dye to stain fabrics or leather as the walnuts contain chemicals which help to fix the pigment and make for a durable result. The husks of the walnut are generally harvested and the dye extracted. Since I live in an area surrounded by black walnut trees and they are not a scarce resource, I opted simply to collect a bunch of walnuts from under a tree and then pressure cook them whole. I didn’t care whether the walnuts were fresh and green or black and partly decayed .. I just threw them all in the pot, put it on the stove, and ran it under pressure for about 20 minutes. The result was a dark stain which I could then splash across the ghillie suit laying on the lawn. I ensured the suit was rained on a bit before I wore it so that the bulk of the bleeding stains would have already washed out.

The ZSC Test

Keeping tabs on the instructors at ZSC

Watching the instructors at work from a concealed position at the Zombie Survival Camp

The more rigorous test for the ghillie suit came as a byproduct of my wife and I being invited as guest instructors to a Zombie Survival Camp. After an evening of meet-and-greet and a day of instruction, the last day of the camp is a zombie outbreak simulation that falls somewhere between a game of flag football, a live-action role play and a practical exam for badassery. I had previously been invited to participate in the camp as a survivor and had been through the simulation. While I could see the appeal to others, I found that for me it merely confirmed some suspicions I had had regarding the deterioration of my mental state. So, as with a zombie-themed LARP that I had photographed on a few occasions, I opted to take an outside role. As the camp already has an accomplished photographer to cover the event, I decided that I would provide a couple trap cameras to take pictures of key locations and would don my ghillie suit and see what I could do by way of some candid photography while testing the suit’s ability to trick even the human eye (realizing only later how creepy this was).

Observing the goings-on in a forward observation post at the Zombie Survival Camp

Observing the goings-on in an observation post at the Zombie Survival Camp

Starting conservatively, I mostly hid in well covered locations and moved cautiously from spot-to-spot. During this time, I know I was spotted on at least two occasions by survivors who had heard me move at an inopportune time and chose to investigate. A particular problem was the abundance of dried leaves underneath cabins on the campground. While I could use piles of said leaves to conceal my silhouette, any attempt to move through or move within the piles produced a significant noise. Combined with my inability to check behind me without making some movements, I found myself on several occasions announcing my location to survivors who were moving cautiously behind me.

Sneaking about at Zombie Survival Camp

Letting the zombies and survivors slip by at Zombie Survival Camp

That being said, the majority of the morning I was not spotted and several people expressed surprise when I emerged for lunch. Having revealed my presence more generally at that time, I opted to be bolder during the afternoon session in terms of survivors and to be less cautious about letting zombies see me in transit between locations. As a result, I discovered that the suit actually did a fantastic job of concealing my location in the wetter, unsheltered environments where I didn’t need to be concerned about noise as much as just movement. Though I was spotted a couple times, there were also some astounding results. Laying beside a log alongside a path, I was able to have group after group pass within feet of my location without seeing my exposed form beside the log. As long as I tucked my camera into my body and kept the brim of my hat down, I became fairly confident as to my invisibility. I also managed to get within about 10 yards of a forward observation post and take some pictures while merely crouched beside a tree. Most astonishing to me was when a long line of survivors, including one of the camp instructors, passed within 10 feet of my location while I was sitting with my back against a tree. I was caught by surprise when they veered off of the path and through the small pile of scrub in which I was sitting and I full expected to be discovered. By remaining still with my head tilted low, however, I was able to remain undetected.

Conclusions and Next Steps

All-in-all the results were very promising and have given me the confidence to take on more exposed locations when bow hunting this season. The test also indicated that I need to work on my movement skills. Walking barefoot through the warmer months has given me good awareness of ground cover and some flexibility in foot placement but moving through unfamiliar territory requires a bit more planning and forethought so as not to get caught out and this is clearly a set of skills that I need to refine. In terms of the overall effect, adding some additional material to the arm bands and concealing the black of the wrists straps and my boots would be the modifications with the largest payout.

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