A Basic Guide to Stealth
Created | Updated Feb 6, 2007
Steal — to move, go or come secretly, quietly or unobserved.
People using stealth techniques are usually the sorts of people who carry large guns around with them or who are up to no good1. These folks have either had training in the act of passing unnoticed or they've simply gotten good at it because otherwise they'd have ended up out of a job by now. What about the rest of us? Those who can't quite do a split jump between two walls to hide up in the rafters while the search party passes underneath, but who would quite like to know what they have to do to go unnoticed nevertheless. This Entry will deal with the basics of going unseen and unheard on foot, as opposed to looking at how stealth aircraft hide from radar and so forth. If you've never moved stealthily before in your entire life, this guide won't make you into a ninja, but it will help you work out where you're going wrong.
For a start, learn to walk silently — it really helps. Consider the footwear you use to do this carefully and go barefoot or in socks if trying to creep around indoors. Try not to get out of breath while dashing around away from the area containing those who are looking for you as it is hard to quieten your breathing again when you've got the beginnings of a stitch forming next to your stomach. Try not to tread on twigs or bump into noisy things such as tree branches and do your best to avoid disturbing nearby animals. If spooked, a flock of birds will simultaneously take flight, giving away your position. Birds usually prefer to stay in their trees away from predators and will only take to the skies as a last resort, but may start singing an alarm call instead. This will then alarm birds in neighbouring trees, with the calls spreading in waves across a forest and eventually giving the game away to those who are looking for you nearby.
It is possible for a camouflaged soldier to sit in front of a background of undergrowth and remain unseen for hours, but as soon as he moves his outline will become clear through the small changes in contrast and colour of the foliage directly surrounding his outline. The likelihood of an observer noticing the motion increases with the speed at which the soldier is moving, as the items directly surrounding his outline will be varying more rapidly. It is harder for the eye to determine how far away the motion is, especially when the moving object is at a distance.
In other words, if you don't want to be seen, move slowly and stop if someone looks straight at you but doesn't seem to have seen you. When moving, remember that you will be easily spotted if you walk right past someone's field of vision, but you will be harder to see if you pass just a little further away. Moving slowly also helps keep your movement silent, with your breathing rate and heart rate remaining low so that you can concentrate on being quiet.
Whatever you do, don't stand out in the open, as your outline will be pretty obvious to anyone looking for you. Instead, stay stuck to the side of the nearest tree or bush, only moving into the open to make your way to the next piece of cover.
Keep Low or Get High
People have a terrible habit of focusing their attention on things which lie at head height — these are easier to spot and they'll probably be the thing the person was looking for. These same people also find it harder to spot something that stays close to the ground, as it will present a smaller aspect to them. In other words, they can only see a small area of you if you stay low, thus making you harder to see. Crawling along the ground reduces your visibility dramatically by presenting the observer with a very small area and a practically non-existent silhouette, and can work very well if you are almost hidden by surrounding foliage. However, crawling can take forever and is only advisable if you have the time and think you can remain unseen for that long. Crouching or crawling will also help you to move more quietly, and the combination of reduced visibility and audibility can make all the difference.
If you are simply trying to hide while someone passes by, then sticking low behind an obstacle is a good option. However, if you have time and are surrounded by darkness, scaling a tree and sitting on a sturdy branch only a metre or two above their heads will place you where they may not even think to look. These areas up high and down low are known as 'dead spaces', and can be used to hide things in full view to great effect.
If moving in a group, the most experienced or well-camouflaged person should scout ahead while the others stay as hidden as possible. Avoid standing together in a group and keep verbal communication to a bare minimum. It is often useful to agree on a few signals beforehand, such as pointing your fingers at your eyes to indicate that you have seen an enemy, raising one hand to instruct the others to freeze and making a quick downwards motion with the raised hand to let everyone know that hitting the floor and keeping very quiet would be a rather good idea.
Other Basic Tips
If possible, it helps to take a few other steps to help hide yourself. Applying camouflage paint and wearing mottled clothing which matches your surroundings will reduce your visibility greatly, as will moving around only at night. Do not wear completely black clothing at night, as these will be darker than your surroundings unless it is completely pitch black, in which case you will be unable to see. Instead, dark blues, greys and greens should be worn at night, depending on your surroundings. According to research, 'tiger stripe' camouflage can be more effective that the traditional mottled patterns and therefore is used by US Navy SEALS. The usefulness of this information depends upon whether you are prepared to look for a tiger-striped outfit in the right colour at your local army surplus. Camouflage can also be improved by adding parts of your surroundings to it; when in a forest, add some small branches to your outfit, and when indoors, try hiding under a carpet or cardboard box.
Distraction techniques such as throwing a stone at a tree far away from your position may help, but it is best to avoid giving any clues to your presence unless doing so is unavoidable. It is especially important to stay low in the presence of an enemy searchlight, as those standing up when caught in the beam will appear to be reverse-silhouetted against a dark background, whereas those on the ground will have a better chance of blending in. If creeping up or down stairs, avoid using the middles of the steps, instead either placing your feet at the very edges or carefully slotting your feet between the railings of the banister. Needless to say both these techniques require careful balance, so be careful not to fall down the stairs.
Stalking Around and Watching Animals
When stalking, you should bend your knees, arch your back and tuck your elbows in front of your stomach. This disguises the shape of your body and makes you look less like the traditional hunter with two arms and two legs, something which mammals in particular will easily recognise. Bending your knees helps reduce the impact of your feet on the ground, as does rolling from heel to toe instead of stomping around. Roll around the outside of your feet slightly with each step so that you use the whole of your foot — this way, twigs you tread on will be pushed down instead of snapped.
When watching or tracking animals, it is best to avoid focusing on any particular point, as this helps you detect motion more easily. Watching an animal while not focusing on them can also help you to avoid spooking them. If trying to photograph a bird or other animal, take a good photo where you are and then slowly creep towards your target, stopping and taking a good shot every couple of paces. This way, you won't lose out if your target flees before you get really close.
When trying to creep up on an animal to get a good look, you should move slowly and quietly so as not to scare it off. However, it is possible to have a creature ignore you while in plain view, provided you do not appear to be a threat. To do so, crouch down low and move casually and slowly, not seeming in any hurry to move towards the creature. The act of feeding will also make you seem less threatening. Remember that animals have a keen sense of smell and try to remain downwind of them at all times.
In the UK, Apaches2 are trained to excel at stalking and hiding from animals and people through various techniques, and there is an old saying:
How many Apaches are there in the room?
Answer: As many as there want to be...
In The City
Not all stealth situations arise while in a conveniently leafy locale, and may even occur when you are among a host of other people. The ability to stay hidden in a crowd becomes important in these situations, as blending in with those around you will allow you to move wherever you want. Changing your appearance so that you are less obviously the person others are looking for will help greatly in these situations, as will moving with the crowd instead of coming to a halt or running frantically across everyone's paths. Try to avoid breaking off from the crowd unless you are sure you can leave unseen, and then do so quickly but calmly.
Unless you're really keen on spending a lot of money to invest in a good pair of night-vision or infrared goggles to help you spot your enemies in the dark, the only real improvements that you can make are to your technique. Taking up ninjitsu, a Japanese art similar to jujitsu, would probably help you to achieve this end, but at this point most readers will be expecting this Entry to tell them something really useful. In order to meet those expectations, here are a few things those trained in shinobi-iri, a Japanese stealth technique that forms an important part of ninjitsu, will consider before attempting to attain something through stealth:
Timing — it is useful to watch your enemy and determine when the best time to make a move is. Patience is important in this area.
Weak points — instead of trying to move straight past the line of defence, try to find a weak spot or one which has convenient cover.
Psychology — use your little grey cells to work out how to psych out your opponent, hopefully causing them to go the wrong way or to become spooked by your presence.
Distractions — try to think of a way of distracting your enemy without making it obvious that you are present.
Erasing your presence — staying downwind of enemies will avoid dogs picking up your scent, and the breeze will carry the sound of your movement away so that you are harder to hear. If there is a bright light source at night, keep it between you and your opponent, as it will be harder for them to see you past the brightness of the light.
Stealth in Video Games
The use of stealthy movement in video games began when the concept was used in games such as Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and Metal Gear, and was later popularised by Metal Gear Solid, a game based around sneaking to avoid being spotted by enemy soldiers. However, the guards out looking for Solid Snake were all ridiculously short-sighted and the player had to accidentally walk right in front of an enemy or unload a clip of ammo into them in order to get their attention. Things have since improved, with games like Splinter Cell featuring visibility and sound metres which indicate how obvious a player was, and the option of walking at various speeds to avoid being heard while creeping across various surfaces. However, these games still haven't attained a level of reality similar to real life, and those wanting to experience the fun of sneaking past someone unseen are advised to bite the bullet and try it for real3. Those looking for more detail than can be found in this guide are advised to join the army, become an Apache or take up ninja training.