An Informal Camo Study

A few years ago, I decided to take up bow hunting. One of the first steps was to buy some camouflage clothing. I went to a large hunting outlet with a friend. He wasn't a hunter, but had been in the army. We talked about camo on the way there. As we entered the store, he looked over the camo. "This stuff won't work." he said. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Well, the most important function of camo is not to make you look like a tree, it is to break up the human silhouette. It is easy to blend in to a bushy environment, but camo is for when you are not exactly where you expected to be."

"Ok, but there must be a hundred or more patterns of camo here, surely something must work." I said. He replied, "Look at these patterns, they all look like trees or leaves. But squint a bit, take a step or two backward, see, they are so dark and complex, they blend into a solid. You might as well hunt in a three piece suit. They look great to a hunter while they are on the rack, but will just fill in at 20 yards." I ended up buying an inexpensive coverall to get me through my first season, but I never forgot what my friend said.

I have harvested three deer in my first three seasons as a bow hunter. I now know a lot about sitting out in cold wet weather. I have also started dreaming about hunting beyond my back yard. I have hunted seven locations in Wisconsin plus four hunting trips to Pennsylvania.

As I hunted, I looked at what the best dressed hunters were wearing. The fancy patterns blended into the right backgrounds. But in the open, back just a few yards they were three piece suits. For various reasons, I now own most of the big names in camo: Mossy Oak (Treestand), Realtree, Advantage, Woodland (US Army) plus bits and pieces of others. The more I travel, the more interested I have become in investing in a limited number of high quality camo clothes.

Like most of you, I searched the ads and the catalogs. There are not many articles or studies on this topic. One in a leading hunting magazine said, "think about where you are going, try to get camo that will blend in." Thanks, but I can't afford twenty different patterns and even if I had that kind of money, who would want to carry all the options.

So, to help you with the same type of decisions, we took a bunch of patterns out in the back yard to let you see the real truth. These are not shots where we made any attempt to blend into the same type of background that inspired the pattern in the first place. We deliberately stood out in the open, looking somewhat stupid. This was to simulate the way you might get caught in the middle of a stalk, high in a tree stand. We also stayed back, generally about 20 yards. We will also give you a black and white version of the pictures which (they say) is the way many animals see you.


This picture more than any other got us started in our camo evaluation. Don, on the left was on a hunt in Wisconsin. He had just found his nice 126" 8 point. He was wearing Realtree X-tra Brown, one of last year's hot new patterns. Troy, his guide was wearing the Predator Fall Gray. As you can see, Don's camo is completely filled in, Troy's is not. Looking at this one picture convinced me to buy a Predator Fall Gray parka for myself and start taking pictures. You may think that companies send stuff free because I'm such a great outdoor writer... guess again.


The Tiger

Have you ever compared a tiger and a jungle? You know that there is nothing in the jungle that looks orange and stripped. Why would God (or evolution if you believe in that foolishness) make the tiger look so different from the environment? How could this predator be effective? The answer lies not so much in the appearance of the tiger as in the function of the eye itself.


Rico's Law of Distance Vision

Your eye perceives objects differently as they move farther away. The eye itself removes detail from objects in order to better identify them. Ever notice a police car (or what you thought was a police car) just by the rack on the top? You were driving along, not paying particular attention to your surroundings, when suddenly you were at full alert. Your eye looks for the shape, then when it senses a predator (smoky the bear) it sends an urgent warning to your brain to investigate further. A deer eye works the same way, at a distance, it is looking for human shapes, not particular colors or patterns. If you are using camo that has a high degree of detail, the eyes of your prey will fill that in before evaluating you. You will look just like a human shape though you've spent hundreds of dollars on the most popular patterns.


Here I am with my camera man, "Buddy", who took many of these pictures. As you can see, I have my North American Outdoor Life Member hat on (no camo), Predator-Fall Gray parka on top and Mossy Oak-Tree Stand pants. With a heavy snow cover, I will make little attempt to blend into my surroundings.


This photo was shot at approximately 10 yards. (closer than you would ever get to most deer). As you can see, the finer detail pattern on my Mossy Oak pants completely filled in. On the other hand, the Predator did not fill in.

If deer see in black and white (I really can't verify this, but so I hear), then the colors used in the pattern are not nearly as important as the degree of contrast which breaks up the human form. My right arm completely fell off, even at this close range. Remember, we were trying to highlight the silhouette, the legs still show, but my top disappears.


Binocular Rivalry

Your eyes do something else as a silhouette is constructed. They try to organize patterns into objects and tune out the noise. You have undoubtedly seen the hidden pictures where both the black on white and white on black each have a different image. Your eye tries to resolve the black and attempts to ignore the white. You have to really concentrate to see the picture the other way around. The forefront of the Fall Gray is black branches. At very close range these look like real objects. This forces the eye to see the branches and ignore the silhouette. Bottom line, you disappear even though your prey is looking right at (or really through) you.


In this photo, we let the light hit from the side. You can see that when you are in a tree stand with the sky behind you, no camo can be bright enough to eliminate your silhouette. That is why most of the camo ad shots do not give you this perspective (though this is almost always the way a deer would see you). The broad off white sections of Predator work better than any pattern we have seen against the sky (or snow). You might be tempted to go with a darker style off the rack, but keep this photo in mind.


Here is the same shot with the same lighting. Even at a closer distance, you can see that the Mossy Oak fills in to a complete silhouette. Black and white perspective would make no difference, there is no breakup effect.



We had some fun with this photo. This was a new camo short sleeve shirt that I picked up at the local Schultz Brothers for about $2. Nevertheless, it really breaks up and blends in very well. Every study I've read says that deer see mostly in black and white (and my experience in blaze orange confirms this). In black and white this camo looks great!!


Here is what the pattern looks like in color. A strong argument for buying Hawaiian shirts for your tree stand hunting. This also illustrates the irrelevance of buying camo with subtle hues. It may be important for turkey hunting (though I believe the same basic principles apply). As detail is eliminated, breakup is far more important than pattern and contrast is more important than color!

Back to the Predator Fall Gray. This shot was from no more than 20 yards. Here, I actually tried to blend in a little bit. Even with all this cover, my high end camo pants are solid. This also illustrates that black, white and gray can blend into brown and green settings. I'm just to the right of the tree trunk. Both my legs are clearly visible though my torso disappears with the Predator camo.

Here is our best picture of both Predator Fall Gray and Mossy Oak Treestand. As you can see, up close, the Fall Gray looks wild and intimidating. This is probably why it doesn't sell as well as Realtree and all the others down at Walmart.

Mossy Oak, on the other hand, looks subtle and interesting at this distance. Most of us view our camo (and purchase it) at very close range.

As we are learning, however, at longer distances all the competitors fill in!


Even in this closeup, the Mossy Oak is filling in. You should see this at 20 yards! On my right is my other cameraman, "Bugs", in Woodland camo. This breaks up better than most new styles, but is too dark against the sky or other backlit situations.


Here is a better illustration of the problem with subtle patterns. This is my expensive Mossy Oak. With just a little light from behind, it is totally filled in. Sure I could bend down, move behind the tree on my left, but what if you can't. Camo is supposed to work when you are out where you don't expect to be.

Here is the same shot, same light, same pants, but you can see that the Predator still breaks up the silhouette!


Obviously here we were looking for the worst possible background (except the sky) for Predator. However, you can see that my silhouette is still broken up, get back a few feet and I turn into a broken glob of something unrecognizable (not looking like a human predator). Mark on the other hand is a dark solid. If you see him at all, you see him as a human. If it is dark enough, no camo is necessary anyway.

My pants were Realtree, Mark is wearing Treebark and Woolrich.


I should mention that I really like Mossy Oak, enough to buy lots of their stuff. I watch Huntin'the Country and especially like their casual clothes. Realtree also makes excellent patterns. With the growing popularity of their camo, more and more high tech garments are being produced. However, once I started doing this research, I saw (with my own eyes) how much better Fall Gray works.

Sorry for such a long story with so many pictures. If you've gotten to this point, you must really love hunting. As you might guess, I have many many photos that we could have shared.


For more information on Predator(TM) Camouflage

"Unfortunately, soldiers (and hunters) frequently select camouflage based on how attractive it is — a factor that has nothing to do with its effectiveness. Even now most Special Forces supplement their issue uniforms with high quality, commercially manufactured uniforms purchased by sponsors or out of their own pockets." D. Tlelov & A. Ignatenko Kalashnikov, February 2005