Camouflage is like cheesecake and television sitcoms. A little is enough. At least, that’s been my view. Perhaps it’s been colored by resentment. Frankly, I’m tired of camouflage. It’s everywhere—on dress shirts as well as hunting shirts, on ball caps never intended for the woods. It’s on ballpoint pens and mouse pads for your computer. It’s on the handles of pocketknives, as if you needed to lose more of them. Camouflage turns up on belts and slings and binocular straps, apparently to match trousers, rifle stocks and binoculars.
Most days, I prefer to wear cheery solid colors, and I happen to think monochromatic housings on optical instruments are classy. Not everything looks good in mottled green and brown. In fact, even in the woods you may do as well in red plaid, once the uniform of choice for hunters now pretty long in the tooth. They killed a lot of deer.
Even World War II-era patterns can blend in nicely with the surroundings, but don't neglect the skin or shiny bow limbs.
But enough of my bias. To find out more about camouflage, I asked someone with a different perspective. Jim Crumley left his job as a school administrator at age 30 to fashion clothes that looked like trees. That was in 1979, and a year later he introduced Trebark’s first apparel. Hunters snapped it up. In 1986 Realtree came to compete, followed in 1987 by Mossy Oak. Crumley grins about that. “Those folks were a kind of confirmation. We knew we were on the right track.”
Crumley says camouflage dates back to primitive hunters wearing animal skins. “The Trojan horse was another example. Camouflage is simply what you do or wear not to look human.”
In the 1940s the U.S. Army made the first official use of camouflage in this country—from a pattern developed and patented by a Belgian! Military camo evolved from green and brown blotches to tiger stripes (Vietnam) to dotted tawny blocks (Desert Storm). Commercial camo with monikers like “Big Woods” and “Forest Floor” followed. Jim Crumley’s Trebark became a division of Haas Outdoors, which now also owns Mossy Oak. Jim is still Trebark’s CEO. Bill Jordan’s Realtree company and its Advantage division provide competition. “But we all get along,” smiles Jim.
A decade after he started making camouflage clothing, Crumley eased out of that effort to focus on new patterns and the manufacture of camo cloth for garment makers. “Patterns can be both patented and copyrighted,” he explains. “In 1985 we won a copyright case in federal court. Now we don’t bother to patent; the copyright lasts longer.” What constitutes a copyright infringement? Jim says that if a jury can confuse two patterns, one is proclaimed a copy.
Camouflage patterns are more complex these days. “Fifty years ago, you’d find three or four basic colors in big, unimaginative blotches,” Crumley says. “Now you’ll find very realistic, detailed images and 11 or 12 colors in a garment.”
Keep a low profile on ridges, and make use of all available cover, no matter how sparse.
But do you need perfect mimicry? Not according to Crumley. “A good hunter makes any pattern effective by using light and shadow to break up his outline. He’ll stay behind cover and use background to advantage. He’ll move slowly and expose himself vertically as little as possible.” These principles apply whether you hunt early or late, in the Mountain West or for deer and turkeys in the Southeast—where 75 percent of Trebark camouflage is sold. Jim points out that loose-fitting clothes likewise obscure the shape of a hunter and present a mix of light and shadow in the folds. Pieces of camo cloth fluttering, leaf-like, from a loose mesh coverall can make you almost invisible in low brush or grass. Camouflage mesh derives from the net canopies used to shield tanks and artillery during World War II.
Alas, many state game agencies insist that hunters wear a large block of unbroken blaze orange. “The only thing you can do then is stay in the shadows,” Crumley advises, adding that it’s always best to keep the sun behind you, and in timber to stay near big trees. “A vertical human blends into a tree trunk. Apart from a tree, your silhouette pops out.” He suggests camo paste or a face net and gloves to cut skin glare, which can be a real problem on sunny days. “Tape over any high-gloss metal surfaces on your rifle, and the polished limbs and riser of a bow.” In snow, he says, wear white.
Using light and shadow to advantage, this hunter is almost invisible despite his orange vest and total exposure. But if he’s smart, he’ll also have washed to minimize his scent.
Crumley concedes that we have more than enough camo patterns, and that a camo billfold will not boost your odds on the hunt. But he makes no apologies. “Remember Cotton Cordell? He designed fishing lures—came up with dozens, maybe hundreds. Pradco bought him out and now sells more fishing lures than any other company. Somebody once asked Cordell if all those lure designs were necessary. He replied that he didn’t sell the lures to the fish. It’s the same with camo. Call it a fashion statement. Camo identifies you as a hunter.” He says that companies like Trebark owe most of their prosperity to patterns, not to clothes or hard goods. “The camouflage business is a packaging business.” Brand loyalty benefits both the manufacturer and the camo company.
The best part of being the CEO of Trebark may be the field testing. Once a goose guide on the Maryland shore, Jim now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains “with lots of whitetail deer and turkeys!” He still takes his shotgun and Labs to the marsh, where, as you might expect, he blends right in.
Blending in is also a high priority for Ron Bice, whose Wildlife Research Center specializes in another type of camouflage. “It doesn’t matter if you’re invisible to a big buck,” says Ron, “if your scent gets to him before you have a shot.” He correctly points out that many animals use their noses more than their eyes to warn them of danger. “To be most effective, you’ll want to hunt scent-free.”
For better concealment, this hunter should be clad in white.
Bice recommends that before opening day you wash all your hunting clothes in a detergent that does not have the fragrances and color brighteners common to commercial soaps. “The brighteners can enhance ultraviolet reflection, which you won’t see nearly as well as do the deer!” After it’s clean, Ron suggests you apply some of his Scent Killer, a spray that can also be used on most hunting equipment. “Don’t forget vehicle seats!” For cameras and other objects that you might not want to spray, minimize human scent by storing them in well-ventilated places with sprigs of vegetation common where you hunt. “I hang my clothes in a garment bag full of leaves. It’s vented to allow moisture to escape.”
Keep your body as odorless as possible. Ron advises that before the hunt, you wash with a hair and body soap formulated to leave none of its own scent. Wildlife Research Center has these products too.
We’ve all spotted or shot game that apparently didn’t scent us despite our smelly clothes, tobacco or failure to bathe. I used to carry sardines for lunch. But if you think about it, odor has probably detoured a lot of big game before you ever saw it. Complete camouflage includes masking your scent as well as concealing your profile.
How important is camouflage? As important as succeeding afield.