Guest Article: Considerations for Night Operations- Part 1, by Max Alexander

Let’s talk about night operations. This is a topic that often comes up, particularly with regards to modern night vision equipment. There are multiple aspects to discuss about night operations, so my intent will be to give a broad brush of the various aspects in order to clarify, and open it up to comment and discussion.

We are primarily concerned with the armed civilian in an SHTF environment. Thus, you will only have the equipment that you purchased or acquired. We can certainly take pointers from practices within the military, and that is part of the intent of this article, but we must also be realistic and realize that we are not going to be issued all the latest gear. The gear you have is a function of what you can afford.

Effective Low Tech Night Operations

There is absolutely no reason why you cannot conduct effective night operations in a low tech manner. The flip side to this is if your enemy is equipped with high tech night vision equipment; then you may put yourselves at a disadvantage. That is what we call a non-peer situation. So in this article I’m going to look at both low-tech and high-tech options. Remember, just because you have all the gear (and no idea), doesn’t mean you have it squared away. You can have a PVS-14 stuck to your eyeball and a thermal imager in your pocket, but if you’re tactical gnome blundering around the bush, then it really can’t help you. You can’t simply buy yourself safety!

On Patrol Without Night Vision Equipment

“Back in the day” (like the 90’s!), we used to patrol either without or with minimal night vision equipment. I have spent many an hour, or night, wandering around in the darkness either on training exercises or actual operations. It is entirely doable. The problem you may have is that when you are dealing with the challenges of operating in darkness, and someone else with night vision equipment is observing you do that, they have a clear advantage over you. Yes, we are not going to panic over the “all seeing eye of Mordor”, but have no doubt of the effectiveness of surveillance equipment when observing terrain at night. As your patrol moves in single file across the open hillside cloaked in darkness, the observation post (OP) a couple of miles away equipped with thermal surveillance equipment will be watching you clear as day.

So let’s first look at some factors and considerations for operating at night without modern night vision equipment. Darkness is certainly a challenge: if you walk out of your brightly lit house into your backyard at night, it is hard to imagine operating in such darkness. However, natural night vision is a wonderful thing. It takes time to develop, anything from 45 minutes and improving over a couple of hours, and it can be lost in an instant of exposure to white light. On anything but a moonless, cloudy, and miserable night, there is always light to see by. How much depends on the moon state and cloud cover; you may have experienced being out in the woods with a moon and clear sky casting the shadows of the trees across the white snowy ground.

Natural Night Vision

Natural night vision is something that you must develop and prize. As darkness falls, you must allow the night vision to develop, without exposing it to white light. If you are planning on exposing yourself to light, such as flashlights, GPS screens, and similar, then carefully guard the night vision in one eye by always keeping it closed when performing such tasks. The other thing about night vision is that due to the distribution of the rods and cones on the back of your eyeball, in darkness you will see better by looking slightly away from an object. Your peripheral vision is better at night. Therefore, if you think you see something, resist the temptation of staring intently at it. This will actually mean that you see the object less clearly. Look slightly away from the object, and you will get a better picture.

Guard Your Night Vision

So, whether you are out in the woods in a patrol base or in a building as night falls, you need to carefully guard your night vision. Consider, if you are based at a retreat location, only using low level red, green, or blue lights inside at night. Then, when you do go out on patrol, you will find that you can actually see very well. You just need to gain the confidence, which will only come by practice, of walking around at night. I will add as an aside, however, that the more exhausted you become, the more you will tend to hallucinate at night. It is entirely possible to see things at night in the darkness that are simply not there, particularly if fear is playing on your mind. Be careful of this and remain calm.

Colored Lights

A note on colored light: Red filters used to be all the rage. They do, however, wash out brown contour lines on maps. Green washes out wooded areas on maps. Blue has reached a recent ascendancy, because it allows you to see blood on clothing better, if dealing with a casualty. I will admit that for the longest time I patrolled using a mini-maglite, white light, with a small hole pushed through electrical tape covering the lens. It worked for me; find out what works for you.

You do, however, need to be aware that any small visible light source that you use to check a map will be many times more obvious when viewed by an observer using IR night vision. You can of course focus night vision devices (i.e. PVS-14) in to look at a map or read a notebook, and even use an IR flashlight to aid this – but of course be careful with light discipline and enemy observation. Ideally you need to get below something like a small tarp to view the map in a cupped hand in a hollow.

Patrol Signals and Formations At Night

If you are operating low-tech, or perhaps you only have a couple of night vision devices to spread around, then this will have an effect on your patrol signals and formations at night. You will need to close up the distances, the interval, between individuals in your patrol. At halts you will need to close up, usually into a herringbone formation (facing out alternately left and right), so each man touches the next man. This will not only aid with accountability, but if it is so dark that hand signals cannot be seen, you may have to pass signals by whispering into the next man’s ear.

Bearing in mind that you may be observed by an enemy who is equipped with night vision devices, you don’t want to close up too much. Try to remain as spread out as you can while maintaining visibility with the patrol member in front of you. One of the great dangers when moving at night is splitting the patrol, and it is every man’s responsibility to ensure he does not lose either the man in front or the man behind. Little techniques will aid with this, such as the use of glowing “Ranger eyes” on the back of the cap, helmet, or equipment of the man in front.

Don’t Assume Darkness Masks Movement

Do not assume that darkness will mask your movement. At night you need to patrol as if it were daylight. The use of terrain, vegetation, and even weather masking will help conceal your movement from those potentially observing you. Be wary of skylining yourself on ridges, silhouetting yourself, whether by following along the crest or by crossing over. Crawl over, breaking up shape using cover, if necessary. When using terrain masking, be careful: don’t simply follow the bottom of a ravine or defile. That will put you in ambush country. It’s better to contour somewhere between the bottom of the valley/draw and the ridge line.

This will make your movement less obvious and also potentially place you in an awkward position for anyone who has set an ambush for you; you may either walk into the side/flank of the ambush, or just simply be further away than where they intended the killing area to be (i.e. the valley floor). It goes without saying that you should not use trails, even if they are easier to move along at night.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue to share about challenges of moving at night and dealing with enemy contact and muzzle flashes.

About The Author

Max Alexander is a tactical trainer and author. He is a lifelong professional soldier with extensive military experience. He served with British Special Operations Forces, both enlisted and as a commissioned officer; a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Max served on numerous operational deployments, and also served as a recruit instructor. Max spent five years serving as a paramilitary contractor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This included working on contract for the U.S. Government in Iraq, a year of which was based out of Fallujah, and also two years working for the British Government in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He operates Max Velocity Tactical (MVT).


  1. Great stuff, thanks!

    It takes a while of working in the field at night for most people to calm down a good bit. Most people aren’t comfortable outside at night. It’s important to start training like this NOW not just assume that later you will magically become one of the “tactical chosen ones” LOL.

    Breathe. Good deep breathing, remain calm and move slow. Take in the WHOLE picture, not just what your seeing through the NOD. What does the ground feel like to your feet, what is your unaided eye seeing, what smells are about, how do things feel? It’s hard to explain this you just have to get out a lot at night to develop the skills.

    1. Very good points about “feeling your way ’round.” Does one no good to have a night vision or thermal imaging doo-dad, if you’ve just fallen into a mire or swamp!

      Use those God-given senses to the max–see, feel, smell, touch, hear.

      Seems like our Native Americans/First Nations used these from the Great Spirit to their great effect–whether it was putting venison on the table, counting coups, or scalps on the pole.

  2. As someone who’s spend his share of time on night ops, I can’t stress enough: SLOW DOWN and FEEL YOUR SURROUNDINGS! There is a different “feel” to combat at night. As your eyesight fails, if you allow yourself to slow down and consciously rely on your other senses, you’ll find you can “feel” the movement of others, smell things that “aren’t right”, and hear not only sounds you’d otherwise miss, but where they are coming from. But if you do not slow down and allow these senses to compensate, you will miss them in the barrage and white noise of your own mind. The consequences of which can be very….unfortunate. Or as a good 1st Sgt once told me “Death is a non-career enhancing event son”.

  3. Jason has it right.
    Even in the civilian world, night shift is different.
    Even at the same address.
    I suggest taking good nap and staying up until dawn.
    City, suburbs, country, even if you do no leave your back yard, you will be amazed at the difference.

  4. Clear glasses are a must on night ops without NODs. Back in the day had several people get the proverbial old stick in the eye while patrolling at night in a wooded environment.

  5. It helps tremendously if you will get out an know your AO, inside and out, long before the SHTF. NODs and Thermal are for you to use. They can enhance your knowledge of your AO, but cannot replace knowing it.

    If you have them, practice with them and practice without them, under varying conditions. Many places look different at night than they do in the day, they also look different on a full moon than they do on a 1st quarter moon.

  6. Several “putt-putt” questions:

    How much does a thermal scope costs and where to buy?

    Does a laser range finder blind people at night (does during day – magnifies when others using binos) and intensify when others are viewing you through NVGs/NODs?


    1. ~$400 for bottom end thermal. ~$700+ for thermal scopes/optics/monoculars worth owning.

      Thermal and night vision optics process image inputs internally and then transmit to eye. So unlike magnifying lens based optics, you cannot blind someone w/ lasers while using these devices. Depending on the sophistication of the device, it may “white out” and cause momentary blindness due to transmitting light to eye(s) at highest brigtness level, but only temporary damage to night vision eye adjustment, not permanent sight.

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