So there I was, in the back of the UH-60 Blackhawk lifting my feet at various intervals for fear that they would scrape the pine trees as the pilot hugged the terrain below with the chopper. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew the chopper was on the ground and I was running full speed to get to the trees to find concealment from nearby hostiles that intended to do me harm. As I got up and over the nearest ridge and ducked into some temporary concealment; I stopped and listened. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for my heart to slow down so I could hear something other than the pounding in my ears, it was quiet. An eerie quiet that made me wonder if the bad guys were just sitting behind the next tree waiting to roll me up the second I started to move. I knew I wasn’t far enough away from where I left the Blackhawk so I got moving again and after the most nerve-racking 1,200 meters of my life, I found a place to hide. In the middle a huge patch of brush where no one would find me unless they stepped on me, I pulled out my map to figure out where I was. That was a long cold night shivering under my poncho listening for any sign of danger. At dusk the next morning I cautiously headed in the direction of where I thought the good guys would be. After 5 agonizing days and nights avoiding detection and a ton of other circumstances that I do not have the liberty to discuss, I was recovered by a friendly indigenous force and eventually reunited with my loved ones.
Thankfully, every detail of the preceding account took place in northeastern Washington as part of an elaborate training exercise. This phase of training combined with eight other separate phases prepared me to become a US Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Specialist.
I’ve set up and participated in multiple evasion training events, playing the evader and other times the aggressor. I’d like to offer some instruction and insight on the topic of evasion which is not often discussed, but can make the difference between life and death when/if the time comes. The following narrative is written with the assumption that you are in a rural setting (urban evasion is much different) and there is no recovery force available. You are on your own.
The Five Phases of Evasion
Time is of the essence! This phase is where you are quickly deciding if you should stay and fight or evade instead and if you choose the latter, what should you take with you (hopefully your BOB is packed and nearby). A quick check to sanitize yourself so nothing compromises you or your group if you’re caught, then it’s time to high-tail it out of there. Assume the enemy is nearby and take caution when leaving the area.
The main objective here is to put time, distance and terrain between you and the bad guys and avoid lines of communication (roads, water bodies, trails, railroads, power lines, fences, etc.). You’re moving with a purpose, but shouldn’t be running with reckless abandon. Moving in an erratic pattern will limit the enemy’s ability to anticipate your line of travel. Periodic stops to take note of the environment will prevent running into more danger and give you the chance to detect any followers. The idea is to get far enough away from danger, effectively hide and plan your exit strategy. Consider the fact that your adversary may have a dog and handler looking for you. Forget the nonsense you’ve seen in Hollywood and don’t waste valuable time/resources leaving traps behind or trying to get to water and “float away your scent”. Nothing you’re going to do is going to fool the dog; the handler is the one to be defeated. Using the principles of time, distance and terrain will work against the best dog/handler team. Time: dogs and handlers fatigue and have a limited workday. The more time you put between you and the area they start looking for you; the harder it is on that team. Distance: fatigue will continue to build on the dog/handler which degrades their ability to locate you. Additionally, more miles introduce more variables to the dog which have to be factored in by the handler as reliable or unreliable leads. Terrain: traversing difficult/dangerous terrain is challenging to the dog/handler team. This buys the evader time to plan his next move and continues to erode the will and energy of the dog and handler. While on the move, be on the lookout for a hole up site.
The BLISS acronym comes in handy when remembering evasion shelter principles.
Blend- Hole up sites must look like and be a natural part of their surroundings.
Low silhouette- For the same reason you lay down to hide.
Irregular shape- Similar to blending, so don’t string up your poncho and start creating straight lines that draw attention.
Small- Just big enough for you and your gear.
Secluded- Like any real estate, location is everything. Don’t use the only clump of brush on the hill side.
You will want a site that will conceal you, but also protect from the weather if possible. Rocky outcroppings and/or dense vegetation can get the job done while also obscuring your movements and heat signature should the enemy have night vision or thermal capabilities.
Make use of the military crest if it’s available (2/3 up the mountainside, 1/3 from the top). This prevents silhouetting, provides good line of sight and avoids setting up shop in the cold sump of a valley or windy ridge line. Once a potential hole up site is identified, don’t just dive in. Approach the site using a large sweeping “J” pattern. This allows you the opportunity to detect anyone following your trail while you are in the site and get out before they discover your hole up area. Along the same lines, your hole up site should afford you multiple avenues of escape.
Now that you’re in the hole up site and have naturalized the immediate entrance area, inventory your gear, take care of medical issues, work on your camouflage, get some rest and develop a plan. Light discipline should be strictly adhered to– if you’re breaking out the map during low light, use a small red light with a poncho over you at a minimum. Typically, bad situations don’t happen to people on warm sunny days, but by the same token, you must not light a fire unless your life absolutely depends on it! In the event you NEED a fire, the Dakota hole is the way to go (two holes about fist width, 12 inches down, 12 inches apart, with a tunnel connecting the two at the bottom). Dig the holes near the base of a tree with lots of boughs/branches to help with smoke dispersal and use the smallest (think pencil lead size), driest wood you can find (hardwood is preferred). Hover over this fire with your poncho on (if available) and keep your flames below ground level. If bad guys start to roll up on you, keep the dirt from digging your Dakota hole on a piece of material nearby so you can quickly extinguish your fire, naturalize the area and get out of there. Latrines should be separate from your hole up site (avoid leaving trails) and must be naturalized as well. Procuring water during your evasion should be done only using obscure water sources (i.e. small mud hole, mopping up dew with a bandana, melting snow in a bottle between clothing layers, catching rainwater, etc). Approaching other water sources (creeks, ponds or rivers) puts you in unnecessary danger (more on this later). Food should be in the form of edible plants or insects, but staying hydrated is the primary concern. Edible plants are beyond the scope of this article and many books are available on the topic. As far as insects go, look for 6 legs or less and 3 distinct body segments (ants, grasshoppers, crickets, etc) Side note: My vote is for the ants. They’re similar to lemon flavor and much better tasting then any of the other slow moving protein I’ve eaten. Even worms and grubs will provide enough protein to take the edge off the hungriest evader. Fishing, snaring and hunting will generally not be conducive to the evader who has major concealment/security concerns as well as limited supplies and limited time for these activities.
If you are well hidden and can meet your needs in your hole up site, there may be no need to ever enter this phase of evasion. If you determine that you must move, develop a plan of where you need to go and how you will get there (line of travel). Movement should be slow and methodical. The environment will dictate the speed, body posture and navigation route you choose. For example: dry conditions with leaves on the ground will make every step a tightrope act for fear of crunching foliage underfoot. Crossing an area of sparse vegetation if unavoidable, may require crawling to reduce visibility to enemy eyes. While straight line navigation may be the shortest route, it’s probably not the safest and can make it much easier for the bad guys to figure out where you might be headed (and cut you off) should they find your tracks. During travel, move to and from points of concealment while using natural cover and shadows to your advantage. Constantly be on the lookout for the enemy and if seen, slowly fade away into concealment (quick movements catch the eye). Consider memorizing the evasion route and avoid marking on your map (if available) or folding it to a specified area then handling it with dirty hands. This can reveal your intended destination (retreat/group location) to adversaries if you are caught. If there are two or more evaders in your group use the additional eyes and ears to your advantage with tactical movement. There are a number of ways to skin this cat, but here is one that may work for you: Evader #1 moves along the route to concealment (still in visual contact with #2). #1 gets his bearing for his next point of concealment, looks back and gives #2 the thumbs up. #2 does a quick scan of their 6 o’clock (he’s rear security) and if everything is kosher, he slowly moves to #1’s concealment site. #2’s movement prompts #1 to move to his next concealment. When he gets there the process repeats until they make it home. If #2 were to pick up on noise or movement during this process, he simply stays at his concealment until the threat is gone. His inaction will show #1 that the coast is not clear. If #1 identifies a threat at any time he simply does not give the thumbs up to #2 until the danger is gone. No thumbs up signals #2 to sit tight. This method ensures good communication between evaders and allows the group to move in a tactical manner. If there are three or even more evaders, movement is the same. #2 would give the thumbs up to #3 and so on (a domino approach). Any time there are multiple evaders the group must decide on a rally point (before movement) should the group get separated for any reason. Ideally, your evasion movement should get you out of the danger area and on to the final phase of evasion.
5-Recovery: There’s always been a recovery force in the scenarios I’ve dealt with, but here we’ll assume the worst and say that it’s up to you to return to friendly control (wherever/whoever that may be). History and everyday life have shown that people start to ease off when they think the end is near. My advice is- don’t become complacent! It would break your heart to be so close to safety only to get rolled up by the bad guys. This is the time to focus and avoid the distracting thoughts of freedom (run through the tape, as the saying goes).
Principles of Evasion
- Be flexible- Successful evasion involves fluid decision making and not restricting yourself to one approach. Change with your environment and the challenges that it presents (be like water, grasshopper). Having an Evasion Plan of Action with multiple courses of action can prepare the evader for the changes that are sure to come.
- Stay hidden- There are several techniques that play into avoiding detection.
- Pay attention to the environment. Especially during times of movement- stop, look, listen and smell. You are extremely vulnerable when on the move. Movement catches the eye, creates sound and generally draws unwanted attention so you’ve got to keep your head on a swivel. Be alert to game in your immediate area. Birds, squirrels and the like can act as your personal alarm system if you’re paying attention in the hole up site. However, this can work against you when you’re the one on the move.
- Only move if you have to and use periods of low light and/or inclement weather for concealment. Dusk and dawn provide the evader with enough light to avoid stumbling through the dark making a ton of noise and possibly getting lost, while also minimizing the effectiveness of night vision devices that may be used by the search party. Inclement weather aids the evader with covering tracks, masking the noise of movement, obscuring visibility and making life very hard on the bad guys looking for you.
- If you must move at night, navigation is going to be more challenging without the use of a compass, but you can use celestial aids (Polaris in the Northern hemisphere/Southern cross for the Southern hemisphere) to avoid walking circles in the woods. When looking at ground objects in the dark, look slightly to one side and use your peripheral vision. Squat down and skyline the things in front of you to assist with identifying more distant objects.
- Steer clear of lines of communication. These areas are natural lines of drift for the common populace and the evader must be uncommon, unconventional and unpredictable. While these areas are much easier/faster traveled, they invite trouble for the evader.
- Leave no evidence of your presence by cleaning up after yourself. This doesn’t just apply to your hide site; it applies to movement (i.e. tracks, broken branches, matted grass, ruffled leaves, etc). Be conscious of disturbing your surroundings and walk on hard surfaces when available. Consider wrapping your boots with cloth to make tracks appear older, or better yet, travel during inclement weather!
- Camouflage needs to be appropriate for your surroundings and updated as the environment changes. Hide the shiny objects like glasses, watches, zippers, jewelry and buckles. Pad the noisy items on your body and equipment. Cover exposed skin with any available materials (face paint, mud, ash, etc). If using natural vegetation to conceal items on your person, ensure they appear natural (leaves/boughs are a very different color on the bottom side) and are changed out as they wilt. Much has been written on the topic of camouflage so we’ll leave it at that.
- Generally speaking, engaging hostiles while evading is bad for business. There are exceptions to every rule, but the evader is usually badly outnumbered and out gunned. If you do decide to drill the bad guy walking in the vicinity of your hole up site, be sure you’re prepared for your next move. Is he a scout for the main party shortly behind? Are you sure he even sees you? I’ve seen the warrior mentality compromise people’s judgment. Sometimes it’s better to run away and live to fight another day.
Plan ahead- An Evasion Plan of Action can serve you and your group well in the event that you need to evade. If you live in a bigger city, this plan should be part of your bug out preparations and incorporate several scenarios with emphasis placed on rally points and timelines. The Evasion Plan of Action is worth its weight in gold when you are separated from your main party and communications are down. We use the PACE acronym in the military: Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency. All eventualities are covered (or as many as possible). An example Evasion Plan of Action may look like, but is not limited to the following:
Communications plan/Call Signs:
C-CB/two way radio
Immediate communication intentions ( 0 to __ hours): Try to establish comms using Primary and Alternate method for the first half hour. If no contact is made, attempt contact at the top of the hour for the next 24 hours…
Extended communication intentions (after __ hours): Try to establish comms using Contingency or Emergency methods at 1200 local every day…
Call signs also listed here.
C-Beacon Hill (easily recognizable terrain feature just outside the city)
E-The retreat location
Immediate rally intentions ( 0 to __ hours): Try to get to Primary rally point. If compromised, use Alternate rally point…
Extended rally intentions (after __ hours): If unsuccessful rally after the first 24 hours use Contingency rally point. After 48 hours…
Evasion Intentions: Will move away from lines of communication and attempt to make comms…
–Note: use of a Bullseye (prearranged landmark used as a point of reference) can come in handy for a group. For example, if I have comms with my group and a map compass or GPS, I can relay that I am 8 miles at 115 degrees from Bullseye. My group knows what bullseye is and therefore knows where I am, but nobody else listening in knows where I am.
Obviously the Evasion Plan of Action is going to have information on it that you don’t want just anybody seeing, so keep it close hold or better yet, memorize it! Keep in mind, the Evasion Plan of Action is just a plan and plans get tossed out sometimes depending on the circumstances and that’s okay. Never forget the first principle of evasion– be flexible! Evading will never be easy. You’ll likely be cold, tired, hungry, scared and injured to name a few, but remember your worst day evading is better than your best day in captivity!
Further Reading on Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape:
Return With Honor by George E. Day
Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell
Bravo Two Zero: The Harrowing True Story of a Special Forces Patrol Behind the Lines in Iraq by Andy McNab
Wilderness Evasion: A Guide to Hiding Out and Eluding Pursuit in Remote Areas by Michael E. Chesbro
Air Force Regulation 64-4 Search and Rescue Survival Training