Ghillie Up, by Molon Labe

From a young age, I’ve been fascinated with hunters and snipers alike who stalk the wilds with a bushy cloak that conceals their location, like a ghost who conforms to his terrain and disappears in plain view. And so since an early teen I’ve researched, constructed and eventually refined the art of personal camouflage by way of the ghillie suit. The truth is that nothing can make you truly invisible and that even the best camouflage can be compromised with movement. However, through constant research and development both for myself, friends and eventually building ghillie making into a side business, I’ve learned many helpful facts that can help you in deciding if you want to add a ghillie suit or similar variant to your Bugout Bag (BOB).

First, we must ask, “Why ghillie up at all?” What are the benefits and downsides, and how can they respectively be maximized and minimized? Back in the 19th Century, the Scottish hunting guides and game wardens found it helped them to stalk closer to their prey when they wore burlap bags around their head and shoulders, which disrupted their distinctly “human” shape. From that point forward, increasingly greater forms of concealment were adopted by many long range marksman and snipers, and their three dimensional outfits became known as “ghillie” suits in honor of these guides and wardens who were known as Gillies. The great thing about three dimensional (3D) camouflage is that it disrupts a person’s outline and can confuse the prey’s depth perception as well, lending to the misconception that some of the wearer’s body is further or closer than it actually is. But more than this, the fringes of the outfit will, or at least should, if constructed properly, sway with the breeze. These things all contribute to make the 3D outfit much more effective than any two dimensional piece of camouflage. As much as [Woodland pattern or Multicam pattern] battledress uniforms (BDUs) may blend in with the surrounding environment, they still has noticeable edges that stand out much more plainly than the edges of the ghillie suit, which from a distance seem to fade gradually from its fringes to the background.

What camouflage must do in order to be effective is to look like anything but a human, rifle or any other equipment that you bring into the wilderness. At best it will look exactly like the surrounding foliage, but at least it should look like something other than human or man-made.

One of the greatest benefits of the ghillie is that it will disrupt your silhouette, which is extremely important, both in broad daylight and especially at night. Ask yourself, how do you distinguish an animal at night from the rest of the landscape? Unless you flash a light on them and see two reflecting eyes, it’s most commonly by distinguishing a solid shape that does not resemble nature against the background. That, and of course, movement. And although a ghillie suit cannot hide your location when moving quickly–especially transverse to your target’s field of vision–it will save you from noticeably not swaying with the breeze when everything around you is. It also can play with your target’s depth perception and can, especially with shadows, make you to appear dispersed and in that sense, human and animal eyes will skip right over you without noticing anything, as you will simply blend into the landscape. All these things will greatly aid in keeping your presence hidden. But what are some downsides?

Traditionally, ghillies were never worn except when absolutely necessary because they can be very hot and extremely restrictive if not constructed properly. They can be heavy, because the classic material used is burlap or jute, which not only will add several pounds to your clothing but will soak up any moisture like a sponge and make you feel like lead when it rains. And if you are planning on discharging a weapon around it at all, you will want to treat it with flame retardant when using burlap or jute. Yes, this makes it even heavier. Yes, this may have to be redone after it comes in contact with moisture. But let’s not forget that a bundle of clothing that adds significant depth from the sole of your foot to the top of your head is hard to keep in a packable bundle that will squeeze into your bag with all your other “necessary” gear. Because the simple fact is that if you are traveling any distance through a forest at any speed except for a slow stalk, you won’t be wearing a traditional ghillie.

Still, if it greatly aids in your concealment, are there ways to mitigate or bypass some of these downsides? Absolutely. Rule number one is that if you are going to be using this for anything more than purely recreational use and don’t want to be itching and being roasted alive in a heavy, restrictive outfit, then don’t use burlap or jute at all. I say this because I’ve been told by a current U.S. Army sniper instructor that Army snipers haven’t used conventional full ghillie suits in over 30 years, because when the material sheds away (and it will) it will leave a trail behind that bespeaks only one thing:  “Sniper”. This has led to the discovery and death of a few snipers downrange. Even if the enemy doesn’t see a sniper team, they’ll call in mortars, artillery, a tracking team with dogs or anything available to them to obliterate or search out any area that may have a sniper.

So the question is, if 3D camouflage is so good, but discovery by its trail of shed fibers so dangerous, then what is the solution? In 2007, the US Army developed a synthetic thread that has completely replaced burlap and jute. This new thread is fire retardant, waterproof, water repellent, rot proof, mildew resistant, non-allergenic, and is considerably stronger and lighter than burlap or jute. The other great thing about this synthetic thread is that you won’t need nearly as much of it to get the job done and does not trap nearly as much heat, which is a real bonus when you’re down prone  in the summer sun for hours on end.

Regardless of what material you decide to use for your ghillie, it will need to be securely fastened to a wearable outfit. This is most often done by tying it to a form of netting that has been either glued or sewn onto the desired outfit. This is effective, but in my opinion is not efficient. In my area we have four distinct seasons with at least three distinct colors schemes, and if I matched any one of them I would stand out in the other two. Remember this is three dimensional camouflage; it either matches the surrounding colors or it doesn’t. There’s no two dimensional magic you can create to deceive the eye like Multicam or similar patterns. This means that I either have to have three different suits in my closet or I can create a method to attach the right color scheme to a single outfit, and with this one outfit, I can have all the bells and whistles to make it the most comfortable, rugged, cool, and functional as I can. This is the approach that I’ve taken.

Now, how to do this? What I’ve done for my personal ghillie suit is to use Shoe Goo to attach earth tone 550 military grade parachute cord (“paracord”) onto the back side of the jacket, pants, and the top of my boonie hat. This was done in a crisscross grid-like pattern with about four inches between intersections. Onto this I’ve tied more than a dozen ½-inch quick-release plastic buckles–the same type which you find on many survival bracelets. And then using fish net with the synthetic thread tied evenly to it, I’ve cut out the outline of my ghillie jacket, pants and hat. To this I’ve tied on corresponding buckles which clip into those tied onto the parachute cord grid pattern. Now I have an easy method to apply the “ghillie cover” to my ghillie base. When not wearing the ghillie cover I can stow it in my pack and merely wear the ghillie base.

BTW, the base of my ghillie suit is a set of Multicam pattern fatigues so that I can easily blend into most places during every season except winter. However, when the ghillie suit is large enough to allow warmer clothes under it–as mine is–you can also attach a synthetic thread covering with pure white thread. This, although less than perfect, is very effective when you consider that the Multicam base bleeds through in areas and creates a “break up” result. A very helpful feature especially when you consider that solid white does not blend into any snow land environment except the North Pole.

The Ghillie Poncho
But the other approach is to not have a full ghillie suit at all and instead use a simple ghillie poncho. A ghillie poncho is usually constructed using durable but ultra-light fishing net and can be thrown over your existing clothes, tactical gear, etc. This is very useful, if you are going to be traveling through two different environments such as a forest where dark green and brown are key and a very green or very tan field, you may want to pack both options, and with the advent of ghillie ponchos which weigh only 2 to 3 pounds and can squeeze into a compact space, this is now a viable option.

Now, there are two major kinds of ghillie suits, and the same principle applies to ponchos; the soldier’s ghillie and the sniper’s ghillie. The difference between these is simply that the soldier’s ghillie has full 360 degree coverage front and back, top and bottom. Whereas the sniper’s ghillie suit keeps the chest and front of the legs (and often arms) slicked out to better facilitate crawling low to the ground. Both are effective but one tends towards the sniper’s uses better than the other. Bowhunters have no need to be low crawling and will prefer to have the soldier’s ghillie.

Now when it comes to getting your own, there are a few different options. With some supplies and a little creative thinking, thread and needle, you can create your own and make it with as many added features as you care to have. Among these are creating vents in the back of the jacket, pants or hat for better ventilation, putting more rugged material such as 1,000 Denier Cordura fabric on the elbow and knee sections, “slicking out” the front of jacket and pants for low crawling, adding a hydration pack, adding pockets, add paracord thumb and boot loops which can keep the ghillie from snaking up on your arms and legs when low crawling or reverse-low crawling, putting in rain proof sections, or any other enhancement you  can dream up that could aid you for your particular area and mission.

But if you opt out of do-it-yourself (DIY), or buying from a ghillie store you’ll find a four-piece ghillie (that is: jacket, pants, head cover and rifle wrap) off the shelf that comes from China, at nearly every sporting goods store. And if your purpose is bow hunting or paintball, you’ll be hard pressed to find a less expensive solution. But if your life may be on the line, you won’t want something quite so flimsy and easy to track. Trust me, I have one and the thread will tear out all too easily when you brush by a limb or bush. These, although made with the new synthetic thread, are sewn on in bunches and not hand tied. In my opinion, this is worse should you brush up against anything in the wild, as it will come right out with a tug and will not biodegrade.

Now what should one look for in a ghillie suit? Number one it that it has to conceal you. It should be of the right color [to match your local foliage] and be constructed to fit your purposes. Secondly, it should be rugged. These suits, depending on the type of material chosen, often have the uncanny ability to reach out and grab every twig and edge of a bush within five feet. (This in itself will aid to the natural look and help to conceal you.) It should also be functional to your purposes. Ghillie suits are most often used only when hiding in a static location or while slow stalking. This however means that for most of the distance that you may need to trek through the woods, you won’t want to be wearing one. In keeping with this principle, I always look for something adequate for the job that will easily be carried, which means: compact and light. This will be situational dependent, but often times you may not have the need or space to carry a full-blown ghillie suit, which is one reason ghillie ponchos have become more popular.

Finally, how should we look at ghillies? If you are someone who puts their life on the line for those you love and go down range, I believe you should look at ghillies as another piece of kit. Again, it is something situational dependent, but mandatory to have ready to take, should you be able to take advantage of it. Whether you are a sniper, solider, or just a a prepper it is advantageous and often times critical to be concealed. Ghillies are perhaps one of the best tools to deceive the human eye into believing that it sees nothing more than an uninteresting clump of nature.

Whether you construct one yourself, pick one up from a shop or shell out the cash to get a custom design from an online store, realize each design has advantages and some disadvantages. However, I must say, if you decide to take the next step in the art of camouflage, then you should train with it as you do the rest of your kit. If you simply buy one and put it aside to use on The Day but never use it when you train, then it will be an unnecessary frustration when you finally do, and you won’t be able to maximize the benefits as you should.