Moving with Little Trace

How to move in a natural environment while staying quiet and hard to track.

My family loves the movie trilogy Lord of the Rings (LOTR), even though it has many unlikely moments. One of my favorite unlikely moments is in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are tracking the orc pack carrying the Hobbits Merry and Pippin to a gruesome fate in Isengard.  Gimli complained, “Three day’s and night’s pursuit… no food, no rest, and no sign of our quarry but what bare rock can tell.”  Aragorn’s tracking is masterful to the point of unbelievable, as he pieces together the orcs’ movement, their midnight battle with the Rohirim, and the escape of Merry and Pippin. Experts can track people with remarkable accuracy, but Aragorn’s feat fits Hollywood better than it does the real world.

As a combat veteran, outdoorsman, and martial artist, I have moved more than once while trying to avoid being seen, heard or tracked. While hiking in the Poconos of Pennsylvania this month, I thought of what I had learned over the years from scout to soldier, and decided to write some of it down. People have been tracked by predatory animals and by other people. Before beginning, let me be clear that it is impossible to be completely silent, invisible, and untrackable. Readers also need to remember that not being seen, not being heard, and not being tracked are three different objectives; doing one can make it harder to do the others. The goal of this article is to help readers make themselves harder to see, to hear, and to track. We will focus on the natural world but say a little about indoors as well.

Be physically fit

Cardiovascular (heart, lung, and blood vessel) fitness is the cornerstone of every task in life, and moving with little trace is no exception. Gimli “breathed so loud” that Haldir’s elves “could have shot him in the dark”, and so will you if you try to move through the wilderness in poor condition. Cardiovascular fitness comes from walking, running, bicycling, swimming, or some other aerobic physical activity, at least 60 minutes of moderate or 30 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Athletes doing cardiovascular exercises often have tight lower extremities, so stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, and Achilles tendons (heel cords) at least three times per week.

Musculoskeletal fitness, flexibility, and balance are equally important. Moving without notice requires a strong and supple body with good balance. Everyone has missteps when walking on narrow paths, crossing streams, and going up or down steep slopes, but a fit body helps prevent those stumbles from becoming falls and injuries. Missteps are noisy enough, but falls can sound like an avalanche to a man trying to avoid notice. Core exercises work your abdominal, back, and upper thigh muscles which are the foundation of body movement. Resistance exercises strengthen your neck, arms, and legs. People should do both types of exercises at least twice per week.

Foot and ankle fitness is frequently overlooked. Modern shoes cover the foot with thick soles and uppers, making them weak and flabby. The ankle is the most injured joint in the body, and people with ankle injuries usually don’t rehabilitate them enough. Walking while barefoot strengthens and toughens feet, but beware injury from doing too much too fast. Begin on safe surfaces in moderate weather and progress.

Wear the Right Clothing

Soft and light footwear is quieter than street shoes or hiking boots, which is why natives the world over have gone barefoot or worn moccasins. Some clothing like nylon is noisy when it rubs together while natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and flax are quieter. Avoid wet or ill-fitting clothing and footwear.

Make sure that you don’t have equipment bumping together. Carry nothing reflective that could cause a glint in the sun. Use clothing to blend with your environment and break up the lines of the human form as much as is practical. Long pants usually make less noise than shorts, and long sleeved shirts than short sleeved ones. Baggy pants and shirts break up human lines but can get caught on underbrush. Minimize your gear.

Move deliberately

Look at the ground in front of you before taking each step. Decide where you want to step before moving your foot and place it gently forward while keeping your weight on you back foot. When you are sure of your foot placement, roll your weight on to your front foot. Repeat. Flex at the knees to absorb the force of each step.

Walking on hard surfaces (such as concrete), earth, or grass is less noise than walking on other surfaces. Avoid gravel because the small stones shift under your weight and make noise. Never step on a twig, small branch, pile of dry leaves, or anything else that will break under your weight. The snapping will sound like a pistol shot when the branch breaks. Larger branches are also a problem; because they are round it is easy to slip off. Soft, thick moss absorbs sound well, as does soft soil, but both leave obvious tracks. Avoid wet surfaces or streams – it is easy to slip and splashing makes noise.  Move obstacles if necessary but try not to break branches.

Move slowly. Fast and jerky movement attracts the eye and fast steps are usually noisier than slow ones. Moving fast also makes it harder to plan each step and move deliberately. Speed makes tripping and falling more likely. Patience is a virtue when moving with a minimum chance of being seen or heard. Unfortunately, going slowly can make it easier to be tracked. By and large, the natural world moves slower than we do, and we need to adopt the natural pace.

Pick your feet up. Dragging or slapping your feet on the ground is a sure way to be heard, and dragging your feet disrupts the ground and organic matter on the trail.

Walking sequence

  1. Walk lightly, pulling the weight of your body just before your foot strikes the ground and landing softly.
  2. Experts differ on whether a person trying to move silently should strike the ground with the heel or ball of their foot. In my experience, the ball strike is a better option if you are strong enough to maintain it.
  3. Put your stepping foot down on the outer part of the ball of your foot and roll to the inside part of the ball. Put your heel down last and do not strike with it.

Move intermittently. Small animals move a short distance, stop to examine their surroundings, and then move again. Soldiers advance by rushing from one area of cover or concealment (such as a wall or tree) to another.

Watch your upper body

No matter how well you move below the belt, if a branch scrapes across your shirt and snaps back against another tree, you will get noticed. The sound of the branch and the speed of its backlash will be visible to everyone without 50 feet.

Use your environment

Things that make noise, whether natural such as waterfalls or man-made such as cars, can help cover any noise that you make. You can speed up a little with covering noise. Mimic your environment – be still when it is still and move when it moves. Match the movement of the vegetation and stay in the shadows. Stay downwind from wildlife you are stalking, or from wildlife that is stalking you. Beware of making a human-shaped shadow; break it up with natural shadows. Do not disrupt wildlife; the sudden flight of a flock of birds will broadcast your presence for miles.

When you make a noise, freeze. A person or animal that hears a noise will look for movement to accompany it.  If you deny them that movement, and if they haven’t already seen you, they will move their attention away from you.

Eluding trackers

The best way to evade trackers like Aragorn is to learn how to track like Aragorn. Failing that, the following few tips will help.

  1. Change shoes to change your tread and therefore change your tracks.
  2. Make sharp turns to confuse people (and dogs) about which direction you are headed.
  3. Cross obstacles that are hard for dogs (and people) to follow.
  4. When approaching a road, make tracks along the road in both directions to confuse trackers about which direction you are headed. Once you get on the road, go the direction that you want to go.

Indoors

Moving on carpet is quieter than on tile or other hard surfaces. Step near the wall to avoid causing creaking of wood floors. When opening doors, pull up on the handle to avoid the door scrapping against the floor.

Practice

Practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect. Whenever you are in the wilds, practice moving with little trace. Stalk wildlife, seeing how close you can get before it notices you and runs or flies away. Evaluate your performance, especially your mistakes, every time you practice.

Conclusion

None of us will track prey like Aragorn, but we can be better at avoiding being tracked than Gimli. Moving without any trace can only be done in Hollywood, but moving with little trace is available to everyone. Learning to move with little trace will improve your hunting skills and increase your enjoyment of the wilderness. It is fun to track friends in the forest. Depending upon where you are and what environment you are in, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, moving with little trace could save your life.

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