Shelter and Sleep in Non-Permissive Environments

This article is part of a series on the practical aspects of stealth. To see links to all of the articles on this topic, see the main page for The Stealth Fighter. This excerpt is from Chapter 3: Terrain, Weather, and Fieldcraft

Shelter in the Field

The woods are inviting during nice weather. When it is sunny and 75 degrees, being in the forest makes our hearts soar. When it is drizzling and 55 degrees, however, people simply clam up. They withdraw. Rather than standing up straight and looking outward, people pull blankets and tarps over their hunched shoulders, and look downward. It’s not a situation conducive to staying hidden and alert. If the weather is much more extreme than the drizzly day described above, it can even leach strength and lead to foolish decisions.

Military men call cold-weather gear “snivel gear,” the implication being that real men simply take the cold without aid. Nowadays, the term is mostly said in jest. Through repeated exposure to misery in the field, military men learn how to best manage their mobile wardrobes. The most basic principle for effective snivel usage is to not use it while conducting movement, but rather to wait until an extended stop to layer up. Extreme cold may necessitate a light under-layer.

When in Afghanistan in 2007, higher command tasked my recon team with infiltrating through the mountains to a valley, where we would clandestinely secure a landing zone for a much larger assault force. We were to set up a supporting position featuring sniper rifles and a medium machine gun which would enable rapid action in the event the enemy attempted to down the incoming helicopters. The altitude was well over 8,000 feet. The mountains were covered in several inches of snow, and the temperature was roughly 20°F.

The attached machine gunner layered long underwear top and bottoms under his uniform. Laden with body armor, a machine gun, and ammunition, he became overheated during the 4 hours of mostly vertical hiking through the mountains. Our element had to stop to deal with his heat exhaustion. The medic removed some of his clothes, which sent his temperature downward. The temperature blew right through 98.6°F and he quickly began shivering and slurring words. The machine gunner went from heat exhaustion to hypothermia in 15 minutes or less! We quickly resumed our walk, sans long underwear, and the situation worked out fine.

Another problem with moving while wearing cold weather gear is that the movement tends  to get the gear wet with either sweat or rain. If you are using a moisture repelling shell, it’s a sure bet that you are making too much noise. While moving in inclement weather, carry a large outer garment which you can easily take on and off during halts. I always order my field jackets in a size larger than I need so that they will fit over kit. Another tactic is to carry gloves, a beanie hat, and a neck gaiter. They conserve energy, but an overheated wearer can easily remove and stow them while walking.

Whatever suite of snivel gear you choose, you must manage your clothing articles during inclement weather. Don’t strip out of your wet clothes and put on dry clothes while it’s still raining, or you have more water crossings in the future. What are you going to do with your wet clothes? In cold rainy environments, they will pretty much never dry, and the moisture will add to your weight. Use an overcoat or poncho to conserve heat when not on the move. Your body heat will dry the clothes out. Obviously if it’s a matter of safety, you may have no choice but to break into your dry clothes.

Small items like gloves, socks, and T-shirts dry easily inside of a jacket. My favorite field jacket has an inner mesh pocket for precisely that reason. A sleeping bag will also help to dry wet clothing. Lay the clothing out to your side in the bag, and it will be much drier in the morning. Bunching up wet clothing in the bottom of the bag will provide little drying capacity.

Another critical piece of equipment is a small poncho or tarp. The ideal tarp is waterproof, 5’x8’ or a little more, and has grommets for tying. The way you use this piece of gear is not to wear it, but to make a “hooch,” which simply means to string up the tarp into an overhead cover. Using 550 cord and nearby trees, shrubs, and rocks, your goal is to turn the poncho into a single slanted sheet which will protect personnel and equipment from rain. Pre-tie the grommets with long pieces of 550 cord. If the tarp is too shiny, dust it with paint. You can hold up the center by placing a pebble on the dry side, and looping a rope around that pebble on the wet side. I generally just make the hooch tight enough and with enough slant so that it’s not necessary to hold the center.

Poncho hooch in Tora Bora, 2007

If you cannot use a tarp or outer jacket, needle evergreens like cedar and juniper make a very good shelter from the rain. I’ve huddled under such trees during fierce storms and stayed quite dry. Because their leaves are so fine and tight, water runs down the leaves and branches, and to the ground at the base of the trunk. The ground underneath the canopy stays mostly dry.

During hot, sunny weather, wear loose cotton clothes which cover most of the skin. Wear a wide-brimmed hat as well. If it’s too hot, cut a hole in the top and fill it with mesh. When crossing streams, roll up your sleeves and submerge your arms as much as possible. The forced convection from the water will remove heat. Water evaporating from your head will also remove heat. Plan movements to avoid the worst heat of the day.

When I was the leader of a recon team, I had to carefully manage my team’s strength in 100°F weather. Between 12PM and 4PM, I sought to keep men from moving. My goal was to have a surveillance team in place before the heat hit, to be withdrawn after the worst of it had subsided.

Sleeping in the Field

Getting sleep during field operations is an energy-conservation issue, much the same as sheltering against cold weather. Tired leaders make poor decisions. Tired operators are sloppy. I have found that energy conservation is a key aspect in leading men in an environment where stealth is paramount. The discipline and work that stealth requires is exhausting, not to mention the demands of the actual mission. As soon as you begin such a mission, the team must be in self-preservation mode. Part of that means getting some amount of sleep.

Obviously, pitching a neon-colored tent and striking up a campfire is not acceptable in a non-permissive environment. In extreme cold, a small, drably colored tent can conserve fighting strength. It’s critical to camouflage the site with vegetation and other techniques. See Chapter4: Hide Sites and Surveillance for more information. The poncho hooch, as I described in the preceding headline on shelter, is another alternative with a smaller signature, and greater ease of breakdown. Furthermore, a team member can pull security from underneath the poncho.

During good weather, I recommend sleeping on the ground. It creates no additional signature, and the sleeper can typically prepare himself to move very quickly. A mild-weather technique I have used to maximize sleep during operations is to preposition a surveillance team near the objective at dusk, when they can move quickly and quietly, yet fading light offers a camouflage advantage. The team then prepares their night optics and cameras in the dusk light, before taking turns sleeping much of the night. The team can then move onto their objective at an extremely early morning hour such as 0300, when defenders are in their deepest sleep, and watchers are fighting drowsiness. The team is well rested, and makes much less noise overall since most of the route took place in daylight hours.

A good small-element leader should encourage snoozing and napping, within a sound security system. On a surveillance site when nothing is happening, one member should sleep while the other watches the objective, and keeps situational awareness for local security. In a hide site where a larger team is bivouacking, it is perfectly acceptable for the whole team to sleep while one man keeps watch. In this case, the hide site should be small so that it creates less signature. It should be acceptable for an element to take a thirty minute halt, and let the majority of men close their eyes. 

This thinking flies in the face of normal infantry operations. In that case, the men spread out so as to create a sparser target. Casual naps are a major faux-pas; sleep is a controlled commodity dispensed at a specific time. For small teams concerned with stealth, little naps can help team members to concentrate.

In summary, keeping hidden in a non-permissive environment is exhausting. Conserving fighting strength might be the one thing that tips the balance in favor of the hunted in staying hidden and alive.

6 Replies to “Shelter and Sleep in Non-Permissive Environments”

  1. Yep. Make that 5×8. I used an REI tarp like that for years. They don’t make that size anymore… but any thing with a long dimension of 6′ will be just large enough.

  2. Luxury super-tarp 10×10′ by AquaQuest, if you need “absolutely waterproof” and are ok with a hunnert bux for a nylon roof. Agree that 6×6 is good enough if you are. If it’s really cold, add an SOL “sport utility” reflector/blanket to the kit. Orange ones are sold by Kroger, green ones on eboy or amerzin.
    Stay dry and warm!

  3. Old GI shelter half is water repellent, wind proof and non reflective. It is also lighter than most plastic tarps. A 8×8 square of heavy black construction plastic on the ground as a Vapor barrier , your ground pad as a insulator, wrap up in your blanket of choice. One guy stays on sentry, one guy sleeps. Old school WORKS! If you coop up in a Cedar thicket you are almost invisible to infa-red, FLIR type devices. Evergreens mask FLIR. Modern is seldom “better” than the stuff used 50 years ago ,no matter what “Sargn’t know all” the internet expert says. One of my favorite videos from the latest festivities was of 4 attack helo’s flying slowly past 12 hajis who were hiding in a ditch under a clump of pine. The AH-64’s kept right on going. Despite passing within 50 meters of the Pashtuni’s. The Haji’s didn’t break cover and lived to fight another day. It is never about having the newest gear or the most tacticool “stuff.” It is about using your head and holding your water.

  4. In a word… FIELDCRAFT.

    Post a link to said shelter half? The ones I used in basic training were terrible — large and heavy.