Non-Visual Target Indicators

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.

A target indicator is anything that makes your presence known to an enemy; it indicates a target (you, in this case). If you master this section, you can write the book on stealth. The purpose of camouflage is to reduce target indicators. The importance of the term “target indicator” is impossible to overstate. If you get just that from this article, it was worth your time to read it.

People spend an enormous amount of time on reducing visual target indicators. This article is on reducing your signature as a target in the domains of sound and smell. A misplaced radio crackle, or a whiff of cigarette smoke can burn you just as well as an errant movement. Let’s dive in.


In any field environment, perfumes stand out. The detergent you wash your clothes with is almost certainly scented, as is your shampoo. The simple solution is to keep your clothes for the civilized world and your field-wear separate. Wash your field wear in warm water with no detergent. It wont become rancid with stench, and yet it will not give you away. Similarly, avoid soaps, deodorants, colognes, and other such frills for a minimum of 24 hours prior to entering a field environment.

Another obvious olfactory target indicator is cigarette or campfire smoke. Don’t do it near the enemy. An unfortunate wind will leave no doubt as to your presence. Cooking food falls into the same category. You must eat, but use good judgement.

Perhaps one you didn’t consider is the food you eat seeping through your pores. This mainly pertains to situations where your potential observers are foreign. If you’d like to see this firsthand, get extremely drunk. The next morning, go for a jog. You’ll smell the booze seeping out. If you prefer not to abuse yourself that much, eat a healthy dose of curry and breathe in the same effect later.


Some sounds belong, and some don’t. The clanking of metal is sure to draw attention, as is the ringtone on your cell phone. Make sure that whatever sounds you make in a given area of operations belong, or don’t make them at all. Discipline is obviously a key factor.

The way you walk is also a target indicator. If you observe animals in the wild, you’ll note that they never just go tromping through the woods. They walk a bit, then stop, walk a bit, then stop. Crackling leaves and sticks on their own are not a definitive target indicator, but nonstop crackling indicates human movement.

Velcro, radio squelch, water sloshing, the thudding of feet on earth, coughing, and the rustling of paper and plastic are a few other sounds I can think of that cannot be easily explained away . During the Vietnam War, prior to hydration bladders, small recon teams would pass a canteen and empty it to avoid sloshing. I like to tape the metal tabs on zippered pouches, or replace them altogether with gutted 550 cord.

Weather plays a significant factor.  On cold days, sound seems to travel further. This isn’t an illusion. Sound refracts downward from warmer air toward the cold ground, which results in more sound making it further downrange prior to the sonic energy dissipating. The animals are a good bit quieter. The dried leaves and sticks crackle much more loudly than in summer. A cold, calm day is a terrible time to attempt stealthy movement.

During wet weather, leaves and sticks are muffled and make very little noise. While it may be miserable to be out in the field, you can be sure that your enemy is equally miserable, and the reduction in audible target indicators is welcome for the weary stalker.

In summary, don’t focus on purely visual target indicators. Sounds and smells can provide a searching enemy with a wealth of knowledge about your element. Don’t wash your field clothes with perfumes. Do use tape and 550 cord to silence metal and zipper elements on your kit. In the sounds and smells you make… be an animal.

12 Replies to “Non-Visual Target Indicators”

  1. Bow hunting for deer is great for perfecting your game. Scent, sound and sight control are critical for success. Soft clothing and soft sole boot help a lot. Look into the detergents and soaps for deer hunting. No scent and no UV brightener. Stay down wind if you can. If it works for deer then it will work for people.

  2. TY, most useful;. Were I leading a patrol on a not-too-tight schedule, every few minutes I’d have everyone take a knee and just actively listen for awhile. I’s remarkable how much more you can hear that way. Like maybe a distant but closing helicopter…

  3. I think bow hunting is probably a good bit harder than human hunting! Great comment.

  4. It’s amazing how things that sound like distant “battlefield noise” are actually seconds away from killing you. When I went on LRS missions, we walked very slowly, at times doing a sort of “mini-SLLS” by ceasing walking for 10 seconds or so. SLLS = Stop Look Listen Smell for those who don’t know.

  5. As Shifty Powers said “You don’t hunt with your eyes, you hunt with your ears”.

    Pay attention to any wildlife. Learn their sounds and habits. Their calls can give you intell as well as their sudden silence. They can give away your position, or help ‘conceal’ your presence if you sit still long enough for their activities to resume.

    Learn to use what nature provides. Back in the ’90’s, I was leading a squad sized unit on a weekend exercise. It was pretty basic stuff. We were to set up our position on some level ground at the edge of some pine woods, and expect a night ‘attack’ by another squad from across the open ground. Our communication was by field phone. We knew they would follow the commo wire to find us, so we laid the wire through a large patch of star thistle. Then I had my troops use their helmets to gather up as many dried pine cones as they could find and scatter them on the ground to the front of our position. At about 0200, “crunch”, soon followed by whispered “Ow!”.

  6. S.o.g. by John l. Plaster. Tons of real knowledge on patrolling. Tons of everything really. Undoubtedly one of the best books on military history I’ve ever read.

  7. This is a great insight that a small unit leader only really gets through experience. One of my tricks was to have my boys clear a trail… which would lead the enemy around our position, where we could choose to ambush them or typically just let them pass.

  8. When I became a recon man, this book was my ‘homework’ assignment for the weekend. Team Daddy wanted me to ‘get the right mindset.’

  9. If you watch deer, especially the bucks, they act much like Clayton says under sound. 3-4 steps then pause. look and listen. Maybe grab an acorn. Windy days they stay bedded because the rustling freaks them out. You may think its slow but when you are consistent you can move at a good pace, quietly. When you are pausing, squat sometimes but always look for your next travel route. You’ll run into a lot less noisy things. “On the run” no need to hurry. Be the big buck which no one has managed to shoot, let alone ever see. I like Wool.

  10. Hey there! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform. I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

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