Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wearing camo

I would have never imagined that I, a tree-hugger, would ever wear camo.  But my attitude towards camouflage print in clothes and gear has changed in the past six months.
Does this camo skirt make me look more like a local?
It started out as an attempt to blend in when I'm up in the North Georgia mountains.  Having my tire slashed while I was parked at a trailhead earlier this year was a turning point.  I'll never know if it was my rainbow flag bumper sticker or that I drive a hybrid.  But it was a liability to stick out in the rural South.

So, I sewed a camo hiking skirt.  In my camo disguise, I feel like people respond different to me.  I don't pass for a southern by any stretch, but I suspect it confuses people enough to pay less attention to my northern accent. 

I'd been looking to get a new tarp with doors for a few reasons, so I opted for the camo version, which also makes it even easier to stealth camp.  Plus, in a conspicuous campsite, someone walking by my campsite won't know I'm not a big macho burly hunter dude.

What I didn't anticipate was that wearing camo has subtly impacted my own experience.  Aiming to blend in by taking on earth-tones makes me feel more like a creature of the natural world.  Dirt only adds to the camo pattern, rather than blemishing the uniform civilized look of solids.  Further incentive to play in the mud.

Camo and Leave No Trace Principles
Back when I first took a Leave No Trace trainer course (with Step Outdoors), the principle that at first seemed utterly ridiculous to me was about choosing gear and clothes that are not brightly colored to lessen visual impact.  I thought seeing any people and their shelters was what made me feel crowded.  And I didn't like the idea of anyone else dictating my color choices- I was fond of wearing purples or blues to match whatever flowers were blooming.  Bright colors also can brighten my mood, and I've got a few bold hand-sewn items like my silver racing stripe sleeves that never cease to make me happy.
Happy in my bright colors.  Photo by Sandi.
Fortunately, we also learned that LNT isn't a set of hard-and-fast rules.  LNT are principles and ethics that are flexible and can change.  We practiced weighing the impact of our decisions on the environment, wildlife, plants, and other visitors.  The important part of this principle is thinking about how your choices impact the people around you and striving to blend in with the environment.  How to do this depends on context.  When making choices in the backcountry, we learned that the answer is often "it depends."  Above treeline, brightly colored tents stick out like sore thumbs.  In the forested southeast, visual impact is lessened by camping or relaxing out of sight of the trail.  LNT principles are effective because they guide decision making.   
Stacy helps us understand how wildland ethics differ from rules.
Safety always comes first, so during hunting season, wearing hunter orange is a better choice.  I also favor bright yellow tarp guy lines, reflective yellow bear rope, and orange tent stakes.  Thermo properties of gear deserve consideration too (i.e. black dries quicker and is warmer, bugs respond differently).   Purchases are often made based on function or price, rather than aesthetics.
Wearing bright colors during hunting season.  Photo by Sandi.
Where camo makes me stick out
On the way home from a recent backpacking trip, I made a short detour to a popular hiking spot full of city-folks (the parking lot was packed with shiny beamers and audi's).  All the dayhikers were looking like REI fashion models and sporting bright colors, which is apparently what is in style right now.  I stuck out in my dirt-splattered camo, and drew some disdainful looks (or maybe they were just responding to my hiker-funk smell).  Their bright colors struck me as overwhelming and loud.  Or maybe it was because people were actually being loud.  It was the first time I could really see how colors other people wear definitely have an impact.  Of course I wasn't mad or annoyed, rather,  it makes me more aware of my own biases and it reminds me of my own socio-economic baggage.

Final thoughts
I'd much prefer folks getting out into nature wearing bright colors if that's what is going to get them out from in front of their TVs and computers.  Kids totally should be exempt too cause we need more kids to get outdoors.

I think it's interesting that camo helps me blend in more down here.  More interestingly, it subtly impacts how I feel.  I wonder if wearing neutral tones helps other people adopt a quieter, more contemplative attitude as well, and if that would cause them to change their behavior (be quieter, camp and rest in less conspicuous sites).

I'm also glad this LNT principle has helped me think even more deeply about the impact I have on other people, and what I can do to be safer in the backcountry.  The fun part for me was this increased awareness, and trying some different things that definitely got me out of my comfort zone.

More information:
On gear and color choices, and leave no trace principles.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post! I had honestly never thought of clothing as an aspect of LNT- or rather, I had thought about it from a sustainability aspect but certainly not from a color aspect. I do tend to wear my most outrageous outfits in the back country, where else can i let my crazy flag fly so openly? However, i spend most of my outdoors time on a brightly colored raft surrounded by brightly colored gear, so i'm not sure it matters what i wear. I just tried to imagine a boat,gear, and clothing that blend in more with the surroundings... and it did seem like it would be a much more peaceful float. Like maybe I would be more at one with the river rather than the fighting the rapids/ i might die at any point feeling i normally have! Certainly something to consider.

  2. I'm kind of like you, never big into camo, I think the only thing I have camo is a day pack.

    I hope you are able to find the right balance between comfort/safety in the outdoors and being yourself too.

  3. Megan- I totally agree-- always had liked to wear my crazy outfits in the woods. And still tend to on the AT-- helps us identify kindred spirits, right? I still think that's a good option for something like rafting where you'd want to be visible if you slipped out of the boat. But it has been interesting to think about.

    1. Yes, I think there is good reason to the tradition of colorful gear. I definitely think there is a stron safety factor that is gained when wearin high viability stuff- whether it's during hunting season, boating big water with a high probability of swimming, or just wondering around in the woods where you might get lost!

  4. Misti- Thanks, I do hope to find a balance. Always trying to experiment. But I must say the real-tree pattern of my tarp is surprisingly pretty. Would love to find that pattern in a durastretch fabric or other stretchy (but abrasion resistant) nylon to make another skirt.

  5. Oh law and to think I have one of the brightest colored rain jackets available and my yellow tent that only blends pitched under golden fall leaves. Someday I'll tell you about the man I met in SNP that preached at me about my rain jacket being too bright and going against LNT ethics. But I really do want a camo hiking skirt.

  6. JJ- That yellow tent is so cheerful too. Drives me crazy when folks on the trail get all preachy and have that sort of attitude-- sheesh!

  7. Megan- I agree about the safety factor. But for me out here in the southeast, sometimes I feel safest being like a chameleon- able to change color depending on the environment. Either highly visible (carrying brightly colored raincoat or long underwear for example) and also being able to disappear.