The bigger the darkness, the easier it is to spot your little light. ― Brother Andrew (famous Cold War Bible smuggler), God’s Smuggler (2001)
Nasrudin walked into a house and exclaimed, “The moon is more useful than the sun.”
“Why?” he was asked.
“Because at night we need the light more.” – Paul Blenkiron, Stories and Analogies in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (2010)
Moving from point A to point B at night is all about time, space and light, a plan and practice. As you get more experience, the planning process will be less involved, but the plan must be there and it must consider time, space, and light. In Afghanistan in 2002, most American flights were scheduled for moonless nights, few were scheduled for greater than 15% illumination (a full moon is considered 100% illumination).
Years earlier, I remember getting assigned a problem during an operational readiness inspection. The mission was complex and the last phrase the mission coordinator said was, “…and the commander wants the entire operation to be completed under cover of darkness.”
Ten minutes later I went to the inspector and told him that the mission could not be done that night, under that restriction. It was summer and the objective of mission completed under cover of darkness given the distance and our methods of insertion and extraction.
“Okay,” he said with a sigh. “you’re dead. Who’s next in the chain of command?”
It had been a trick problem and I seen the key problem immediately. Rather than waste a good problem, the inspectors pulled me out and gave a slightly changed copy of the problem to someone the opportunity to sharpen his operational skills.
Get yourself an almanac, or find the equivalent online. Frequently nautical and “farmers’” almanacs provide times for dawn, sunrise, sunset, and dusk, at your location. Sometimes they even predict the occurrence of false dawns and false dusks during certain seasons. These are terms you must know and understand.
Rule #1: There Are No Rules
Darkness can be your friend or your nemesis. Most of the time darkness –- used wisely — lends a small unit or a single operator the element of surprise.
Below I offer several matters for consideration. There are no hard and fast rules. Surprise, remember, is most frequently achieved by operating outside the accepted rules.
The general rule is never go out during a full moon. Like all rules, there can be exceptions. Sometimes it is more important to find you way than it is proceed completely unseen. If you miss a key landmark the mission will fail. If you sound like a wild boar crunching through heavy, unseen brush the mission will fail.
Get a Sense of the Flow
If possible get estimates of distances in terms of time rather than miles or kilometers. Rush hour traffic in New York City and travel on the Autobahn allow very different rates of speed. Skulking through heavy brush or a swamp will cut your speed on foot. If you are walking cautiously through an unknown area my rule of thumb is figure it will take you an hour to go a kilometer.
Remember too, there is some terrain that is so treacherous in the dark that it is impassable. Remember you can only move as fast as the slowest member of your party.
Preserve Your Night Vision
Strong sources of light such as farms, villages, lighthouses, or illuminated landmarks, are great navigational aids, but don’t patrol straight at them, zig-zag right then left keeping the light just in your peripheral vision. Wear a hat with a brim to shield your eyes from a sudden new light. Strong light will ruin you night vision to the point you can see the Point B, and you find yourself stumbling noisily across the roots and stone at your feet.
The opposition has preconceived mental images of what it is looking for. When it scans the darkness it is looking for something that looks like a pistol target silhouette, but moving, sort of a bowling pin with shoulders whose head is right about eye level. As you move don’t walk upright, crouch, slink, don’t look like that walking bowling pin with shoulders.
Stop Frequently and Simply Listen
You generate your own noises and you need to be wary of concentrating too much on the getting to Point B. Stop get down and curl around something natural, a bush or a rock. Don’t stretch out like Goya’s “Naked Maja.” She was trying to attract attention. You aren’t. Like an upright bowling pin, a reclining bowling pin is something the opposition is also looking for.
Listen. In the dark you’ll hear human movement before you see it. Searchers in large groups simply cannot keep quiet.
Use low terrain for stopping points. Then get as low as you can and look up for…movement and human silhouettes. The Romans were taught to seek the high ground. Most of the time, in defense, employing a planned perimeter, that’s a good idea, but infiltrators can derive an advantage by silhouetting the opposition against the sky is generally lighter than your surroundings, the low ground.
When your brain tells you, “That’s enough time for a break,” wait a full two minutes longer. You would be surprised to learn that you and the opposition have very similar perceptions of what is a reasonable amount of time to stop in the dark, More than once I’ve lost experienced searchers by just taking abnormally long rest stops. They would suddenly lose patience and stride off ahead thinking they’d lost their quarry. Sufferin’ Succotash, lie still. A rest stop is not a time to do deep knee bends and jumping jacks to keep warm, or to skim rocks. It is a time to freeze, coiled around some natural clump of nature.
Don’t be at the wrong end of the noise detection.
Remember you want to be prepared for anything. So you carry everything, but the kitchen sink. However your coins, car keys, and lock blade knife should not be jingling in your pocket or your canteen cup should not be rattling “Wipe Out” against your rucksack.
Before you go anywhere and jump up and down several times. Jump off a wall. Dive into the dirt and roll around. If you sound like a tinker’s wind-chime, I hope it is because you intend to draw fire to protect others.
Then consider the perennial “sound versus availability” conundrum. All survival planning requires trade-offs.
Perhaps, perhaps, you can be too prepared when it comes to gear. Perhaps, you can be underprepared for movement.
I should not have to make this point, but I seen military operators tiptoe from tree to tree at high speed like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. I couldn’t believe it. Fast movements catch the eye.
If you sense someone is near, drop slowly, and freeze. Under no circumstance rush for cover, unless you’re taking fire. If you have to rush for cover, don’t then scamper to further cover, and further cover, etc. Take cover and hold cover.
If you are caught in the scan of a search light freeze then drop slowly after it passes. If you hear the fizzle of a flare drop as the flare drops from the sky.
I’m sure Wile E. Coyote is persistent, in good shape, and can scamper with the best of them, but remember he always ends up with an Acme anvil on his head.
Flashlight-Tag/Capture-the-Flag Played for Keeps
I can remember playing night flashlight tag and capture the flag as a Boy Scout. There were probably no better games to teaching undetected movement by night.
If you want to improve you skills, you must find ways to test your skills before you try evasion for keeps. Yes, you can try this within reasonable limits at home.
Practice, or risk the judgment of an Acme anvil from above.
About the Author
R. L. Crossland is a retired naval captain with 35 years’ service, active and reserve, as a SEAL officer ("one cold war and two hot ones.") He holds a merchant marine captain’s license and practices trial law in New England. He is a graduate of numerous military and civilian survival, evasion, and related schools. His survival interests are varied and range from cold weather subsistence to lifeboat navigation to emergency communications to assisted evasion, and beyond.