There is a science to walking quietly. Most trackers emphasize the same techniques (see below), but to understand what they mean takes time. In one of my African field studies, I became intrigued with native populations who could move so quietly, they were there–and gone–without disturbing even the air currents around them. I started reading about their life style, their need to fit into nature, the basic understanding that to remain hidden from danger means to blend into Nature. To sound like her, not apart from her. If you can sound like the animals, the trees, the wind, danger is less likely to find you.
Here are some of the books I studied to reach an understanding of this topic:
- Nature’s Way–Native Wisdom for Living in Balance with the Earth, by Ed McGaa, Eagle Man
- The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull
- The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior, by Tepilit Ole Saitoti
- Tracking and the Art of Seeing, by Paul Rezendes
- Tom Brown’s Field Guides, by Tom Brown
- The SAS Guide to Tracking, by Bob Carss
If you don’t have time to read these vital books, here’s my summary of their brilliant ideas:
- Take slow, measured breaths from the nose. Most martial arts (the training ground for stealth) emphasize this.
- Watch the next place you will take a step. Be mindful of objects you are stepping on.
- Outside, try to walk on bare dirt or live grass. Dead foliage creates a perceptible “crunch” even when lightly stepped on. If you encounter an area where forced to walk through foliage, then pick the clearest path and proceed slowly, possibly bending over and removing obstructions from the location of the next step.
- If following someone, match the cadence of their steps (i.e. when they step with their left foot, you use your left foot). This will help mask any noise your feet may make. Remember that sound travels at 340 meters per second (1116 ft/sec), so you might need to adjust your walk accordingly: Note the delay between the visual step and the sound of the step from the one you are following, and try to use the same delay for your steps, only the other way around – you must step slightly before the person you are following.
- Place the heel or toes of your foot down first and roll your foot slowly and gently onto the ground. If moving swiftly, run/leap from location to location. Avoid landing flatfooted. For moving backwards, this is reversed, so that the ball of the foot is placed down first, and then the heel lowered to the ground.
- For getting really close to a target, walk on the outer edge of your feet, rolling your foot from heel to pinky toe. Though very silent, this technique is also uncomfortable and should only be used for short distances. The hips can be rotated slightly to make this technique easier.
- When speed is required, try this: Stand 90 degrees to the direction you want to go with your feet spread slightly, then take the foot on the other side of where you want to go, and while balancing on your other foot, move it across, making an X with your legs. Take your other foot and swing it out from behind to the start position. This method allows you to walk with some speed silently, even when wearing jeans which usually make lots of noise.
- How to walk silently on gravel: Bend low at the knees. The first part of your foot to hit the ground should be the heel. “Roll” forward on that foot until you’re on the ball of your foot (the padded part just behind the toes). Just before you’ve rolled all the way onto the ball of your foot, put your other foot down, heel first, directly in front of the first foot, almost touching it. You should be able to smoothly roll from the first foot to the second. Continue by rolling on the second foot, until you’re almost at the ball, and repeat by putting the first foot in front of the second. This should all be done fluidly.
- Running on the balls of one’s feet (‘digitigrade’) helps with speed and quietness, but be careful; this requires more strength in the feet and lower legs, and greater flexibility in the ankle and foot joints. It also requires better balance than normal movement, and creates a greater impression on softer surfaces (due to the weight being spread over a decreased surface area).
- When climbing items such as trees and cliffs, be mindful of where your foot lands. Try to place the toes and front padding of the foot in between branches and on crevices of the cliff. If you are forced to step in the middle of a branch or push up the side of the cliff, do it slowly and proceed with caution. A little force may dislodge a shower of debris or break a twig alerting watchers.
- Avoid shifting your weight until your forward foot is quietly and firmly on the ground. This will require a considerable degree of balance and practice.
- If you have problems with dragging your feet, then try walking around slowly with your shoelaces untied and dangling to create noise if you don’t raise and lower your feet. WARNING: Do not attempt to do this quickly or carelessly, as you could trip and fall. Keep it slow, steady and measured.
- Remember; sound is a form of energy created in walking as a byproduct of wasted energy (i.e. using more force than required in placing the foot on the ground). Control of foot placement minimizes this.
- You don’t just walk with your foot; your whole body is involved, from arms and head for balance, to hips and torso for driving the leg movements, to the legs themselves for creating the distance. ‘Play around’ with your movements so that you build a picture of what works for you and what doesn’t.
- Try Zig-Zagging as you walk: step with one foot then step forward and to the side. Step the other direction. Repeat. This way you keep more of your balance.
- When breathing, breathe through the open mouth, rather than the nose, to reduce the noise of breathing. Try to avoid situations where you must sneak around with indigestion, as growling stomachs, burps, and various other internal difficulties can be as much of a giveaway as a footstep. If you feel the urge to sneeze, this can often be suppressed firmly pressing on your upper lip – in this rare case the cartoons got it right. Unfortunately, there is no good way to suppress coughing, so your best bet is to try and prevent it by covering your mouth and nose when breathing dusty air or other irritants. Cloth isn’t necessary – even breathing through cupped hands can help.
The following method is taught by American tracker Tom Brown and taught to him by an Apache elder.
The Fox Walk
The basic movement of the ‘fox walk’ is that the foot is placed on the ground before weight is placed on it and the stride is shorter than a ‘normal’ one. If you have studied Tai Chi, you will have been taught a similar way of moving. The centre of gravity for this walk should be in the hips.
- Touch the foot lightly to the ground, with the outside edge hitting the ground first. The heel, ball and edge of the foot strike together.
- Next, roll the foot inward, until the whole surface area of the foot is on the ground.
- At this stage, the walker will be able to feel exactly what the foot is stepping on and be able to judge whether the foot needs to be withdrawn or if it is safe to put weight on the foot.
The benefits of fox walking include less strain on the body and less damage to the countryside.
Stalking/The Weasel Walk
Stalking is not only moving silently, but extremely slowly and done properly can enable the stalker to approach wild animals, sometimes even close enough to touch them. Each step will take typically up to a minute to complete. The movements flow and there should be no shakiness. Learning to stalk takes practice, so that you can freeze your movement if an animal looks towards you.
The walk is similar to the fox walk and is sometimes referred to as the weasel walk. The arms are kept very close in to the body and the hands can be put on the knees for support.
- The back foot should be picked up and moved slowly to the front of the body. The foot should then be carefully and slowly lowered until it is a few inches away from the ground.
- The toes are then turned upward and contact with the ground is made with the outside ball of the foot, which is then rolled slowly inwards.
- The heel of the foot comes down and finally the toes. At this stage, weight can be put on the foot. If an object such as a stick is felt before the weight is placed on it, the foot can be removed and replaced somewhere else.
- Cat walk. Begin your step by lifting your foot straight up, toes pointing down to avoid snagging. Place the outside of your foot down first. Press the ball of your foot into the ground consciously, rolling from the outside in. Bring down your heel, then slowly shift weight to that foot. Be prepared to lift and shift whenever you feel any obstacle that might snap or crackle under your weight.
- Map your steps. To avoid watching your feet, make a mental map of upcoming ground cover for the next eight to 10 paces, noting where you’ll need to sidestep branches or high-step fallen logs.
- Go slow. When looking for game, take three to four slow steps and stop. How slow? Three steps should take you at least 20 seconds.
- Hide your noise. Mask the noise of footfalls by moving whenever other sounds can muffle your own. Wind in the trees, moving water, and even airplane noise can all hide the sound of a human on the hunt.