When and How to SLLS

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A soldier prone but observant.
Don't just stand there during a SLLS stop.

When I walk around the property, which I often do with my dog, I practice SLLS, pronounced “sills.” This acronym stands for Stop, Look, Listen, and Smell. When you are on patrol, you should stop and do all three. How often you should do this and for how long depends on your specific situation, the topography, and the threat level. I do it for practice, and also because it keeps me aware of my surroundings. When just walking, it’s easy to get distracted and miss something. Intentionally stopping, looking, listening, and smelling keeps you on your toes.

Stop

Stopping sounds like it would be the easy part, but I find you need to freeze so you can concentrate on the other three aspects. I look at my dog as an example of this. When she sees or smells something, she stands still, her legs locked. She may lean forward, but she doesn’t make unnecessary motions. Don’t just slow down for a SLLS break, and don’t look while you walk. Stop. Consider taking cover. Catch your breath, take a drink, do whatever you need to do so you can focus.

Look

Looking also sounds easy, but you need to really see. I look at the woods when I walk through it, but I don’t study it. My eyes are more likely to be where I am placing my feet. When you do a SLLS stop, you need to concentrate, look through the leaves, up the gullies, deep into the distance. If you focus on something 100 feet away, you may miss something 200 yards away, so start nearby and then look further out. I look for motion, but also for anything unusual. This could be a color that doesn’t belong in the landscape or a shape that is unnatural.

I start to my left and take quarter turns to ensure I cover the entire area. Don’t forget to check your six.

Listen

Listening is critical because in a heavily forested environment, we can often hear things approaching before we see them. This is especially the case with motorized transport. When I hear a motor, I first try to determine the direction from which the sound emanates, and then I try to determine what kind of motor it is. Is it a chainsaw or a dirt bike? A four-wheeler? Could it be a drone? A car or even an airplane?

Because of the many streams and creeks, water is a constant background noise and can interfere with hearing other sounds. The dog has better hearing than I do, and I often follow her cues because she turns the direction of a new sound. She’ll pick up all kinds of noises well before I do, but airplanes seem to confuse her.

Wind is another common sound, and because it is not constant, it can interfere with hearing more than water, which doesn’t vary. Wind can also cause other sounds, from leaves blowing across the ground to trees that creak and rub against each other.

Then there are sounds that may sound unusual to you, but to which I have grown accustomed. This can be the crowing of a rooster, the knocking of a woodpecker in the day, or the hoot of an owl at night. The trick is to note them, but don’t let them distract you from the rattle of a snake, the sound of feet, or distant voices. Learn the normal rhythm of sounds in your area of operation so you can detect absences as well as something new.

Smell

This is one where the dog has me beat by a long shot. She can smell what walked by hours ago while I have to spot the tracks to know an animal passed by. She also smells, or possibly hears, small woodland creatures like mice and moles and will spend time digging them out of their holes. Crunch! They are no more, but they were fun while they lasted.

For humans, we can pick up the smell of oils and petroleum products. I know I can smell Hoppes, for example, at a distance. I rarely smell perfumes and scents unless on an elevator or in close quarters.

Smoke is an important smell to note because it usually means people. Exhaust also can carry, especially if diesel.

I do not have a great sense of smell, but I detect things that are off (i.e., a bad smell) sooner than I smell things that smell good.

At Night

When I leave the house at night, I wear a headlamp and scan where I am heading and then the surrounding area, high and low. There is often wildlife about, and by scanning the tree limbs, I can spot owls and raccoons. They spot me first; I rarely surprise them.

While using 1,000 lumens of light isn’t a great idea if humans are the threat, the light works well to see the reflection of animal eyes. Right now, at least, I’m not worried about humans lurking in the woods. I’ve seen bobcats and coyotes, and we know bears pass through the area. I prefer not to stumble across them.

When the night sky is clear and the moon is bright, I can walk without the headlamp, but there are also cloudy and rainy night when it is so dark one cannot safely walk 20 feet without some kind of aid, either a light or a night vision device. That’s something you will never experience if you don’t leave the city. There are few places with a truly dark sky experience, but I live in one of them.

I also pay attention to the stars when I am out at night. I may not know all the constellations, but by being out several times a night, every night, I know where the bright stars are and how they rotate through the night and across the seasons. The same applies to the moon; I know where the moon rises, when it is waxing, and when it wanes. This will help me navigate at night, should it ever be necessary.

Sound is also important at night, although the wind and water still limit its use. I hear far more coyotes and owls, for example, than I ever see. I usually don’t smell anything at night other than smoke from our wood stove, but I understand coyotes can smell bad.

City versus Country

You may dismiss the concept of SLLS because you don’t live in the country or go on patrol, but it can be valuable in urban areas, in an empty or near-empty building, and at night. It is a good idea to concentrate on all your senses, and a SLLS stop helps you do that. It can be an important way to gather information about your surroundings, your environment, and your opposition. A SLLS stop can also help ground you. Being silent may tip you off to the presence of someone who is less silent than you. Find a shadow where you can put you’re your back against the wall, sink into it, and be still while you do your urban SLLS.

Working with a Dog

I like working with our dog. As a flock protection dog, she is protective and willing to challenge a coyote or other animal and will fight a stray dog with enthusiasm. When she barks, it is a loud warning, but when she growls? Grown men keep their distance, and I can’t say I blame them.

One advantage of patrolling with the dog is that she isn’t a distraction. There is no conversation to carry on the wind or to alert others to our presence. She is focused, and it helps me focus. Sure, she can get excited when a small furry animal or other prey species is in the area, but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to accept. Plus, I figure she deserves some excitement.

When to SLLS

In our wooded mountains, I SLLS when I enter new territory, like crossing a valley or ridge. Another time is when the path makes a significant change of direction. I also do so when approaching a road or trail, knowing even animals use dirt roads if they are going the direction they want to go. If I were on patrol and I knew there was a good ambush spot ahead, I would definitely pause to look, listen, and smell.

Will I ever need these skills? I don’t know, but isn’t that why we prep—just in case?

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