Camo Culture and Contempt

Camo culture and contempt

If you want to give someone a visual cue that you hunt, inviting them into your home where you have heads mounted on your wall will likely be very effective. However, if you’d like to signal — outside your home — that you culturally identify as a hunter, arguably the most effective way is to wear camouflage clothing. Donning camo, especially as part of one’s daily wardrobe, has become a strong signal of cultural identity, a clear lifestyle choice. Nothing screams “I like to hunt” quite like a camo hat worn to the mall.

Seeing camo displayed so overtly, especially in non-hunting contexts, might lead some non-hunters to think immediately of negative caricatures of hunters: hunters as dull, careless, offensive, and inconsiderate. Perhaps it’s that many of the most stridently ideological hunters wear camo clothing in day-to-day life, often with a jarring ‘I hunt. It’s legal. Get over it.’ attitude in tow. Or, perhaps it’s that camo clothing can make one look more intimidating and less approachable to non-hunters. And even for those who aren’t offended or intimidated, camo could still be seen as a marker of ideological difference. Many non-hunters may see a person wearing camo and think, “He and I are dissimilar and probably wouldn’t get along”.

Whatever it is, seeing a hunter in camo can be a lightning rod for expressed or implicit disdain directed towards that hunter and hunters more broadly. Camo seems to have the power to temporarily turn non-hunters that in general support hunting (‘I think it’s cool that you hunt to put food on the table.’) toward less supportive thoughts (‘I bet that you drive a giant mud truck and shoot deer right out of its window. You probably don’t care a lick about the environment.’). It’s a weird — and unfortunate — dynamic: camo contempt.

I’ve seen this camo contempt play out often enough that when the time came to consider purchasing camo for myself — when I started to consider the potential utility of camo for my hunting — I approached the issue with trepidation.

Did I really want to be the guy dressed in full camo? Did I want to possibly elicit a litany of negative stereotypes from my city-dwelling neighbors as I prepared for a weekend spent pursuing deer? More importantly, did I want to present a potentially intimidating persona to non-hunters?

Because one of my goals — with Modern Hunters and in my daily life — is to help make hunting accessible to non-hunters and to the hunting curious, I think carefully about these sorts of questions, questions that might never cross the minds of many hunters. I want to seem approachable. I want to reduce the implicit biases that my visual cues might elicit. Most of all I want to make hunting something that is comfortable and appealing to non-hunters.

Wearing camo clothing in my daily life — where it serves no functional purpose — seems to detract from my ability to fulfill these goals. So, I don’t. When I prepare for a weekend spent out in the backcountry hunting, I toss my camo shirt and hat into a bag and don a normal set of clothes. I outfit myself in camo only once I get to the trail-head.1

You might ask: why would I change my behavior in response to the ill-conceived biases of others? Thanks to the First Amendment, am I not free to wear basically whatever I want — even if it is highly offensive? Why should I inconvenience myself to protect the image that others hold of me? Shouldn’t those who find camo off-putting just ‘get over it’?

They should. And as a hunter, I should help — not hinder — them to do so.

You see, stereotypes aren’t broken down by divisive ‘us vs. them’ polemics. They aren’t broken down by personal, retributive attacks. They aren’t broken down by inducing defensiveness in those who hold the stereotypes. And they certainly aren’t broken down by pointedly insisting others simply ‘get over’ them.

The best way I’ve found to break down stereotypes about hunters is to avoid eliciting them in the first place, bringing up hunting as a topic on my own terms. I avoid external signals — like camo — that might cue stereotypes and try first to appeal to areas I know that many care about: animal welfare, environmentally conscious food consumption, personal health, and proper management of wild animal populations. I introduce hunting within these contexts, not within the divisive cultural milieu that has sprung up around the issue. I don’t throw hunting’s legality or historical ubiquity in the face of non-hunters. Instead, I present it to them as an activity that fulfills many of their own stated desires and goals.

This works. Because it works so well, I don’t wear camo except when in the field hunting. I avoid ascribing to camo culture as much as possible, hoping that one day camo might elicit flattering — rather than unfavorable — associations.

What do you think about wearing camo in daily life? Have you experienced any camo contempt? If so, what’d you do about it?


  1. I should note that living in an urban setting in California makes this a salient issue for me. If I lived in another part of the country, perhaps more rural, or perhaps with a greater percentage of hunters, this would be less of an issue. 

10 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this post! I live in Wisconsin, and even though I’m in Madison, on the rare occasion I wear camo outside of on my way to or from hunting, I generally get a positive response. However, this might be tied to the fact that people are surprised to see a “girl” hunting (don’t get me started on that). The worst I’ve ever gotten is simply a funny look.

    However, like you, I don’t just up and wear camouflage out and about, even though it’s a pretty vogue thing to do in my part of the country. Personally, I think it’s kind of tacky, because camo clothing of any kind is a tool, and made for a specific purpose. I think it’s odd to wear it outside of using it for that specific purpose. If I’m in camo in public, it’s incidental. Like when my car got a flat on the way to the land parcel I hunt, or when I’m grabbing a soda or something on the way back from hunting.

    I feel very self conscious when I’m wearing camo and not hunting- mainly because as you mention, like it or not, you’re sort of making a pretty loud, specific statement when you do that. It’s not a statement I want to be making. I’m not a person to push that divisive attitude. I hunt, I wear camo when I do it, and that’s it. I don’t want to make others “get over it”. And on top of that, I’m not a typical member of the “camo culture” and I doubt I ever will be, aside from my love of hunting and the outdoors. They get to think what they want, and I get to think what I want, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Unless they’re trying to stop me, then I’ll say something.

    • Nick

      January 26, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      Thanks for the thoughts Amber; it’s great to have your insight into this issue!

      It’s interesting to note how this can totally be a gendered issue as well. @CamoCandace on Twitter was mentioning, like you, that wearing camo brings a different sort of attention to women hunters than to men. I guess it’s not as intimidating — or something — if a woman is wearing camo as compared to a man. Excellent points.

      -Nick

  2. Good article. If you’re wearing it to be a prick and further the ‘Bubba sitting in a truck, shooting anything that moves, cutting off the antlers and wasting the rest of the deer’ stereotype obviously that isn’t good. On the other hand if you are wearing it just because you subscribe to the outdoor/hunting lifestyle and culture and are a respectable hunter and person I see no problem. I guess you have to ask yourself if wearing it certain places is going to help or hinder the sport of hunting in the long term. I’ve spent a good amount of money on nice camo that is comfortable and warm, and I see myself as being a respectable hunter who is a fan of the hunting/outdoor lifestyle, so I do wear my camo jacket every now and then in public depending on where I go. Here in KY I’m sure it isn’t nearly as loud of a statement as CA and I’ve even had people with no experience approach me to ask about getting into hunting. I liken it to wearing your favorite sports jersey, band t-shirt, or any other clothes that point your image towards a certain culture or thing you like. If you are a good person and can represent the hunting culture well, go ahead and wear it but don’t be obnoxious about it. What do you think about wearing other hunting related clothes such as maybe bow or broadhead company shirts?

    • Nick

      January 26, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      Hey Marshall,

      First, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Second, I probably would also feel less inhibited about wearing camo if I lived in KY. I guess for a bit of perspective… I’ve literally never seen another person wearing camo in my neighborhood in Southern California. If I were to wear it, I would stick out like a proverbial sore thumb. To some, this would induce them to come up, to ask questions, and possibly to see how they too could get into the activity.

      However, I’m sure that to far more of my neighbors, my wearing camo would cause them to be much less likely to approach me about the issue. It’s just such an out-of-the-norm thing to see around here. Guess the key point is that context really matters for this.

      As to bow or broadhead shirts, around here very few people would have any ability to discern what the shirt was for. If you had a Matthews shirt, for example, that wasn’t emblazoned with a set of deer antlers, my guess is that 90+% of people would have no idea it was even bow, much less hunting, related.

      Anyway, it’s great to hear all these different takes on the issue!

      -Nick

  3. As an Aussie hunter the situation is very challenging. We have been under quite a long and sustained attack by the anti hunting groups and its only in the past few years that we have regained a sense of pride and truly begun to speak up and confront the lies about hunting that have become all pervasive in the media.

    Here in Australian we are trying to work out the best ways to make people aware of just how many people hunt & fish as it seems that quite often its been a “secret culture”.

    So, on one hand I love seeing the guys with the “hunting” branded hats and shirts, or Camo etc, whilst on the other hand I see the challenges you raise in your article.

    The great thing about your article is that it asked people to think, to consider, to take a moment to reflect on how they can best advance the case for our Hunting Culture in the wider community.

    Which ever side people come down on, the fact they thought through the issues and have made a considered choice puts them in a better place when engaging with non hunters.

    PS: I never put on my hunting gear until I am in the field. That is driven by the fact I dont want the stink of town and diesel and the rest to disadvantage me on the hunt. I am bad enough at stalking and tracking with out smelling like a truck-stop 😉

    • Nick

      January 26, 2015 at 4:00 pm

      Aguy,

      You make excellent — and very interesting — points. Certainly, as I mentioned to Marshall, these issues are very context dependent. What makes sense in Texas may not make as much sense in California, and what makes sense in Australia may make no sense in these other areas.

      Thinking critically about how one’s personal choices can affect the hunting community more broadly, and critically weighing in on that, is certainly something that I think is beneficial. I totally agree that pretty much regardless of where a person comes down on this issue, whether they wear camo in public or not, it’s great to think about it. Thanks for pointing this out.

      And your final point is excellent. Diesel stink isn’t the best way to blend into the surroundings.

      -Nick

  4. Nick,

    Wow, talk about different worlds. I’ve lived in a lot of places on the East Coast and never really encountered any of that you’re describing. For the most part, camo is just such a part of the daily attire and wardrobe of many of the rural and even some suburban folks that it just “blends in” to the norm. Camo, Carhartts, work boots, and ball caps; that’s just about the “uniform” here and has been in a lot of other places I’ve called “home” up and down this side of the country. Where I live now, and in areas I’ve lived before, the first thought most would have with seeing camo would be that the person wearing it would be from one of the local military bases, with hunting being a distant second to that.

    However, I recently worked in a place where I was the only hunter on staff in an extremely large institution. To say that the place had a cultural bias against hunting would be an extreme understatement. In fact, I was told by two of my closest colleagues that had been there for a very long time that if it ever became known that I hunted that I would be fired; an excuse would be found and I would be gone. Had they found out that I owned firearms of any description, I’d quite likely had been fired on the spot. Of course, that didn’t stop my colleagues from getting regular venison deliveries during the hunting season, nor did it negatively impact our friendship. It may have actually strengthened our relationship simply because I did hunt and I could and and would talk to them about the philosophy and ethics of hunting. Working there was the first experience of my life of “rabid anti-hunting” ethos and I suspect that culture is rampant where you live based upon your description above about how camo is perceived there.

    What struck me the most there, and what strikes me the most about where you are, is that both areas are highly educated and populated by people who pride themselves on valuing openness, diversity, and being inclusive to other ways of life and cultures. Yet, for hunters – those of us that truly value conservation, that experience it and participate in it, and that know where our food comes from, holding the ethics, philosophies, and morality from that knowledge – our diversity, and our culture, are not welcomed. The stereotyping is largely, and almost completely, false. The castigation of hunting as being unethical, immoral, and scientifically-invalid is baseless. The close-mindedness to new ideas, or even to scientific or biological evidence, is staggering. I dealt with that for just a few years and for me it was more than enough. I don’t envy you having to deal with it on a daily basis, especially not now as you’re exploring and understanding what it means to hunt and to be part of the ecological world around you.

    If you haven’t yet traveled outside the area of the country you’re currently in, I urge you to do so. I think you’ll find the issue you raise to be much more of a geographic concern than a universal.

  5. Good article. As a hunter when I see people wearing camo around town, usually out of hunting season, my first reaction is “really?, Don’t you have something else to wear?” its not dissimilar to the guys wearing blaze orange hats while having dinner at the local Chinese restaurant I witness several seasons ago. Knuckheads. I guess I prefer a low visual profile and my “camo” for daily wear is what everyone else is wearing; blue jeans, a t-shirt, but not something that looks like twigs & leaves…… I’ll save my real camo for its intended use.

  6. I really like this article. I am from KY, and while I am a white male, I do not fit the other aspects of the hunter stereotypes. Honestly, this has been more of an issue to other hunters than the my hunting is to non-hunters. I live five miles from creation “museum”, so to say we are the buckle on the Bible Belt is an understatement. So the fact that I am a liberal atheist who does not feel the need to hide those facets of myself has made finding friends to learn with or mentors to teach me very difficult. In fact the majority of my hunting takes place in other states because that is where i have found people willing to help a newbie like me find his way in the woods.

    However, recently I have begun to have some success in making a few friends (one of which even let’s me hunt on his land!) in part because I have begun to occasionally wear camo t-shirts or NWTF or DU hats. Originally I avoided it because I did not want to be lumped in with rebel flag waving coal rollers (a very real and common set around here). But my hunting gear is nice, and I try to buy clothes/equipment that I can use hiking or backpacking as well as hunting, so eventually it happened that I found myself wearing a long sleeve camo shirt under a vest while hiking with some friends and someone actually approached me about being hunter but in a good way. They seemed genuinely interested in hearing about my (mis)adventures learning to hunt. That is when I realized that by wearing a little camo I broke out of the liberal stereotype that many conservatives and hunters hold which says that liberals have to be anti-gun and anti-hunter. In some ways it served as an olive branch saying “I won’t judge you because I love what you love too.”

    I still don’t wear camo often outside of hunting, mostly because I don’t want to stink my gear up with all the smells of our modern world, and because it is not work appropriate for me. But in areas like mine, where “camo-sexual” is a term people use without irony to describe people who dress in matching camo every day, a little casual camo can actually do more to make people identify with you than exclude you.

    I know this is not the case in many places, and most big cities, but it is interesting how differently wearing camo is interpreted in different locales.

    Thanks for your site and keep up the awesome work!

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