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Take Risks Early: The SAS Mindset for Tracking

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Founded in 1941, and reconstituted as a corps nine years later, the Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces unit of the British Army, mainly known for tackling operations like counter-terrorism, covert reconnaissance, hostage secure/rescue, and direct action raids. Due to the sensitivity of their work, information related to SAS is often classified. SAS corps currently subsist in three Regiments: the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment under the operational command of United Kingdom Special Forces, the 21st (Artists) Special Air Service Regiment (Reserve), and the 23rd Special Air Service Regiment (Reserve).

In 1959, the 23rd SAS Regiment was formed by renaming the Reserve Reconnaissance Unit, whose members were experts in escape and evasion. Among their skills, they were outstanding trackers. Their ability to read, interpret, and follow tracks still represents a solid cornerstone inside SAS training today.

SAS selection
Photo Credit: Daily Mail

SAS Selection and Training

Most candidates come from Commando or Airborne Forces Backgrounds. The selection includes a PFT (Personal fitness test) upon arrival, followed by a mountain endurance test. Candidates are required to cover 40 miles with full equipment; and after that task, they must climb up and down the mountain Pen y Fan (2,907 ft), all respecting a timeframe of no more than 20 hours. After the mountain endurance test, the next requirement is to be able to run 4 miles in under 30 minutes and to swim 2 miles in under 90 minutes.

Nonetheless, the toughest part of the whole SAS selection process occurs in the jungles between Malaysia, Brunei, and Belize. Lessons in the field include survival skills primarily focused on jungle environment, orientation and navigation, patrol formations, ambushes, and a collage of tracking, Anti-tracking, and Counter-tracking techniques.

On their way back to the United Kingdom, candidates are required to face a week-long escape and evasion course, based on the skills they acquired during their jungle training and developed throughout successive combat survival exercises.

British Army Jungle Warfare Training School

Kota Tinggi, Johore (Malaysia) was the original location of the Jungle Warfare School (Jungle Warfare Division). The headquarters operated from 1948 to 1971, hosting training for British Commonwealth troops and, later on, for Asian forces as well.

Once a remote location obscured by the thick jungle, Kota Tinggi now looks more like a perfectly urbanized city, full of tourist attractions such as scenic 36-meter-high Waterfalls at the base of the Gunung Muntahak mountain. Back in time, however, the whole place was a perfect example of a hostile environment. The humid and millenarian rainforest, surly, even made sullen by the lush vegetation, was full of pitfalls due to unstable muddy soil which performs like a real trap for any kind of boots.

Not by chance, the great words from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899) are still so actual and powerful: “[…] We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness […]”

The crossing of the jungle was (and still is) constantly endangered by the presence of a multitude of unfamiliar and lethal animals – predators, poisonous snakes like the Malayan Krait (Bungarus candidus) and Blue Malaysian Coral Snake (Calliophis bivirgata), just to name a few, as well as insects (among all mosquitoes, like Aedes aegypti, carrier of Dengue).

SAS Patrolling in the Jungle
Credit: NMOW

The combination of the factors above mentioned must are further complicated by unpredictable weather conditions. “The four seasons of the climatic year are the northeast monsoon (from November or December until March), the first inter-monsoonal period (March to April or May), the southwest monsoon (May or June to September or early October), and the second inter-monsoonal period (October to November). The onset and retreat of the two monsoons are not sharply defined.” (Source: Britannica).

The Green Hell (despite being a real location, most of the jungle is casually referred to by this name) is a place that must be understood if the purpose is not only to conduct operations in, but also to survive.

The current headquarters of the British Army Jungle Warfare Training School is now at the British Forces Brunei (BGB) at Seria Brunei near the northeast coast of Borneo. Although a different location, the jungle still proves to be the first nefarious enemy to defeat, even for solid and trained soldiers.

The tracking skills taught at the Jungle Warfare School have changed very little has from the '50s, as the jungle itself is just as dangerous. The aspirants have to cope with scouting the area and developing familiarity with the terrain and the local fauna and flora. This is especially necessary to become successful in Tracking.

Scouting in such areas involves considerable dangers either on or above the ground, such as poisonous snakes and insects like King cobra, Wagler's pit viper, Sumatran Pit Viper, as well as hornets, leeches, spiders, and scorpions. Additionally, trench foot is a constant concern when walking in a jungle environment.

Once the fundamentals of this discipline begin to set in, candidates learn several techniques to reduce their own tracks through anti-tracking techniques.

SAS in the Jungle
Credit: NMOW

Learning from Masters: SAS in Malaysia

During WWII, the British Army took the decision measures to set up and to arm Chinese guerrillas who lived inside the colonies of the Commonwealth to hinder the powerful presence of Japan in that specific area. Nonetheless, the Chinese guerrillas finally started to claim their own adherence to Mao Tse Tung, violently professing their independence from the United Kingdom, seen as an oppressor.

In 1950, the Malayan Peoples Liberation Army (MPLA) actually outset to undermine the interests of the United Kingdom, forcing the British Army to consider a brand-new way to face the compelling necessity to calm down the insurgents. They first learned that conventional military strategies proved to be absolutely sterile, specifically when countering the insurgents in unfamiliar territory for the British Army, like the Malaysian jungle.

The protagonists of Unconventional Warfare: Sarawak Rangers

Strictly adhering to their Basic Field Manuals didn't help the British Army to win the first battles due to the presence of two new factors: the jungle itself, and the existence of a rapid, often invisible enemy perfectly integrated with his environment.

Comparing to U.S. Army, even in 1942, the presence of natives as field guides and Scouts was highly recommended:

“[…]  A  commander  of  any  expedition  into  tropical  country  should  at  once  take  steps  to  avail  himself  of  the assistance  of  natives  of  that  area  as  guides,  cargadores,  scouts,  and  native  auxiliaries.  […]  Their  familiarity with the terrain and their knowledge of the people and the language will compensate for limited training. The use of native troops, organized and controlled by the commander of the expeditionary force, not only will help to lessen any objection to the presence of our forces, but will strengthen solidarity against common enemy […]”

U.S. Jungle Warfare – Basic Field Manual

As a matter of fact, the situation suddenly required a change of tactics. This happened throughout the introduction of small patrols made of Special Air Service (SAS), to penetrate deep into the jungle areas under the control by the MPLA.

To make it successful and effective, the British Army took the clever decision to employ native trackers (Iban), who lived in Sarawak, Borneo Island.

They were specialists in tracking communists in the jungle because of their experience in hunting animals in Sarawak jungles” Sarawak-born Lt Col (Rtd) Robert Rizal Abdullah (Source: the

The Iban Trackers were an astounding success. As requested by the Iban leaders back home that their warriors be given full military responsibility, the para-military Iban Trackers were re-formed into the Sarawak Rangers – a full-fledged military unit with Lt Col C.J Baird as their first Commanding Officer on 1 January 1953. Organised into two platoons, Sarawak Rangers continued to perform the same task that they were doing when they were Iban Trackers.”


Founded as a para-military force in 1862 by the second Rajah of Sarawak: Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke, The Sarawak Rangers’ original task was to protect the borders, by tracking and breaking down any guerrilla operations.

In 1946, the Sarawak Rangers became a real colonial unit under the British Army’s direct control. They served on two fronts: the Borneo Confrontation and the Malayan Emergency.

In 1948, forty-nine Trackers were deployed in Malaysia to infiltrate into the thick jungle where Communist Terrorists conducted their operations through guerilla insurgency.

The success of the Sarawak Rangers’ operations was obtained mainly due to their exceptional ability to track down the enemy, recognizing any attempt of reducing and canceling traces but also setting deadly ambushes.

The features of Unconventional Warfare

“[…] These wars were fought in hostile landscapes, where the locals knew the terrain, and like the Boers were able to conduct local guerrillas  […] Soon the tide of the war began to turn against the insurgents […]

Ian Maxwell, Manhunter, The Art of Tracking, 2016

Thanks to the successes achieved by Sarawak Rangers and a renovated familiarity with the operational theatre, the British Army married the cause of Unconventional Warfare by understanding his features and by adopting the same mindset and approach of the enemy.

Therefore, the British troops started to move quickly and concealed through the thickness of the jungle by taking advantage of the knowledge the Natives gave about existing trails. They set ambushes by exploiting the natural terrain formations (streams, hills, capes) and took advantage of the presence of impenetrable vegetation. In the same manner, they established observation points to perform closer surveillance on the enemy's activities.

SAS Borneo
An example of the SAS in Borneo.

Last but not least, they engaged in strenuous reconnaissance while applying both tracking and anti-tracking principles.

“[…] The aim of any deception is to gain time and distance and in some military context to ambush the pursuers […] Determination and imagination will often need to be called on by the tracker when tracking through deception tactics […]”

Bob Carss, The Complete Guide to Tracking, 2009

Several of the deception techniques recorded and applied by insurgents against the British Army were walking backward, abruptly changing direction, stone hopping, walking on tiptoes, splitting into smaller groups (bomb-shelling), and crossing or walking in rivers. Even if apparently deceiving, these tactics were easily detectable by a trained eye and mind.

Soldiers were trained to detect any particular which was “out of balance”. In few words, any slight change into the natural state of the terrain or to the whole vegetation.

The British Antitracking Principles

SAS Troops proved to be quick learners as well as effective practitioners to track down the enemy, they soon learned how to fight with his same “weapons”. Local Iban Trackers taught the British how to read tracks in a new scenario, consisting of dumping grounds, streams, fords, intertwined low and high vegetation, slippery roots, and vines.

In an extreme environment like the jungle, the so defined “ground spoors:” terrain-level tracks, could be confidently confirmed by “aerial spoors:” any damaged upper vegetation.

Collecting data from the trackline meant looking for bent twigs, flipped over leaves, broken spider webs, as well as the removal of dew or rain. Through “making intelligence in the field, the British SAS tracker gained real scenario lessons.

The British Army learning

In the same manner, the British SAS learned how to massively reduce signs of their passage, like, for example:

  • Avoiding to leave a clear footprint with the pattern of their shoes on nude terrain (like mud)
  • Pulling away any branch soldiers didn't need to bend
  • Not cutting what can be bent
  • Breaking obstacles with hands to avoid using knives
  • Avoiding starting fires
  • Mandatory use of hand signals
  • Noise discipline

All of these principles passed through History as “The  British  Anti-tracking  Principles” and they still represent a cornerstone inside Field Manuals. I made a video out of it that you can find on RECOILtv: (link:—the-way-of-tracking/0-4hfojff5oxvr-the-british- antitracking-principles).

New scenario, old rules: the application of SAS mindset to disappear

Far from being outdated, the application of the British Anti-tracking Principles utilizes deep knowledge of the environment to cross an area leaving a minimum trace of travel and stay. In order to make it effective, you must commit yourself to a constant and systematic observation of the tracks you leave in an area, by checking them in different timeframes of the day, and in various weather conditions and seasons.

The practice of this will enable us to understand how the whole environment changes around us, and how, consequentially, the terrain responds to our passage on it. The ground and the vegetation provide all the ideal tools to understand how and where to move to be like ghosts.

Craggy terrain, for example, is less likely to retain any detail of a boots' pattern, while making our way through vines will be obvious even to an inexperienced eye.  Crossing an over-beaten trail (even with soft soil like mud or sand) is a nuisance for trackers. Pursuers will lose precious time trying to distinguish their quarries while the pursued increase the time-distance gap.

Walking inside a river adopting a zig-zag movement pattern for 10 to 20 seconds, depending on the percentage of the humidity of the whole area, helps avoid K9 detection, especially with strong wind. Also, creating several “false” exits from the water can quickly exhaust the tracking dogs.

As every action corresponds to a specific reaction, before selecting our route we should always interrogate ourselves on what kind of tracks we will produce. Our results, as always, depend directly from the choices we make.

To become successful, we need to learn how to move like ghosts, no matter the gear we carry.

If our aim is to stay off the grid and undetected for a considerable amount of time, the lesson from Chris Ryan a former SAS sergeant, can come in handy.

Chris Ryan: “Longest escape and evasion by an SAS trooper

Ryan made history through a 200-mile journey from an observation point on the Iraqi MSR between Baghdad and North-Western Iraq, all the way to the Syrian Border. One if the eight soldiers that constituted the patrol of Bravo Two Zero, his venture became the longest escape and evade mission in military history.

“[…] Sure enough, as soon as we got compromised, your mindset goes from ‘ok’     to ‘we’re in escape and evasion mode now – what are the options?[…]”

Chrys Ryan, interviewed by Daily Star, December, 3rd, 2018

The application of the SAS motto and meaningful mindset “take risks early” helped him to evaluate the pros and cons of every single action he needed to undertake.

“[…] It’s pointless planning because you know within 24 hours something’s going to happen […]“[…] Every day, I would lie there and plan my route to get closer and closer to that Syrian border […]”

Chrys Ryan, interviewd by Daily Star, December, 3rd, 2018

Being confident in the navigation, survival, and tracking training he received, he successfully applied the most effective techniques required by the high sensitivity of the political scenario as well as by the desert environment he moved through.

Tricks and tools of the trade

Pictures surface from time to time of anti-tracking shoes, from conflicts like the Rhodesian Bush War and South African Border War. The sole of these boots have been completely filled and require the knowledge of the surfaces one will be walking on as the outline of any footwear will be still pretty visible. For this reason, carefully planning a route before making even the first steps in an untouched environment are necessary. Just as Chris Ryan did.

Any element which is “out of balance” will be immediately spotted by Trackers. In the same manner, any mechanical noise (like the zipping of your backpacks, pouches, trousers, jackets..) shall be made the smoothest as possible, maybe opting out for the less noisy. Easy solutions. . (I do not understand what “give a chance to bottoms” means. Explain I removed it.)

Again, the SAS motto “take risks early” says all about your preparation, mindset, and attitude.

More on Military History and Skill Building

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1 Comment

  • Robert Himrod says:

    I spent four months at BJWS Malaya training American Combat Tracker Teams for Vietnam. The training we received from the British and the Gurkhas was priceless. I passed on that jungle craft to others. I did my tour in Vietnam as an Infantry Scout Dog handler. I’m confident BJWS helped save a lot of soldiers that otherwise would be listed on the Wall in Washington D.C. “Seek On!”

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  • I spent four months at BJWS Malaya training American Combat Tracker Teams for Vietnam. The training we received from the British and the Gurkhas was priceless. I passed on that jungle craft to others. I did my tour in Vietnam as an Infantry Scout Dog handler. I'm confident BJWS helped save a lot of soldiers that otherwise would be listed on the Wall in Washington D.C. "Seek On!"

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