How to Camouflage an Ammo Can - A Tutorial

I have been in some discussions about Geocaching in a Post 9/11 world; and I still think that - properly placed - an Army surplus ammunition can is still the best thing going for a cache container (closely followed by a roll your own PVC container). And, since I get a discount at my favorite surplus store, I am beginning to use them more frequently.

Please be careful when using this type of container, and don't place it where the bomb squad will blow it up. Today, the public is very sensitive to ANYTHING suspicious, and will not hesitate to notify the authorities.

In the spring of 2005, I found an internet article demonstrating a camouflage technique that I used to produced the ammo can in this picture. Using 4 colors, and some boughs from my cedar trees, I did up 2 large ammo cans as cache containers. One I used for a replacement container at my Icebox of the Nation cache in International Falls, MN, the other I haven't found a home for yet.

If anyone finds this article (you'll recognize the cedar theme) please send me a link to it. I'll give the author his/her credit.

This year, the US Army followed the Marines in transitioning to a new digital pattern for their combat uniform. The ACU (Army Combat Uniform) uses only 3 colors (Gray, Tan and Green). They eliminated black from the uniform, allegedly because it rarely occurs in nature, and it provides too much contrast in desert environments. Either way, the digital pattern helps break up any solid lines making it an effective camouflage technique.

The new uniform eliminates the need for multiple uniforms (Desert and Woodland). So, I wanted my next generation of Ammo Can Caches to reflect this new thought in camouflage technology. And here begins how I did it.

I began with a .50 caliber ammunition can, purchased for approximately $5.00 at a local surplus store. There is no shortage of these containers, so shop around for a good price.

If you've never purchased one of these, here are a couple tips. You will note that there is going to be a little surface rust on most of them (If there isn't, then you'll pay a premium price). Dig through the pile and get a few decent ones, it will make preparation for painting a lot easier. The cans may be banged up a bit, but make sure that: 1) All of the parts are present, 2) that the lid closes properly, and 3) that the rubber gasket is present in the lid and serviceable.

The lid comes off by opening it and pulling to the right, and off of the pins, as shown in the picture at left. You will want to ensure that there is no rust inside the container; it can be painted as long as you mask off - or remove - the gasket in the lid. This will ensure it stays watertight.

Prepare the surface by using a wire brush and sandpaper to clean up any rust, and make sure it is clean and dry before painting. To keep the can easy to open, I masked off the portion of the can, covered by the lid, with tape. You can get the same effect by painting the can with the lid on, but it makes it harder to handle when you don't want to wait for each coat to dry properly.

Before you start painting, make sure you have a well-ventilated area to work in.

You can use almost any paint for your project. I recommend using a flat paint, to avoid any reflection of light that will defeat the purpose of camouflage. For this can, however, I'm experimenting with a "satin" finish. I've also used textured paint - which is neat, but the sporadic use of each can leads to clogging, even when you clear the nozzle by spraying it upside down, which you should do after you're done with each color.

I used a Rust-Oleum® brand in 3 colors in my camouflage pattern.

Spruce Green (7737) for my Base Color
Soldier Gray (7926) for the First Layer
Fossil (7920830) for the Final Layer

For my stencils, I used a stiff plastic stencil material I purchased at a hobby/craft store. After studying the camouflage pattern on the ACU and MARPAT, I soon decided to just sit down and cut some random squared off shapes on 3 different pieces of the stencil material. The "digital" pattern was derived from the initial woodland pattern, only it was broken up by blowing the pixels way up, and moving them around a bit. So all of the patterns are made from straight lines.

Place the stencil in such a way that you will avoid overspray onto the sides of the can, and make sure it is as flat as possible. The next lighter color from your base should be next. I'm using the Gray for this coat.

When using spray paint, always follow the directions on the can. Keeping the nozzle 8-10 inches from the painting surface, and applying the paint in several passes (left to right, and vise versa) will help you avoid runs and give each stencil edge a crisp look. More paint in small layers is better than lots of paint at one time.

Apply the first coat, and carefully lift the stencil up from the surface of the can. This is what it looked like after doing the first second color camouflage layer.

When stenciling the cover, you have to be careful to keep the stencil as flat as possible. Additionally, don't forget to get some pattern on the sides of the lid. Its a small area, difficult to do and easily missed.

If you look at my cedar camouflage job earlier on, you'll see that I didn't give that much thought. I have a smaller cardboard stencil that I use for the tight areas - like the edges of the lid, and to cover up any little "oops" that may occur.

Now this particular product says it should be dry to the touch in 2-4 hours, hard in 8 hours, and completely dry in 24. Since I'm so patient, this entire project - including taking the pictures - took me just over an hour.

There are a few imperfections, but I'm just going to throw the thing in the woods anyway!

I didn't want the next color (Tan) to over-power the gray, and there was still quite a bit of green showing. So, I used the cut-out pieces of a couple of my stencils to mask off the gray, and some of the green, before carefully placing the next stencil over the top.

Once you spray this layer, carefully remove the stencil, then the masking pieces and you'll have your first look at what the rest of the project will look like. If it doesn't look right at this stage, its time to work on what you want to change.

If it turns out that you have a little too much of one color. Just mask of the areas you want to keep, and either switch stencils, or turn the one you used 90 or 180 degrees to change it up.

The final step is marking the cache. Marking should be distinctive enough to be noticed, but not so much that it defeats the camouflage. Marking a cache will help muggles, and subsequently the authorities, if the cache is inadvertently discovered.

I used a brown automotive primer for the cache label - I suppose with some creative thought, a guy could integrate the marking with the pattern. Aside from the Fossil paint being more yellow than I wanted, the experiment was a success!

If you have comments or questions, please contact me.