You won’t have to travel far in prepping and self-defense circles both on and off the internet before you hear someone harping about the importance of situational awareness. Situational awareness they will say, correctly, is a foundational element to staying safe from a variety of threats, human-caused or otherwise.
But if you are new to this sort of lifestyle you might not know exactly what situational awareness is. Is situational awareness something you have or something you do? What are you trying to be aware of? If you do become aware of something that is troubling or cause for concern, what do you do then?
Generally speaking, being situationally aware means being present and actively conscious of what is going on in the environment around you, both the people in the environment and the terrain itself, in order to avoid trouble or injury before it happens.
The best way to react to something that might hurt you is not having to react to it at all. If you are well aware of it before it threatens you you can take action to preclude the threat from affecting you.
It all sounds very esoteric, but it is probably simpler than you are imagining. With a little practice and some dedicated choices, situational awareness will become automatic.
In today’s article, I will give you some insight and information to help you understand what situational awareness is, how to implement it into your life and how to conduct yourself correctly.
Situational Awareness for Beginners
It is easy to think that you don’t need any education when it comes to situational awareness; you might think you are already aware, that you do pay attention to what is going on around you and who is around you.
That’s fine, but unless you come from a background in military combat arms, law enforcement, personal protection or just a rough upbringing on even rougher streets, you probably lack the necessary “software”. That is okay, as we can fix that with a “patch”, if you will!
You are correct in one regard, in that everyone has a certain amount of situational awareness, even if that amount is near zero! People react to situations around them when they become aware of them, and perceive them correctly.
Some people, either through experience or long training, maintain a higher level of awareness and usually seem to avoid trouble before it troubles them.
These are the people that see the charging dog coming, that avoid stepping into the crosswalk ahead of the red light-runner, and decide to change their route when they notice the shady character lurking in the alley. These people are not buried in their phones, lost in daydreams and half asleep at the wheel.
On the other hand, we have another category of people, the people who do get sucked into their phones and live there, have their earbuds in 24/7, and generally live in a world where nothing bad ever happens and everyone gets to ride to work on unicorns when they aren’t busy playing in ball pits.
Some people that fit in this category are just so crushed by stress and other areas of their lives they have trouble focusing on the present. These are the people who get waylaid by predators, or who make costly mistakes that were otherwise completely avoidable.
These are the people that do step out into traffic accidentally and they are among the people at the very top of a criminal’s victim selection list; you don’t want to be one of these people!
Making Awareness a Constant
No matter which group you belong to it is possible to improve your situational awareness. Situational awareness is a combination of maintaining a generally relaxed alert at all times, elevating that alert to specific attention when something warrants it, and knowing what to look for that can possibly tip you off to dangerous conditions or brewing trouble.
Situational awareness is not an inherent talent and it sure isn’t a superpower. It is a skill like anything else, one that must be learned and then continually practiced until it is truly second nature.
One old piece of prepper wisdom states that you should be alert, and aware whenever you are awake. This is actually really good advice! Where people typically go wrong though is walking around in a “wired” state: appearing nervous, frightened and generally amped up.
This is not desirable and, indeed, may cause more problems than it solves. You don’t want to be jumping at shadows, and living your life like a ghost is chasing you. The ideal instead is to be calm and constantly in a relaxed state of awareness.
What does this relaxed state of awareness look like? It doesn’t mean your head is going to go around and around like some kind of weather radar, but instead you are just taking in things as you notice them, and remaining specifically on the lookout for some red flag items.
Be alert, be sharp but also be logical: Not everything needs your attention or further investigation. You want to be looking for specific things that can hurt you as you are able to take in new information, no matter what you are doing.
When entering a room or building, this consists of a discreet glance around you to assess who’s in the room with you.
Does anyone seem truly out of place or dangerous? Does anybody give you a bad feeling? Do one or more people in the room seem fixated on something else that is happening or appear afraid?
You might even notice some surreptitious conflict going on, like a robber trying to quietly shakedown a cashier at a till. Even if everything appears normal and safe but someone gives you a bad feeling or just rubs you the wrong way, keep one eye on them and try not to turn your back to them.
If you are operating a vehicle you should, of course, remain situationally aware. What can cause you to crash, what can hurt you?
Chances are it isn’t anything in the car with you, and that means your attention does not need to be on the radio, on the french fries sitting in the seat next to you or whatever gizmo one of your passengers is fiddling with.
You need to be focused on the terrain ahead of you, the other vehicles around you and what might conceal a hidden threat so you can set yourself up to avoid it. Remain alert while you are parked or just stopped in traffic, keep an eye on the vehicles around you.
Is anyone approaching your vehicle or is anyone cracking their door and preparing to dismount? Either could mean a threat.
Gaps in Awareness
Very unlike superpowers, situational awareness isn’t something that is completely infallible; it is just not possible to stay constantly alert at all times. Obviously when you are asleep you’re pretty much helpless unless something wakes you up.
Also any of us that are living normal lives will engage in activities that demand our full attention for the most part. These lulls in the awareness of the environment around us just so happen to coincide with bad things happening to us, human-caused or otherwise. That is why it so, so crucial that you notice a threat before you commit your attention to the task at hand!
A criminal will use the opportunity presented by you being distracted with an ATM or getting in or out of a vehicle to spring their attack.
Fiddling with packages that you are trying to unload from your car means you might not notice the vehicle caroming out of control and heading right for you.
Unhappy coincidence might mean you glance down to look at some light on your dashboard that is illuminated and in that precise instant a vehicle ahead makes an unexpected movement that leads to a chain-reaction crash.
It is an unavoidable fact of life that humans are not perfect, and no matter how switched-on you are and no matter how careful, some things will get through the “net” and possibly affect you.
Part of being situationally aware is having a back-up plan for those instances. But there is one thing that you must never, ever accept or ignore in your quest to remain alert! You must always, always trust your instincts when they signal danger!
Contrary to what the modernists and stuffy intellectuals would tell you, your instincts are a highly refined and exquisitely tuned survival instrument. They were gifted to you ages ago by your ancestors whose daily existence was a far sight more dangerous than yours is.
If you care to listen and look, you will hear innumerable tales of survivors who were attacked or who endured disaster befalling them that begin with something like “I had a feeling…”, “something was off…”, “that guy rubbed me the wrong way!”, or “something told me not to do it”.
Don’t be one of them! Never, ever ignore your instincts when dealing with anything that might potentially become dangerous!
Situational Awareness: Indicators for Human Threats
Whenever you hear people discussing situational awareness the context will typically be centered around the detection and dissuasion of human foes: the criminals, the emotionally deranged, and the psychopathic who inflict harm on their fellow man.
These encounters are typically sudden in nature, arriving like a cannonball, and always terrifying. You will have precious little room to react in many cases before you are critically injured; in fact, many victims only realize they are under attack once the attack has actually begun! You and I cannot afford that.
But the bad guys aren’t always sneering, howling maniacs. Oftentimes they look just like you and I, not like some Saturday morning cartoon villain.
In order to detect these people we will be on the lookout for behavioral and situational cues that can tip us off to their intent.
These cues are typically called pre-attack indicators. Here is a list of the most obvious and meaningful below- we will examine all of them in detail:
- Loitering Near a Chokepoint
- Moving to Block Your Path or an Exit
- No Excuse for Activity or Presence
- Action Coincides With Your Action
- Furtive Activity or Nervous Tics
- Hidden Hands Suggesting Weapon
Compared to how you have been conditioned to view bad guys and bad guy behavior by long decades of TV and movies, they are typically not as easy to spot or as overt as they are commonly portrayed.
Much of this behavior is subtle, and will indeed go unnoticed by the untrained and unaware eye. But I will be willing to bet after reading this section if you start jogging your memory you can recall several instances that you have seen in life before!
Loitering Near a Chokepoint
The bad guys typically want to act when the victim is in the right position for an ambush. A good position for an ambush is one where the victim cannot maneuver to get away and has a difficult time mounting a meaningful defense to the attack.
This is an overtly threatening pre-attack indicator that is easy to spot once you are aware of it. Keep an eye on and use caution whenever you see anyone but especially a group of people, hanging around near a choke point that can corral your movement or prevent you from getting away.
Typical choke points you will encounter out in the world are any sort of stairwell, doors going into buildings or into vestibules, elevators, vehicles and narrow trails or alleyways. Bonus points if the choke point also has a built-in distraction, like an ATM or a residential garage.
There are countless reports of people being attacked in these places and when you start to tally up just how many occur in the same locations, over and over, it becomes quite sobering.
Scrutinize these places heavily when you are approaching him, and if you see anyone hanging around consider going by a different way.
Moving to Block Your Path or an Exit
This is another obvious pre-attack indicator, and should be an immediate red flag whenever it is detected. None the less you can be a little harder to correctly discern because most of us live in places where other people will be around us, so it is more contextually sensitive.
What you really need to know is that when we allow people to get close to us, that is when we typically get hurt.
Bad guys will move to cut off your movement or to keep you from exiting an ideal location for an attack in order to ensure they can get close enough to hurt you or get what they need from you.
When you are traveling anywhere and notice someone conspicuously move so that you are guaranteed to move into them or they move to block your movement through a door or some other portal, they should have your full attention.
Unless they have some cover for the movement, say they’re holding the door open for several people or something similar, you must be on guard.
No Excuse for Activity or Presence
Now we are getting into the subtle stuff. When you are maintaining situational awareness, you must tune your attention to discern whether or not someone has a viable excuse for being where they are and doing what they are doing.
What does that mean? Have you ever walked into a place and noticed someone immediately who just seemed out of place, just seemed wrong? That is a clue that they perhaps do not belong in that environment or are planning on doing something bad.
Take this classic mugging example: You are leaving your workplace coming off some overtime on the night shift, and while crossing the mostly empty parking lot you notice a couple of guys just sort of hanging around near the cars. They aren’t talking, they aren’t near the same car and they aren’t anybody you recognize.
That’s okay; you don’t know many employees on the night shift. As you close in on your car you notice one of the men slowly start to amble toward what is obviously your vehicle. The other one is looking around as if killing time. Nothing seems to be happening as you get closer and closer to your vehicle…
I hope, reader, that by now you have some serious alarm bells going off, as the above example is a textbook and neon sign-noticeable example of bad guys having no excuse for their activity or their presence in that darkened parking lot.
If they were employees that were just hanging around chatting after they got off shift, they would be near one vehicle or another and actually chatting.
If they were heading out or arriving they would be heading towards the building or heading towards the vehicles before climbing in and departing. You see how that starts to stick out even more obviously now?
Obviously, the first bad guy moving your way is going to make contact with you and distract you. Perhaps his partner will swoop up behind you to complete the envelopment, or maybe he will initiate it after sizing you up for victimization.
At any rate, bad guy number two was clearly looking out for potential witnesses or people who could come to your aid.
Use this reasoning process and apply it to different settings and different scenarios and you can probably think of many ways in which someone would stick out if they were planning to do something similar as our theoretical stick-up team, here.
Action Coincides With Your Action
Always be on the lookout for anyone whose own movement or actions seem triggered by your movement or actions.
Using our above parking lot example again, if someone starts moving towards your car or just to intercept you along your path when you leave the building and start walking, that is definitely a bad sign.
If someone seems to be following you at a distance and then stops trying to look distracted or otherwise engaged when you turn to glance at them that is similarly suspicious.
A bad guy could be doing this for any number of reasons, but typically they will do it to follow you to a better location before springing their attack or potentially just to observe you if they have not yet made up their mind as to your suitability as a victim.
This is typical stalker behavior and no matter when or how it occurs it is bad news.
Furtive Activity or Nervous Tics
As it turns out people that are about to do something heinous, and that includes attack another human being, often show signs of anxiety or nervousness. This nervous energy will often manifest itself as specific and noticeable groups of movements.
Common ones include the rubbing or stroking of the head, chin, neck or face or potentially smoothing or rubbing clothing, sometimes interpreted as an effort to dry sweaty palms.
Anyone who is getting very close to physically launching violence will typically engage in large and expansive movements of the arms at around chest height in a confrontation.
These movements sometimes fit into what are called grooming clusters, or self-soothing gestures.
This quirk of human psychology is no doubt very interesting, but you don’t need to know the psychology or even the biology of it; all you need to know is that all but the most cold-blooded of bad guys will exhibit at least a few of these as nervous tics.
Now, normal people will often do the same things from everyday stresses and fears, so you can’t go around jumping everybody who looks a little anxious, but should you notice this type of activity in conjunction with any of the other pre-attack indicators on this list, be on your guard.
There are a few furtive movements however that indicate a serious potential for bad news, and these are typically done when a person is carrying a weapon.
Any time you see a hand reach out repeatedly to adjust, nudge, smooth or otherwise mess with clothing consistently and repeatedly, you can typically count that as evidence that a person is carrying a weapon there.
Weapons are almost never comfortable to carry, and a bad guy might give in to the urge to fidget with it in an effort to relieve the discomfort.
Additionally plenty of people are nervous just from carrying a weapon and will be worried that it is visible or otherwise detectable, leading to the urge to physically ensure its concealment.
Also be on the lookout for anyone who is running or jogging but keeps one hand clamped to their waistline, under an arm or inside a pocket; that is a dead giveaway that a weapon is being carried since they require stability when moving rapidly.
And as always, don’t be too quick to react if you should notice even this In the absence of other pre-attack indicators; lots of civilians in the United States carry weapons at all times, and anywhere you go in the world off-duty police officers might be similarly armed.
Hidden Hands Suggesting Weapon
If someone is going to hurt you in a person-to-person context, the odds are overwhelming they will do so with their hands. The eyes maybe the windows to the soul, but their hands are what we’ll do the killing.
Anytime you see someone who has their hands hidden in a pocket, buried in their waist line behind a jacket or shirt, held behind a hip or behind their back or stuffed inside a piece of luggage, you must be extremely cautious and they definitely warrant your attention: this is a nearly certain indicator that the hand is holding a weapon, and it’s staging it for a rapid deployment that will make it very hard to defend against.
But even something like this that seems to be so obvious and otherwise unexplainable might be explained by innocuous, innocent behavior. What if it is very cold and blustery outside, and people have their hands stuffed inside their coat pockets to protect them against the weather?
What if a person waiting around impatiently has their arms folded and one hand tucked beneath their shoulder?
Once again being aware and noticing something that might give you cause to pay more attention does not necessarily mean you can act on it responsibly without more evidence.
I will tell you this though: anytime you notice this pre-attack indicator in a context which seems unusual or out of place, especially if it is presenting along with others on this list, don’t talk yourself out of it- act to improve your position!
AGMI: Always Gather More Information
I have cautioned you throughout this article against overreacting at the first sign that something might be amiss with a person. There is a reason for this: the facts are you will never know for sure that someone is planning to attack you until they attack you.
Yes, there are instances where someone is acting overtly hostile and telegraphing their intent from down the block or across the parking lot. That is not what I’m talking about, and that type of attack is so easy to see coming it hardly belongs in an educational article about situational awareness!
Whenever you notice one or more pre-attack indicators, or anything else that is not on this list that gives you pause or makes you uncertain about someone, that does not mean you have to react as if an attack is certain; it means that you simply need to keep an eye on them, and gather more information to inform your decision.
You always want to refine your analysis whenever you can. Once something has caught your eye, don’t stop investigating it until you “clear” it or “escalate” it.
Clearing a potential threat means that you have either re-examined the context or detected something else that makes their behavior innocent under the circumstances. Escalating a potential threat to the next level of focused awareness and action occurs when you take in yet another piece of evidence that they might mean you harm.
It hardly seems fair, but in life you will not often have every piece of info you need in order to make a truly informed decision.
Context is everything and every, single example of pre-attack indicator I discussed on the list above has genuine and common covers that makes them completely innocent in a given context.
On the other hand, failing to act early enough or quickly enough to ward off or thwart a potential attack could see you or someone you care about hurt or even killed.
Situational Awareness: Terrain and Other Factors
As interesting as it is to prepare for human threats, reality and experience both inform us that we are far, far more likely to be waylaid by an accident or simple human error than from an attack by a bad guy.
Even in the middle of a major disaster we are significantly more likely to be hurt or killed due to environmental factors than any human malice.
It might not be anyone else’s fault, but you can still wind up just as dead from overlooking or failing to perceive some vital piece of information that would have directed you on a different course from the one that just led to your untimely demise.
Situational awareness is just as important for preventing these less exciting but no less dangerous negative outcomes!
This might sound highly elementary to some of you, but do you pay attention to where you are at any given moment? Do you know which way you are heading and by what route? This could become really important if there is an emergency while on the road or just traveling on foot.
You make it a point to habitually note and remember the last mile marker you passed or the last major exit? What direction are you heading in according to a compass?
If you are traveling on foot, especially in an unfamiliar place or just a new city, do you know what the major thoroughfares are and how they relate to your current location?
Remembering the nearest major landmark of any kind they can help emergency responders a zero in on you could save your life or someone else’s.
This doesn’t just apply when you are outside, but also when you are in large structures or installations.
If you’re entering a mall, industrial complex, office park or any other large place of human habitation or commerce that has a confusing layout, many entrances and many passageways you should make it a habit to know which side of the building you enter from, which one you are closest to, and any other helpful navigation markers that could direct emergency responders to you or just help you keep you oriented in case you must react quickly and correctly to an emergency situation.
Know Where Your Exits Are!
And I’m not just talking about when you were road tripping on the interstate! No matter where you go and where you are you should always have at least a couple of exits in mind. What do I mean by exits in our discussion?
An exit is any route to safety or a path of escape when you suddenly find a dangerous situation forced on you. Planning to run away (and not necessarily save the day) might not feel particularly valorous but your responsibility should be to you and yours first.
Whenever you are in a structure, do you know where your nearest exit is and where it will lead you outside of the building? Are these exits in sight or out of sight? Could there potentially be any exits that you cannot see or are not supposed to access but would nonetheless work for you in a pinch?
This also applies when you are traveling over the road or out-of-doors, even through the wilderness. If things go bad, if the path becomes blocked or you just run into a serious bout of trouble, do you have an alternate route out of the area? It is a good idea that you do.
Having a backup route to get to where you are going is important; having a backup route to get away from where you are is essential.
Once you get into the habit of pre-locating your exits, all it will take is a little bit of visualization in order for you to reliably pick the best one when the chips are down.
Understand Your Surrounding Terrain
Being situationally aware means taking into account how the surrounding terrain, potential obstacles and other features can help or hinder you in an emergency. The kind of emergency you wind up in will largely dictate what is helpful and what is harmful.
For instance, any surface or underlying terrain that is loose, slippery, uneven or otherwise difficult to walk or run over can make your life difficult in a physical altercation, or just when it is time to beat feet and run for the car.
You should also definitely keep an eye out for things that are obviously hazards, things like sharp surfaces, ice, narrow passageways, blind corners and so forth.
But do keep in mind that these are things that can also help you in a physical confrontation or escape attempt if you have yourself positioned correctly to use them against your assailant.
Keeping an eye on the terrain you are driving on is an integral part of operating any vehicle, and as standard procedure you should be focusing down the road in order to see potential hazards as soon as possible.
Blind corners and sharp rises in the road can conceal obstacles or even oncoming traffic until it is far too late to avoid them. A spilled load from a tractor-trailer or just a patch of gravel could make for a brutal skid hazard.
Bridges freeze before the rest of the road in cold weather, especially when they get wet and it is windy.
A list of potential hazards and obstacles you might encounter could be an article unto itself and I am not going to even attempt to list them all here. I do though recommend you start thinking about the things that could hinder your escape or hurt you as it applies in the context of what you find yourself doing.
Prepare for Trouble by Positioning for Success
Does it make any sense to spend so much time and energy being alert for trouble if, when detecting or anticipating it, you do not act on it in advance to hopefully set yourself up for success?
Invariably, avoiding a struggle when you don’t have to struggle or sidestepping a major furball entirely is always superior to having to power your way through it.
Wasting energy often means wasting time, and wasting time could spell certain death in a time is life situation. Clever preppers will string together a series of little choices in how they do things that, to most people, will seem inconsequential, but will in fact add up to having a big head start on trouble should it occur.
For instance, if you are heading into a movie theater to catch a film, where do you want to sit knowing that theaters may be targets for deranged psychopaths and mass shooters?
Do you want to sit way up in the back where you can see absolutely everything and have your back to a wall, but have a very long way to go in order to escape? Should you sit near one of the exits or near the entrance hallway?
In this case, the best answer it’s probably somewhere in the middle; a seat where you can keep all entrances in view, but are not so close to them that you’ll be the first person shot down if a gunman walks in. You’ll also be close enough to escape fairly quickly when the opening presents itself.
Using this same example we can also extend our preparation into the parking lot. Where should you park at a parking lot? The total answer consists of several elements.
Considering you were going to see a movie on a busy night, you should try to park away from the building on the fringe of all the parked cars.
This way if you have to leave in a hurry you won’t be battling throngs of fleeing pedestrians or vehicles backing sluggishly out of their parking spots.
Speaking of parking, make it a point to always park so you can pull forward to exit your parking spot. This means you should reverse into your parking spot if you have to.
A clever prepper will also select a parking spot that is still highly visible so that it will deter potential thieves and other lurking bad guys, and also one that has easy access to a frontage road or highway to provide for a really rapid escape.
If this means you have to walk a little farther to get into the building, so be it. Is this starting to make sense? Do you see how proper pro-action sets you up to stay more aware of things that matter, when they matter?
Keep one thing in mind: don’t beat yourself up if you can’t check off every single box on your procedures list. Sometimes, depending on circumstances, terrain, or your objective for the evening, you won’t be able to nail everything.
Parking in a highly visible place might mean parking very close to the building and right up front. Or it might mean parking someplace to provide easy access to the high-speed roadway means parking out of sight.
Sometimes you just have to make decisions based off what is most important at the time and then work extra hard to cover the rest. This reasoning also applies to any other activity or situation you might find yourself in.
All we can do is the best we can, but you’ll find the more you start “wargaming” this stuff now the more easily solutions and clever ideas will come to you that will set you up for success.
Situational awareness is not just a catchy term tossed around between snake-eating, hard-charging military types and grizzled, veteran cops. Everyone should strive to be situationally aware since aware people are harder to kill deliberately or by accident.
The first step in being ready is being aware, as you cannot prepare for any threat that you are unaware of. Use this article as your guide, and start implementing the procedures and strategies discussed above and pretty soon it will be only the rare thing that will slip past your notice!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.