Every time you step foot out the door, you assume risk. The more unfamiliar you are with your surroundings, the greater the risk potential. Ultimately, we are the most comfortable at home because it is a known quantity.
Preparing is all about reducing the unknowns and managing the knowns. Prepping for me is all about knowing as much as possible. This may come in the form of a specific skill set, or it may be knowing the details about an area or destination.
I treat these preparations as a game. The more I know, the better I score! This drives me to build better assessments and find improved resources for scoping out my destinations.
One of the most useful tools for prepping activities is the process of site recon. While I mostly use it for travel (that’s the biggest variable in my life), it’s also useful for a myriad of survival activities. These include planning bug-out routes, purchasing a bug-out location, or even vacation time.
An in-depth site recon removes the variables associated with your chosen location. When you are in a new location…
- What are the best paths out of town?
- Where’s the closest hospital?
- Is there a Dollar Store close by where you can buy various materials?
A site recon provides you this and more! What a few hours on the internet you can build a site recon package for your bug-out location that identifies the closest food, medical, and communications resources.
A site recon plan removes the unknowns from a business trip escape plan.
- Where can you get cash?
- What neighborhoods should you avoid?
- If you had to leave now, is there private transportation you can arrange?
While prepping is loaded with gear, and I admit gear is fun, knowledge is much more important than gear. So let’s look at one of the most powerful tools: Site Recon.
Table of Contents
The More You Know
“The More You Know” isn’t just a campy TV tagline from the ’90s, it’s an honest statement. Which would you prefer?
A blind excursion to a part of town you have no maps for and little knowledge of, or a planned visit with complete knowledge of where to go, and most of all, where not to go.
This goes equally for travel, movement during an emergency, and investing in a home or bug-out property. I almost purchased a camp property, only to find out that there was a major pipeline scheduled to be built less than a mile away. No wonder it was so cheap!
I keep a running list of the topics I recon during a site exploitation exercise. This does two things for me:
First, it helps me to ensure that I leave nothing out. Remember, under stress, we default to our level of mastery. I haven’t mastered this skill yet. I still need a reference.
Second, it allows me to scale the site recon to the appropriate level. I don’t always create an intelligence bible for every trip. In most cases, the priority items will do. Other times I go deep! Use your threat matrix to determine what is the level for your exercise.
Each bug-out plan should include a site recon for your planned routes. Here, a site recon plan leads you to the best cache location and the best overnight camping locations. Your plan will directly influence your routes.
- Are there towns to avoid?
- Are there resources available to you along the trip?
A detailed site recon exposes both the weaknesses and strengths of your bug-out plan.
One last note. You must practice the skill of doing a site recon. Technology changes and opens new options. For example, Google street view is a little over 10 years old, and it updates its imagery every day.
Second, links change. I’ve used a variety of Megan’s Law websites as a few have gone dark and were replaced with better sites.
This article comes with homework! I’ve picked a hotel in California for the exercise. This does two things. First, it moves the article from the hypothetical to the actual.
Next, it allows you to try your hand out at a site recon. I’ll provide the topics and links. With this information, you can duplicate my results, then improve on the information provided. Feel free to add your links and resources to the comments!
So your target is the Embassy Suites by Hilton, Sacramento Riverfront Promenade.
You are traveling to this hotel for an extended stay of 2 weeks. There is the possibility that your stay will be longer, as your travel situation is fluid.
The current political situation is calm, or what passes for calm these days, however, there is a court case coming to finalization that has been socially charged. The length of time and the potential for social disruption elevate the threat of this trip.
You decide to do a thorough analysis of the location and choose to execute a complete site recon. The goal is to put together a binder with all the information and store a digital copy on your phone.
Your travel agent provides the following:
Embassy Suites by Hilton Sacramento Riverfront Promenade
100 Capitol Mall
Sacramento, California 95814, USA
Do not underestimate the power of a printed map. In the age of GPS, reading maps has become a lost art. As we said back when I was making digital maps for Uncle Sam, a GPS with a hole in it is a brick. A paper map with a hole in it is still a map.
When I travel by air or rent a car, my first stop is always at the map kiosk. I have a collection in my bag from almost every place I’ve visited. In this exercise, you have the benefit of the internet.
Hit Google Maps and Bing Maps and make screen captures (Alt + PrtSc on your Windows computer) and paste them into a document. Grab images at different zoom levels from just the building to larger areas.
Do this for both Google and Bing. Believe it or not, they have their differences. Especially in rural areas.
I start with the closest zoom possible of the target location, then zoom out to include major landmarks such as water bodies, airports, and borders. Screenshots are cheap. Take lots.
One of my favorite secondary map resources is https://www.openrailwaymap.org/. It focuses on rail lines and supporting infrastructure. Railroads are the forgotten secret of transportation in the United States. Frankly, we take them for granted. Railroads are mostly out of sight because we care not to see them.
That being said, what is better than a personal highway that is flat, level, and well maintained. A map of the rail lines can get you out of an urban center with the least amount of company. Out of sight, out of mind.
I specifically love this resource for bugging out. My get-home-from-work plan revolves around a 5-mile hike to the nearest railroad track and then 50 miles to an intersection with a power line. This power line takes me within a few miles of home. This route should keep me from contact with most humanity.
Eyes in the Sky
Next is satellite / aerial images. This is where the real difference between Google and Bing shows up. Google generally relies on satellite images where Bing uses mostly aerial images. Likewise, they are usually taken at different times. Grab both, just in case one catches a critical difference.
Images provide more tangible information than maps. Street maps rarely show trees, swampy areas, and other benefits or impediments to travel. It doesn’t take much time with a satellite or aerial image to decide on where to go, or where to avoid.
Run the same exercise for the other critical locations in your area of operations. We will talk about these in a minute. When we get there, grab more screenshots.
Once again, it pays to have lots and lots of maps. They will never let you down.
God bless Google Street View and Bing Streetside. It’s like being there without paying for gas!
Street images are excellent to review the exterior of buildings and any obstacles to travel. Take views of every side of the exterior of any building of interest.
Capture any exits including loading docks, emergency exits, and fire escapes. If your building is a part of several buildings, then grab snapshots of all the doors and exits. You never know when the interior architecture doesn’t align with your assumptions.
Don’t neglect second-level details. These include door and window types and locks, fencing, lights, and security cameras. Are there traffic lights or traffic cameras? How about police boxes?
For third-level detail, look at the human terrain. Where do the smokers hang out? Are there signs of local homeless?
You don’t have to stop at the exterior for your images. Most businesses that deal with the public (retail stores, hotels, restaurants) have interior images online.
Google, in its efforts to be a one-stop-shop, provides images alongside any business on the map. Click on the business and then roam the images in the side panel.
There are a few other tools that are great for interior sites. For businesses, my go-to website is Yelp. The business website has great staged photos, however, Yelp has honest pictures.
Save pictures of doors and their locking mechanisms. Especially balcony doors. Do they have security bars and are the balconies connected?
Spend a little time on the common spaces as well. Look for exits.
I especially like restaurants and bars. They need to resupply, and that means quick routes to supply docks and the outside. Handy in an emergency!
A Few More Inside Views
If you are not visiting a hotel, it’s doubtful that there will be any interior shots. Well, maybe.
The interesting thing about the internet and real estate is that images stay around. Many homes sold in the last decade were advertised on real estate sites. As with most things internet-y, those pictures never go away.
Redfin.com, as other sites, hosts home images long after properties have been sold. They do this for comparison purposes. The good news for us is that with a free login (with a burner email), you can access old images. This may just include pictures of where you are visiting.
The next step in your site survey is mapping area crime. There are several websites that aggregate crime information and present it in maps.
Some sites, such as SpotCrime and LexisNexis, provide incident-specific highlights. Type in an address, see the problem locations, click on them to get the details.
Other sites provide trends rather than individual events. The ADT Crime website shows regions that have elevated incidents.
It’s important to note that you are not looking at specific incidents, you are looking for trends.
Cycling back to bug-out routes, use these crime density maps to highlight the areas you must avoid. You can be that after nine missed meals these areas will deteriorate quickly.
Some crimes are local to a person. Megan’s Law established a registry for sex offenders. While this may not apply to individuals traveling for work, it will apply to families planning an extended visit or reviewing a bug-out location.
I recently reviewed a potential house purchase for a friend with small children. The house was in a nice neighborhood. A nice neighborhood that had 5 registered offenders within a half-mile. Not that the fact changed their decision, it did impact it.
You can use this website to find this type of info.
Not limited to urban areas, gangs tend to be more prevalent there. Our homework location has several gangs within a few miles.
Once you have your gang map, research the individual gangs for their affiliations, colors, etc. Most gangs have a little publicity in the local papers. Search the individual gang names in the local news and on the general internet.
If you are traveling to an area that has several gangs, it’ll be worth your time to look up local gang-related graffiti or “tags.” In my experience, tagging information is very local and scarce, but if you can find a few images and explanations, add them to your binder.
Now that we have a few maps and have identified the areas to avoid, let’s look at where to go.
Cast your net wide as possible at this time for two reasons. First, you have time. No better time than now to spend a few hours finding interesting sites.
Second, you don’t know what you’ll need as you can’t predict the nature of the emergency you’ll be facing.
Start with emergency and medical services. It’s more probable that you’ll lose a wallet or chip a tooth than the world will collapse.
Add a few items to your “Search nearby” filter in your mapping tool of choice.
A few services to start with include:
- Police: Search Police, Sherrif, US Marshalls, etc.
- EMS: Also include Ambulance and medical transport–may work when all the ambulances are busy
- Fire: Sometimes associated with ambulance services
- Hospitals: Pretty self-explanatory
- Urgent Care: Usually easier to get into and shorter lines than the ER
- Dental: There isn’t much worse than a chipped or abscessing tooth while on the road
Not everything is an emergency. There are inconveniences too numerous to count when you are away from your normal support structures. You need a bolt to fix a suitcase.
At home, you probably have a dozen varieties. On the road? Probably none. That doesn’t lessen the criticality of the bolt.
Again, cast your net wide.
- ATM and Banks: In emergencies, there’s nothing like a crisp $100 bill to solve a problem
- Pharmacies: You may need a prescription filled, or need to stock up on moleskin for a long walk
- Grocery Stores: Food, medical supplies, and more food
- Restaurants: Even more food, $20 to a line cook may get you much-needed calories
- Hardware Stores: Need to fix that suitcase, or improvise “tools” for your long walk
- Dollar Store: Cheap way to stock on OTC meds, food, and tools for your journey
[IMAGE google map with police stations]
Maps are one thing, travel routes are another. In a stressful situation, the last thing you want to do is make critical and detailed decisions. Plan out your routes while you have time.
Again, Google and Bing will be your primary tools. Each has a “Directions” tool and the ability to restrict the route to car, public transportation, or walking.
Once you get beyond Google and Bing, it’s time for old fashion map-work. Break out your various printed maps and start marking them up.
Create a key that indicates your points of interest, and mark down the police departments, hospitals, and hardware stores. Add walking routes via mapping tools and add them to your site recon document.
Now it’s time to dig into the emergencies a little deeper. As preppers, we prepare for the worst. That includes a long walk (or sprint) out of danger. This may be along traditional roads, or via more novel routes.
Start with the normal roads and highways. During 9/11, the sea of humanity crossing the bridges out of Manhattan is an iconic image.
While 9/11 has changed the landscape of the United States, the dangers were isolated, and largely over by the time people evacuated. There was safety in numbers as people evacuated the city.
Plan for these times as travel along the roads is a known quantity. It may not always be that easy though. Plan for more difficult travel.
I already wrote of my fondness for rail lines. They are flat and easy to walk. Most importantly, not too many people know about them and will use them. They can be your personal highway.
Don’t discount high tension power lines. These pathways feed modern societies’ need for electricity. While not my favorite route, they connect towns and cities.
Once you get outside city boundaries, most amount to a nice backcountry hike. Just watch out for elevation changes, swampy areas, and water bodies you may need to go around.
It’s also worth looking up rail trails. These routes comprise old railroad lines that have been reclaimed into hiking or biking trails. Largely forgotten, they can go for many miles, and will also be quiet, flat, quiet, and a joy to walk.
Here in the northeast, we have a vast matrix of snowmobile trails. While not as maintained as rail trails, they guarantee many miles of easy walking. If you are willing to take a circuitous route, you can use these to get from point A to point B.
In fact, I have a plan to use snowmobile trails to get to our bug-out location. While it is the last resort to walk the 180 miles. We preppers live off of our backups for our backups.
Not every emergency is global and will require an evacuation with your 100,000 closest friends. Often, it’s an emergency of one.
For these situations, rely on the available resources. Especially when traveling overseas. If you need rapid transport, make use of what is at hand.
- Taxis: Quick, cheap, and they know the area
- Limo Companies: Not as popular as taxis therefore they may be more available
- Airports: The quickest way to get from here to there if there is a very long way away
- Local Airports and Private Aviation: If you need to get out now, have a bank account, and can’t wait for the next commercial jet, private aviation is the way to go
There are a lot of scenarios that I can envision using a taxi to take me to an airport. It’s the time that I need to get out of the country, in the fastest way possible, that I plan for the worst. God forbid that happens, I’ll be happy I’m prepared.
Time to take your preparedness to 11. With maps and the locations of local police departments and urgent care centers, you are doing better than 99% of the travelers out there.
Let’s look at a few items that will round you out to be at the top…
In normal conditions, you can’t just walk up to a base and ask to be let in. There may however be events where you will be granted access.
Likewise, there are a few scenarios, widespread military attack, where you will want to stay far away. Know where the local military bases, national guard bases, and reserve installations are.
Sports and Entertainment
I try to avoid large sporting events when possible. They are crowded, people are drinking, and they are fired up after a win, or pissed after a loss. I associate lots of “nope” with them.
During travel and normal times, I like to know where they are. If for no other reason than to avoid the associated traffic. They are easy to find, and the schedules associated with their teams are also easy to find on the internet.
I also look for theaters and arenas. Same deal. Lots of people trying to exit all at the same time.
Local traffic patterns follow a predictable schedule. Inbound is busy in the morning, outbound is busy at night. It’s the heartbeat of commuters.
Turn on the traffic feature of Google and Bing, and grab a few screenshots to identify the local choke points.
Open Spaces and Parks
I’ve often said I like trees more than people. It’s kinda true. Trees are more predictable, and I can eat some of them.
All kidding aside. There are a few advantages to knowing the large open spaces in a city. Not the least of which is the ability to hide in them for a little while. Maybe just long enough to organize your thoughts and your gear.
They are also great just to relax when you need a pause from the grind.
Rehab Centers and Halfway Houses
I don’t mean to get down on the great work of these facilities. That being said, they are often associated with elevated crime and desperate people. Especially during a crisis.
When cell towers go down, HAM repeaters will remain up as long as the HAMs can power them. Having a list of the local repeaters with your handi-talkie may prove to be the ultimate information resource.
Several online databases can provide you the local repeaters with the input of a zip code.
How about knowing what the local emergency services are doing? Sounds pretty handy huh?
Radio Reference is a website that tracks the frequencies used by fire, EMS, police, schools, even town road crews.
One warning. Many police and EMS services use either digital or encrypted communications. You may need special equipment to listen in on these.
This is another key site recon element for bug-out routes. Every bug-out plan should be accompanied with the repeater frequencies available along the way.
Every time I visit Florida in the summer, it seems to rain for an hour every afternoon. Not sure if that is the norm, but it’s nice to know the patterns.
A second example is the high desert. If you’ve never been there, it’s easy to get surprised by the blistering hot days that don’t foreshadow the freezing evenings.
Know and prepare for the local weather changes.
Local Laws and Customs
Finally, know your local laws. Laws can be different in odd ways that can send you to jail, especially when traveling abroad. Not quite that bad, but don’t get caught chewing gum in Singapore, or traveling with a plastic bag in Nigeria.
Customs are a little more subtle. Tipping is frowned upon in some countries, while bribes are expected in others. At the very least, I try to educate myself about local customs as not to appear as the typical brutish American.
Know your laws and customs. They will help you be a bit more grey.
Not all of your preparations need to be done in advance. Information in the field may prove to be just as important as any of your preparations.
Cellphones are ubiquitous in today’s society. That’s because they provide us with more capability than we can foster on our own. I have a love-hate relationship with mine, but that doesn’t keep me from turning it into the ultimate travel tool.
If you have one, you might as well load it for your travels. Here are a few apps that can give you real-time data that may get you out of a jam.
- Weather Apps: Monitor the sky so that you can dress and route your evacuation appropriately
- Google Earth: Not as good as national assets, but knowing the terrain ahead of you is an important thing when life turns dynamic
- Disaster Alert: This app is great for letting you know of local emergencies, including earthquakes, floods, and fires
- Quake Feed: Great near real-time information if you are traveling where the earth moves
- Repeater Book: One of the best apps for HAM repeater frequencies
- 5-0 Radio\Broadcastify: When you can’t listen in with your HAM radio, use this app to listen in for you–one note, if there is a local conflict\riot, the feed is often shut down
- Hotel Apps: These are great for both last-minute reservations but also for getting a floor map
- Car Rental Apps: Just like hotels, you can rent at the last minute–be ahead of the line to get a car so you can drive off the X
- Airline Apps: Make your reservation on the move, no need for a travel agent
I’d like to leave you with one last resource. When in doubt, go to the experts.
For prepper intelligence, this is the folks over at Forward Observer. Sam and his crew have several videos on area studies that directly overlap with the tasks of site recon.
This introductory area study video gives you the basic concepts of what to look for and a few resources:
Take this video as the first step and then move on to the other resources on their website, or even take a class!
Closing Out Site Recon
It is often said that you can never be too prepared. This applies to your home location, bug-out location, or any temporary location you find yourself in.
In my hotel security article, I mentioned I treat travel security as a game. The more I know, the safer I feel, the higher I score. I may not always do a site recon on areas that I’m familiar with. You can bet that when I travel abroad, I do my homework.
This homework gives me the tools I need if things ever go sideways. I have too much riding on me getting home, safe and secure. I do this to keep myself safe. So that ultimately, I can keep my family safe.
My passion is empowering people with the knowledge to prepare for personal, local, and regional emergencies. I went to school for engineering and computer science and spend my days in the security industry.