If we’re all being completely honest, it’s tough not to get taken by the allure of spy fiction. On film or in the pages of a book, fictional spies’ lives and jobs may look very different from the real thing, but this does nothing to dampen the fascination, and it is easy to understand why.
A lone individual with seemingly the world against him, supremely confident, capable and able to slip out of any dire situation no matter how extreme, most red-blooded types privately wish for those skillsets if not the job itself.
Implementing your idle fantasies and daydreams with your actual, real-life planning is not something I would normally recommend for people who are preparing for something as serious as a real-life emergency or SHTF event.
But, in this case, we can actually glean some useful skills from the spies of fiction that we should emulate.
Full disclosure, chances are you won’t be a Bond or Bourne after reading this article, but if you take what you learn, get training and practice you could become a respectable facsimile of them.
In this article, I’ll be showing you 8 quintessential spy skillsets you should incorporate into your own readiness regimen.
Spy Skills? Really!?
Yes, really. When you get down to brass tacks, the stakes for a spy and the stakes for a prepared citizen dealing with an emergency or a life-threatening crisis are pretty similar.
While spies in fiction will be infiltrating foreign governments in an effort to topple them or advantage their home country over them, tracking down traitors, picking off high-value targets, dodging enemy spies and conducting surveillance, chances are you won’t be doing any of that.
Despite the big difference in job descriptions, you do share one “operational” concern with your average secret agent.
You, like them, will be operating completely alone or perhaps with a partner if you are very lucky. No one will be coming to save you.
Any jam you find yourself in, you can rely only on yourself to get out of it. Spies, and you, must be capable in a wide variety of skillsets and disciplines in order to succeed in their missions, and stay alive.
Chances are you won’t be completely alone and isolated in some hostile foreign land like your average spy, but the pressure will definitely be on if you get into trouble.
When you need help and seconds count, police and paramedics are only minutes away. That means when trouble knocks, you have to answer the door, and you had better be up to the task if you want to ensure a positive outcome.
Yes, you may be lucky enough to be plucked from the jaws of death by a Good Samaritan or emergency responders in the nick of time, but hope and luck are not strategies.
Instead, it is better to become radically self-reliant. You are your own first responder: you have to be the driver, the medic, the guide, the firefighter, the mechanic, and the security guard.
Sound like a lot to do? I guess it is, but what’s the alternative? Outsource your safety, continued survival and wellbeing to someone else?
Nah, I think I’ll pass: I’m not going to trust the safety of myself and loved ones to anyone else in a crisis.
8 Spy Skills for Preppers
The following skills are eminently useful in everyday life, and apply to crises both large and small.
You aren’t going to see anything on here that’s going to teach you how to assassinate a foreign head of state, or break into a triple-max security bank to raid a dignitary’s deposit box.
But, you are going to see various skills that real spies actually learn and use, and more importantly you will have cause to use when things go pear-shaped in your everyday life.
If in the course of reading over this list you think these look like very generalist skills, congratulations on your correct assessment: they are.
Before you dismiss such skills as beneath your concern and interest, I would remind you that it is the generalist that will survive tough times, not the specialist.
Some of these skills apply to a wide variety of potential disasters. Some are more situationally specific for defense or other survival situations. But all are useful, and you should strive to become competent in all of them.
8. Performance Driving Skills
Spies have to call on performance driving skills to make a getaway from pursuing enemy agents and also to muscle their way out of getting boxed in when sitting at a stoplight. That makes for thrilling cinema and is always fun to read about.
But back over here in reality, you’ll need performance driving skills to avoid accidents of all shapes and forms on the roads and highways of America, and potentially to get yourself out of seriously dangerous situations like carjack attempts or even a kidnapping.
It is a sobering thing to consider, but the vast majority of accidents that happen on the roadways, single or multi car, could be avoided if only drivers have the skills to dodge them, steer through them or stop the car in time.
Regarding more personal threats, plenty of civilian defenders sitting at the wheel of their vehicles seem to forget that the vehicle is itself a terribly powerful weapon: a battering ram par excellence and much, much harder to stop or tangle up than a human on foot.
If you are confronted with a threat while inside your vehicle that might otherwise require you to draw your gun or knife, the correct answer is more often than not to stomp on the accelerator and get out of there if you have a path.
But unless you want to do your best Ricky Bobby impression, you need training, practice and plenty of it. Wiring in correct decision-making concerning application of brake, throttle and steering in the right amounts and at the right times to evade an accident or escape a setup takes work.
Yes, you can improve these skills all on your own through study and practice, but I sure don’t want you practicing these skills on my street.
This means you’ll need track and pad time, ideally with an instructor skilled in offensive and defensive driving techniques in the passenger seat.
Living in the turbulent times of today, you should also endeavor to learn more driving techniques than just dodging and jaywalkers and fire hydrants.
Mobs are forming in ever more perfusion across America, and they’re rioting has swamped traffic and seeing people overtaken while sitting in their vehicles.
That’s a real scary thing to consider if a mob turns violent and, let’s say, starts chucking Molotov cocktails through the windows of cars with “oppositional” political stickers on them…
A savvy driver should know how to handle their vehicle to avoid an accident, push another car out of the way, rapidly change direction with special maneuvers, blow through a roadblock, and, in extremis, barge through people surrounding the vehicle.
7. Medical Skills
A lack of medical skills seems to be a perennial shortcoming among preppers. For all the talk, effort, energy and investment it goes into being ready for a disaster, medical skills seem to always get overlooked.
Everybody wants to learn how to kick ass and look cool doing it, but nobody wants to learn how to reduce harm instead of inflict it.
Any spy will need to know first aid and basic trauma care in case they are injured in a gunfight or in a discrete ice pick fight in the restaurant freezer. Chances are they will never be able to call on local doctors or emergency rooms for help when they start leaking.
They will likely only be able to risk a short pit stop to deal with the worst of the damage, to stabilize the wound, before continuing on with the mission.
They might have to render self-aid in an austere and poorly equipped environment. You as a concerned and good citizen will need those same skills to deal with the damage dealt by simple accident and deliberate acts of mayhem, especially when the shit hits the proverbial fan.
More than nearly any other skillset, you will have more chances and more cause to use medical skills.
From simple ailments and sicknesses, painful boo-boos like sprains, strains and burns to major trauma-like penetrating injuries from bullets and blades, or mangling injuries suffered during car accidents, there will be no short supply of harm and injury in this lifetime.
This is one skill where improvisation simply will not do. It is entirely possible to do more harm to someone already suffering in a bad way if you don’t know what you’re doing.
You have to get training. Start simply: go get basic first aid training, learn CPR and how to take care of someone who’s sick, who sprains their ankle or elbow or is badly dehydrated.
Then level up. Start learning how to take care of serious trauma, things like broken bones, gunshot wounds, slashes, stabs and head injuries.
Just as important as the training is committing to carrying appropriate medical gear, even if it is only enough to deal with a single penetrating injury or an extremity hemorrhage.
While you can improvise what medical gear you need in the field, you never want to be forced into doing so.
Purpose-designed gear and sterile materials like gauze and other dressings can make all the difference towards a successful intervention.
6. Navigation Skills
It always seems like the spies in movies and novels have an uncanny sense of direction. They always act like they know where they’re going.
As it turns out, when things get twisty they may not know where they are going but they know where they’re heading.
Any good spy will make it a point to learn the lay of the land, major landmarks, major roads and other routes, terrain features, the works.
That way when the destination changes suddenly, or they find themselves temporarily off course, they can reorient and get moving in very short order.
We too should endeavor to hone our direction-finding and navigational skills. This begins simply with knowing the area you are in backwards and forwards.
What are the major terrain features around you can rely on to navigate easily? What landmarks can help you find which direction you’re facing, or heading in? If you are in an urban area, do you know which way the streets and avenues run and lay?
If you’re in a rural area, do you know how to navigate using only a map and compass? Can you depart the roads and go cross-country and still get where you need to go in an emergency?
Do you make a point to pay attention where you are when traveling rural routes so in case there’s trouble you know the quickest way to safety or to help?
A big part of remaining oriented is simply paying attention. The rest is learning how to navigate no matter what environment you are in.
Learn how to use a map and compass and do so quickly. Don’t outsource your navigation to a GPS alone, no matter how handy and effective these devices are.
For that matter, make it a point to keep a small button compass on you at all times, either clipped to your watch band or on a small unobtrusive lanyard attached to a belt loop and kept inside your pocket.
Plenty of disasters have a nasty way of completely changing a landscape by removing the landmarks you typically rely on. You’ll be glad to have a compass and a time like that.
When your doom is approaching and the sand is trickling through the hourglass of your life, you don’t want to be standing there scratching your head trying to figure out which way to go.
If you were switched on, you’ll already know which way to go and you could focus on getting there!
5. Improvised Weapons
Being armed is definitely a virtue in an uncertain and sometimes dangerous world. If you can go armed, be it with gun or with blade, you should
But let’s be real for a second: sometimes you simply cannot go armed. Maybe the consequences of being caught packing are too severe, socially or criminally.
Maybe a venue you’re entering has proper security and you don’t want to risk bungling your visit over toting a blaster or a knife. In that case, what do you do?
You take another lesson from our spies here. Spies certainly face severe penalties for being caught toting weapons.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: the penalty is usually torture, or death and it is often torture then death or if they are very, very lucky it might just be imprisonment in some gulag.
Nonetheless, you’ll rarely find a spy unarmed when it’s time to throw down. That’s because they have mastered the art of making use of improvised weaponry.
An improvised weapon is one that you fashion as a purpose made killing implement from ordinary or scavenged materials, or is an everyday item that is repurposed for destructively gruesome new uses.
It could be a screwdriver sharpened to a fine point. Or, you might just grab an ice pick for the same purpose.
There’s nothing threatening about a book, but a book wielded and swung forcefully at the head or face of an assailant can deliver a crushing blow thanks to its density.
A scalding hot pot of coffee is a searing surprise when thrown in the assailant’s face, and a thin glass carafe can inflict lacerating injuries when used to strike.
Innocuous, innocent items can be combined in lethal new ways, also. A bandana can be combined with a small lock and used as a flail.
A wooden dowel and a handful of nails can make a lethal and terrifying set of spiked knuckles. Human ingenuity is truly a marvel, perhaps darkly so when it is bent to the purposes of destruction.
You should take a page from our spy’s playbook and know how to fashion improvised weapons from any found materials you come across, as well as what everyday items you can employ immediately as weapons in a fight.
4. Situational Awareness
Spies are always two steps ahead in any situation. They seem to have preternatural reflexes, and leap into action on a hair trigger when the time calls for it.
Certainly some of this comes from physical gifts or long training in stressful situations and drills, but a more likely answer is that they are simply thinking two steps ahead, planning for every contingency.
That’s why they may but rarely be surprised, but are never caught unaware. What seems to be a sixth sense for danger and impending action is actually just a highly refined and constantly operating situational awareness.
You, too, should be situationally aware at all times, always in a state of relaxed alertness looking immediately around you, and in the nearby area for things that might hurt you, slow you down or just embarrass you.
A person who’s situationally aware will see the accident ahead on the road before they get to it. They will notice the guy at the bar who is getting a mean drunk, on and sure looks like he knows how to fight, and how to handle himself.
A situationally aware person will see the impending signs of a heart attack or stroke in another, and already be gearing up to intervene or summon help.
Good situational awareness does require effort, but once you practice it, once you make it a part of your lifestyle it seems to happen automatically.
You’ll start to notice what sticks out in the environment around you. You’ll notice what’s out of place. You’ll start to spot, and highlight, potential danger zones or hazards.
Only by constantly honing and constantly refining your situational awareness will you be ready to spring into action with the swiftness of a coiled snake at the moment of truth.
You won’t be merely reacting anymore; you will have “proactively pre-empted” the actions of someone else or something that is about to happen. You were merely waiting for the green light.
Probably more than any other single skill on this list, nurturing your situational awareness and maintaining it in all circumstances, in all times and activities, is probably the single greatest thing you can do to keep yourself safe in all kinds of emergency situations.
3. Security Skills
Our dashing spy on film always makes himself a hard target through a variety of methods. They are always keenly aware of who’s following them, or who might be observing him.
Anybody who seems too interested in where they are going and what they are doing is suspect.
Likewise, no matter how posh the hotel, no matter how swanky the accommodations, no matter how safe the area, a spy always takes pains to make himself very difficult to get to while allowing for a quick escape.
You can and should make use of these same skills. Learning basic pre-attack indicators will keep you from becoming a victim at the grubby mitts of all kinds of criminals, from pickpockets to muggers and murderers.
Knowing which hotel room to stay in while traveling will increase your chances of survival in case there’s a fire, and also reduce the chances that your room will be snooped through or invaded in the middle of the night.
Spies also make use of specialized gadgets to slow down and deter pursuers. Things as simple as broomsticks and door wedges can close off hallways and corridors to stop for pursuers, or funnel Invaders into a tightly defined avenue of approach, making them easy to mow down with gunfire.
Strong cordage or something as commonplace as they built can be used to lash down the return mechanism on self-closing doors, immobilizing them.
Common nails can be fashioned into spiked mats or caltrops, slowing potential invaders. Anything can be rigged up as an alarm system, alerting the spy to a prowling adversary.
A good spy always knows how to protect his valuable cargo, and so should you. A spy can access any place and determine its suitability for defense.
If it is poor, he knows how to improve it, simply and quickly. If it cannot be improved, he will change his ways and his schedule to flummox and confound his enemies.
He will come and go at all times. He won’t follow the same route twice. He will sleep at odd hours if he sleeps at all, and when he is asleep he will make things appear that he is wide awake and active.
All those methods are designed to make him a hard target. Doing all the above can make you a hard target, too, if you think you have been targeted by bad guys.
Everything a spy does is either in service of completing his mission, or making it harder for his enemies to complete theirs.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to keep yourself and your loved ones safe; you should make it just as hard on the bad guys out in the world to do their jobs of taking that away from you.
While real-life spies may be any age, any fitness level, and any body type depending on the specifications of their mission profile, spies on the Silver Screen and in thrilling novels are always fit, athletic and nimble.
We definitely want to be like the latter; in any dangerous situation, no matter what it is, a person who is in shape and healthy is simply harder to kill.
Fit people are stronger, faster and more resistant to injury. They have better balance. They have better coordination. They think faster and deal with stress more easily than people who are out of shape. There are no two ways about it.
It is surprising how closely life can mimic art, and while you may not have to sprint away from pursuing agents, engage in a 60-second all-out fist fight in an alley before scaling a brick wall and jumping from balcony to balcony, any disaster or crisis could see you need similar athletic skillsets and traits to survive.
A terrorist attack that sees a detonation in a crowded commercial area may have you sprinting for your life before pausing to pick up and carry someone who is unconscious to safety.
After getting the victim out of the line of fire you find your primary exit blocked and are forced to sprint down several flights of stairs to, hopefully, freedom and safety.
Spies often train for and have to deal with what is known as a “run-fight-run” situation; a frenzy of activity marked by fast, top-speed movement interrupted by intense muscular exertion followed by even more flat-out movement.
This simulates the spy having to run as fast as they can from pursuers before being intercepted and having to fight their way clear before taking off running again. This training methodology is just as applicable to civilians as you can see from the latter example above.
To those who have never been through it, it is often shocking of just how draining all-out physical activity can be.
A round of boxing, a single round, will leave most people as winded as they’ve ever been in their life, to say nothing of how bad it will be in a serious, life or death street fight complete with grappling.
Even enthusiastic runners have likely never run as fast as they’ll have to in order to get away from danger.
Even an ordinarily strong person may find their strength sorely tested if they have to lift and shift rubble from a knocked down building to rescue someone trapped beneath, or lever a car off the ground.
It is good to be really fast. Is also good to be ferociously strong. But just having one or the other leaves a bit of a gap in your survival tool kit.
It is good to be both fast and strong in abundance. You’ll have plenty of call for both traits in all kinds of emergencies and disasters.
Both real and fictional spies are mysterious, cagey people. This of course makes sense when giving too much away, even something that is seemingly meaningless, may lead to death or mission failure.
They are not obviously clichéd or obviously hiding something as someone who clams up and says nothing, but they watch what they say with great care, and always speak with precision.
It doesn’t take too many bread crumbs for someone to follow the trail all the way home…
Aside from making you genuinely interesting (everyone loves a mystery!), maintaining an air of detached aloofness about your interests and activities, especially ones concerning prepping, will help keep you out of the gun sights and ledgers of those who would rob and take from you.
We’ve all heard the old saying, “loose lips sink ships”; this is certainly true when you’re discussing having copious amounts of supplies, a mountain of guns and ammunition and all kinds of other things with total strangers. Things that are valuable to the right people with the wrong mindsets…
It’s easy to fall prey to this trap in our modern society, where sharing shows how much you care and how much of an individual you are. Not participating in social media is seen as something of a social faux pas.
There’s definitely pressure to conform to this modern ethic, but you should not do it!
It is emotional incontinence: people pouring out their life stories, their itineraries, the personal details and more to complete strangers both in person and on the internet, everything there for the skimming and gleaning for anyone who wants to take it.
Why would you give a stranger everything they need to know so they can decide if you are worth robbing, now or later?!
And yet people do still wonder how they wound up robbed completely blind when away on vacation.
Gun owners, or I should say prior gun owners, rage and scream on the same social media they just posted their new gun purchase on before their truck was broken into.
It wasn’t hard to find with that massive vinyl decal on the back windshield, the one of the brand of their favorite gun manufacturer…
It might hurt to consider it, but a lot of people raise their hand for the villains in the world. The way they act, the things they share says, “Pick me!” Don’t be one of them!
You don’t need to share your interests with the world; you share them with like-minded people who are close to you, people you have grown to trust. What good does it do you to advertise what you are into on your vehicle, on your clothing, and on your social media?
No spy would ever consider leaving any obvious clues that they may indeed be a spy. That is a great way to get tortured for information before winding up dead face down in a local river.
It is way past time, right now, to audit your “signals” that you broadcast in the world, and remove all traces that might turn you into a pin on someone’s map board.
You don’t have to be a spy to see the value in and make use of spy skills in your everyday life.
Many of them are valuable no matter who you are and what you do for a living. Just like real-life and fictional spies, you, as a concerned citizen, may have no one backing you up, no one to turn to when the chips are down, and no expert guidance except yourself.
Don’t complain about it, embrace it! Learn and get training in all of the spy-centric skills above and you’ll become a better-rounded prepper and better able to deal with emergencies and disasters of all kinds.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.