How to Survive a Hostage Situation

It is one of the scariest scenarios most people can imagine.  You are sleeping in your home or hotel and men in masks grab you. Maybe you are walking down a back alley when a van pulls up and the door slides open. Perhaps you are simply at work and a disgruntled employee returns to take the whole group hostage.  Any of these situations is a nightmare.

People get taken hostage for all kinds of reasons, and these events as well as how they evolve, and what the hostage-taker’s motivations are vary greatly.

One thing all of these events have in common is that the hostage is a commodity of a sort; they are a blue chip that can be exchanged for ransom, extorted for resources, used as a part of a terrorist execution or just kept as an object of infatuation or enjoyment by a warped psychopath.

The other thing they all have in common is that the hostage (that’s you!) desperately wants to go home alive.

Despite being in a hostage situation, there are specific actions that you can take to get out of this safely. People who do not survive hostage situations usually make some major mistakes, but we will do our best to prevent that by presenting you with some useful and life-saving info in this article.

man blindfolded

Check Your Ego

Getting out of a hostage situation alive is not an easy task, but it is a thinking man’s game. Spare yourself a lot of trouble and potentially save your life by leaving the tough guy antics, the Hollywood heroism, and all the other BS you think you know at the door.

You will certainly not be enjoying a pleasant time while you’re being held hostage but you can make the situation a lot worse for yourself and potentially others by engaging in false bravado or antagonizing your captors.

You can talk to plenty of former hostages who survived their ordeal, especially in group settings, and they can regale you with tales of how poorly the strategy worked out for themselves or another hostage.

Don’t do anything to incite punishment, retaliation or outright execution. Do not insult your captor’s manhood, country of origin, religion, character, or anything else about them.

You don’t have to prove a point, get one over on them, or get the approval of your fellow captives. You especially don’t need the approval of the “good idea fairy” that has come to visit you with a witty zinger that you can pop off like your favorite Hollywood star.

When you get a pistol or a rifle stock cracked across your jaw and have to watch your teeth patter across the pavement remember we had this conversation. If you are fortunate that is all you will get for your insolence…

All that matters is surviving, not getting “points” or trying to give your captors a breaking speech. You must act carefully but deliberately. Rashness and pride will only hasten your demise.

Escape: When and How?

Your objective as a hostage is merely to survive and go free, however that happens. It doesn’t matter if you are turned loose, rescued, ransomed, or if the captors just let you go because you are not valuable to them any longer, and they are not worried about loose ends.

Obviously escape is never far from any hostage’s mind, and it certainly might be your best option for regaining your freedom and keeping your life. That being said, escaping, or enacting self-rescue is always a dicey proposition, and it’s statistically one of the most dangerous things you can attempt as a hostage.

One of the only times that it makes sense to attempt escape is when you are first being abducted. It is also one of the most dangerous moments you will face. If you are up against several men with guns, fighting them off probably will not happen.

Giving examples of all the different ways you could possibly escape from a hostage situation according to all the different permutations on the specifics of your captivity would fill up books, to say nothing of a humble article, but generally speaking, your escape will take one of two or three likely forms.

The first is that you are indeed able to get out of whatever cell you are being held in, and slip away before finding your way back to friendly territory or people that will protect you.

This often happens when captors are low on manpower or have high confidence in whatever structure or room is holding you.

The second way you might escape is by attracting attention to your plight when the captors are at a point of vulnerability, and worried about detection. This is only likely if they are not in territory that is friendly to them.

Lastly, the other way you might escape is by overpowering your captors and turning the tables on them, either disabling them or killing them and making a break for it. This is definitely possible, but is among the riskiest of options.

You will need just two things in order to enable your escape: time and opportunity. Putting together an escape attempt requires time; time to defeat bonds and restraints, time to slip away or create an opportunity to slip away, time to put distance between you and your captors to prevent recapture.

Your escape attempt will require opportunity; opportunity might take the form of distracted or absent captors, a lighter than usual shift of guards, noise that will cover your attempt to break through your bonds, an unattended weapon, or one that is carried lazily but within reach and so on.

These are both fleeting things in a hostage situation, and sometimes you will have only moments to recognize, much less seize, either of these two crucial resources. You might get another chance or you might not. 

Being Moved to a Secondary “Crime Scene”

If you’re planning to escape you cannot wait too long. Anytime your captors plan on moving you away from the initial crime scene, your chances of survival decrease.

Any subsequent movement is also bad news as you might be taken from your initial holding area to a more remote or more secure holding area where you will be subjected to increasingly invasive searches, better restraints and quite possibly more guards.

None of these bode well for you as a hostage who plans to self rescue.

Additionally, you must always be aware that you could be moved to a disposal site where you will summarily be executed with no fuss, no muss and no witnesses. Just because you are being moved is not a guarantee that you are going to be executed but it is always a possibility.

Obviously while your captors are in control of you you are not entirely in control of the outcome, and must seek to remedy that by the swiftest and most certain means.

It will be up to you to read the situation, make a decision and then live with the consequences. Sometimes waiting the situation out is the best option. Other times or in the hands of other captors you must escape by the first, best opportunity presented to you even if it risks your death.

Assess Captors

It might be difficult under the circumstances and considering your stress level, but you should make every attempt to assess your captors, and learn everything you can about them by observation and listening. This will inform your decision regarding the best way to proceed in order to survive as a hostage.

Not all bad guys are the same, and not all hostage-takers have the same motivations.

If you have been taken hostage for ransom, or in an effort to extort money out of you or someone else via using your captivity (and threat of harm) against them, there is likely a better chance that you will survive compared to being taken captive and held hostage for ideological or political purposes.

Put another way, if you’re kidnapped by a professional crew who is used to making a living off of ransom, if you can bide your time and not get killed in the interim, you have a good chance of survival compared to being taken hostage by ISIS or some other religious fanatics.

You may have to wait until you arrive at your destination, but start observing your captors as soon as possible. How many are there? Are they armed? Do they wear masks? Are they in good physical condition?

Do they appear calm or frazzled? Are they professionals? Are they military? Do they speak with an accent, or in a foreign language?

Once you are at your final destination, you can observe even more about your captors. Try to determine who is in charge. Notice where they congregate. Pay attention to time of day and routines.

Trying to suss out the motivations of your captors is not the only thing you are paying attention to. Try to assess their mindset as well as their level of professionalism.

Captors getting skittish, nervous or agitated even when they have no reason to be might betray a lack of experience or potentially mind-altering substances in their system.

On the other hand, captors who seem confident, in control and generally at ease when not in a threatening situation have probably done this before or have plenty of previous experience with violence, both receiving and inflicting.

Determining what your captors motivations are could be the key piece of information that makes your decision on whether to bide your time or try to escape at the first opportunity.

If you are being held by professional kidnappers who only want ransom, there is probably less to worry about when biding your time. If you are detained by religious fanatics or terrorists you must take the opportunity to escape as soon as possible since it is likely you’re killing that will be used to achieve their ends.

Your Condition Will Only Deteriorate Over Time

Just another factor that you must consider when contemplating when or if to make an escape is that your condition in the hands of your captors will only deteriorate over time.

The effects of stress, sleep deprivation, dehydration and lack of nutrition will all pile up to dull your mind, slow your reflexes and generally weaken you. You must also count on injuries inflicted at the hands of your captors accumulating and getting worse over time, not better.

All this means that your escape attempts will grow steadily more difficult over time, owing to your poor mental and physical condition.

This must be factored into the calculus of when and if you will attempt escape. If you attempt to escape, battered and bashed as you may be, and fail you will likely be killed or severely mauled.

On the other hand, there is no way to know if your best possible chance of escape will come early on in your captivity while you are as fresh, as you are likely to be for the duration.

I cannot tell you whether you should or should not attempt escape as soon as possible. There are many variables, some of which are covered in this article.

Ultimately, it will be up to you to assess everything that you are able to, including your condition, and then decide what your best possible approach is.

Understand that it is possible to still get a positive outcome without attempting escape. Put another way, escape is not the only option in every hostage situation

Do you have anything in your pockets that could be used as a weapon or to cut your bindings? Do you have your cell phone? You may be loose in a locked room, tied with rope, wrapped with tape, or bound with zip ties.

Are your bindings tied tight, or do you have some room to move? Are you on the ground or in a chair?

No matter what you have on your person, it is increasingly likely that it will be found and taken from you as time passes and you are moved (if you are moved) to progressively more secure areas.

Don’t Surrender Your Humanity

This is the other side of the coin when it comes to your ego. It probably pays to be passive while you are in captivity, but it does not pay to be submissive or turn into a blubbering idiot.

Especially when dealing with cruel, aggressive people who see life as cheap, balling, sobbing and begging for your life generally will not work out the way you hope. It makes you appear weak, contemptible and subhuman, all of which will make it easier to kill you when the time comes.

Instead, you should try as best you can while remaining subtle to humanize yourself to your captors. Keep your wits about you, and just as importantly keep your bearing.

Make them look you in the eye, just not in a challenging way. If you can strike up small talk with any of your captors do so just stay away from any topics that are sensitive or hot-button issues.

You’ll have to read the wind, as it were, but you might be able to ask non-identifying questions about the captors such as where they are from, whether or not they have a family, what they are fighting for and so on.

If you’re in a foreign country or just too far from home, being able to talk about anything you admire regarding their country, area or culture is a bonus.

Humbly ask them for a small favor like a glass of water or a warmer blanket.  Continue to do this periodically without seeming needy.  If you follow direction and develop some trust, they may let their guard down.

Make sure you maintain your humanity and some level of respect with the men holding you.  Never beg for your life, try to make a deal, or cry. These actions make it easier for the captors to kill you if they have a reason.

You want to have the attitude that you are going to cooperate, but that you are not afraid. Your captors will not value your dignity if you do not.

If you are with other hostages, try to communicate with them.  This can keep your spirits up and possibly give you a chance to develop an escape plan. You may have to use code or symbols to avoid your captors separating you.

Also, try to never stand out from the group.  You do not want these criminals to see you as a threat and become violent.

Keep Sharp during Prolonged Captivity

Find ways to keep your mind sharp. Sitting in a cell or tied to a chair for days or weeks will numb the mind. If an opportunity for escape comes along, you may not be ready for it. Think about the lyrics to songs or do math problems in your head.

My personal favorite is to play 18 holes of golf in my mind.  If you plan and execute each shot on your favorite course, it is a great way to stay sharp.

Focus on keeping your body fit as well.  Sitting in one spot for several weeks will atrophy muscles and make it more difficult to run if given the chance. Do push-ups, sit-ups, dips, or any calisthenics that you can think of.

Use any items in your area to create resistance such as a bed or chair. Even if you are tied to a chair, you can flex and relax specific muscle groups and get a good workout. Just don’t do anything that you are not supposed to if your captors will punish you or someone else.

Negotiations are Good

If you learn that people are currently negotiating on your behalf in order to get you freed from captivity, chill out and bide your time unless you have an airtight method of escape that presents itself.

Negotiations are good, and the longer negotiations go on, the more likely it is that you will achieve a positive outcome. As long as people are talking, people are probably not getting killed.

People start getting killed when the talking breaks down, when rescue missions are mounted by commandos or when you botch an escape attempt.

How will you know that you’re being negotiated for? Anytime that you have to give a proof of life, which could be something like posing for a photograph or fielding a brief phone call, you’ll know for sure.

You might also know if your captors seem anxious or excited about recent developments. The reason they are anxious is probably because there is a chance they will be paid or get their demands met.

Either way, if a police or private negotiator has opened a dialogue with your captors that is a great step in the right direction.

This is still no reason to let your guard down or to change your bearing or overall demeanor. Maintain your composure, don’t act smug, and remember that nothing is over until it is over and you are home free.

Always be looking for ways to improve your position, but don’t do anything while negotiations are underway that will make things harder or less pleasant for your captors. 

However, if you notice a drastic change in the behavior or mood of your captors, this can be a big red flag. When they appear confused or frustrated, take notice.

If they become more violent or release other hostages and ignore you, that is also a concern; conversely, if they stop feeding you or stop wearing their masks you need to escape immediately.  These are signs that they may intend to kill you.

Tools and Tips

Knowing a few tricks to get out of bindings is a good idea.  You can buy a small lock pick set for less than $20 and practice picking locks.

Even if you do not have the set with you, keep a small pin or paperclip hidden on your body to pick locks. Use friction from your boot laces to rub against zip ties and break the plastic. Use any sharp object to gradually cut through rope.

If your hands are bound with duct tape in front of your body, put your arms over your head and pull outwards as you slam them down.  This should split the tape.  Remember that these are all a last resort.

When rescue finally does come, it is another very dangerous moment. Try to get on the ground and take cover. Always follow any directions given to you by your rescuers. They are still trying to discern who the bad guys are.

Keep a cool head, keep your mouth shut, and be patient.  Whether you intend to wait for police or you plan to run, being patient is key.  If you rush it and do not wait for the perfect opportunity, it could end very badly.

Conclusion

Being held hostage is a terrifying and dehumanizing experience, but one that you can live through if you keep your wits about you and know what to do with the options and resources you have at hand.

Remember that the vast majority of these criminals are motivated by something other than killing you. You can use this knowledge to your advantage and hopefully survive!

updated 09/08/2020

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