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Survival mindset and situational awareness

Dead birds got me thinking about survivalism and situational awareness.

Among other tchotchkes and geegaws the sellers of my new-old house left were a number of cutsy birdhouses in the backyard. I was going to pull them all down. But before I got to it, anonymous-looking brown birds moved into one, did what birdies do in the spring, and produced babies. I don’t know a lot about birds, but I’m guessing this pair has used this nest box before. I can’t imagine that they’d otherwise choose it — given that it’s smack in the middle of a small yard that’s now filled with predatory dogs.

In any case, Ma and Pa Birdie made their nest, made their babies, then worked their little wings to the bone bringing food to the family. That went on for a couple of weeks. Friday morning I discovered scruffy, confused-looking adolescent avians hopping around on the ground. They could fly — barely — but didn’t seem to know how to get out of their own way. I kept the dogs in the house for hours and only let them out when no fledglings were in sight. But to no avail. By evening, birdie bodies had turned up all over the yard and the entire brood was dead.

Sigh. I love my dogs. But they are dogs and by definition they like to kill small moving things. It was as if Mama and Papa bird had kicked their youngsters right into canine jaws. All their work of raising a family — for naught.

It was sad and I felt responsible. Still, if there were Darwin Awards for feathered creatures, that pair would certainly be finalists for making their nest in such a hazardous spot.

Talk about a total lack of situational awareness!


A more human (and smarter) take on survival and situational awareness came from The Orange Jeep Dad, who wrote about how he found himself thinking like a survivalist on — of all things — a trip to Disneyland.

Annoying though it may be to have to think like that, I’ll bet every person here has had a similar experience — if not hundreds of them.

You check into a hotel room and the first thing you do is memorize all the exit routes posted on the door, right? You have more extra sets of car keys than most people have keys. You keep so much emergency gear in your vehicle you barely have room for cargo (or, in extreme cases, for passengers). You sit as close as possible to an exit every time you go to a movie. You keep an eye on the other customers any time you walk into a convenience store, ready in case one turns out to be a robber. If you live in earthquake or tornado country, your eyes automatically scope out the safest spots any time you enter a new building.

Yet as you look around, you see so many people cluelessly ambling along in condition white. (One of the things I notice a lot is women leaving their purses, sometimes wide open, in the kid seat of shopping cards. Yegads.)

And of course we all can “go white” sometimes, not due to cluelessness, but because we’re intently focused elsewhere.


So tell me about your situational awareness. How has it changed as you’ve become more aware of preparedness or the responsibility for self defense? Where (outside of emergency situations) does your awareness most manifest itself? And how does it manifest itself? And when — to tell tales on ourselves that might help somebody else — have you failed to maintain enough situational awareness and what were the consequences?


  1. naturegirl
    naturegirl May 23, 2011 11:12 pm

    I no longer carry a purse….this is mostly a result of doing a lot of walking to places (instead of driving)….and the clothes I wear when walking are old, loose and pretty obviously “poverty threads”….any money is divided from a few dollars in a pocket to the rest of it hidden somewhere else, in the event I ever get mugged they don’t get all of it……keys are now carried on my wrist on one of those plastic expandable coil things, not only to have them handy quickly but they also can be grabbed and used in a defensive act if need be – and on the opposite wrist that my stronger hand is, so that my strong hand is open to grab whomever is grabbing the keys…..actually, I only have 2 keys on there now, and not every one I own like I use to…..

    The days of walking around wearing jewelry is gone, it’s the minimalist style now a days….I also won’t be on a cell phone in public either, due to the distraction it is……Public bathroom tip is it’s not enough to look under the stalls, open the doors of the unused ones – I found some guy standing on a seat one time & learned a lesson from that discovery……

    I had to chuckle cuz I do so many things you already mentioned, especially when going into stores or places with limited exits/entrances…..and sometimes I notice how bad other peoples’ habits are, not only with their belongings but their kids as well – when I see that I try to get away from them in case they attract some nut job or end up part of a stampede….I also don’t spend much time inside a store like I use to, it’s get in and get out now…..And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked out of/away from a public place that “didn’t feel right” & postponed what I was there for…..

    Anyone who’s spent any time in a big city sort of have built in survival skills that they may not even realize they do (just from being in a city)…..I’ve been rather spoiled since the last couple of places I’ve lived in have been very low crime areas, rare psycho areas, and generally filled with many other survivalists……and as much as I hate to admit it, that has caused me to relax a bit more than I probably should…..

  2. Carl-Bear
    Carl-Bear May 24, 2011 12:06 am

    I generally white out when I’m writing (drives the cat — little Miss-I-WILL-occupy-the-focus-of-the-attention-beam — crazy). Not so much when I’m writing an article or commentary, but fiction. I pretty much let a scene play in my head like a movie and transcribe it. So when I’m doing fiction, I’m semi-literally elsewhere. So I obviously don’t do a lot of writing in restaurants or the like; closed doors, in private.

  3. Orange Jeep Dad
    Orange Jeep Dad May 24, 2011 4:29 am

    @naturegirl OMG! He was standing ON the toilet? Wierd.

    I, too, do a lot of the things you mentioned. I’m REALLY uncomfortable if I can’t sit with my back to the wall in a public place like restaurants. I remember in high school I avoided getting rear-ended in my car by pulling off to the side before the out-of-control car came skidding by me. It actually hit the car that was sitting in front of me (before I pulled over.) My buddy asked me how I knew that was going to happen…like I was psychic or something. Goofball. I was simply aware of my surrounding by constantly watching all my mirrors.

    Thanks for mentioning my blog!

  4. Woody
    Woody May 24, 2011 5:45 am

    A couple of days ago I saw an adult Red Tail Hawk ridge soaring with a barely fledged youngster. It was interesting to compare the techniques of both birds. Youngster was pretty good but not up to the adult’s standard yet. It was very cool to watch!

    Regarding situational awareness: I always park my car with an eye to how easy it will be to leave the space. I always back in unless it would be possible to just drive over/through any small obstructions on the way out in an emergency. I also always park close to a parking lot exit rather than close to the building entrance. The walk to the door is good exercise and if I need to depart the vicinity in a hurry I don’t want to have to contend a bunch of panicked drivers who are all trying to leave at once.

    A female friend pointed out to me that she feels the threat of walking alone to the edge of the parking lot is greater than the threat of parking close to the entrance. A possibly valid observation on her part. It isn’t always good to blindly accept security advice from others who may not share your vulnerabilities or strengths. The only weapon of any significance you possess is between your ears. It pays to practice with it frequently.

    While not terribly relevant to this thread, I spend a lot of time walking in the woods with one of my dogs. Watching her gives me lots of information about what is around me that I can’t sense directly. Interesting relationship we have with dogs, isn’t it?

  5. Matt
    Matt May 24, 2011 6:35 am


    Walking with dogs is pretty germain to Situational Awareness. I have dogs, only 3. Each one responds to activity in a different way. I understand the lets make noise because someone is walking by, lets make noise because someone stopped on the road, and the get the gun, something is not right noises.

    I spend a lot of time with them on the trail, both off leash and on and watch their “non-verbals” a lot. I now have a good sense when they are watching person or animal, when I might need to releash them, or when someone is coming down a trail before I see them.

    Cats can be good for SA too. If you have cats that like to sit in windows or open doorways watch how they react to things moving around. If you have cats and dogs learn how they react to each other so you can filter those noises/actions out.

  6. EN
    EN May 24, 2011 7:14 am

    There was once a Queensland who spent all spring waiting below the numerous Italian cypress in our backyard. Italian cypress are like bird condo/birthing centers in the Spring. It was a slaughter. Each and every new attempt to fly would lead to them gliding to the ground where they’d promptly be chomped on by the lovely Queensland. At times she would get so bored she wouldn’t even bother killing them. I’d look out the kitchen window and see two little birds hopping around the yard within ten feet of the dog. I’d look away quickly wanting to believe they’d made it. Over a period of two or three weeks she’d kill several dozen babies. Not very bright of the birds since this went on for ten years or more.

  7. Claire
    Claire May 24, 2011 7:36 am

    EN — Hm. Bird-loving friends had just about persuaded me that their beloved critters were much more intelligent than most people assume. But your story makes me think that the old term “birdbrain” is valid after all.

    Good comments on situational awareness …

  8. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal May 24, 2011 8:36 am

    Have you been spying on me, Claire?

    Seriously it is spooky how well most of your description fit me. Just one example: car keys. I have my regular keys on my key ring (well, actually a loop of buckskin, but that’s a technicality). Then I have a spare car (and house) key in my belt bag; and I never get dressed without that. Plus I make sure Psycho Hose-Beast has a key in her purse (even though she manages to forget that a lot so I don’t count on that one), and there’s one at my parents’ house a few blocks away if all else fails. Plus, there is a hidden key inside the car. And the remote for the door locks is pinned inside a pocket of my vest instead of being on the key ring. And the vest is also never left behind.

    Another quirk I have is that I don’t lay anything down. If I use one of my knives for something, it doesn’t get set down in mid-task if I need both hands, but returned to the sheath until I need it again. Don’t set things down and you don’t lose them. Goes for keys, cell phones, wallet, guns, or especially whatever you left the house with.

    The bug-out-bags and the box of emergency vehicle stuff does take up the majority of the back of the Blazer, leaving much less room for cargo. I can’t afford many groceries at a time anyway. And Emily has recently graduated to a bug-out-bag instead of a bug-out-diaper bag.

    I keep weaponry stashed in every room of the house in particular locations- ready “just in case”. I don’t expect trouble, but if trouble comes it’s not going to be expecting me, either.

    I notice that a lack of awareness seems to bring on a multitude of small disasters. Not paying attention to your surroundings you knock your drink to the floor, or walk into a flag pole/tree (both of my sisters- one of them a couple of times), or don’t know where you left such-and-such, or you drop your food off your plate because the plate was tipping, or … well the list is endless. Paying attention prevents a lot of annoyances. I’m all for avoiding annoyances when I can.

    A friend and I used to play the game of looking around everywhere we went to see what could be used as a weapon and where the exits (marked or not) were. We also planned “the perfect murder” and the perfect body disposal plan “just in case it was ever needed”. Not yet. 🙂 Really, it was just a thinking exercise and had nothing whatsoever to do with the increasingly hostile homeless guy who decided to attach himself to me.

    In other instances- I hate to sit where I can’t see the room, and after watching the video of the recent Waffle House robbery I’m not so sure about sitting near the entrance anymore. There are pluses and minuses.

    I just like to be prepared for the contingencies I can foresee, and adaptable enough to handle the situations I didn’t foresee. It saves a lot of headaches. I just laugh off the accusations of paranoia. I also notice that those who have called me “paranoid” come to me when their lack of preparedness brings them grief. If they lost something, they ask me where they left it, and if I have passed by it I usually know exactly where it is.

    So, yeah, I’m weird (that was among the first words my sister learned when she started studying to be a deaf-education teacher- just so she could call me that), but that weirdness has served me well.

  9. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal May 24, 2011 8:59 am

    Oh, and if any of you count on your dogs to be alert so you don’t have to be- don’t.

    It used to amaze me how oblivious most dogs were while in the woods. Often when I’m on (or off) the trail I really prefer not to be seen by other humans. So when I hear someone coming I just step a couple feet off the trail and wait, maybe sit down, until they pass. People don’t see me. (No, I don’t wear “camo”)

    I never have been noticed by people’s dogs either, unless I make myself be noticed. One time I wasn’t even really trying to hide, I just sat on a big rock beside the trail to enjoy the moment. A guy and his dog came along, neither one seeing me. The dog had his nose to the ground and was zig-zagging all over the place as they passed my rock. The dog passed right by me and I said “Hey boy” or something to that effect and the dog just about peed himself with surprise. The guy, who was probably not much more than 15 feet from me, did the same thing. I was completely in the open, at eye level, sitting on a boulder in plain sight. I laughed thinking about how dogs were just as oblivious as their owners. Maybe there are some more aware dogs out there but while “hiking” I have never met even one.

    In a similar experience, I was once sitting in a park watching a family of baby chipmunks with their mom. The babies were crawling all over me while their mother scolded them/me constantly. A woman approached on the paved pathway and the chipmunks all scurried to their hole. As the woman got near I said “Hello” and she jumped and screamed. She said she thought I was a statue. A statue? In color? Sitting on the ground? No pedestal? Sigh.

  10. Jolly
    Jolly May 24, 2011 9:16 am

    Boy Scouts is good training. A couple of years ago, my son ( first class ) was going on a camping trip and managed to forget his flashlight. I had a little keychain LED ( green ) and gave that to him. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for him on two nights. He’s never forgotten a flashlight again.
    Now the cars have those little rechargeable flashlights that sit in the cigarette lighters. The big car has one in front, and one in bag. They glow red, so they’re easy to find. The cars now both have basic emergency kits which include flashlights, lighters, and AM/FM radios.

  11. Scott
    Scott May 24, 2011 9:29 am

    As a teenager, I worked a summer at Disneyworld-many people were walking around sort of zoned, losing children,purses,and occassionally walking in front of one of the old cars or bus(and getting hit..yes, they’re real). I watched an older woman stick her foot under the rear tire of the double decker bus,claiming it wasn’t “real”-it wasn’t a “I’m Hurt And I’m Gonna Sue” setup-she thought it wasn’t real..I told her it was,and she really didn’t believe me. Had to let the bus flatten a can(which you weren’t supposed to have in the park) to prove it was. I always wondered how she lived to reach middle age.
    Judging from the other stories I heard from others, such things aren’t all that unusual.
    I tend to “zone” while driving on the Interstate(I don’t like driving on the Interstate,to be honest)-and get a heavy foot,which isn’t a good idea in a relatively lightweight car with just under 500 H.P.
    I ride my bike a lot, and that’s what really makes me take notice of my surroundings-not necessarily jumpy or anything, I just take in more of the detail. I suppose because it’s easier from a bike than a car.

  12. Woody
    Woody May 24, 2011 1:12 pm

    Regarding Kent’s observations about dogs in the woods, I agree. I don’t consider her security, just a great walking companion. She shows me things she thinks are interesting and often I agree. I hardly ever encounter anyone in the woods I haunt. There is no public access and 99.99% of hikers never stray more than a mile from a road or a public trail, if that far.

  13. Kevin Wilmeth
    Kevin Wilmeth May 24, 2011 2:03 pm

    This has been a great read; some of these comments do bring back memories, and that may be the best description of the Cooper color code (which continues to get misinterpreted as some simplistic measure of “threat-level”) that I have heard apart from Cooper himself. 🙂

    I’ll echo the sentiment that you can get lazy, and I hate catching myself getting surprised by things. I work at it, but it happens. Living in small-town Alaska, it’s easy to let some things lapse even while becoming more aware of others.

    The most valuable thing I’ve ever learned to do in this regard is to make a practice of observing myself first. This has produced several results, all of which I’d consider positive. Most importantly, I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised while self-observing. Also, though, when I leave the office, with all the anxieties, stresses and preoccupations that can produce, the act of observing myself walking down the main street of town, just triggers the noticing of all kinds of other things. “Wow, check out the light on the upper glacier across the bay…don’t recognize that guy walking on the street there…ah, pink badge, that must mean…yup, sure enough, cruise ship’s in today; that thing always looks like it takes up half the spit…ah, cool: crocuses are starting to come out in town, I wonder how things are up on the bluff?…ooh, weather out over the Inlet…guy sitting in his car in the back of the parking lot, looking concerned…no, now he’s laughing–talking with his kid in the back seat…approaching intersection–can that car see me?–I’ll slow slightly, he can turn naturally to get out of the way of that guy tailgating him–yep, he didn’t even notice me–and now the intersection is totally clear…and there’s David and dog, with big grins as usual…” It just takes off from there.

    The best part about awareness is that the more I notice, the more things I see that make me smile rather than frown. I love that. And of course when there is something that causes me to go to Orange, it’s really nice to see it coming from a distance.

    Thus far, since arriving here (2y this week) I’ve gone into Orange many times (Alaskans in general are…ademographic, and I love ’em for it), but had to go into Red only once, and that was trying to walk past a cow moose who was munching the flower box at the City building in the early morning. I had no beef with that (you can imagine! 🙂 but I did need to get past her, and although I gave her as much space as I could, well, sometimes moose just get grumpy. She didn’t like my being there, but it wasn’t apparently enough to take action on, and so we just watched each other through the whole thing. Just a few seconds later and the world was all Yellow again. 🙂

  14. naturegirl
    naturegirl May 24, 2011 2:24 pm

    Orange Jeep Dad – Yes, and he didn’t fall in either….

    LOL-ing at the Moose story…..

    Reading all of these only confirms my recent theory on how much being inside (in cars) takes away from the whole atmosphere awareness……you notice more out in the open/actually in the scene, that get missed in the false security of vehicles…..

    If you could smell that skunk ahead of time you’d avoid running it over and having your car smell for 2 weeks 😉

  15. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty May 24, 2011 4:04 pm

    I teach armed self defense. The hardest part to teach is situational awareness, usually because people (especially from the city) have a lifelong conditioning to tune out their surroundings. it takes serious determination and practice to overcome that conditioning.

    For 14 years I drove and walked some of the worst parts of Southern California on my rounds as a home health/hospice nurse. By “law” and company policy, I had only my wits and awareness for protection. Any sort of “weapon” was strictly forbidden.

    So, by necessity, I developed an acute awareness of the places, things and people around me. I learned to “read” a situation and people instantly. I watched not only their face and body language, but their HANDS. That’s what they hurt you with… I didn’t have a cell phone most of those years, and we could almost never get a police escort even into the worst areas at night. So the nurses were pretty much on their own.

    I consciously nurtured that “women’s intuition” and “gut feeling” instinct we all have, if we learn to access it. I eventually learned to trust it and never argue with it.

    Several things besides that helped, of course. Even in the worst places, I was not seen as a threat, but someone bringing comfort to THEIR loved ones and kin. It was well known that we carried neither money nor drugs, and I never had a purse. Everything important was carefully hidden and locked in my car.

    I saw, and even participated in some seriously scary situations many times, but was never attacked or hurt. I suspect a number of guardian angels assigned to me had nervous breakdowns, however. I took a lot of chances I wouldn’t take today… If I knew then what I know now… But that’s life.

    There isn’t much crime here in rural Wyoming, but there are plenty of other things to make situational awareness a vital tool. And there is no place on the planet where the risk of attack is zero. Not to mention mountain lions and such.

    I’ve nearly been mugged twice here, and my neighbor is a mean drunk who once threatened to kill his x-wife and her children. He’s too sick and drunk to be much threat, but I watch and never leave the house unarmed.

    So, I watch all around me and have a “plan” for a lot of the potential things that might happen. I’m not “paranoid” nor am I afraid. It’s hard to explain to people who have never trained like this, but both paranoia and fear of the potential threats are directly counterproductive to effective situational awareness. It isn’t that nobody’s “out to get us” or that there is nothing to be afraid of, but that those are emotional states that can paralyze and prevent us from doing what needs to be done if we don’t control them – rather than allowing them to control us.

    And Kevin is exactly right. We must first be aware of ourself and our responses. We must see what actually does go on around us, not just a narrow set of things we’ve decided are possible threats. If we narrow our world down to those few things, we are quite easily blind to something we hadn’t thought of… and we miss enjoyment of all the wonderful things and people around us who are NOT threats at all. What a shame.

  16. Desertrat
    Desertrat May 24, 2011 4:22 pm

    I learned of the four colors concept some thirty years ago. “Condition Yellow” was likened to the level of awareness of a house cat. Sounds good to me; I never saw a house cat with ulcers from paranoia. If I made any change, it was to add more reliance on my hearing to my already-alert vision. Having been an outdoorsman for a major part of my life has been helpful, as mentioned above.

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