Situational Awareness Tips

Situational Awareness Tips & Drills

Situational Awareness Tips

Even for those who feel pretty confident about their own situational awareness, sometimes it can slip. It’s good practice to engage in purposeful awareness beyond the ordinary ho-hum of life’s activities.

Note that situational awareness is NOT engaging in paranoia. Being paranoid is being nervous or afraid of everything. Situational Awareness is simply a state of mind relative to being alert of one’s surroundings and situations.

Here are some tips and drills for your own situational awareness:


Whenever you enter a building, identify the exits. Plan your exit.

During a panic most people will exit the way they came in, creating a bottleneck.

Most restaurants have an exit in the kitchen.

In a public establishment, sit where you can see the main entrance.

Try not to sit with your back towards the majority.

When parking against a wall or barrier, back in for a quicker exit.

Look around when walking away or towards your vehicle.

Observe others. ‘Oddness’ will stand out.

Attempt to identify those who may be carrying concealed.

If your gut is warning you, pay attention.

Notice those who are themselves looking around, being observant.

Estimate the percentage of people around you who are NOT aware of their surroundings.

In a parking lot, identify vehicles with people inside.

Wear neutral clothes.

Observe others who are dressed outside that environment’s normality.

Listen and identify conversation topics of those nearby.

Facial expressions are often worth a thousand words.

Especially in public, keep your mental focus outward, not inward.

Don’t ‘daydream’ in public.

Amuse yourself by counting human zombies with heads in their smart phones.

Utilize your peripheral vision.

Reflections off windows will reveal what’s going on behind you while walking.

When entering a environment, do a quick scan around you.

Be fully and consciously aware of safety while operating potentially dangerous equipment.

When out and about, walk with purpose, confidence, shoulders back.

Look for aggressive body language.

Look at the hands. Anything there?

Assess the baseline of the environment you’re in.

When there’s a ripple in the force, figure out why…


Add your own tips or drills in the comments section below:

More: Human Zombies Unaware Of The Real World

More: Intuition & Gut Instinct: The Mystery Of It All…

More: Hiding In Plain Sight


  1. Here’s one I use: while walking along especially in urban settings, I’ll periodically step sideways to be next to a wall or some place out of the direct line of pedestrian traffic. and then look around especially toward the people behind me walking in the same direction. If you are being followed the person – if caught flatfooted – will quickly self identify and tip you off to emergent danger.

    This can be natural process, as you adjust your coat (or if you are an….err.. “older” person adjust your britches – people expect that, right? ), look up at street signs or storefronts as though you are narrowing in on a destination, or even look high up skyscrapers or flick your shoulder with your hand (as though a bird had pooped on you and you were looking for the source).

    A quick glance around should allow you to size up the situation.

  2. I’ll wait in the truck while my wife goes into the store and it is amazing to watch people (young and old) walking through the parking lot in a daze while glued to their phone. They walk right out in front of venicles, bump into other zombies who are glued to their phones or parked vehicles and have absolutely no idea of anything going on around them. They make themselves easy prey.

  3. Couple of things to add to Ken’s very good tips.

    Identify fixtures, walls, etc. that will provide cover from gun fire.

    Identify inanimate objects that can be used for an improvised defensive weapons if that becomes necessary.

    When leaving a store, stop a few cars short of yours. Scan the cars surrounding yours. Anyone sitting in any of them? Are they occupied by something inside their own vehicle, or attentive to the pedestrian traffic? Anyone standing around loitering?

    Know your location, i.e., be able to tell a 911 operator where you are located. (cell phones don’t give 911 systems your location automatically.) You don’t have to know the exact street address, but at least know the closest street intersection and name of business (I’m at the Wally World close to 1st and Avenue A in Podunk Holler) That information will get response just as well as an exact address.

  4. When going into or leaving a store from/to a parking lot, I will not park beside of a van or get into my car if there is a van with side-doors parked by the driver’s side. Heard of too many people being yanked into a van through those sliding doors. I have been known to look into the windows of the van and see what or who is inside. If I can’t see inside, I just wait…

    1. I 2nd that. I have a thing about being almost the only car in the lot and a car parking right next to me. If it’s a van I’ll wait a bit and watch. I made a comment about that to a park ranger at a state park once and he didn’t seem to think it was odd.

    2. Since I DRIVE one of those big vans this is one I’ve not thought about. I much prefer the barn door sides, rather than sliders. (slider mech often gets buggered. Pain to fix)

      Since more and more car parks try and cram as many spaces as possible into the limited and dear real estate, most now have only, or primarily, “compact cars only” spaces. When those are the only ones left, I use them anyway. But I always have my periscope up in parking lots, crowded public spaces, etc.

  5. In a restaurant, find a table (not a booth, those are death traps) towards the back of the room near a window, not in front of a window. Back against the wall facing the room.
    Something happens go through the window, forget the Doors those also are death traps.
    Or better yet, eat at home :-)

    1. What do think about leaving e’nuff cash under your plate to cover the bill in the event you do have to exit?

  6. Situational Awareness works both ways. For both the potential victim and the potential aggressor.

    True story: My son and I were in the largest city in our state to attend a sporting event. We were approaching the entrance to our hotel from the parking lot. An older model car with two young women pull into the parking lot and parked in a space just passed us, rolled down a window, waved at us and asked if we could help them. I had noticed that the car had a “donut” type spare tire on the right front as they had driven in. The girls ask if we could please change their tire on the front with the “new” one in their trunk. At about the same time, I observed a second car pull into the parking lot and park about three spaces down, driven by a couple of meth head looking young men in their twenties. Thinking we were being “set up” for a robbery, I stepped back a couple of paces and told the women that my son would be glad to help them, while I watched. My hand slid into my pocket, resting on my, you guessed it, Ruger LCP. I alternately looked between the young women’s car and the car carrying their accomplices that had followed them in. The woman driver observed what I was doing, looked at the other car with the young men, then started the car and took off, leaving my son standing at the rear waiting for her to open the trunk. The other car followed them out of the parking lot. Their plans obviously foiled, not worth the possible risk.

    I recognized the possible intent, they recognized my awareness and resolve. They chose to find an easier victim(s).

    1. Dh and I have seen this very scenario more than once. Good that you recognized it. We have dealt with this more than once ourselves.

  7. Good posts everyone…I would just add the moment you get that inner prompt that something is wrong or unsafe, respond thoughtfully and quickly, even if quietly…before fear immobilizes you and the people around you which make a later response even more difficult…

  8. My most intense moments of alertness to situations around me is when on the road. I continually scan the view not only for deer but for other drivers. I always mentally practice what I would do if…..

    1. OC ona RR
      I agree. Driving to and from work. Am always watch the oncoming idiots. Just anticipating for a gravel hauler crossing the center line.

      Also not only in public, be aware of your homestead.
      When I come home from work, I do a quick gander of my property, before pulling in. Look for any unusual tire tracks in the driveway.
      The dogs in the house act in a peculiar way when someone has been here.
      Yup, postman, UPS, or FedEx left a package .
      Be aware, be safe

      1. Most of my commutes are spent watching for cattle, elk or deer….or the occassional bobcat or lion. Keeps me on my toes (and the brakes) but truly keeps me aware of what is next to the highway as well as what is on it!

        1. You really need to be aware of, and ready to respond to, others driving under the influence of smartphones.

        2. I probably dont see 5 cars on the first hour of my commute. Lol. But I DO watch for everyone/thing.

      2. I’m the same way. When I pull onto my street I look for anything out of the ordinary. I also pull up the security cameras both inside and outside my home before entering. The last line is my dog. If he’s not at the front door waiting, something is wrong.

      3. Hey Joe c…I hope you have an excellent weekend. Stay safe and Thank a Veteran…..Doc

        1. Doc J
          Long time no hear.
          Thanks man and same to you.
          Vets have my support no matter the time of year.

        2. Doing good Friend. Broke my foot last Wednesday but other than that all is good.

        3. Good to hear Doc, but sorry about the foot
          Don’t be a stranger here, ok?

      4. I headed out by car from Podunk, Michigan to Florida and put on my Groucho Marx glasses/nose/mustache. I watched people as they drove by me. Not until I got to North Florida did anyone notice. I had two gentlemen, one in his 50’s and one in his early 30’s who laughed. Being a woman with long hair and the Groucho get up should have raised more eyebrows!

  9. – Quote: “Estimate the percentage of people around you who are NOT aware of their surroundings.”
    That is always a depressingly large percentage no matter where I am. Around 95% usually. “Identify those who may be carrying concealed” is easier, but it’s alarming how many belong in both categories!
    – Papa S.

  10. After my first assignment in the sandbox I was home and went shopping at the mall with my mom. We’re walking along and she said the me “Settle down! What’s wrong with you?” I said “Mom, I’ve been trained to maintain a 360 degree sphere of awareness and to especially avoid people carrying packages. It’s going to take a while.” We laughed about packaged at the mall. Wasn’t going to distress her with the fact that “a while” might in fact be a lifetime.

    I also keep an eye on nearby traffic. If I’m followed around two corners, or to and from main roads, I stop or proceed to a police/fire station and let the follower go on. Not toooo paranoid but I did manage to upset a couple bad guys years ago.

    Also do my best to get far ahead or to the rear of obviously distracted/inattentive drivers, and just on GP all logging trucks.

  11. Don’t walk directly to your vehicle when parked in a parking lot. Head for a point a few cars over while casually observing everyting around you. Only at the last moment when you’re comfortable with the situation, turn to your vehicle and unlock the doors just as you get there. Don’t announce your destination by pressing your remote ahead of time. Take one good look around as you load your stuff to make sure threat isn’t moving in behind you.

    Only had one instance where I observed a group of thugs hanging out in the shaddows. As I started to load groceries into the back seat I noticed the same thugs had split into two groups and were moving in on me, sort of trapping me between my truck and the car beside me. A quck sweep of my jacket to expose my sidearm and they all did an about face. Glad that’s all that was nessesary!

  12. Reading the posts here, I thought I might share another situation that happened last night. My teenage son offered his old iPhone phone for sale on line and I accompanied him to close the deal at a nearby restaurant that had video surveillance. My son sat at a table to conduct the transaction and I just watched from a nearby table – giving him his space.

    The buyer immediately saw me as he walked in and obviously put 2 and 2 together. The buyer’s right hand NEVER left his right jacket pocket. Boy were my red flags up.

    Ultimately the deal went down but the buyer knew I was not there to eat fast food. He kept looking over at me. He probably guessed, correctly, that he’d better play it straight. However, IMO the situation could quickly have gone sideways.

    My son later told be his antenna were way up too…. and he’s just a youngster with little training.


    Bottom line is the most innocent situations have he potential to go quickly bad….

    1. Bogan: Just think there is about a 20% chance that he thought that you were going to rob him! Better save than sorry though.

      1. GoodBear: I recognize the truth of your observation, and the percentage may be even higher,, but their ain’t no way someone, anyone, is gonna get between me and my son over paying for a used cell phone!

        1. A lot of police stations are now offering a transaction point for online buy and sells such as yours.

  13. Out at FrontSight for the veterans day weekend. Have about a thousand students here enjoying the sunshine and superior training. Shooting, whatever your weapon, is a perishable skill folks. Keep the practice up. Also, refresh your observation skills and YOUR willingness and ability to respond. Willingness and ability are as important as anything else.
    Having a great time keeping skills sharp. Peace folks

  14. Back when I did security, sometimes I had to fill in at grocery stores. I never thought much about it before but after doing it for a while, I could tell who was planning on stealing something and who has stole something. Most of the time though, I could not prove it. I was not allowed to have someone show me their pockets even though their pockets were bulging when walking out but we’re flat when walking in. Mostly it was the manner of the person by the way they were acting, the way they moved, and the direction they went in the store. Example, person looks like they are going ‘shopping’ for alcohol. They do not go directly go to alcohol aisle, they go down the gift card/party aisle about 5 aisles over. Then they go to the alcohol aisle from the back of the store. Me, I would walk directly to the alcohol aisle and then see them walking around to the alcohol aisle after 30 seconds. I could tell they knew I was on to them so they just looked for a bit and then just walked out of the store empty handed. Many would try different tricks to try and steal alcohol.

  15. Thanks Ken, another great article with great tips.

    “Reflections off windows will reveal what’s going on behind you while walking”
    I use reflections all the time….windows, doors, computer screens, panels, mirrors, even the face of your blank cell phone, even smooth surfaces of vehicles, etc…

  16. Ken:

    Just an afterthought. I really like the use of the term “purposeful awareness”. It implies that people need to be proactive, not just kinda passively alert.
    My .02

    1. Exactly. It’s easy to slip out of being adequately aware. Best to be proactive about it. Hopefully this article jogs a few people into “purposeful awareness” ;)

  17. Another good drill …. while driving, keep track of how many vehicles overtake/pass you from behind before you were aware of that vehicle’s presence. For every 5 occurrences, take away dessert that night (or some similar penalty).

  18. When traffic stops never pull up right behind car in front. Leave room to swing out to pass or U-turn, or whatever. Lock doors. Have a small powder fire extinguisher handy. If car park has a big puddle, park in it. Only someone strange will choose to park beside you in the puddle. When returning walk all round it, checking tires and for puncture devices.

    1. Leaving room in front has saved me from 2 accidents as I could pull out of there before the car behind hit. A nice e mail from my son said that lesson I taught him saved him that night.

    2. I leave two vesicle lengths. I have a 20 oz can of Spectracide wasp and hornet killer with a 27 foot range next to my seat. I always act as if I am going to another car and then make a quick turn to mine and then quickly auto unlock the door and lock it again immediately. I have been practicing SA since 1965 and my wife still cannot believe all the things I notice while traveling. Use all your senses, all the time. I once said to a guy who was getting into his truck, ” Just got your concealed carry, right?” His mouth fell open while I just grinned.

      1. Hey brother, the wasp spray is going to let you down when you need it. Do some online research and you’ll see for yourself. For protection it’s about as much use as a chocolate fireman.

        1. The wasp spray myth, I’ve often wondered how that ever got started. There are some really smart people who believe in it; I hope nobody has found out it doesn’t work from experience. There is nothing in wasp spray that will stop a person, or for that matter a bee, in it’s tracks, or flight.
          Spectracide in particular works by having the bee carrying the poison back to the hive, it doesn’t drop them in flight, so how is that going to do that to a person? When you see videos of attackers continue the attack after being peppered with bullets you got to wonder about how anyone would think bee spray would.

        2. now what DOES work, on wasps and other “pests” is Brak=kleen, the spray auto machanics often use to degrease stuff. If you ever got a HINT of that stuff in your eyes, you WILL remember it with fear and trembling. Nasty in the nose and mouth, as well. Makes skin cold, and is slightly irritating to bare skin. It really DOES drop a wasp out of the air IF you hit it dead on, ususlly from behind works best. When he’s sitting somewhere, as on a comb guarding it. or on the ousdied of the paper nest, they fairly melt–like a chocolate fireman. The vapour WILL also kill them if they get enough. Keeing a can of that, with the thin tube in the nozzle could well work as a powerful deterrent. Evei if the chump has glasses, at least some of the spray will get in his eyes. He will be blinded for long enough to take control of the situation by other means. Stuff is cheap, too, my partshouse sells me the big 20 oz can for under two bux. House brand, but its all the same stuff inside.

  19. Years ago, I had a lunch date at a local coffee shop. When I arrived, she was already seated and waved to me. As I walked to the table, she slipped around to a different chair. When I asked why she had moved, she laughed. “You are just like my dad. You always want the seat where you can watch the door and the cash register. And then you spend more time watching them than looking at me!” I was totally busted and she thought that was hilarious.
    So all those times that I had manipulated our seating the way that I wanted it, she completely had my number. Smart girl. With remarkable awareness.
    Would that we all raise our kids like her dad raised her.

  20. “Amuse yourself by counting human zombies with heads in their smart phones.”

    Problem is, these folks are very unlikely to be a threat and once you’ve identified such, you’re focusing your attention on the wrong people. See them, evaluate them, dismiss them and move on. You can get killed by live people while you are preoccupied with the harmless zombies.

    1. My sister-in-law is in Law Enforcement and when the family goes to dinner we both always go for the “gunfighter” seat. Kinda funny at times.

  21. Ditto the wasp spray recommendation. Don’t use it for personal defense. It’s ineffective for that and could result in permanent eye injury. And wasps seldom try to commit robbery or abduction. There’s many good defensive aerosols available.
    I always try to avoid anyone who’s unnecessarily friendly and trying to get too close. I’m never comfortable with people who feel the need to creep up behind me.

  22. One more habit I’ve adopted some time back, as I began to THINK about what’s around me as I move aobut in public.
    WHen headed back to the car in the lot, I never take my car keys out until I”m at or very close to the rig. Someone could theoretically try and snatch them, then figure out which car is mine based on the keys on the ring.

    I’ve never had a car new enough to have one of those remote fobs, and probably will not use it if I do. For one thing, I understand there are scanners that can pick up the digital signal and copy it, so the scammer notes when yuo leave, click the magical button, your car’s lights flash and horn toots, and offyou go…. meanwhile, he’s dadged your key code digitaly, waits intul you are well inside the mall/store/restaurant, saunters over like its HIS car, opene it takes whatever he wants, relocks it.. you come cars’ been cleaned, call cops, no sigh of forced entry, cop thinks youre scamming him. Or simply askes if you locked it with the fob then tells you what happened. Park and Rides are known for this. Use the mechanical key exclusivelym no one can ever scam you. Or, only use the button to unlock when you return. BUT.. most fols , I[ve noticed, unlock theirs when tjhey are still ten cars away. Not smart…… anyone casing yours will be able to sneal inside a back door and wait till you enter the front… they you’re lunch. Maybe I’m part old geezer in my thinking… but I’ve never had a metal key fail with no warning.

  23. Driving down a lane-and-a-half paved levee road, river on the left, farm fields on the right, I come up behind a slow moving, older compact car with a man and a woman in it. They’re doing maybe 15 mph. After a couple hundred yards with me following the car comes to a halt and both doors open. Alarm bells are going off all over the place inside my head. I put my car into reverse. The guy starts talking about his “wife” having seen a snake along the road a ways can and can I help them identify it. They are both advancing on my car now and I’m moving slowly in reverse. The guy keeps talking and approaching my driver’s side, and the woman has her right hand under her shirt as she’s approaching my passenger side. As they get to within about 20 feet I accelerate in reverse, flip the wheel and stand on the brakes to spin the car around 180 degrees. I then jammed it into 1st gear and left in a hurry, leaving them standing in the middle of the road.

  24. As an over the road driver for 40+ years i’ve gotten pretty good at picking up things in traffic. But I struggle to pick up little details about people in public places without drawing attention to myself. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  25. Allen,
    Several things I look for are when I go into town are:

    Clothing appropriate for season and area or anyone wearing a hoodie.
    People with hands in their pockets especially those wearing hoodies
    People looking down and will not make eye contact
    Persons standing in shadows
    Persons nervously looking around or fidgety.
    Vehicles parked outside of parking spaces i.e Fire Lanes or beside a building

    When I pull into a parking lot I quickly scan the vehicles around my parking spot and make a mental note of color and type. Whenever possible, I try to park facing out so I don’t have to back up to leave and next to a cart return on the drivers side. I have my keys in my hand when I leave the store, look around before I exit the store and NEVER talk on a cellphone while walking to or from the store. In restaurants I sit in a chair facing the door and if in a booth I sit on the outside. My wife is used to this and there is no need to explain it to her when we are seated.

    These are a few signs I observe and I’m sure there are others that I do out of habit but don’t realize.

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