Staying safe while traveling abroad – a Situational Awareness primer
June 6, 2018

Picture this:

You’re on your first nomadic journey around the world.

You’ve got your new backpack on your back, Google maps in hand, and a free spirit inside of you.

Then someone steals your wallet and passport, scams you out of your money, and leaves you scrambling to get to the embassy.

How do we avoid this?

situational awareness

The importance of Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is how we avoid this.

I’ve enlisted my friend and fellow nomadic attorney, David Hoyt of Defensive Planet, to discuss some techniques for increasing your awareness of your surroundings.

By implementing these easy exercises and techniques, you can bolster your chances to avoid these kind of situations while traveling.

David, take it away:

What is situational awareness?

Situational awareness is exactly what it says – an awareness of the current situation around you. It’s a big thing in the military (where it’s often referred to as “tactical awareness”), for obvious reasons.

But let’s dig a little deeper:

There are basically 3 “levels” of situational awareness that you need to have, particularly when in an unfamiliar place.

These are:

  1. Recognizing important details
  2. Knowing what those details mean
  3. and Predicting what will happen

Once you’ve climbed that ladder to level 3, you’re well on your way to avoiding a dangerous confrontation or a situation where someone’s stealing your things.

three levels of situational awareness

Recognize Important Details

This is, at its most basic level, assessing what’s going on around you and gathering info. This relies on your 5 senses – what you see, smell, feel, hear, and (maybe) taste.

Through practice, you can learn to recognize what’s an important detail (a scream, gunshot, shady looking character moving through a crowd, etc.), and what can be disregarded.

Once you’ve got this info, you can move your awareness to level 2.

Knowing what the details mean

Let’s take it a step further:

You’ve gathered a base of sensory data and details about your surroundings – now figure out what they mean.

At first, this can be difficult, since it requires you to think in ways that you may not be used to if your usual environment is very familiar.

However, this is important, since it provides the basis for how you react.

Some out of the box thinking is sometimes required. Think of the scenes where Sherlock Holmes reveals his deductive reasoning and how he figured out who the criminal is.

He explains the disparate details that he noticed, and how they each fit together and triggered the correct conclusion.

That’s basically what you’ll be doing, but you don’t really have to know about all the different types of dirt found in England.

You need to know things like:

  • How a neighborhood may be changing as you walk and what signals a “bad” neighborhood
  • How basic scams work, so you can see if someone is setting you up
  • Odd looks and behavior that’s out of the ordinary (someone scoping you out as a mark)

Once you’ve got these things down, putting together relevant details is easy.

Now you get to put it in action:

Predicting what will happen

Level 3 consists of taking those relevant details you gathered in Level 1 which you understood in Level 2, and making a prediction about the most likely outcome.

So you see a couple guys who appear to be scoping you out, or someone that’s been following you for longer than they should.

Predicting the next move should follow naturally.

It’s Jason Bourne time.

I don’t mean fighting them with a pen – I mean assessing your situation and the outcome you’ve come up with, and figuring out a plan for what to do next.

You could:

  • Move into a crowd
  • Get onto public transportation to escape the situation
  • Find police
  • Get into a shop where you’ll be safer

Doing something is usually better than passively letting something happen to you, so get moving!

Now, how do we get better at this?

Training your situational awareness

There are a number of ways to train your situational awareness skills. However, a few simple exercises can help you to train your senses and reactions so you can always be climbing those 3 levels and putting this into practice.

Remember, the whole point is to keep you safe while you’re traveling somewhere unfamiliar. Keep that in mind the whole time you’re doing these exercises.

Observational scavenger hunt

This is a game where you come up with a list of specific things you want to look for, and try to find them when you’re out and about.

The point is to train yourself to be more observant.

So you decide to find:

  1. A red scarf
  2. A tall woman
  3. A blue car

Then as you go about your day, you check those off your list as you find them.

This will get you to always be looking for details, and to get better at pinpointing specific things. Later, this will be seeking out those danger signals we discussed earlier.

Purposeful People Watching

We’ve all done it:

Spend an afternoon at a cafe, just looking at people go about their day.

In this exercise, we’re taking it to the next level.

Take each person that you observe, and try to glean details about their life, their career, their age, and their level of potential danger.

Heck, you can try to observe whether they’re carrying a weapon of some kind or up to no good.

Does a person look around a bit too much, or subtly touch their pockets, as if they’ve got a knife in there?

Whether you’re right or not, just observing people in a more purposeful way will enhance your ability to see these details and increase your awareness.

Come up with “what-if” scenarios

Time to use your imagination.

The last exercise is to use those details you’re gathering and come up with some scenarios about what the people around you could possibly do.

Then think about how you would react.

Yes, we’re Jason Bourne again.

See a car coming? What if it suddenly swerves at you?

You’d better be ready to jump out of the way.

A shifty-looking man passes you by? What if he grabs at your purse or bag?

You’d best take a wide berth.

By keeping these what-if scenarios fresh in your mind, you’ll exercise that 3rd level of situational awareness and keep yourself on your toes.

You may even end up being right once in a while!

The most important things to do

Now what?

You’ve got your understanding of what situational awareness is, and you know how you can train it. What’s the next step?

Put it into practice in your daily life, particularly when you’re traveling or outside of your usual routine.

Here are some more tips that will help you maximize your awareness and stay safe:

  • It’s hard to be aware if you can’t see. Keep your head on a swivel at all times and always be observing.
  • Similarly, you need to hear, as well. Ditch the headphones and listen to your surroundings instead of music.
  • Memorize the directions and map BEFORE you go where you need to, so you’re not constantly checking your phone and taking your eyes off where you’re actually going.
  • If you need to check your map or phone, duck into a restaurant or shop to do so.
  • Don’t dress like a tourist or otherwise look like you don’t belong. You’ll stand out as a mark to those who want to scam or steal from you.
  • Walk with confidence, like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Don’t look like a victim.

Wrapping up

I hope this helped!

These tips should keep you safe on your next trip.

To read more about situational awareness and self defense, check out my site, Defensive Planet.

About author

Zachary Strebeck

I'm a solo practice lawyer and full-time digital nomad. I run my law practice at, representing Internet, mobile software and gaming entrepreneurs. I also blog about digital nomad travel at A Lawyer Abroad.

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