Mindset Basics: Situational Awareness

Mindset is the foundation of safely enjoying the great outdoors; while it is not everything, while there is more than a person will need, having a proper mindset allows us to identify the skills we need to develop and the gear we need. In addition to helping prepare ourselves, mindset also dictates how we handle emergency situations, and more importantly, how to avoid emergency situations. This is accomplished through situational awareness, a valuable mindset that is also in some ways a skill.

What is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness is the ability to perceive and comprehend the environment or context in which one finds oneself and to use this understanding to make effective decisions and take appropriate actions. In essence, situational awareness is the ability to understand what is happening around you, anticipate potential risks or threats, and make decisions based on that understanding.

While this is a pretty straightforward concept, it is not something that comes easily to many people. We live in a world of distractions and a lack of focus. One of the biggest culprits of this is the device you are probably using to read this, your phone. Think about this, how many people do you see on a daily basis at work or in your town staring at their phones seemingly unaware of what’s going on around them? Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to get someone’s attention, maybe even calling their name a few times before they finally realize someone is talking to them? This shows a total lack of situational awareness, and while most times it is not an issue it can be very dangerous in a fast-moving or emergency situation.

When we develop better situational awareness, we become keenly focused on the world around us, we can quickly identify and react to potential threats, identify resources, and notice things that we would have otherwise missed. 

How Situational Awareness Helps us in the Great Outdoors

I’m sure by now you are probably already thinking of a few ways in which having proper situational awareness is beneficial when spending time outdoors. Let us take a look at some of the ways we can use situational awareness to help us while we are out there!

Pay attention to your surroundings: When you’re in the woods, it’s important to stay aware of what’s going on around you. Look for potential hazards such as uneven terrain, obstacles, or wild animals. Stay alert and keep your eyes and ears open.

Use all your senses: Don’t just rely on your eyes to keep you aware of your surroundings. Use your ears to listen for sounds of wildlife, and other people nearby, detect moving water, or listen for creaking trees. Use your sense of smell to detect any unusual odors, especially if you are trying to identify potential food and water sources.

Stay oriented: Make sure you know where you are and how to get back to your starting point. Use a map and compass, and make sure you have a backup plan in case you get lost. Always make mental or take written notes of important landmarks on a trail that you can potentially rely on to help backtrack.

Be aware of weather conditions: Keep an eye on the weather forecast and be prepared for changes in the weather. Dress appropriately for the conditions and be aware of any potential hazards, such as lightning or flash floods.

Avoid distractions: Don’t let your phone or other devices distract you from your surroundings. Keep your attention focused on your environment and be prepared to react to any potential hazards.

Trust your instincts: If something feels wrong or off, trust your instincts and be prepared to take action to protect yourself. Stay calm, assess the situation, and take appropriate steps to ensure your safety.

Developing Situational Awareness Skills

Like any skill, developing situational awareness skills in the wilderness takes practice, patience, and a willingness to learn. Here are some tips for developing your situational awareness skills in the wilderness:

Start small: Begin by practicing situational awareness skills in a familiar, low-risk environment, such as a local park or nature trail. As you gain more experience and confidence, you can gradually move on to more challenging wilderness environments.

Develop Wilderness Survival Skills: Work on improving your wilderness survival or outdoor knowledge and skills. One of the key factors in situational awareness is understanding what you may come up against; the more you know, the more potential threats you will be able to identify.

Practice mindfulness: Practice being present and fully engaged in your surroundings. This means focusing on your senses and staying aware of any changes or potential risks. There will be more on this topic in the next module.

Play “what if”: Use your imagination to think through potential scenarios and how you would respond to them. This can help you develop a mental framework for situational awareness and decision-making in the wilderness.

Take breaks: Take regular breaks to rest, rehydrate, and assess your surroundings. Use these breaks as an opportunity to observe your surroundings, identify potential hazards, and plan your next steps.

Reflect on your experiences: After each wilderness outing, take some time to reflect on what went well and what you could improve on. Use these insights to continually refine your situational awareness skills.

While this is just a basic lesson and introduction to the topic of situational awareness, practicing these exercises when you are spending time in the great outdoors, or even in your day-to-day life will go a long way toward developing your situational awareness skill set. As a personal exercise, I often visit the same location at different times of the day, seasons, and weather conditions to see how quickly I can identify changes to the landscape under different conditions!

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