Situational Awareness in the Hunting Woods

A scene from The Bourne Identity (2002) captures the meaning of situational awareness perfectly for me. In the scene, Jason Bourne is trying to explain his frame of mind to Marie Kreutz. Bourne explains,

I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking.

He concludes by asking Kreutz, “Now why would I know that?”

The obvious answer is, of course, that Bourne is an elite CIA operative. But really, what Bourne is describing is an acute and highly tuned sense of what is referred to as situational awareness.

In contrast to Bourne’s exemplary situational awareness stands the scene of Alec Baldwin stumbling into a bear deadfall in 1997’s The Edge – a result of his lack of situational awareness. Situational awareness is something we all possess to some degree, though some of us may stumble around completely unaware of the concept while others spend time actively fostering it. For people who have spent time in martial arts, military, or law enforcement, situational awareness is critical and a tool that is explicitly taught.

“Be careful of the deadfall.”

What is Situational Awareness?

On a very basic level, situational awareness is being aware of what is going on around you. It means being tuned into the physical and interpersonal elements of your surroundings and interpreting their effect on you. I like to think of situational awareness as beginning with spatial awareness. Spatial awareness is having an understanding of yourself in relation to your static physical surroundings. Watch someone walk through a room bumping into things, knocking things over, colliding with people. This is poor spatial awareness.

Taking it a step further, situational awareness puts meaning to the combination of elements in your surroundings. Situational awareness is where the static elements of your surroundings take on a dynamic importance, their significance changing through interaction with other variables. Heightened situational awareness means you are taking in your surroundings and patching together the pieces of information into a more complete composite of what is happening around you and what this means in context – in a sense, moving from the what of your surroundings to the so what of your surroundings.

Why Should Hunters Care?

In an everyday sense, well-trained situational awareness can help keep you safe, allowing your brain to be continually aware of potential threats, whether those are presented by other people or the physical elements of your environment. However, actively developing your situational awareness can make you a better hunter and outdoorsperson.

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For the sake of brevity, our varied outdoor activities probably all share two broad priorities. First, don’t get hurt. Second, find, see, or experience some aspect of the environment. Whether the “threat” is simply being slapped in the face with a tree limb while hiking through brush or falling off a mountain face, and whether the pursuit is simply passive bird watching or a long spot and stalk of a large animal, actively developing situational awareness can benefit you.

There are many resources that explain more sophisticated and systematic ways to increase situational awareness, with particular focuses on personal safety and survival. However, I urge you to think about it in the context of hunting (or other non-consumptive outdoor pursuits) and want to suggest a few ways you can start to enhance your situational awareness while out in the woods.

Slow Down

First and foremost, it is difficult to be aware of your surroundings if you are speeding through them. When in the woods, slow down. Walk deliberately and carefully. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been poked in the head by the end of a tree branch or rolled off a loose rock because I was going too fast. Look 3-4 steps ahead, thinking about where each of your feet might land. Planning your route in this way will help you walk quieter by avoiding dry twigs or a potentially twisted ankle as a result of an unstable foot placement. Walking slower will also just give you more time to look at your surroundings and notice things that you would have missed rushing along. Finally, slowing down will make you quieter and better able to hear what is going on around you. Think about the wildlife you are sharing these environments with and focus on matching their pace and rhythm. Particularly when still hunting, avoid the very human-like rhythms of walking. We’re not usually out in the woods for a race, so slow down, match the pace of the landscape and you will become far more aware of it.

Tune All Your Senses

We know that it is important to watch and listen carefully when hunting, taking note of snapping twigs, rustling leaves, flickers of movement through trees, and other minute disturbances. As humans, we certainly rely on our senses of sight and hearing the most, but I have known people who can identify the smell of deer or moose that have been in an area. On a more general level, keeping all our senses tuned when out in the woods will help our brains piece information together and deliver a better understanding of the situation around us. Regularly check in with your other senses and be sure you are focusing on your environment in every way you can. As practice when walking, give yourself a time or distance interval and actively reflect on what you saw, heard, smelled, or felt over that time: did bird sounds change, was there a visual sign you spotted, noticeable smells, did you feel a change in air temperature or pressure? If you have been walking along for 10 minutes and haven’t actively taken note of anything you saw or heard, you may very well have missed something. In addition, when you train yourself to make full use of your peripheral vision, you will start to pick things out that you didn’t necessarily even realize you had seen.

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“Check Your Six”

When talking about true situational awareness, the point is to stay constantly aware of your surroundings so that you can anticipate events that may affect you, particularly as a threat. One of the common refrains we hear in lessons about situational awareness is to “check your six”, which means keeping an eye on what is going on behind you (or positioning yourself such that you reduce the chances that anything happens behind you). In an outdoor setting, we’re not necessarily thinking about this in terms of physical threats approaching from behind us, but the general principle applies.

To increase situational awareness in the outdoors, it is important to use your peripheral vision, remain aware of your surroundings in a full 360-degree context, and train your brain to actively take notice of things you see but might not deliberately look at. In a hunting situation, we should really be focused on our surroundings in a spherical context and not merely the horizontal plane of 360 degrees. In other words, things happening above us might be just as relevant as things happening in front of us.

As you walk a trail or sit in a hunting stand, train yourself to see your surroundings even when you’re not looking directly at them. This means being able to look where you are going while still being aware of the places you are stepping and your surroundings to the left and right of the trail. It means that while scanning an area for wildlife, such as a tree line for deer, you see the entire landscape as well as openings in the forest you are deliberately trying to look through. Focus on catching movement, identifying patterns and breaks in patterns, and taking in contours and undulations in the ground that may be temporarily hiding other movements.

Avoid Mental Tunnel Vision

When I was first learning to hunt, one of my mentors was teaching me to still hunt. He described the way to lift, move, and plant my feet; how to look at different levels through the forest to make sure I was seeing beneath branches at ground level for deer; and how to turn my head and body to scan my surroundings using smooth movements. We were hunting together one day and towards the end of the hunt, I decided to get down from my tree stand to practice. I concentrated on everything he told me and carefully moved my way along a trail. After about 10 minutes and having covered only about 30 yards, I was quite proud of myself for how quietly I had moved and how disciplined I had been in moving slowly and deliberately. On one of my scans to see if any deer had popped out on the trail behind me, I saw my hunting partner standing partially hidden by a tree about 15 yards back on the trail, a big smile plastered on his face. In my intense focus to be quiet, slow, and deliberate, I had lost focus on my surroundings and he had “stalked” up behind me, specifically to demonstrate the importance in keeping my brain open and my senses tuned. The story serves to demonstrate how our situational awareness can be diminished by developing something akin to a mental tunnel vision, focusing so narrowly on one task that we miss signs telling us what is happening around us. It is also important to remember to use our mental peripheral vision while out in the woods.

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This post is of course intended to be fairly lighthearted; however, an enhanced sense of situational awareness will hopefully keep us safer in the field and allow us to become better observers and predators. Try to keep some of these things in mind not only when in the field, but in daily life as well, and see what new things you notice and how you see the world around you in a different way. We miss out on all sorts of intricate details of our daily lives, and when we’re out in the woods, these small signs can add up to form a more complete picture of our environments. When we piece this picture together, we come to develop a deeper understanding of our environment and hopefully become more successful hunters and students of the natural world.