Travelers: Do You Have These Six Critical Skills?

'Be ready for anything, no matter how unlikely. Plan ahead. Stay in shape. Be aware of what's going on,' says former soldier

You’ll probably never encounter a life-threatening situation while traveling. But traveling does come with risk — there is the possibility that you could end up in a scenario where your life may be in danger. Wouldn’t you want to be as prepared as possible for that moment?

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. The dangers, while unlikely, are real. Be prepared for what could happen while you’re away from home.

This guide is based on my experience as a combat soldier in Iraq, a firefighter in New York City, and a crisis manager on Wall Street. Let’s just say I like jobs that put me in dangerous and stressful situations. I’ve leveraged my experience to give you the best tips possible for dangerous situations you may encounter while traveling.

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In risk management, we like to measure disasters in two ways: severity (how bad it is) and probability (how likely it is to happen). There are many different things that can happen to you while you travel. Some rank higher in severity and some rank higher in probability. Keeping this simple formula in mind and scaling it will give you an instant advantage.

There are a few basic skill sets that can cover you in most situations.

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Let’s take a look at them.

Preparedness. Everything starts with preparation. Yes, this is a skill — it’s the key element in safety, security, and survival. Preparation includes physical preparation: physical fitness that will enable you to perform the necessary physical acts and packing the right things to help you in a pinch. It also includes mental preparation: being aware of your surroundings, knowing what danger signs to look for, and having a plan in place.

With preparation and planning, there’s no reason why you can’t travel around the world and be confident in your ability to detect and react to a potentially life-threatening situation. You should be prepared to react in a way that will keep you alive.

Long before you leave on any trip, there is a planning process that usually consists of flights, hotels, and car rentals. One element that many people miss is a risk assessment. I consider this important no matter where I’m traveling, but it’s particularly important if traveling outside of the United States.

Functional fitness is the best way to develop the strength and conditioning that might be required should you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation.

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It doesn’t have to take a lot of your time, but the benefit could be priceless should something happen while you’re traveling.

Here are some of the things you should be looking for during your risk assessment:

  • Emergency medical response and care. What happens if you or someone you’re traveling with has a medical emergency?
  • Crime. What type of criminal activity is most common where you are traveling? Where is the local law enforcement station closest to where you’ll be staying?
  • Terrorism. Is there an increased likelihood of terrorist activity where you are going? What is your plan if something happens?

Physical fitness. Your fitness level could mean the difference between life and death. As a soldier and a firefighter, I have seen first-hand how important fitness can be when things get bad. You don’t have to be a professional athlete, but wouldn’t you want to know that you could carry a loved one out of harm’s way?

In the movie “Zombieland,” Jesse Eisenberg’s character famously stressed the importance of cardio in a zombie apocalypse. It probably won’t ever happen, but I wouldn’t want to be the person who couldn’t outrun a threat.

Functional fitness is the best way to develop the strength and conditioning that might be required should you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation. You might not have access to barbells and heavy weights while traveling, but that’s fine. Bodyweight training is the greatest way for travelers to train. In a potentially life-threatening situation, you may have to do one of the following: jump, push, pull, crawl, or run. These are all basic functions that we are designed to perform, but many of us let our ability to do them disappear with age. All four can be covered with this sample workout:

Do the below exercises as fast as possible. Record your time.

  • 100-meter sprint
  • 50-meter bear crawl
  • 30 burpees
  • 30 pushups
  • 30 pullups
  • 50-meter bear crawl
  • 100-meter sprint

You’ve covered all your survival bases with that one workout. Record your time every workout and aim to improve each time. Remember that no matter the threat, your objective is to be harder to kill.

Situational awareness. Stop and watch people on the street one day. In less than five minutes, you’ll realize just how oblivious the majority of people are to what’s going on around them. They walk with their eyes on their phone. They have headphones in. It’s incredible to see how few people are actually paying attention to their surroundings.

This is a problem. However unlikely, a threat can come to you at any moment. The last thing you want to do is let someone get the drop on you.

The OODA loop — or observe, orient, decide and act — was developed for fighter pilots to help them process threat assessment and reactions during stressful air-to-air combat situations. It has since been adopted by most U.S. military ground combat troops and is also taught to police officers and firefighters.

  • Observe. Always observe your surroundings. Know who is in the room with you, where the exits are, and make mental notes of anything that seems unusual or potentially threatening. You can do this by knowing the baseline of a given setting, or what is “normal.” Find what is out of place.
  • Orient. Key in on the potential threat, develop scenarios in your mind, and go through them. Ask yourself a few scenario-based questions: What would I do if that man attacked me with a knife? What would I do if this plane I’m on suddenly made an emergency landing? Know how to react before you need to.
  • Decide. Make a decision — any decision. People have a tendency to freeze up in dangerous situations, and many simply cannot process their decision-making when their heart is racing and they have severe tunnel vision. Take a deep breath, collect yourself, and understand that not making a decision will make things worse.
  • Act. You’ve made the decision; now go with it. Commit to it while also staying ready to pivot if needed.

Self defense. It’s a scary thought, but you may have to defend yourself. This is especially true for anyone traveling alone.

Abduction, carjacking, and armed robbery are all very real threats to anyone traveling in a foreign country. Be ready for anything by knowing how you will react.

Basic rules for defending yourself:

  • Keep doors locked and windows up when driving.
  • Avoid walking alone at night.
  • Travel light and blend in with the local population.
  • If someone is trying to take you, be loud and run — create as much distance as possible.
  • Use improvised weapons if you must fight (nothing is off-limits when your life is at stake).

Disaster survival. Disasters can come in many different forms, especially while traveling. As with everything, preparation is key. Gathering information can be the difference between life and death. Know ahead of time what you would need to do to escape a dangerous situation like a fire or a terrorist incident.

Basic rules for disaster survival:

  • Know your evacuation route. This includes stairwells and emergency exit doors.
  • Know where the U.S. embassy is (if traveling in a foreign country) and keep contact information on you.
  • Carry a paper map in case you can’t access one on your phone.
  • Learn the protocols for weather in your current location.
  • Always carry cash and local currency (in at least two separate locations on your body).
  • Remember the 5 Cs of what you should have on you or should be looking for in a survival situation:
    • Combustion: something to start a fire
    • Cordage: rope or laces that can be used for tying
    • Container: something to carry water
    • Cover: something that can be used for shelter
    • Cutting: a knife or cutting device.

First aid. When we think of first aid, we tend to think of providing assistance to others. For travelers, especially those going it alone, let’s be more concerned with performing first aid on ourselves.

If something happens to you, there might not be someone else around to help. Don’t count on everyone being willing to help, either. Instead of depending on others, it’s best to be self-reliant in emergency medicine.

Basic Rules for self-injury first aid:

  • Take a breath and relax. Don’t panic.
  • If you’re bleeding, find the wound and apply direct pressure.
  • Carry at least these three medical items when you travel: first aid kit; quikclot; tourniquet.

If you have to perform first aid on someone else, always ensure that the scene is safe for you first. Call for help. Assess their condition. Check their pulse and breathing, and find visible wounds. Apply direct pressure or a tourniquet if necessary.

Bottom Line. Be ready for anything, no matter how unlikely. Plan ahead. Stay in shape. Be aware of what is going on around you at all times. Know the basic skills that may mean the difference between life and death. Don’t get caught off guard. Be harder to kill.

Christopher Castellano is a U.S. Army veteran and currently serves as a firefighter in New York City. He is an OpsLens contributor. This article originally appeared in OpsLens and is used by permission.

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