Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Dark Side of the Trail: Awareness, Avoidance, and Preparation for Personal Safety


Hiking and exploring outdoors is a safe and enjoyable activity, and there is no reason not to do it. But like any sporting activity, knowledge, training and preparation are required to reduce risk of injury. One aspect that many people do not consider or prepare for when hiking is dealing with a violent confrontation, i.e., a criminal assault. While few in number, such events do occur and it is therefore important to practice situational awareness and to develop personal safety strategies and skills should one find themselves encountering such an event.

Hiking with other persons makes you less
Likely to be assaulted on the trail
Nature of Violence
Violence is a fact of life. As trail hikers we often observe this in the natural world when we witness predators and prey engaged in their fight for survival. Violence, and the roles of predator and prey, have also existed in man since his earliest beginnings. Man’s cunning and Binocular Vision  [Predators have eyes on the front of the head to permit calculation of range to prey] have allowed him to become the ultimate predator, able to plan and hunt game animals [prey animals have Monocular Vision – large eyes on both sides of the head for greater field of view to detect a predator-threat, as they are less well equipped for defense].
Absent game animals, some modern predator-men hunt their fellow human beings. Often we see news reports detailing acts of violence in our society; some by design, others random and unanticipated. Sometimes these events occur on trails and in open space areas where hikers become the victims. Two situations come to mind for me. In October 2011 a man was murdered while hiking a trail on Cerro San Luis a popular local mountain. Robbery appeared to be the motive. Another trail murder occurred in April 2014 on a trail near Red Bluff CA. A robber shot both men near the trail head, one of whom died from his wounds. 
Preparation for Conflict
Preparation, not paranoia, can help greatly to minimize our exposure to potential assault and injury. Being aware of people and situations that may put us at risk, learning to recognize and obey our natural instincts, and developing avoidance and self-empowerment skills to protect ourselves is critical.  Avoiding paranoia [a constant state of anxiety] is critical, because over time, paranoia degrades and exhausts our body’s natural systems for awareness and response to threats.   

Basically, threats fall into 2 categories: Expected and Unexpected:
Expected threats  are those situations we have some forewarning of: Threats directed against us [an angry neighbor, co-worker, or employee] or we may encounter situations that give concern for the safety of our loved ones [a hostile former son-in-law threatening a daughter who has moved home]. These are situations that we can better plan for; we know the threatening party, can obtain a Stay-Away Order [TRO], and we can work with Police to minimize our exposure. It is possible that someone familiar with your outdoor hobby could spot a "routine" and lie in wait for you. 
Unexpected or “random” threats are the more difficult event to prepare for, as we cannot know the time, place, location, or nature of the conflict. It can evolve from any number of issues such as a dispute over a “fender bender”, a parking space, or even something as abstract as a perceived look of disrespect. In these situations we are caught off-guard and have to scramble to form a defense. On the trail, you are especially vulnerable, as there are side trails that an assailant can watch and wait for an opportune victim to pass by. 
Another kind of random threat are persons with personality disorders who live in open space/wooded areas because they cannot abide living in close proximity to their fellow human beings. A good many people in our society suffer from personality disorders such as schizophrenia. They may experience auditory or visual hallucinations and consequently may try to harm you.  Many need medications; medications that are expensive, and patients frequently refuse to take them due to adverse side effects. Others have drug and alcohol issues, and may be violent when under the influence. Many of these ill people are homeless; even though they receive SSI, they choose to live in woods, creek beds, parks, and under bridges, etc. because they “don’t play well with others” so to speak. Use caution when encountering persons raging or talking to themselves and don't crowd them.
Building a set of skills
You should seriously consider attending training courses that will help you to develop skills for dealing with hostile encounters. These are equally useful on the street in your community as they are on a trail. Many law enforcement agencies offer free victim awareness and avoidance training. Some involve rotating through “stations” where various situations will be presented you. You’ll learn about simple steps such as parking in well-lit areas, having keys in hand and ready as you arrive at your vehicle, locking the door behind you as you enter the vehicle, and driving directly to a police station if you think you are being followed.
I am not aware of any trail safety-specific courses, but the principles are essentially the same. I have previously written a post with some safe hiking tips, which can be found here: Personal Safety for Trail Hikers .

Be alert in dark, wooded places.
The Primitive Brain and Threat Recognition
The human brain is an evolving work that began millennia ago. It has grown in size and evolved into the most marvelous and least understood organ of the Human creature. One of the components of our brain is the Amygdala, or “Primitive Brain”. This organ manages instinctive memory and recognizes potential threats to our personal safety. It reads human faces and perceives emotions such as anger.

Nature has hard-wired us for survival…dumping adrenaline to allow us the flee danger, constricting blood flow to extremities, and pooling blood in our core organs so they’ll survive an injury; the Amygdala acts as the brain’s “Alarm System” so to speak, conducting quick scans of our environment and initiating an immediate [instinctive/ thoughtless] response by creating a feeling of fear quicker than the physical body response; this is what causes the hair to stand up on the back of our neck….the brain is seeing something of concern in our surroundings that we have not registered on a conscious thinking level. It’s also why we jump and react to a crooked stick lying on the ground; for our safety, the amygdala defaults to caution and perceives a “snake” rather than a stick.

Several years ago, my Niece was assaulted one evening on a street in San Francisco. She later told me that she saw the man approaching some distance away and suddenly “felt the hair standing up on the back of her neck.” Rather than obeying this instinct, she dismissed it as “her imagination”. As the man came abreast of her on the sidewalk, he suddenly wheeled and punched her without any provocation. Fortunately she wasn’t badly injured, but she learned about the Amygdala the hard way.
The U.S. Marine Corps recognizes and teaches young Marines to obey their instincts, instructing them on "Mountain  Gaze"...recognizing their sixth sense and accepting the sensation that that they are under observation. I once saw a U.S. Marine interviewed on television and he stated, "The hair on the back of your neck doesn't lie."
One of the truths of personal combat is that it is often random, quick to occur, and rapidly evolving. It is for this reason we need to work to develop our awareness, avoidance, and instinctive personal protection skills to defend in the event of a sudden attack.
One Fight, Multiple Facets
When a person engages in a personal defense conflict, they have actually entered into a multi-faceted arena:
THE OPPONENT: There may be disparities between you and the assailant in terms of Age, Size, Strength, Combative Skills, Weapons possessed, Presence/Influence of Drugs and/or Alcohol in your assailant's system, Presence of more than one assailant [gang].
YOURSELF: Your MINDSET [Your WILL to survive/decision to use force]; Personal COMBATIVE skills [or lack thereof]; Physical CONDITIONING for combat [Can you fight?]; Resilience [Personal ability to cope with effects of disbelief, “This can’t be happening” and recovering from the reactionary gap]; HEALTH [illness or attitude that particular day, etc.]; WEAPONS [A weapon is anything that extends your defensive sphere].
THE ENVIRONMENT: Available cover and/or concealment; Weather; Low or “No” light conditions; Footing…slippery surface [mud, snow, wet]; it even safe to deploy/discharge a weapon? [such as in a restaurant full of screaming, running people].

THE SYSTEM: CONCERNS you have, real or perceived about defending yourself and later coping with: Law Enforcement Officers [Investigation/Arrest]; District Attorney [Case review and consideration of charges, and trial]; Courts [Civil and Criminal actions]; Media [Editorial Opinions/agitating community]; Community Response [Opinion/judgement by neighbors, friends, family], Criminal/Credit/Personal History [Future employment]; "The Mark of Cain" [How you will perceive yourself following an event].

It is important to be aware of all these aspects of a conflict. Advance planning and preparation will go far to alleviate some of the decision making that will need to be made in a crisis moment.
Mental Preparation for Combat
My favorite pastime is spending time outdoors camping and hiking. As such, I am aware of “Kit Mentality”. This is the tendency to make equipment the focus of one’s outdoor activity. When we become emerged in “Kit Mentality” we become dependent on gear. It ceases to be about viewing and experiencing nature. There’s a saying, “The more you know, the less you need.” If we know how to make fire, gather water, and build shelter using natural materials, we need not carry so much equipment with us to survive in the wild. This is especially true if we become separated from our equipment and need to improvise for survival.
The same is true of Personal Safety; sometimes we become so enamored with firearms, tactical knives, and holsters we forget the other aspects of personal protection [Awareness, tactics, verbal skills, combative skills, & etc.] and rely solely on a weapon to save us. The gear lulls us into a false sense of security and we forget about other [personal] aspects such as improving our physical condition, building our knowledge of tactics, and developing new combative skills [more on this later]. We can become over-confident, fail to train, and stop practicing. There is a saying; “Train like you fight.” For most people, I’d suggest the axiom should be, “You will fight like you’ve trained.” 

Relying solely upon "technology "[a weapon] exclusively  for our defense is setting us up for failure. For example; it’s highly advisable to have local law enforcement agencies phone numbers pre-programmed into our cell phone's directory. In some areas, 9-1-1 calls goe through area CHP who then has to identify what specific jurisdiction you are in, then transfers you to that agency. Technology often failure [battery/loss of signal] or the call gets dropped during the transfer.

Earlier we spoke about the Amygdala and how everyone possesses a rudimentary [natural] defensive system. Whether we choose to hone and develop our instinct and fighting skills is entirely up to us.
One of the most famous fighters in world history was Miyamoto Musashi [1584-1645]. A master of the Japanese art of the sword, he became so proficient he eventually ceased to use live steel and began using a wooden training sword in combat. Being a Samurai warrior, Musashi knew the Code of “Bushi-Do” [The Way of the Warrior”]. Thus, he understood that the warrior is the weapon and the sword is ancillary to the warrior. It wouldn’t matter whether the warrior had a sword or a rock; the warrior brings their heart, mind, and soul to the fight.

Likewise, it is interesting that people in the present day do not make the connection that ultimately, they are the “weapon”in a Use of Force [UOF] situation. Whether a handgun, knife, impact weapon, or any other object, all are inanimate objects completely dependent upon the actor to manipulate and apply the force, pursuant to the situation and their will [i.e. fighting spirit or desire to survive and prevail in combat] and it is the actor who will be held to answer for deploying force. "Weapons" are just "tools": inanimate objects and just an extension of the possessor's fighting spirit [will to prevail, survive]. So the big question is, lacking a weapon, can you function in other venues in the combat arena, such as hand-to- hand combat if necessary?
Perhaps the larger question is, “Will the actor function?” or will they be caught in the reactionary gap or paralyzed by disbelief [“This can’t be happening to me!”] into inaction? Trainers in UOF are aware of the “Survival Triangle”; Physical Conditioning – Weapons Manipulation Skills– Tactical Knowledge/Mental Preparation. Like the “Fire Triangle”[Fuel-Oxygen-Ignition Source], take away any one side of this triad and the system fails altogether. 
Physical Conditioning for Personal Safety
Consider physical conditioning. I think we can all agree that *some* degree of physical ability is essential for a self defense situation. It would be tragic to survive a violent fight with an assailant only to die from a heart attack immediately afterward due to stress to the cardiovascular system. Most hikers are fairly well conditioned, but some may not be. Even walking 30 minutes a day is better than *no conditioning* whatsoever. Often fights come down to perseverance…who can last the longest…and wearing down an opponents will to keep up an attack.
Relaxed Awareness - “Mind of No Mind”
Like Miyamoto Musashi, the Samurai of Japan were familiar with a Zen concept called “Mushin” which roughly translates to “No Mind” or “Mind Without Mind.” This is essentially a state of relaxed awareness in which the mind is free from the influences of fear, anger, or ego whether in day-to day activity or in a combat situation…an absence of thought or judgment…doing without having to think about it. By means of relaxed awareness, we are enabled to freely act and react toward an opponent without hesitation or undue influence from these emotions. The actor relies not on what they “think” should be the next move, but rather, by what is their trained reaction or natural instinct [“If we have to think about it, it is probably not wise to shoot”]…what is “felt” intuitively.
It is a fact that human reaction time is faster when we are not “keyed up”, and so avoiding the development of anxiety or paranoia is crucial, as it tends to erode and inhibit our system’s ability to react [hyper-vigilance]. Thus, when on the trail practice relaxed awareness; keep your head up and use "Splatter Vision" to take in everything in your field of view. We do not want our head down, watching the trail surface all the time. How many times have you done that only to be surprised by someone suddenly appearing before you? Likewise, watch your backtrail; look behind you periodically so you can detect someone [or something] coming up from behind you. Most predators attack from behind. If you stop to rest, choose a location that protects your back and affords a view of anyone approaching you. 
I was a peace officer for 34 years. In my agency, we performed advance planning for unusual incidents [robberies, active shooters, etc.] at high profile targets in our community, such as banks, schools, hospitals, etc.]. However, we couldn’t plan for every single business in our community because there were just too many. As part of our field training program, we familiarized officers with the community and instructed them to study different locations and visualize possible scenarios that could arise [such as an armed, angry ex-husband threatening his wife at a beauty shop] and to pre-plan how they would conduct a tactical response.
As a private citizen, you can also visualize possible scenarios and run “what if’s” in your head. For example, if a woman, how you would cope with an overly friendly man who has approached you on the trail and keeps trying to move inside your personal space. Or perhaps hiking and noticing a person who seems to be loitering on the trail ahead of you and is giving you a sense of dread [amygdala].
Try to visualize a variety of ways to deal with each situation that could be presented, such as verbal persuasion and calming the person, or using a barrier and shouting at them. Think about the aggressor’s possible actions and potential force options you could use; a hiking pole, rocks, or other field-expedient tool [weapon] you could use if necessary to defend against an attack.
Post-Confrontation Considerations
If you have had a confrontation with someone on a trail, it is important to notify the responsible law enforcment jurisdiction. The incident should be documented. It is possible that they have had prior reports or complaints about this person and your evidence will help move that investigation forward. Or, it may be the first efforts of some one planning a string of assaults, and your information my help to prevent it from occurring. 
 Be sure to ask for and obtain the investigating Officer or Ranger’s business card with either the report or dispatch call number written on it. Be sure to record the date, time and officers name, just in case the data is lost or the agency fails to create a documentation number [common].
Increasing awareness is a good skill for anyone whether in town on a public street or hiking in the wilds. Make “Relaxed Awareness” part of your trail routine. Be aware of suspicious or potentially violent persons or situations and report them to law enforcement immediately. Practice avoidance. Make tactical [advantageous] movement a part of your hiking routine. Obey the natural instincts of your “Primitive Brain” to avoid confrontation. Finally, prepare yourself and hiking companions for the possibility of violent confrontation. Develop an inventory or “toolbox” of personal defense skills including verbal persuasion and varying levels of combative skills. Preparation, not paranoia, is the key!
Happy Hiking!
Goblin Ranger/Woods Devil
Cerro San Luis rises from the fog

  ©Manny Silva, 2014, All rights reserved 







No comments:

Post a Comment