How To Increase Awareness Of Your Surroundings

The story of Christopher McCandless, whose journey to self-discovery in the Alaskan wilderness was documented in the book and movie “Into the Wild,” has been extensively written about and explored. Therefore, it is unnecessary for this narrative to focus on an anonymous individual. After embarking on his idealistic journey, McCandless was discovered weeks later in the Alaskan bush, having perished from starvation.

The exact cause of his starvation remains a contentious issue, with some attributing it to his inability to provide for his basic needs in that unforgiving environment, while others speculate that it was caused by consuming a toxic seed.

There’s no room for mistakes in the wilderness

During his journey, Christopher McCandless reached a point where he decided to either return home or continue traveling. However, when he attempted to cross the river he had previously passed, it was at flood stage due to spring thaw and glacial melt. As a result, he had to return to his shelter and ended up staying longer than planned, ultimately leading to his death due to starvation.

McCandless made several poor decisions that led to his demise in the Alaskan bush, particularly regarding awareness of his surroundings. When crossing a river or stream, it’s crucial to note high-water marks and leftover debris, as these can indicate seasonal water rises or flash floods. It’s essential to avoid setting up camp or conducting any activities below these high-water marks. Additionally, every time you cross a stream, you should keep in mind that the crossing may be different when you return, especially after heavy rains.

Another mistake McCandless made was not carrying a map. If he had done so, he would have seen that a government water-level monitoring station was nearby, which would have allowed him to cross the river even at flood stage and make his way back to civilization.

Awareness of your surroundings

In contrast, the author of this article shares a positive example of utilizing awareness during an outdoor trip. They went on an overnight canoe trip during spring rains, set up their camp far from the river, and tied their canoe to a tree on the riverbank. When the river rose suddenly during the night, their camp and canoe were safe due to their precautions. They noted the high-water marks and weather forecast and secured their canoe, which ultimately saved them from being stranded without a paddle.

Being aware of your surroundings is crucial for both your safety and your quality of life. Unfortunately, the prevalence of electronic devices has led to a decrease in situational awareness among many people. While self-awareness is an important topic, situational awareness is what we will focus on here.

Our senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste are designed to help us be aware of what’s happening outside of our bodies. However, many people have trained themselves to ignore external indicators of danger. In this article, we will teach you how to be more in control of your mind and pay attention to your surroundings. By doing so, you will be able to make better decisions based on external factors that may affect you.

There are three very useful techniques that you can use to develop your awareness:

  1. Your sit spot
  2. KIMs game
  3. Decision making

Your sit spot

christopher johnson mccandless, is the subject of into the wild book
Christopher Johnson Mccandless, is the subject of “Into the wild” book

When I was in naturalist training with the Wilderness Awareness School, I first learned about the concept of a “sit spot” from a survival school when I was in naturalist training. The founder of the school was a trailblazer in teaching people who were new to nature to become more situationally aware.

At its core, a sit spot is simply finding a spot in nature and observing the wildlife from there. Even those who live in urban settings can benefit from this practice, but finding a more remote area is ideal for optimal results. A forest, park, stream, or even a bird feeder outside your window can work.

The purpose of this exercise is to start noticing patterns in nature. Although natural surroundings may seem random and without order, there is actually a great deal of order that can be discovered through investigation and study. Here are the steps I recommend for developing your awareness:

  1. Find a spot as far from human interaction as possible and visit it every day, if possible. For those with limited time, try to schedule regular time for this activity, even if it’s only once a month.
  2. Sit and observe what goes on around you.
  3. Keep a journal and write down anything that stands out to you about your sit each day.
  4. Sketch whenever possible. Although the observation and awareness of your senses are the most important, sketching helps to retain the information you take in. This is because, by observing and then sketching, you help to fill up the folders of your mind.
  5. Do this for 15-30 minutes a day for one month, or as much time as your schedule allows.
  6. Review your notes and look for patterns that emerge. You may find more patterns than you initially noticed while doing your sit.
  7. Once you have completed an initial 30-day sit, try it again at a different time or season of the year to gain a broader understanding of nature’s patterns.

The goal of this practice is to recognize details in nature, including the movement of wildlife, plant growth, and your interaction with it. This will be especially useful in any future survival-related event because it will help you to recognize resources that may be available to you. Sketching is also important because it forces you to notice details and commit them to memory.

From my experience of foraging wild edibles and medicinal plants for over 30 years, I have learned that one of the most important things you can do to be a good forager is to sketch plants. The ultimate goal of all the practices included here is to develop the ability to recognize details. Even if you only see a partial portion of something, training yourself to notice details will help your mind take in information more effectively.

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KIMS game

KIM stands for “Keep In Memory.” Military and law enforcement personnel in certain fields (especially investigation teams) teach their brains how to store and recall facts and ideas using this “game.”

It’s especially helpful for people who want to do more than just glance at things – seeing means becoming aware of something visually while looking simply involves directing your gaze. To train with others, play the KIMs game by gathering around 25 small, diverse items (e.g., natural or man-made, varying in size, shape, and color) and placing them on the ground under a blanket or tarp.

Uncover the items for one minute and have everyone take mental notes without sharing their observations. Cover the items again, discuss what was seen, and repeat the process as many times as you have items and time for.

Include some items that are similar in color, a few that are unfamiliar, and others that resemble common household items. After practicing, ask someone else to lead the game to continue developing your skills.

Here are some suggestions on how to improve your ability to retain what you see, which can be useful in a variety of situations, including outdoor activities and survival scenarios:

Firstly, use the Z scanning method to scan an area in a systematic and effective way. Start by scanning the area closest to you, moving your gaze from left to right, then diagonally from right to left, before scanning left to right again. Finally, scan up and down in the same Z pattern. This technique allows you to thoroughly scan an area and imprint the visual information into your brain.

Secondly, group similar items together to help you remember them more easily. For example, if you are scanning a pile of objects, you might notice that there are several orange items, ten items that are shaped like tools, and four items that could be considered dangerous. By categorizing the items in this way, you can remember them more easily.

Thirdly, go back and start to get details once you have done the initial scan and grouping. Ask yourself questions like “What degree of measurement is the compass set on?”, “Is the knife sharp?”, “What kind of weapon is laying there?”, “Is it loaded?” and so on. This level of detail helps you to remember important information about what you are seeing.

If you are leading this type of exercise for your training partners, ask questions during the initial discussion, such as, “Why do you think the knife is sharp?”, “What makes you think the gun is loaded?”, “How do you know that it is the top off of a blender?”. This will encourage your partners to think critically about what they see, which will help them to remember it better.

You might be wondering how to apply these skills to a wilderness setting. One way is to use the Z scanning method to scan for tracks, signs, or wildlife. This can help you to be a better hunter or to find food in a survival situation.

Another way is to use the scanning technique to look through a wilderness area with lots of similar items and pick out trees that are better for fire-starting, those that will help you develop shelter, and those that indicate water. By training yourself to notice these details, you will be better equipped to survive in the wild.

In addition, utilizing memorization skills can be helpful in remembering bends in trails, trees that stand out, rock formations, or other natural features that you can then relay to a search and rescue team. This information can be used to help them find you if you are lost or injured.

By committing an area to memory, you can also use that information to go back if you need to leave prematurely. You can also use these skills in your daily life, such as remembering where you parked your car or where you left your keys.

Overall, the ability to retain what you see is an important skill that can be developed and applied in many situations. By practicing these techniques, you can improve your ability to recall important details and increase your chances of success in various activities and scenarios.

Decision making

decision making in the wilderness

Decisions should be made based on common sense and the information you gathered. Safety is your number one priority, and you need to do things in such a manner that you won’t harm yourself or others. These two aspects go hand in hand with the skills you have, and you cannot afford the mistake of believing you can achieve something if you haven’t done it before.

Here is a quick example, you know that making a fire is necessary for the wilderness, and it will help you stay warm, cook your food and dry your clothes, among other things. When you decide on a camping spot, you know that starting a fire is the next step if the shelter is not a priority. Now you look around for resources to start the fire, and you gather materials to maintain that fire. You have a pretty good picture of what is available, what you can gather/harvest, and how long that fuel will last.

Now comes the tricky part, igniting the tinder, and here is where you need the skills you have and master and not the ones you think you have. If making a fire is a pressing matter, then it’s no time to try your luck with friction methods, and you should use only the tools/methods that guarantee success. Always put your trust in what you know and leave no room for error.

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