Some Observations on Urban OPSEC and Situational Awareness

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Editor’s Note: Long-time popular commenter 1stMarineJarHead recently returned from a trip to the big city and had some interesting observations about the differences between Urban OPSEC and Situational Awareness versus the same things in more rural settings. His philosophy on flexibility is very similar to my own.

He’s going to be contributing more often – I hope you enjoy his debut post. ~ Daisy

Recently I had the great opportunity to visit with family in a major metropolitan area. This city was their city of birth, so it held great esteem and nostalgia for them.

I wanted to comment on some observations I made about Operational Security (OPSEC) and Situational Awareness (SA).

Packing for a four-day trip with clothing for two people into one suitcase (avoiding those airline baggage fees for two suitcases) just made more financial and economy of space sense. Granted, we stuck out on the train from the airport to the downtown area as obvious tourists.  The upside was there were three other people on the same train carriage from the airport with similar suitcases, and as this was the only line from the airport to downtown. So this meant that people with suitcases were not an uncommon sight to see.

I did my best to sit with my back against the bulkhead (wall for you non-Marine/Navy types) to keep all those to the left, front, and right of me. However, that was not always able to be the case (more on that later).

Making our way from the airport to the hotel

An interesting note, seeing as I have been out of the world a spell (5 bonus points to those who can make the name of that pop-culture reference without using a search engine), I noted that on the train, a good 90-95% had their faces buried into their phones, most with some kind of earbuds.  IF you did not, that made you the odd one out.  And a few people noticed I was not staring into a phone, but looking around.  That made me the odd one.  This is something to consider when trying to “blend in.”  There is an entire article that can be written about how to use your smartphone/tech to SA your immediate area, but that is a different article.

Once off the train and above ground again, the wife and I had to hump it a few blocks to the hotel.  Her, with our carry-on (an extra pair of socks and underwear for both, reading material, and a few essentials we needed in case the airline lost our checked luggage), and me with the suitcase.

Within two blocks, luggage in hand, we were obviously tourists and thereby approached (my wife used a few other colorful metaphors [name the pop-culture reference!]) by half a dozen panhandlers.  One at least offered helpful directions, albeit right in front of the hotel we were staying at so the point was moot.

After we got to our room and met up with the family, we went out for dinner at a very nice and well-established restaurant within walking distance.

Blending in

My observation was this:  how does one blend into a metropolitan area, when the panhandler looks (and smells) like he has not had clean clothing in several months?

Clothing: Some would say, don’t dress flashy.

Compared to the panhandler, what I wear around the farm could be considered flashy, I.g. a good pair of sturdy boots, a good Carhart jacket or gloves.  Those things on the cold winter city streets could go a lot further than a Rolex.

And I saw everything from flashy to panhandlers and everything in between.

Race:  Okay, this is a major metropolitan city.  Races of all kinds on the train, on the bus, on one city block.  Just being you is blending in.  At one bus stop, there was a Latino family, a young white lady, and us (me being more brown than white and my very white, short, wife).  My wife gave a cigarette and light to the Latino gentleman and chatted with him for a bit.  The young white lady turns out to be a school teacher and offered for the Latino children to sit next to her.  We got to talking to her later, she has two cute dogs and was helpful with aiding us in navigating the bus system.  OPSEC and SA are important, but when the trains and buses are running, the lights are on, most people are still good people.

Crowds:  Sometimes it was easy to sit near the exit on the bus or the train.  Other times, not going to happen.  And to try to insist on having that seat or standing near the exit could draw additional attention to yourself.

Be flexible.

Walking on the street, there was no way possible to keep SA at all times.  I just don’t have eyeballs in the back of my head.  Now, that is where having a second set of eyes (or more, the family) is a great asset.  My wife is in the military and totally understands OPSEC and SA (although I did have to remind her, we don’t have the firepower here, the bad guys do in this particular theater).

My father, having grown up in the city, even said to me, “Don’t carry your wallet or phone in your back pocket but in your front or even your interior jacket pocket.”

To which I responded, “Already did, dad!”

Note, he is in his 70s.

Semper Gumby

So, I think there is a fine balance between OPSEC and SA.

Some may say, “Just don’t go to a major metropolitan area!” To which I say, I wanted to take this opportunity to see my family.

The real take-away I relearned was Semper Gumby or Always Flexible.

Do not get locked into one way of thinking.  Adjust as the situation/environment dictates, with your personal security in mind.

About 1stMarineJarHead

1stMarineJarHead is not only a former Marine, but also a former EMT-B, Wilderness EMT (courtesy of NOLS), and volunteer firefighter.

He currently resides in the great white (i.e. snowy) Northeast with his wife and dogs. He raises chickens, rabbits, goats, occasionally hogs, cows and sometimes ducks. He grows various veggies and has a weird fondness for rutabagas. He enjoys reading, writing, cooking from scratch, making charcuterie, target shooting, and is currently expanding his woodworking skills.

Picture of 1stMarineJarHead


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  • I used to go into uptown Chicago weekly for psychotherapy and learned a lot. I carry a dumbphone and dress in hoodies and sweats. My smartphone stays home! I wear vests with inside pockets. I blend in.

      • I love to travel and see the world. I take a different tactic and use my smartphone to get around easily with CityMapper which tells me exactly what bus, train, metro/subway to use. I almost got in trouble in Paris because I wasn’t sure which train to take and some “nice” person offered to help. You can find the tourists right away because they are staring at the monitors trying to figure things out. There are also other great apps like iTranslate which allows me to communicate anywhere in the world (and get help easily like when buying tickets, dealing with hotel staff). Other great apps are Around Me (know which direction you are going and how far), Best Parking (parking in larger cities is difficult), Local Eats (you don’t want to eat at McDonalds but sample the local food!), and iExit (so I can know where to get off freeways for food & gas and don’t go wandering around sometimes bad places).. There are other great smartphone apps that have made travel much safer and easier so now we rent a car and book a place to stay on

  • This is a great article. I grew up in a small farming community with less than 4000 people and now live in the City of Chicago. I have really been working on my Social Awareness in different situations. One of the best tests I practice is when I’m walking my dog. A lot of times I would walk by houses not noticing the yards or people and would get startled because a dog in the yard (that I did not see or pay attention to) starts barking excessively. At that point I know I had a lapse of Social Awareness. Great Article!

  • Great debut! I’m looking forward to more from you.

    Just a general note on smoking in an urban area…if you pull out cigarettes in some areas, you may find yourself surrounded by people begging for a cigarette. This can turn ugly quickly, as I know from personal experience.

    In my home town, I’ve learned the hard way to make sure that there is noone too close to me if I choose to light up, or to only do it if I’m with a group or on private property. Panhandling is a big nuisance here, some of the worst offenders being members of a psychiatric support “club” that supposedly offers job counseling and social events. Every person who has approached me asking for money or cigarettes has been a “member”, which makes me wonder what the “club” actually does for its members.

    • Well I used to smoke, and it was fun while it lasted. Every now and then I get a whiff of someone nearby smoking and for a second I miss it. Then it occurred to me how much $ is represented by those tobacco clouds floating around. One time I told a smoker she should just charge people standing around for breathing her secondhand smoke!!

      So maybe you could tell the the cigarette moochers you normally charge 75 cents a cigarette but it’s half off for being in a 5 ft radius just breathing. 75% off within a 15 ft radius. Of course you’d be surrounded by slightly PO’d people in one stage or another of a nicotine fit. Prob not the OPSEC best situation….

      So maybe it’s better to just let one out to the first moocher n tell the rest that’s all you can afford. (Make sure you have an almost empty pack for the occasion) So you have 1 new friend and a bunch of other people who have to look elsewhere for a mark….

  • I Hate the term, “Semper Gumby.” But I can’t ever argue it’s meaning. Place a packet of tissue in your back pocket – pick-pockets love tissues…. ~ The BreakAway Homesteader

  • Dress like an average local. Don’t show up to NYC with a Cornhuskers shirt.

    I used to wear T-shirts from the engineering university I went to when traveling. Great for meeting people but if random people are going to walk up to a fairly unfriendly looking person and chat them up about their shirt… That means even non-criminal types notice…

    Wear clean hiking shoes that don’t stand out. They are comfortable and utilitarian while also being fairly nondescript. Your shoes are a good indicator of where you’re from and your socioeconomic status.

    If you are a female, wear a coat that masks such. Not fitted in the waist and a higher collar to hide the neckline.

    You can wear fashionable clothes but nothing that leaves nowhere to hide a weapon.

    Things you care about go in your front pockets.

    Everything gets zippers or interference pockets.

    Always keep at least one hand free.

    Do not wear anything that prevents vision or sound. No hoodies.

  • Regarding blending in, I’d be interested in reading what others do to not stand out by being one of the alert few.

    • I previously lived in a European country and spent a few months wandering around over there. I didn’t have a phone there and didn’t use ear buds. I came to realize that I had clearly blended in enough to look local because I got asked for directions in every country we went to! Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary.. didn’t matter- people thought I was a local AND asked me for help. By about the 4th time I was really beginning to wonder ‘why me’. I was standing in a crowd of about 12 or 15 waiting to cross a street and someone walked through the crowd to ask me for directions in a town I am not from. Then I realized everyone else had headphones or was purely focused on their cellphone. I was wearing shoes that pass for normal in Europe (not sneakers) and I am not high fashion (at all!) But not a slob. I was alert and focused, but not ‘busy.’ I was clean, and apparently looked friendly and approachable. I know that is not always the goal in OpSec- but I am explaining just to say I blended in enough to look local or like I belonged there.

      Without using a phone:
      – Mirrored/reflective sunglasses help so that people can’t see where your eyes are looking. (looking around without moving your head around)
      – Look like you are ‘talking to yourself’ in your head. Like you are going over something in your mind. Then it looks like you had a stressful day at work or etc and you are so focused on something upsetting that you aren’t using a phone.
      – Perhaps look tired. Not closing your eyes.. but more like bored. Tourists are always sort of jittery with double checking things and etc. locals know the way so on transportation they are just bored.
      – If you need to blend in = check your phone. For just a minute or two. then you pulled out your boring screen like every other person and look normal – but then put it away like there was nothing interesting on it.

      Another idea- (that i’ve never actually done) But ..for instance.. If I were headed to portland or Minneapolis right now.. I’d go over the bus lines and every move of the trip Before going. Normally you can fly somewhere and figure it out on the way- but it might be a smart time to go over every step from airport to hotel right now so that you know it and can more easily look confident and locally bored in the travel.

      Rutabaga is an incredibly strong cellar vegetable. Nice 1stMarine.

      *I’d be careful wearing that Carhartt into the city. Maybe invest in a ‘sturdy’ but more tailored stylized jacket. Like Filson, or FJallraven, or even EddieBauer. Carhartt is sturdy and strong- but I’ve never seen it look urban – that might give you away a lot right there. But..who buys a 2nd jacket for a trip to the city. . But maybe it’s worth it to visit family.

  • At the urban social security office this morning. Tried to sit where I would see most coming in and going out — a panoramic view from the middle of the long room. Got called to be helped at a window. Noticed the emergency exit not seen before. Only one main door controlled the way out and that was blocked by hordes from the ME not caring that they were blocking the entrance. Couldn’t see who was outside from what I thought was a good vantage point. Had to wind through several people on my way out the only open exit holding on tight to my EDC.

    There was a great cross-section of population all in one place. Given the uptick in tensions in the ME, seems best to steer clear of where they gather around specialty markets or govt buildings.

  • A question please. Why or how did Marines get the name Jar Heads?

    We choose to travel via Amtrak. Less hassle than flying. In a large crowded station, I tend to gravitate towards the cops because they have guns and we are not allowed too. I too live in a rural area and visiting a big city like NYC is certainly intimidating. Your need to keep your SA is extremely important, especially if you travel solo. As a senior, I carry a tall walking stick. While I’m not trained to use the stick as a weapon, having it makes me feel safer and people seem to give me a wider space.

  • When we go into any city, large or small, we do our best to look like locals. And whether we’re home or away, always are aware of our surroundings.
    We take things, perhaps, a step further. While we live rural, we do enough “things” that regular society does (like use a credit card on a regular basis). IMHO, there is risk to being totally off the radar. If LE or the government ever decides to run us through the system, we want average Joe information to appear. At our ages, not being on Facebook isn’t a red flag.
    I’m not saying be in debt up to your eyeballs or leave your name all over the internet. Fly safely under the radar. We have a garden and if asked, tell people we enjoy gardening. Not that we do it for preps. Living where it snows (and other winter weather) allows buying a large quantity of non-perishables/paper products to not seem out of the ordinary. But we don’t purchase ALL items at the same store.

  • As a Mom of a Marine, I learned that term, Semper Gumby, early on. We ALWAYS had to be flexible once our son entered the ranks of the USMC! Waiting for him to go to boot, waited 6 hours. They said the bus was leaving at 2. Nope. They were just getting sworn in at 2! Finally about an hour later, they loaded up and left. Proudest and saddest day of my life up to that point. Little did I realize how proud I would be at multiple graduations, deployments, returns, and promotions. We were blessed in that he was stationed within driving distance of us. However, if we had needed to, we would have figured out alternative transport.

    Thank you for your insight into maneuvering in a metro area. I have not developed the mentality to NOT look like a tourist! But I pretty much try to stay close to home. I look forward to more of your posts.

  • Several items to add –

    “Role Camouflage” – Look like you belong there. A 3 piece suit on Wall St. in NYC, you’ll disappear. Blaze orange overalls during hunting season in a rural VA or WV general store, you’ll disappear. Now invert the clothes and locations. Cone shaped hats and black pajamas in a rice patty….

    “Make no Noise” – Keys and pocket change are big give aways to the dozing panhandlers that a target is nearby. Get one of those 1950s look change purses to carry your coins silently. If you must carry a whole gaggle of keys, a rubber band or two to keep them from clanking will help.

    “Make no Odor” – Do not wear perfume, cologne, aftershave, etc. for the same reason. I have a friend whose wife is a psychiatrist in a prison system. She tipped me to that one. Ladies especially please note.

    “Be Drab” – Avoid flashy colors like Orange, Lime Green and Red regardless of your gender. Grey jacket, slacks and hat will make you difficult to see. Difficult to judge your distance (It is the way the human eye works). Use Woolite or similar cleaners – try sporting goods at Wal Mart, to wash outer garments. It does not contain the Ultra Violet (UV) brighteners that give your clothes a shiny look.

    Be safe out there!

    Semper Fi (and Gumby – I hate that too!)

  • Also one time I had to visit a city I had never been to and Google Earth street view was a nice way to get a feel for what to pack….

  • Good to see your article for OP, 1stMarineJarHead. Thanks, look forward to future articles.

    If you’re visiting a place for the first time you’re gonna standout until you get acclimatized. It could be you look too healthy, fresh, tanned or animated compared to the locals. Serious. It could be the way you walk, talk, use your hands when gesturing, posture, hair cut or not being in current weekly fashion, or even as pointed out in another post, your scent. One post compared it to going out on patrol. No cologne, dangling dog-tags, and you ate the indigneous food to emit the familiar odor of that area since scents can carry a distance.

    With You Tube travel blogs becoming frequent watch some before going to a new area. Or, use the ‘little man’ icon on goggle maps to familiarize yourself what the streets look like, from the middle of the street anyway. For example, Actionkid105 is a guy who walks around NYC recording in one continous flow. Observe the people, what they’re wearing, how they’re walking. Learn the street signs, or lack of, so you’re not gawking around looking for directions. Along with cards, traveler’s checks, carry an extra wallet with a few dollars as a decoy in addition to a money belt but don’t think you’re fooling anyone even if your pockets don’t look full or have a worn rectangle marking from a wallet. Occasionally when walking brush your hands as they move against your side to check if your wallet is still in your front pocket or someone’s hand is. Know when to make eye contact so you’re not ‘inviting’ or giving a stranger an opportunity to come over to con you. Used to be on a busy crowded street you signaled by eye contact someone approaching in your path by ten or more feet that you intended to turn left or right so they could adjust their path and not collide. If they did bump into you, you quickly checked your pockets. I assume part of the reason people bury their heads in their phones, texting, whatever, is they don’t want eye contact and someone approching to check them out on the first run. For some it doesn’t mean necessarily they’re not situational aware. Or, vice-versa, someone just texting might be checking the herd for their mark. A little paranoid but … . It’s strange to have a street eunuch ask you if they can use your phone. Does that work on snowflakes?

    Kinda funny, I was with someone when a local came over, looked him up and down, sniffed him like a dog from the front, and said “Popo” (police) although he was out of uniform.

    Sorry, this is long.
    The point is, expect to be approached but don’t allow anyone to enter your personal space. If someone comments on your ‘I Luv Madonna’ (or, equally fashionable ‘Che Guevera’) t-shirt, you don’ have to reply. Grunt or nod and be respectful. One night alone at a bustop three guys got into my face, I reached into my pocket, took something out, and said nothing. I was insulted, talked down to, but they didn’t know what I had in my hand and eventually left. Later, a guy loading the newspaper stands was beaten by three punk crackers. My comb saved me an expensive trip to the ER.
    Note, there were three. Usually one in front, two on your back, even if you only notice the one asking for directions.
    Christmas story. Walking down 5th Ave. amongst hundreds of shoppers I watched from a distance two men slow down in front of a lady with shopping bags full of presents while one of the two behind her picked from her bags.
    During a New Orleans festival along with friends we somehow wandered onto the wrong streets. A crowd formed in our path that didn’t look like they weren’t into partying, at least with us. My friend called out an echelon right formation used for crowd control and to my surprise it sliced thru the crowd. Before they regrouped we were ‘headed down the road’. (“Forty Thousand Headmen”, Traffic/Steve Winwood)

    Does your family need to practice a basic diamond formation before visting a city? It would be nice to know but realize initially you’re gonna stand-out somewhat, so anticipate, adapt and enjoy your stay. I appreciate 1stMarieneJarHead’s article for helping doing just that.

    One thing I learned culturally overseas, zipperhead for some unknown reason is not an endearing nickname? Go figure.

    • Note to self: If and when the SHTF rears its head, you catch a scent of rutabaga* or, come across a plate of chacuterie attached to a wire, 1stMarineJarHead is ‘somewhere out there’. (Red Rider: “Lunatic Fringe”.)

      *Research what this ‘Rutabaga’ is. A sort of dark blue turnip, perhaps. But as George Carlin aptly pointed-out, you can’t find blue food anywhere since it’s being being hoarded. Those wiley preppers.

      • False Alarm: Rutabaga is actually purple.
        … for a moment I thought ‘rutabaga’ was code that this was a prepping website.

      • Ok, that was just plain funny.
        Thanx John.

        BTW, my rutabagas have purple-ish tops and white bottoms.
        Most pass them by. Fine by me. They dont know what they are missing!

        • Reminds me of a late Punk/early Goth girl/chick I knew with a purple mohawk …

          oh, you’re talking about the turnip/cabbage Brassica/Mustard edible hybrid.

          Will ya’ be going to dah Wardsboro Festival dis yrar, hey? (That’s the extend of how to speak tacky New Englander I picked-up while briefly in Rhode Island.)
          Heah, we have kale, and Zucchini festivals. Too much humidity for Rutabaga to sprout properly.


          (i also lika the Blonde Swede turnip, nice.)

  • Having lived and worked in major metro cities including Detroit, NO ONE speaks to strangers including panhandlers on the street. NO ONE. If you do speak, they know you are from Hicktown and easy prey. Offering cash or smokes will get you dead.

    Got suitcases? For sure you from Hicktown. Take Uber or Lyft. It’s worth it. No one rides public transportation in the city unless you’re either dirt poor or looking to be robbed.

    Never pay attention to crosswalk signals. Cross safely against the signal. It’s what city folk do. You don’t want to be the real polite tourist when many bus stops/street corners are meant for gang activities.

    Carhartt and flannel in the city? May as well have a t shirt that says Univ of Hicktown. If you dont own “urbanwear” then a plain jacket or coat will do.

  • Good article. I am white, male, over 60, glasses, and over-weight – very ordinary. Over the past 40 years, I have visited and worked in most major US cities (45 out of the top 50), many mid-sized US cities, and more than 20 foreign countries. Lets take for example, NYC. I usually connect through Chicago and fly into Newark. I always carry on, no check bag. My carry-on is a roller-bag like flight crews use. I take the train from Newark to Penn Station then walk two and a half blocks on 32nd to my hotel. On the train my carry-on fits right in – lots of people have them. On the sidewalk, I keep my head up and my eyes moving. My clothes are ordinary – usually a nylon wind breaker, dark brown Carhart pants, black leather shoes like cops and postmen wear, no shine. At all times, I am a bit less fancy than the average person. In the evenings I go out to dinner, usually walk but sometimes Uber or subway to a place. I do not take out my phone when I am outside. I do not use earbuds. Both hands are free. I am alert and looking around at eye level – not up at the buildings. I try to project, “alert” or perhaps “hard target”. Not sullen, angry, scowling or scared. Just nothing. I am aware. My subconscious is searching my surroundings for aggression or stress. I may be noticed but I am not approached. I know where I am going and I go there. If I need to stop and look at my itinerary or tickets or something, find a place with light, put my back to the wall and keep my eyes open. By the way, if you are alert and looking around and observant, you see all sorts of interesting stuff that you might miss if you walk with your head down. That’s my $0.02.

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