Observation Skills for Survival

Observation Skills for Survival

Andrew’s Note:  One of the things I like about the Army and the military in general is that we have a manual where you can learn just about anything you want to know including a lot of skills that are of value to the preparedness minded prepper.   Being able to observe and avoid trouble is a key survival skill for a prepper who operates alone or in much smaller groups than the typical soldier on the battlefield.   It’s important to develop your observations skills for survival and today’s extract from the 3 August, 1984 Edition of the United States Army’s Field Manual, FM 21-75 Combat Skills of the Soldier (Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited) may help.  

While written for soldiers operating on a battlefield the skills are readily transferable and will help you develop observation skills for survival.  Elements in italics below have been added by the editor.  This extract is the entire fourth chapter, titled Observation:


During all types of operations, you will be looking for the enemy [or potential adversary].  However, there will be times when you will be posted in an observation post (OP) to watch for enemy activity [as your sole or primary mission].

An OP is a position from which you watch an assigned sector of observation and report all activity seen or heard in your sector.  Chapter 6 provides guidance on collecting and reporting information learned by observation.


Overall Search

This section discusses the techniques you will use for day and night observation.


In daylight, use the visual search technique to search terrain. Do this in two steps:

Step 1:  Make a quick, overall search of the entire sector for obvious targets and unnatural colors, outlines, or movements.  Look first at the area just in front of your position, and then quickly scan the entire area out to the maximum range you want to observe.  If the sector is wide, divide it and search each subsector as in Step 2.

Overlapping 50 Meter SearchStep 2:  Observe overlapping, 50-meter [54.68 yards] wide strips, alternating from left to right and right to left, until you have searched the entire sector.  When you see a suspicious spot, search it well.


At night, use anyone of three night observation techniques to search terrain.

Dark Adaptation Technique:  First, let your eyes become adjusted to the darkness.  Do so by staying either in a dark area for about 30 minutes, or in a red-lighted area for about 20 minutes followed by about 10 minutes in a dark area.  The red-lighted method may save time by allowing you to get orders, check equipment, or do some other job before moving into darkness.

Off-Center Vision Technique:  Focus your attention on an object but look slightly away from it.  The object will be more visible this way than when you look straight at it.

Scanning Technique:  Again focus your attention on an object, but do not look directly at it.  Now move your eyes in short, abrupt, and irregular movements around it, pausing a few seconds after each move.


In trying to find the enemy in a sector of observation, look and listen for these signs of his presence:

  • Sounds
  • Dust or vehicle exhaust
  • Movement
  • Positions
  • Outlines or shadows
  • Shine or glare
  • Contrasting colors


Listen for such things as footsteps, limbs or sticks breaking, leaves rustling, men coughing, and equipment or vehicle sounds.  These may be hard to distinguish from other battlefield and animal sounds.

Sounds can alert you to the direction or general location of the enemy.  They may not pinpoint his exact location.  However, if a sound alerts you, you are more apt to spot the enemy.


Moving foot soldiers or vehicles often raise dust. Vehicle exhaust smoke also rises.  You can spot dust and vehicle smoke at long ranges.


Look for movement in your sector. Use the visual search technique.


Look for enemy positions [man made or altered areas] in obvious places, such as road junctions, hilltops, and lone buildings.  Also look at areas with cover and concealment, such as woods and draws.


Look for outlines or shadows of enemy soldiers, equipment, vehicles, or guns.  The enemy may use the shadows of trees or buildings to hide himself and his equipment.  Look for him in shaded areas.


In darkness, look for light sources such as burning cigarettes, headlights, or flashlights.

In daylight, look for reflected light or glare from smooth, polished surfaces such as wind shields, headlights, mess gear, watch crystals, or uncamouflaged skin [the natural oils on an uncamouflaged skin will stand out even on human faces that are dark complected] .


Look for contrasts between background color and the colors of uniforms, equipment, and skin.  For example, a soldier’s T-shirt or towel may contrast with its background.


You must often estimate ranges. Your estimates will be easier to make and more accurate if you use the 100-meter [109.36 yard] unit-of-measure method, the appearance-of-objects method, or the flash-and-sound method. This section discusses the use of these methods.


Picture a distance of 100 meters on the ground [if you’re a football fan use a football field length to estimate 100 yards…close enough].  For ranges up to 500 meters, count the number of 100-meter lengths between the two points you want to measure.  Beyond 500 meters, pick a point halfway to the target, count the number of 100-meter lengths to the halfway point, and then double that number to get the range to the target.

Sloping ground changes the appearance of 100-meter lengths.  Ground that slopes upward makes them look longer than 100 meters, and ground that slopes downward makes them look shorter than 100 meters.  Thus, the tendency is to underestimate 100-meter lengths on upslopes and overestimate them on downslopes.

The accuracy of the 100-meter method depends on how much ground is visible.  This is most true at long ranges.  If a target is at a range of 500 meters or more, and you can only see part of the ground between yourself and the target, it is hard to use this method with accuracy.


This method is a way to estimate range by the apparent size and detail of an object.  It is a common method that is used in everyday life.  For example, a motorist trying to pass another car judges the distance of oncoming cars based on their apparent size.  He is not interested in exact distances, but only in having enough room to safely pass the car in front of him.  Suppose he knows that at a distance of 1 mile an oncoming car appears to be 1 inch wide and 2 inches high, with a half inch between the headlights.  Then, any time he sees an oncoming car that fits those dimensions, he knows it is about 1 mile away.

The same technique can be used to estimate ranges on the battlefield.  If you know the apparent size and detail of troops and equipment at known ranges, then you can compare those characteristics to similar objects at unknown ranges.  When the characteristics match, the range does also.

To use the appearance-of-objects method, you must be familiar with characteristic details of objects as they appear at various ranges.  As you must be able to see those details to make the method work, anything that limits visibility (such as weather, smoke, or darkness) will limit the effectiveness of this method.


Battlefield conditions are not always ideal for estimating ranges.  If the terrain limits the use of the 100-meter unit-of-measure method, and poor visibility limits the use of the appearance-of-objects method, you may have to use a combination of methods.  For example, if you cannot see all of the terrain out to the target, you can still estimate distance from the apparent size and detail of the target itself.

A haze may obscure the target details, but you may still be able to judge its size or use the 100-meter method.  By using either one or both of the methods, you should arrive at a figure close to the true range.


Sound travels through air at 300 meters (1,100 feet) per second.  That makes it possible to estimate distance if you can both see and hear a sound-producing action.

When you see the flash or smoke of a weapon, or the dust it raises, immediately start counting.  Stop counting when you hear the sound associated with the action seen.  The number at which you stop should be multiplied by three. This gives you the approximate distance to the weapon in hundreds of meters.  If you stop at one, the distance is about 300 meters.  If you stop at three, the distance is about 900 meters.  When you must count higher than nine, start over again after counting nine (counting higher numbers throws the timing off) [pop a finger out for each time you start over to keep track].

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