Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Life-Saving Outdoor Self-Defense Skills from an Ex CIA Spy

While the outdoors is filled with wonderful things like nature and hiking, potential dangers like poison ivy and bear attacks also lurk. However, other risks can come in the form of people. Because one is often alone or far from help in rural environments, understanding self-defense and survival skills can be the difference between life and death.

Jason Hanson, a former CIA officer, and Arlington County Police officer, is one of the most sought-after experts in this field. The bestselling author of , Hanson is also the founder of Spy Escape & Evasion, a company that provides self-defense and situational awareness training. Ever wonder what it’s like to have the skills and training of a CIA officer? Each year, Hanson hosts Ultimate Spy Week, a week of hands-on self-defense, gun handling, evasive driving, and escape techniques training. Hanson is a wealth of knowledge and is here to help you stay safe while enjoying the great outdoors.

Jason Hanson on the gun range with a student.
Jason Hanson (center) demonstrating pistol shooting techniques with a student at Ultimate Spy Week. Andrew Grimshaw

What to Do if Someone is Following You

One of the biggest mistakes Hanson sees from people is a lack of situational awareness. “I use a flip phone — I’ve never sent a text message in my life,” said Hanson. “I’m not staring at my phone like most of society, hiking down the trail, having no idea that some creepy weirdo is getting close to them.” While hiking or camping outdoors, help can often be far away, making it critical to be aware of your surroundings.

A unique element of being in a rural environment is that it’s a lot easier to notice if you’re being followed. In the spy world, Hanson would run an SDR (Surveillance Detection Route) to determine if anyone was following him. For instance, if Hanson needed to meet with a source at a cafe at 1 p..m, he would leave several hours earlier and run a series of errands at different locations to see if he was being followed. In layperson’s terms, don’t go straight from point A to point B.

However, if a potential assailant continues to approach you on the hiking path despite your attempts to evade them, it’s time for self-defense. For Hanson, it’s critical that you loudly acknowledge the potential attacker.

“Let this person know you see them, and this goes for everybody — male, female, young, old,” said Hanson. “You don’t want to put your head down and look like some scared, weak victim because that obviously empowers and emboldens the guy. You want to turn around and make eye contact. You want to let them know that ‘hey buddy, I see you.’ You can wave to the person, too.”

If the potential assailant is still getting closer, the next step would be to exit and escape as quickly as possible. Preferably, you would have parked your car in a location that can be seen from a distance. This is to avoid being surprised by another potential accomplice of the stranger.

What to Do if You’re Traveling with Children

Man hiking on a trail with small girl.
Juliane Liebermann/Unsplash

But what if you’re hiking or traveling with a family? If small children are in this situation, that changes your options. While Hanson states you can still run an SDR with small children, running won’t be possible. Instead, Hanson advocates an interesting self-defense tool.

“Road flares. You can buy road flares anywhere. Go to Home Depot. And when use a road flare and point it at someone, they’re going to think twice about coming after you,” said Hanson. “Now we’re talking about an extreme situation, some guy is coming after you and you’ve already told him to go away.”

What to Do if You’re Kidnapped

Jason Hanson demonstrating how to escape from a car trunk at Spy Week.
Jason Hanson (right) demonstrating a kidnapping scenario at Ultimate Spy Week. Andrew Grimshaw

Now, for the worst-case scenario — you’ve been kidnapped while hiking. What now? The first thing Hanson recommends is to escape as soon as possible. The reason for this is that kidnappers will generally move you to a secondary location, usually farther away. Not only will it be harder for you to escape, you will also be physically weaker over time. Ideally, you want to try to escape within the first 24-hour window.

Another technique is to leave a DNA trail. This can be done by giving yourself a small cut and rubbing it on your surroundings or even by throwing up in the car. This is critical as it helps law enforcement track you down. Also, establishing a persona with the kidnappers themselves can be crucial to your escape attempt.

“You want to be very submissive. You want to act like a wimp,” said Hanson. “That way, they hopefully put less security on you and they’re not worried about you. And then of course, when you see that opening, you’re going to strike with everything you have and hopefully get out of there.”

The Best Outdoor Self-Defense and Survival Tools

Jason Hanson demonstrating handcuff at Spy Week for two students.
Jason Hanson (right) demonstrating handcuffs to two students at Ultimate Spy Week. Andrew Grimshaw

For Hanson, being prepared while adventuring outdoors is critical. Always bring extra food and water in your backpack. In the event that you’re trapped or lost, the extra food and water can be a literal lifesaver. Another mistake is not having a paper map. Electronic GPS and other gadgets can break, leaving you blind if you don’t have a backup paper map.

Some great tools Hanson recommends are metal flashlights, tactical pens, and emergency mylar blankets. Metal flashlights and tactical pens are sturdy and can also double as self-defense weapons while the mylar blanket is lightweight and incredibly useful for cold weather. But for those interested in carrying specific self-defense weapons, Hanson recommends pepper spray grenades. When compared to standard pepper spray, these non-lethal grenades give the user the advantage of distance, unlike a close-range spray.

Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, editor, and NYU graduate. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
A complete guide to hiking the John Muir Trail in California
Read this first before taking on the JMT
Panoramic view of mountains and valleys along the John Muir Trail.

Of all the challenging long-distance thru-hikes in the U.S., few are as difficult as the John Muir Trail. Though hiking trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail are just as beautiful, the John Muir Trail spans 211 miles through California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

Those who undertake the trek will traverse nearly 80,000 feet in elevation change and discover alpine lakes and grassy fields among the high-altitude peaks. However, the hike offers few opportunities for resupply stops, which means most thru-hikers must be self-sufficient and self-supported. With proper planning and preparation, anyone can tackle the John Muir Trail (JMT).
Hiking the John Muir Trail

Read more
The 4 best beaches in the U.S. for camping like a castaway
Get away on your own swath of sand at one of these beach camping spots
The landscape of False Cape.

Discovering a private stretch of beach is like stumbling on a slice of paradise. And, one of the best ways to seek out your own swath of shoreline is with a beach camping trip. Offering a chance to spy migrating marine creatures, catch epic sunrises, and fall asleep to the sound of the tide, a beach campout makes for an idyllic getaway any time of year. In the south, ocean temperatures are still warm enough for swimming well into the fall, and beaches situated along the Atlantic Flyway offer the chance to admire masses of migrating waterfowl during the fall and winter.

While on the other side of the country, beach campers have the opportunity to spot migrating gray whales bound for the warm waters around Baja during the fall and winter. The best places to visit throughout the U.S. are a number of state and national parks, national seashores, and wilderness areas that offer opportunities for beach campers to snag a spectacular spot in the sand. Keep reading to find out where the best beaches for camping are located.
Olympic National Park
Washington state

Read more
How to get out of a rip current, according to a pro
Learn these steps before you really need to know them
Man swimming out of rip current

Nothing can ruin a beach day quite like getting caught (or injured, or worse) in a rip current. Every guy should know how to spot and escape a rip current, whether you’re swimming at a protected beach manned by a Baywatch team or exploring an uncharted cove.
What is a rip current?

Rip currents are strong, narrow channels of water that flow rapidly away from the shore at ocean beaches. They can be dangerous for swimmers because they can pull even strong swimmers out to sea. Here is more detailed information on rip currents.

Read more