Yeah you read that right, many survivalist/preppers love to boast about their ultra super high level of OP-SEC. They even capitalize the term to give it (and themself) even more (self)importance. Loving to boast about how no-one for X miles around knows of their survival retreat location or even their presence there. They revere the ‘Loose Lips, Sink Ships’ slogan. At the very same time they fail to realize how nearly impossible 100% op-sec in a TEOTWAWKI [SHTF] type of event.
They simultaneously boast of the resilience of their retreat and then turn around and refuse to disclose even the state it is located within. They glow with pride about how carefully they’ve chosen their retreat location, and its remoteness from main roads and likely off-road flows of people too. They mutter about ‘OPSEC’ meaningfully, and talk about keeping an ultra-low profile, and won’t even tell you what state it is located in. It truly makes me feel a bit like vomiting, when I see people quoting military terms, that they necessarily don’t know what they really mean.
Even worse is when they misapply them, or using them in the wrong context, or as a ‘magical invocation’ to give them powers of invincibility – as if merely saying the term is all they need to do in order to secure the knowledge of their retreat.
Everyone can be found, and every dwelling leaves a footprint in a multitude of city/county/state/court – public records, private company work records, aerial photos, [google earth] and so on. We don’t mean to discourage any of these things, but we do mean to alert you to the fact that it is not possible to keep your retreat 100% hidden, all the time, from everyone. Maybe careful measures will extend the time it takes for the first adversary to stumble across your retreat. Even if you’re not found by someone deliberately searching for your retreat. In a SHTF situation, expect a ton more people roaming around the [currently] empty woods. Your location will be discovered by chance rather than by careful searching, not to mention we all know Murphy’s Law dictates that even by accident, they’ll discover you
1. The Need to Hide Away Implies (or Creates) Vulnerabilities
Even what appears to be most strong secure retreat with true ‘op sec’ (which doesn’t mean operations secrecy, it means operations security – an important difference of meaning) then you do not need to be so secretive. It’s never appropriate to brag, and make your retreat a tempting target for everyone. But if you need to be totally hidden away, that implies you or your retreat is in someway vulnerable, Who/What are you attempting to remain hidden from?
At first you start building an expectation, an assumption, and before too long, a reliance on no-one ever finding you, then you’re basing your survival on a terrible risk, and on something you have much less control over than you might think. Every day you are playing Russian Roulette against the odds of being discovered.
It is important to understand where and when the constraints of Op-sec should apply. Disclosing that you live ‘over there’ need not be a breach of Op-sec. Revealing the access code to the main gate would be. Also you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of keeping an ultra low profile. Are the trade-offs acceptable?
2. If No-one Knows About You, Who Will Help You
If you’re secretly squirreled away somewhere miles from anywhere, what happens when you inevitably need help? Best case scenario, bringing in someone or some people to help with whatever your emergency is will destroy whatever secrecy your retreat might have formerly had. Worst case scenario is you’ll be on your own, without any support and without any community goodwill. If the nearby community does discover you, they’ll not see you as a friendly ‘one of us’ you’ll most likely be seen as an outsider and not entitled to any special treatment.
3. Do You Still Have a Defensive Posture
If your retreats op-sec revolves around no-one finding it’s location, do you maintain a defensive posture for the inevitable time when someone does? Do you still have sentries (or at least some form of remote sensing/monitoring) 24/7? Did you make your retreat’s exterior walls bullet-resistant and fire-proof? Or have you allowed your hope that no-one knows where you are lull you into a false sense of security?
This consideration points out one of the weaknesses of the entire opsec advocacy. You can’t plan your retreat’s security based on the hope that it will never be found. You must assume it will be found, and by adversaries, and have a plan to respond to that situation when it inevitably (and repeatedly) occurs. So if you’re planning to potentially be discovered, why delay it? Why not have the discovery on your terms, rather than on the terms of unknowns?
4. Who are your neighbors?
Part of creating your chamber of solitude, err we mean your secrete retreat, have you been able to spy on and identify and analyze all your neighbors? If you’re keeping a very low profile yourself, that might be difficult. For all you know, the next valley over might be the home of a group of domestic Muslim terrorists, or white supremacists, or an outlaw gang. For that matter, your own valley might also be home to an illegal drug factory or growing operation.
It is difficult to thoroughly identify your neighbors without revealing yourself, and remember also that the same things you are doing to identify your neighbors are techniques will most likely also be in use by your neighbors towards you. For that matter, by federal agencies, who seem to be more than a little interested in secretive groups of people in the American redoubt states. It is sad but true that the things that encourage us – lawful good ordinary citizens – to move to American redoubt locations also encourage bad people to move there, too. Some of our op-sec pro-American values we treasure are often misperceived by some as being anti-American.
It seems only fair to acknowledge that if you believe you have managed to obscure your own retreat, then it is possible you could be immediately adjacent to someone else who has similarly disguised their retreat, too. And while your own motivation for obscuring your retreat is positive and good, theirs may not be quite so positive.
Of course, if you believe you have absolutely uncovered details about all your regional neighbors, isn’t it incredibly myopic of you to simultaneously believe that you’ve managed to simultaneously avoid the prying eyes of all others around you? Plus, wouldn’t you rather be friends with your neighbors, so you can call on them for help if ever needed, plus enjoy a better life in normal times – socializing with them, occasionally swapping or sharing or lending things, and so on?
5. Location Giveaways
Here are some types of unavoidable give aways that will draw attention to you and your retreat. Your concern isn’t just the people who stumble across your location by chance, it is also the people who are drawn to it due to some sort of indicator that calls attention to it, even from some distance away.
For example, what will you do for heat? As soon as you start burning anything, you’re giving off odors that in a a now non industrialized rural area will travel a long way. One more smell in the city means nothing. But in the countryside, anything out-of-place that doesn’t blend into the natural smells – and particularly a burning smell, something we are instinctively taught to notice and fear, will be much more prominent and will be noticed from a reasonable distance.
You’re not only giving off smells, you might be giving off smoke too, providing a visible indicator pointing to your location and visible for many miles around.
Talking about smells we instinctively react to, what will you eat? Even if you only cook ‘low odor’ foods (rice and beans, perhaps) those odors will travel a long distance, particularly if the person smelling them has his sense of smell sharpened by hunger. Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask what you do about bodily waste, but let’s just say there’s a reasonable chance there may be some smells associated with that, too!
6. What about energy?
Will you have a wind turbine? If so, won’t that be very obvious, especially when the blades are turning, indicating that it is still operating and being maintained? Solar cells neatly lined in rows on your roof and kept clean of debris also indicate that rather than being an abandoned old shack, your retreat is a cared for location with added value sophisticated contents.
It is true that generators can run incredibly silently, but it is also true that the outdoors itself can be very silent on occasion, making even the slightest out-of-place sound, like a generator running, draw attention to itself.
Will you ever leave your house? In the winter, you’ll be making footprints in the snow. Will you grow any food in the summer – any type of cultivation or other landscaping will of course be obvious. Will you ever go hunting – the sound of each rifle shot might be heard for miles.
Will you have 24 hour blackout curtains on all the windows – heck, why not just build your retreat with no windows at all, then! If not, your retreat will be a beacon of light at night.
7. The Unavoidable Paper Trail that Leads to Your Retreat
Think about everything that has happened from the moment you bought the property. Your purchase of the property has of course been recorded in the county records. If there were any existing buildings on the property, those are probably already part of the county records.
Maybe you bought some unimproved land and built your own retreat structure. Did you file building permits with the county? Do you have utility connections (visible or not)? Maybe even internet or telephone service? Did you have any contractors do any work on your house? Or building inspectors visit? Did you get mail or courier deliveries at that address? Do you have occasional deliveries of propane or firewood or diesel fuel? Does a septic tank service company visit to pump out your tanks?
Even if you think you’ve done everything off the record, sooner or later, the county assessors will update their database and discover the improvements on your property. Their staff know the areas they are responsible for very well, and if they find a new driveway that didn’t formerly exist, they’ll want to know where it goes. If they happen to see a contractor’s truck going in or out of the driveway, they’ll doubly want to know what is going on. Or maybe they’re just doing one of their two/five/ten year revaluations of all property in the county, and someone notices from an aerial photo the presence of buildings and clear indications of agricultural improvements on a block of land they had formerly categorized as unimproved forestry land.
8. Other Miscellaneous Problems
What do you say if meeting locals in the nearby town in terms of where you live? Someone, and probably several or even many people, know that you’re out there, even if not exactly where – you’ll be the guy who lives somewhere up back of (some other place).
What about your travels to and from your retreat? Have other people seen vehicles they don’t recognize (ie, your vehicles) in out-of-the-way places and wondered who you are and what you are doing? Have you left tire marks, or do you have a formal driveway or some other indicator of a house on the property?
And so on and so on. Will anyone else for 50 miles around you know about your retreat? Unavoidably, and of course.
There are countless ways your presence will be inadvertently revealed, and your life will be a misery if you try to hide it.
The preceding examples show some things you have done or will unavoidably do that draw attention to your retreat. But that’s not all. Your retreat could also be found accidentally.
If your information is/was online, it is probably also printed out somewhere, and a more resourceful looter will access good old-fashioned printed county records to identify tempting targets to go hit. If you were a looter, wouldn’t you consider an obscured out-of-the-way retreat to be more tempting than one close to three or four neighbors?
It also means that from whenever your retreat first starts to appear on these documents and online records, there will be a small but growing level of awareness of your presence.
Why fight against the inevitable
Here’s an interesting comparison. It seems that no matter how convoluted an approach our schools and other self-appointed moral leaders adopt, teenagers find out about sex and then experiment with it. No amount of abstinence advocacy seems to have much effect; indeed one study showed that girls who joined a group pledging to remains virgins until marriage ended up with higher out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates than did other ‘normal’ girls. You can make contraceptives freely available or withhold them, you can educate teens about every aspect of relationships and physical relations, adopting any type of advocacy perspective, and still teenagers have sex and still teenagers get pregnant.
Our point, in case you are wondering, is that op-sec, particularly in a civilian and less controlled environment such as you would be planning for with a survival retreat, is very limited and not very controllable in nature.
It isn’t a case of if your op-sec will be punctured and destroyed, it is a case of when.
Just like the teenagers, somehow ‘the truth will out’ – through any one of many dozens of different vectors – and all of a sudden, your secret will be revealed for all to see. Complete op-sec is unachievable to start with, just like keeping all teenagers chaste.
Much better, we suggest, to accept this reality, and to instead manage the release of selected information about yourselves. Some studies suggest that households that take a matter-of-fact approach to sex end up with teenagers in turn adopting a more restrained view of the topic, rather than being consumed with curiosity about an apparently special super secretive aspect of being an adult. It is the same with alcohol – families that treat alcohol as a functional normal part of their world have fewer binge drinking teenagers and alcoholics.
So too can it be the same with your retreat. If you act casually about who you are, and where your retreat is and why, then the locals will accept it in the same low-key ordinary way you present it.
A key part of op-sec is not eliminating all information flowing outside of your operation. It is instead controlling and shaping the information release, and adopting appropriate internal measures to anticipate the outcomes of the information that has been released.
You don’t need to place a public notice in the local newspaper boasting of your new retreat and all the stores you’ve stockpiled, of course. But you can tell people where you live, and if you’re not there permanently, you can describe it as a vacation home, a hunting/fishing lodge, or whatever else you like. This changes you from being a subject of speculation and gossip, and instead you become a known normal quantity, and no longer worthy of ongoing discussion.
If you do succeed in clamping down on the release of all information, that actually becomes significant. As a comparison, these days, one of the ways to find a submarine in the ocean is to look for an area of unexpected silence – the most sophisticated stealthy submarines now create areas not of detectable noise, but of unusual silence. It is the same with your retreat – if someone is checking off property on a map saying ‘Oh yes, this lot belong to Bill Smith, that lot is forest land, John Jones grows crops here’ then they come to your lot and say ‘Hey, what’s going on here? We better go see.’
Even some of the least sophisticated counties have adopted very complete and detailed GISs – geographical information systems that plot every square inch of land in their county, showing who owns it, recording the location of easements, utilities, wells, rivers, streams, lakes, mines, septic systems, buildings, and all manner of other details. Sometimes this is even publicly accessible online. It is also used, perhaps with greater detail revealed, by emergency services, by county valuers and assessors, health inspectors, building inspectors, and so on through a huge long list of departments and bureaucracies.
If your retreat isn’t already captured in your county’s GIS, it is only a matter of time before it will be, because the state and county agencies revisit and re-inspect properties to update their records on an occasional basis. You might have managed to create your retreat on land the county thought to be undeveloped forest, but sooner or later, they’ll discover your presence, and then you’ll find yourself in an embarrassing situation, un-permitted improvements, non-standard construction, back taxes, penalties, and you’ll transition from being obscure to being very visible. Maybe you are already on several different federal GIS databases (not just police and security ones).
It is much better to take control of these matters up-front, and to manage the release of information. As we said before, you don’t necessarily need to fully share all information about everything, but you need to disclose enough to explain your presence and to make it seem ordinary and normal.
Right from the minute you buy your retreat land from someone, you are starting to create a paper trail and record of your presence. Don’t fight it. Accept it as initiative, positively creating the impression you wish to convey in the local community. The best op-sec is not to adopt an unrealistic attempt to hide away from everyone, always. It is instead a managed release of information on your terms to neutralize potentially harmful speculation and to replace unknowns and curiosity with the impression of whatever semi-normal concept you wish to convey.
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