An Interview with Greg EllifritzEllifritz 400

by Gila Hayes

More and more we hear from people who avoid going unfamiliar places because they’re scared. The concern goes beyond choosing to stay out of dangerous areas because, for example, one may need to drive through a poorly patrolled, lawless neighborhood between the freeway and the medical center designated by our HMO, or maybe a cancelled flight strands us overnight in a big city where crime is rampant. The unknown makes personal safety a bigger topic than not going to the 24-hour supermarket at 2 a.m. or not drinking in a bad part of town.

In search of commonsense coaching that’s more nuanced than just “don’t go where it is not safe,” I turned to author and instructor Greg Ellifritz who travels extensively. Who better to teach about staying safe in unfamiliar environments? I’ve long been a regular reader of his blog at, and I enjoyed his 2020 book, Choose Adventure ( which addressed safety in less-developed countries. Mixed in with details about overseas travel, I found a lot of material that was imminently applicable to navigating unfamiliar areas in the U.S. In the years since Choose Adventure was published, Ellifritz has retired, built up a busy teaching schedule and continues to write and travel.

Earlier this month, I caught up with Ellifritz when he was home briefly between trips and took advantage of a great opportunity to explore applying the lessons of Choose Adventure to staying safe in unfamiliar areas into which we may be thrust without ever leaving the U.S. I think members will enjoy the discussion as much as I did, so we switch now to Q & A format. A less formal video version of our talk with Greg Ellifritz is available at .

eJournal: Thank you for speaking with me. Could you give us a little bio about your career, your many travels, and what you’re doing now as a busy retired guy?

Ellifritz: I’m a retired police officer. I worked 25 years as a police officer in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. I spent thirteen of those years as a full-time tactical training officer for the police department. I had a chief that was very pro-training, and he sent me off to any kind of training I wanted, so long as I brought the skills back to the officers. I amassed about 90 different instructor certifications, mostly use of force related. I retired about three years ago and now I spend about 40 weekends a year traveling across the country teaching gun and knife and empty hand and medical classes.

At about 30, I decided I wanted to see the world and got a passion for travel. Since then, I’ve been spending six to eight weeks a year in countries where I can’t drink the water, doing crazy things. I decided to combine my passion for travel with my desire to teach people how to stay safe with firearms and defensive tactics. I wrote a travel book designed to teach people how to stay safe in questionable areas, whether internationally or here at home.

eJournal: I am interested in how one’s perceptions warn of or let us wander into danger. The book Left of Bang teaches recognizing normal behavior so that something out of the ordinary pings our radar as possibly dangerous. How quickly can you establish a baseline if you’ve never been to an area before?

Ellifritz: It’s tough. The premise of Left of Bang is establishing a baseline, learning what is normal behavior so that you can quickly detect what is abnormal and act on that. If you’re not local to the area, it may be really tough to quickly establish the baseline. When I travel into unfamiliar areas, I pay a lot of attention to what the locals are doing. More particularly, I tend to pay attention to local females, mothers, and especially parents with kids, because they aren’t going to put themselves in dangerous situations unless they have to. If I’m in an area and I see a lot of females walking alone, if I see mothers with children, if I see parents with kids walking around, that tells me it’s probably a pretty safe area in general and I tend to model my actions on the behaviors of those folks until I can get a better read on what’s normal and what’s abnormal. Because they’re probably the most vulnerable to attack, paying attention to women who are alone and to parents with kids provides a real good resource for deciding if something is safe or not.

eJournal: Before leaving home, how much can you front load your knowledge base? Are there ways to get a sense of the environment, even the layout before arrival? In how much detail? In recent years, it’s gotten a little easier for drivers with apps like Waze. How do you prepare? Perhaps you have to go into Baltimore, and you’ve not been there before. What do you do? 

Ellifritz: If I haven’t been to an area in the U.S. before, I’ll pull it up on Google Maps and look at both the satellite view and the street view to get a feel for things. Pretty much universally, I’m looking for signs of disorder; that’s an indication of danger. Do I see a lot of graffiti? Do I see a lot of broken windows? Do I see people, especially young, working-age males, aimlessly hanging around during the day? Are they just hanging out without a reason to be there? I’m looking for bars on the windows. I’m looking for lots of security guards. That tells me a little bit about the place. I can often get that from just very basic satellite views on Google or similar apps.

If I’m unfamiliar with the city and don’t have a whole lot of time to research it, I tend to look for a hotel or a place to stay near real upscale shopping venues, so I look for expensive department stores or something like a Whole Foods grocery store. They don’t put those stores in bad neighborhoods. That gives you just a real quick indication. It is not a hundred percent safe but you’re probably not going to be staying in the ghetto if you’ve got a Whole Foods grocery store next to you.

The other thing I look for is police departments. Even if I’m in a bad part of town staying within eyesight of a police department is probably a good move, even in other parts of the world if the police are corrupt. The criminals aren’t usually going to commit a lot of crimes within view of an active police station. I look for upscale shopping malls; I look for police stations; I look for expensive grocery stores. That generally gives me a baseline level of safety, with some exceptions.

eJournal: Many of us have read books about personal safety that advise always knowing an escape route. How well you can do in an unfamiliar place where there may be unexpected road blockages – maybe a gas main broke – or an exit door in your motel is blocked. How do you hit the ground running?

Ellifritz: I really like getting the lay of the land around the area where I’m staying so I can develop some of these mental escape routes. I start by talking to the taxi drivers as soon as I land in a foreign country or a strange city. As I’m getting a ride from the airport to my hotel, my Air BNB, or wherever I’m staying, I ask the taxi drivers what areas are good, what areas are bad, and what areas I should stay out of. They usually have good intel. 

I follow up with the same questions when I’m checking into the hotel. I ask the hotel clerk, “I’d like to take a walk around the hotel. Are there any areas I should stay away from?” Usually, they know. They’ll say, “Hey, you don’t want to go more than three blocks west. It gets a little shady there, but if you go east, everything’s fine.” Then I set my luggage down and go take a walk. I will find an alternate exit from my hotel floor. You might be surprised if you explore the fire escape. In a lot of places, especially in Asia, they lock up the fire escape doors and you really can’t get out. It’s good to know that before you have to flee some area. So, I’ll take alternate routes out of the hotel; I’ll take a little walk around and look at what’s going on in the neighborhood, get an idea of the general safety, and then plot my exit strategy should I have to leave in a hurry.

eJournal: The fire escape is a good example of different practices in different places. I disagree when people say that America is becoming a third-world nation. Maybe we will eventually, I don’t know, but I think people who say that haven’t been deep in the third world, because it’s really different.

Ellifritz: Yes, it is; it is different. They haven’t been to the third world.

eJournal: That’s not to say poverty and crime do not infest some areas and there are places where budget cuts mothballed that police station that looked active when we booked lodging and guess what? The predators have moved in. Does recognizing that you’re being set up for a robbery have similar warning signs in the U.S. as in third world countries?

Ellifritz: Some yes and some no. In most other countries, we see fewer firearms. Most of the robberies that I investigated as a cop in the U.S. were firearm-related armed robberies. We see more knife crime in other countries, more multiple attackers doing strong arm robberies by physical force, and more setups like scams leading to robberies. It’s less direct than here in the U.S. but it all depends. In some areas you might have the single armed robber just like you might have here; other places the danger might be from a crowd of unarmed people, youth gang members, things like that, but in general a lot of the setups are the same, but the weapons are different.

Another factor: you’re probably not going to have a police officer involved in your robbery in the U.S.A. Depending on where you’re at, in other countries, you can’t really rely on the police. Canada, Western Europe, Australia have generally pretty good police departments that aren’t corrupt, but in other parts of the world the cops may be involved in the robberies. You’ve got to keep that in mind overseas, whereas you probably don’t have to here in the United States.

eJournal: Going back to setup cues: what are the warning signs that we should see half a block down the street and say, “Hmm, I think I’m going take one of those exit routes.” Are there universal warning signs?

Ellifritz: Yes, there are several. 

Anytime someone is paying undue attention to you. You might as a foreigner attract a little bit of attention, but when you have young males paying lots of attention to you, I think that’s a bad sign. They’re watching you for a reason. It may be a good time to get out of there. 

In foreign countries, any time a local approaches a traveler for help it should be considered a warning sign. If you encountered a couple of obviously Japanese tourists in a shopping mall in the U.S., speaking Japanese not English, would they be the first people that you would go to for help should you need it? I would say probably not. If I need help, I want someone who knows what’s going on locally with whom I can communicate.

A change in the baseline, as we talked about earlier, is a warning sign. It could be a quiet bar getting loud; it could be a loud bar suddenly getting quiet. Either of those are changes in the baseline. That’s what we need to recognize and act on. 

When you see any of those three things – someone or several people paying undue attention to you, a local asking for help, or a change in the baseline – those are big warning cues that you are not in a place you should be in and it’s time to move on as quickly as possible.

eJournal: That reminds me of John Farnam’s axiom, “Don’t dither!” There is great value in decisiveness. What if I start worrying, “Will my decision take me deeper into danger?” which of course is our fear and keeps us from moving away briskly. What other things do we do that catch the eyes of predators?

Ellifritz: An obvious, ostentatious display of wealth. That’s true whether you’re here or abroad. You don’t want to be the person with the very expensive watch or jewelry, counting the cash in your wallet on the street in front of people who have far less than you. Any obvious displays of wealth are a big no-no both here and abroad. Combined with general cluelessness, not looking like you know what’s going on around you, not paying attention to anything – those are go signals for robbers and that’s universal around the world, here or abroad. Two tips will keep you out of a lot of trouble: pay attention to what’s going on around you and don’t flaunt your wealth.

eJournal: When we are outside our familiar culture, we are at risk of offending the locals. Maybe we’re too abrupt or we’re not polite enough or we’re ingratiating. Maybe that demeanor works in Nashville, but it’s not okay to act that way in Nogales. Do we make cultural mistakes here at home or is that a foreign travel problem?

Ellifritz: I think it’s more trouble for foreign travel, but to be honest, I think a lot of the guidebooks put a little bit too much emphasis on this. As Americans, we understand if someone from another country did something weird, we wouldn’t necessarily judge that as offensive, because they’re coming from a different place, and they may not understand what we do here. People all around the world are mostly the same way. Even if you do something offensive, they tend to cut you a little bit of slack because you don’t know the rules. Try to keep smiling, apologize if you’ve offended someone, ask “Did I do something offensive?” They’ll tell you. 

I think probably the biggest thing that we see is differing hand gestures. I try to minimize talking with my hands and making hand gestures when I’m in other countries. If I screw up, most people are going to cut me a little bit of slack, just like we would cut a foreign traveler a bit of slack here. If you make an unintentionally offensive hand gesture, it’s not quite the death sentence that some of the guidebooks might make it out to be.

eJournal: You mentioned such simple things: smiling and looking pleasant, looking friendly and kind. We get tons of coaching on what to do and not to do that we miss the importance of what we project. One behavior that baffles many pertains to managing or masking fear if you realize you’re in a bad situation. What are your thoughts?

Ellifritz: One critical factor that masks fear is being decisive. Even if you are scared, making a decision and following through with that decision is a pretty good piece of advice for dealing with the fear. If I’m scared something is not right here, rather than stay in the environment and continue to get information, I’ll act, make a decision, get out of there.

You need better knowledge about what to actually be scared of. In general, what kills travelers is not kidnapping, robbery or terrorist attack. It’s car crashes and more mundane things. Having a good baseline knowledge of the types of attacks that are common in the areas that you’re frequenting and what really tends to cause lots of damage will leave you a little bit less scared when you have to interact with the locals. When you’re traveling to other countries, the chance of being kidnapped or shot in a terrorist attack is really, really small, but the chance of dying in a car crash is much greater than here in the United States. 

I tell a story in my book. When I’d only been traveling internationally for a few years, I was in Ecuador on a trekking tour. An Australian guy who was at the hostel and I decided to take a walk through Quito. We ended up in a neighborhood where there weren’t many tourists. We quickly attracted the attention of a whole bunch of drunk locals drinking big 40-ounce bottles of beer out in the street. They approached and I thought, “Oh, the fight is on for sure.” We were surrounded by young men out in the street drinking. In their halting English, they said, “We don’t get many English speakers here. If you let us practice our English, we’ll share our beer with you.”

We’d thought they were about to smash in our heads with their big beer bottles. It turned into an impromptu language lesson and shared beers in some rural town in Ecuador.  You have got to understand that being scared isn’t always indicative of true danger. The more experiences like that you have, the less scared you get.

eJournal: Looking around frantically can communicate unease, too. We get conflicting advice on scanning. How surreptitious is your scanning? How do you address keeping your head on a swivel, or do you?

Ellifritz: Well, I don’t. When I’m entering a new environment, I look around just very generally and see what people are doing. I don’t make active scanning motions. I’m not constantly “head-on-a-swivel” everywhere because especially outside of the United States that gives the locals the impression of one of two things.

One is that you’re very scared and that’s a “Go” sign for the bad guys.

The other reason, especially for a guy like me with short hair who’s big and looks like a cop, is the head-on-a-swivel looks like I’m paying attention to everybody. No foreigner does that unless they are CIA, DEA, or some type of foreign police officer trying to shut down whatever crime syndicate the locals have going. That’s a bad place to be!

I don’t want to look like a DEA agent all by myself in a foreign country who’s looking to shut down their drug selling operation, you know? That’s what it looks like when people do that constant, head-on-a-swivel scanning. I like a relaxed awareness of what’s going on. Know who’s around you and what they’re doing. If you can do that without looking like a paranoid freak, you’re going to be way, way better off, especially in a foreign country.

eJournal: How we scan is sort of a test of our sophistication. I’m reminded of the great Ed Lovette, with whom I’ve had the privilege of studying. He gave an interview that I titled Beneath the Radar, in which I bounced the phrase “head-on-a-swivel” off him while asking about awareness. He indicated, in Ed’s inimitable way, that he really did not care for it.

Ellifritz: Ed is a wonderful resource. He is a friend of mine whom I have known for a very long time. Anybody watching this interview who doesn’t know who Ed Lovette is and hasn’t read his Snubby Revolver book, and his book with Dave Spalding, Defensive Living, should put his books at the top of their reading list because he has some experience that very few people have nowadays.

eJournal: That’s absolutely right. Both you and Ed have done us a great service by applying safety lessons learned overseas to daily safety here in the U.S. We could also use coaching on how to ask for help as safely as possible after an accident, automotive break down, or an unexpected medical issue. How do we fail – other than just not asking for help? How do we get help when needed?

Ellifritz: In foreign countries, knowing the word for help is pretty useful, but if you’re asking for help after something serious, a car accident, a medical emergency, or a robbery, I think most of the people who are interested in helping and would come to your aid, can figure out what’s going on and get you the help that you need. That’s one of the things that people are pretty good about all over the world and maybe even more so in other countries where there’s a feeling of national pride. They feel bad if a tourist is injured and they really want to show a foreign tourist that they are helpful, kind people who will do everything possible.

Now, the issue is what can be done in those environments. In the United States, if you need help, you call 9-1-1. In most places, you’re going to have police or medics there in a short time. That may not be true in other locales, but there I think most people are going to be as helpful as they can be.

eJournal: Do you think as Americans we are slower to step up and lend a hand?

Ellifritz: I think so. Maybe our legal system causes a fear of lawsuits more than other countries where the legal systems tend to be a little bit different. Furthermore, I think Americans are accustomed to allowing authority figures to handle problems. In the developing world especially, no one is coming to solve the locals’ problems and they’re used to helping each other because they can’t really rely on any of the governmental institutions to help them. They are more likely to be helpful and figure things out for themselves rather than waiting for the military or the police or the paramedics. You’re probably in a little bit better spot if you’re asking for help in a foreign country than you are here in America.

eJournal: Whether it’s asking for help, confirming exit routes or avoiding problems, we are trying to strike a balance. It’s interesting because your balance is going to be so different than mine.  I don’t want to be so cautious that I never leave home, but I don’t want to take stupid risks, either.

Ellifritz: I think a lot of us, especially folks who are into self protection and the gun world, tend to overestimate the risks of travel and underestimate the benefits. I have learned more about dealing with criminals and dealing with people of other ethnic origins and backgrounds and just how to be a good human through traveling than I ever learned through any of the thousands of hours of defensive training that I had. Travel makes you more adaptable and those skills remain with you even when you come back home. I think that’s really critical.

A lot of people fail to account for the benefits of the travel and tend to only see the risks, but that’s a bad accounting in my estimation. I don’t want you to do stupid things, but there are a lot of ways that you can travel internationally, even to potentially dangerous areas, and do so in as safe a manner as possible. The benefits far outweigh the risks, but a lot of people don’t have a real good handle on that, mostly because they lack experience.

The first time I traveled I was completely paranoid. I was 28 years old the very first time I left the country. My sister had a destination wedding in Jamaica. I wore body armor on the plane and brought every type of weapon imaginable. I got down to Jamaica and all the resort folks said to stay on the resort. “It’s too dangerous to go outside,” they said.

I got bored after several days on the resort and decided to take a walk into town. A taxi driver approached me when I went into a convenience store to buy a bottle of water, introduced himself and told me that he just got out of the Jamaican military and was trying to make a living as a taxi driver. He said, “I’ll make you an offer. I’ll give you a private tour of my hometown in my taxi and at the end of it you pay me what you think I’m worth.” I thought to myself, either this is going to be really good or I’m going to end up somewhere missing a kidney.

I took the risk, and he gave me a great tour that only a local could provide: all the local markets, restaurants and bars, and some scenery that a tourist wouldn’t know about. It was such a good trip that I booked him the next day to do the same kind of tour for the rest of my family.

Without taking those kinds of risks, I would have never had such a wonderful experience learning about a completely different culture. That’s the kind of thing that a lot of folks don’t understand. They’re too worried about their safety. It’s really not all that dangerous to travel to other countries, even the less developed ones. Most people are not trying to kill tourists or rob you or steal your organs; you’re going to be fine in most cases.

eJournal: Let’s play a little mind game. What if the taxi driver had approached you in New Orleans, for example? Would you have gambled...

Ellifritz: There would have been no chance, no chance would I jump in a random car with somebody who approached me on the streets of New Orleans! In another country, the equation is a little bit different. People act differently and some of the risks pay off. Those benefits are something a lot of people really discount, and in my opinion, they shouldn’t.

eJournal: Back to seeking balance: here at home, especially with either permitless carry or reciprocity, one might go into a dangerous area saying, “Well, I’ve got a gun, I’ll be okay.” We’re doing that balancing act between not to stepping beyond the front door and going where a wiser person might ask, “Well, should you have really been there even if you had a gun?” Where’s the balance?

Ellifritz: Each person individually has to draw that line. I don’t think that having the gun gives you a license to do stupid things, especially in our current, litigious environment. I wouldn’t do anything with a gun that I wouldn’t do without a gun, either here or abroad. If I wouldn’t do it because I’m not armed, I probably wouldn’t do it, period. That’s probably a smart way of looking at things. That gun doesn’t give you a license to do stupid things.

eJournal: That’s an excellent sound bite. You may have the title for your next book, Would I Do It Without a Gun? Are you writing anything else?

Ellifritz: I am. I currently have six different books in some stage of completion. I think I have writing attention deficit disorder. I get a book about halfway done and get bored with it and move on to the next one. I’m currently trying to finish two of them.

I spend most of my winters now in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. I’m writing a travel guide for first timers to that city. Then I’m also working on a book on tourist scams in the developing world. The most feedback from the readers of Choose Adventure is about the chapter on travel scams, so I wanted to expand that. I’ve done quite a bit of research. I’ve traveled Mexico and Turkey and Colombia trying to intentionally get myself scammed, interacting with every hustler, drug dealer and hooker I can find on the street just to see how their scams work. It’s all going into a travel scam book that I’m working on right now.

Last summer, I spent three weeks in a very wealthy part of Medellín, Colombia where most of the expats live. Because it has money, that’s where all the hustlers and scam artists operate, too. Every night after dark, I walked for an hour or two on the streets. I speak passable Spanish and I engaged with every single con artist and hustler that I could find, just to see how they were trying to scam me and learn how they operated. It was very educational. I learned quite a bit doing it, so I repeated it both in Mexico and in Turkey this last summer and got some good results. I’m writing all that up in a book that should be out before the end of the year if everything goes well. Look out for that one. I think it’ll be good. 

eJournal: I can’t wait to read it! Do you ever anticipate writing about defensive tactics just for plain old Americans? I think you’ve got a tremendous amount to offer.

Ellifritz: I’ve thought about it, but is it a valuable use of my time? You know, most Americans don’t read. The big, 500-page travel book that I published is very successful by independent publishing standards, but I could make more in a weekend of classes than I made after eight years of working on the book. Should I teach more, or should I write more? Right now, the writing isn’t paying as well as the teaching.

I’ve got over 2,000 articles on my website at, where I’ve been writing three to four articles a week since 2012. Eventually, when I get done with all these books I’m working on, I’m going to start compiling some of the articles into books on certain topics. I think that will be my contribution to the American self-defense scene.

eJournal: That compendium would be great, and in the meantime Network members, it’s all on where there’s a wonderful resource archived. For now, though, what would you like us to take away from our talk today?

Ellifritz: I start my book with this. Most of the people who are going to be reading this or watching the video version are familiar with John Farnam’s admonition not to go stupid places with stupid people and do stupid things. The same holds true for international travel. You don’t want to do stupid things, but being unfamiliar with the environment, we don’t know what’s stupid and what isn’t.

What may be stupid here, may not be stupid in other areas, so a little bit of research before you go is really important and I would say that the benefits of travel in the developing world far outweigh the risks for most people. That’s an equation that is improperly weighted in many folks’ minds. I think if they did a little bit of exploration, the world would be a much better place for them. It isn’t as big of a danger as people make it out to be.

eJournal: What you just said applies equally to traveling around our country. If you live on the West Coast, go visit the East Coast; go to the mountains, go down to Galveston, whatever you want to see. 

Ellifritz: No doubt. Life is short. Staying inside locked in your living room with your AR-15 sitting next to you isn’t really the life that I want to live. There’s a time and place to be paranoid and to be armed. I’m not discounting that at all, but sometimes the greater lessons are learned when we’re a little bit more vulnerable.

eJournal: So true! Greg, this has been great. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Ellifritz: I’ve wanted to talk about this particular topic for quite a while and no one’s been interested so I’m really glad that this is a topic of interest to you and the Network members. If anybody has any additional questions, get ahold of me through my website. There’s a contact form right on the website home page that goes straight to my email. If I can help you out, please get ahold of me and I’ll try my best to do so.


The Network is proud to count Greg Ellifritz amongst our Affiliated Instructors. Since his retirement several years ago, he has greatly increased the number of classes he teaches. Learn more about his gun, knife, empty hand and medical classes at . Don't miss the book we mentioned several times in this interview, Choose Adventure. Learn more at .


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