Knowledge is Power: The Value of an Area Study – Part 1, by Viking4


I’d like to give a huge thank you to both Sam Culper at Forward Observer and our own esteemed James Wesley, Rawles. While I was fortunate enough to serve in S-2 shop of an armor battalion during my Army career, without the guidance from these two outstanding gentlemen, I never would have been able to conduct let alone complete these area studies. Intelligence and analysis are must-haves in preparation for what is coming. Please continue to show us the way!

What is an Area Study and Why Would You Need One?

An area study is an element of preparedness and security common to military special operations and civil affairs units. Area studies contain information on a designated area that supports contingency and security planning. The finished product is usually completed before the need arises for the information that is gathered. Once a mission is received, the tactical unit conducts a detailed area assessment using the information in the area study as a starting point. The area assessment supplements the information in the area study based on mission requirements.

In today’s fluid environment, conducting contingency and security planning for your locale supports your preparation to possibly execute a multitude of possible courses of action. I agree with Sam Culper that having one of these will “increase our survivability, allows us to develop realistic expectations and helps us to anticipate future events.” Intelligence drives decision making, and having these facts and data on hand if the need arises can save precious time.

In the past 18 months, I have completed two area studies. The first was for an area in the western part of an upper Midwestern state. Before our family moved, this area study was passed along like-minded individuals who saw the value and would make good use the information gathered. The second was for the new area in the state where we currently reside.

For those interested, Sam has shared a checklist (you knew that word was coming) for the creation of an area study. Both of my studies have used a modified version of his checklist, though I have added details within some of his sections to more accurately meet what I consider local needs.

All of the information in both area studies was gathered using sources available to the general public. In some cases interviews were conducted with long-term residents of the area to flesh out important details for some of the sections. Keep both operational security and your local laws in mind when you prepare an area study.

More information regarding the content of an area study can be found here.

Area Study Checklist

This is the checklist (slightly modified from the one referenced above) I used for both of the area studies I have completed –

• Title Page – This is the cover page inserted into the front pocket of the 11”x 17” binder I used for each study.

• Table of Contents

• Area of Interest (AI) / Area of Operations

• Physical Terrain and Weather

• Human Terrain

• Critical Infrastructure

• Politics and Governance

• Military, Security and Law Enforcement

• Economy and Finance

• Threat Overview


Area of Interest (AI) / Area of Operations (AO)

The Area of Interest (AI) is the area of concern that can influence or is adjacent to the territory where you believe that you will conduct current or planned operations. This will always include areas occupied by enemy forces that could jeopardize mission accomplishment.

The Area of Operations (AO) is the area where operations will be conducted. It is usually defined by the commander and should be large enough to accomplish the missions the unit could be assigned as well as large enough to protect the unit. Typically in an AO there will be one main supply route along which personnel, supplies, and vehicles will be transported.

The AI boundaries for my first area study were determined by one large city, two smaller ones and an easily-recognizable geographic feature. This AI was roughly rectangular in shape. The AI boundaries for my latest are study are determined by one extra-large city, two large cities, and one smaller city. This AI is diamond shaped. Both AIs differ greatly in size but still meet the definition.

Both AOs also meet the definition and will work well for any planned operations by the forces available.

Other considerations in this section include –

• Within the AO I determine two defensive rings, and Inner Ring and an Outer Ring. These rings are more defensive and personal in nature, reflecting home and neighborhood defense if the need arises. Pertinent information regarding these rings include boundaries, names and addresses of neighbors and capabilities that can be brought to bear within the confines of the rings.

• Built-up Areas and infrastructure are listed and information concerning each is included. For example, a town will be named, and information regarding history, important buildings, supply points, etc. are detailed. Roads, bridges, railroads, airports and seaports are named and information regarding their construction, routes, capacity, ownership, etc. are detailed.

Examples of gathered data:

City Name – City Name is the county seat of County Name. The city is home to University Name. A large reservoir is located 8 miles outside the city, covering 10,000 acres with 178 miles of shoreline. The state park nearby was built in the 1930s and is largely wooded, has large camping areas, 4 boat ramps and many trails. According to the 2010 census the city has a population of 17,231 people. The small airport (used as a training base in World War 2) near the city can accommodate small jet aircraft and most propeller driven ones. The most common employment sectors are retail, manufacturing and medical.

U.S Highway 999 – This route enters the AO from the northwest and exits to the southeast. It is a wide, paved, two-lane highway and a major thoroughfare for truck and recreational civilian traffic. It is a priority for plowing in bad weather. Several medium grade hills are encountered on the eastern half of the route, habitually causing problems in the winter months. Outside of the towns the road is bordered by forests and small homesteads.

• Terrain Analysis and Route Recon

Identify any water features, bridges, dams, prominent land features, landing areas and inland waterways in the AO. Again provide as much information as possible regarding these items.

Examples of gathered data –

Harrison Dam – Harrison Dam is a concrete-gravity and embankment dam located 12 miles east of Town Name. It creates Lake Name, a 30,000 acre feature that features prominently in the local economy. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1956 for purposes of flood control, hydroelectricity and downstream navigation. State Highway 999 crosses it. The dam spans 560 feet and rises 110 feet above the riverbed. It houses a power plant with an installed 200MW capacity.

Landing areas – There are numerous small airfields and one mid-sized airport in the AI. See the attached State Aeronautical Chart for details.

• Danger Areas

Danger areas are listed by Near, Medium or Far. (detailed in the Threat Overview)

Finally, this section is completed by including maps delineating the AI, AO, Inner and Outer Rings, infrastructure (built-up areas, railroads, roads, water features), prominent land features and an aeronautical chart. Google Earth, Google Maps, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and local GIS and government sources (Chamber of Commerce for example) can provide the maps needed, usually for no cost.

Data gathered regarding history and statistics can be had using any good search engine. I always double validate source material as some places like Wikipedia have been known to have an agenda. Always remember that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics!

Physical Terrain and Weather

For documenting the physical terrain I use the most current USGS maps available on their website as free PDF downloads. I take these map files to a commercial printer and get two copies of each map printed. The cost for these is reasonable. One copy goes into the area study binder for later use. One copy stays outside ready to be cut and taped together for use as needed (surely you don’t rely on your GPS).

The map load for my first area study consisted of 16 maps for the AO, and 38 maps for the AI, at the scale of 1:24,000. These maps were updated in 2020. After getting them printed on 11”x17” quality paper I place them in an 11”x17” binder. A sheet showing the map coverage (a screen print from the USGS selection page) is printed and placed (beside the cover sheet) in the front outside pocket of the binder.

For my second area study, along with the map scale above, I was able to find large scale 1:100,000 scale maps from the U.S. Forestry Service. While not as up to date as the USGS maps, they do serve well in providing a bigger picture situation map ability that many smaller maps cannot quite do (sometimes you can’t take the intel/OPS NCO out of the TOC). These are also taken to the commercial printer and printed on a plotter in full size (approximately 25”x44”). Again the cost is reasonable.

Other maps can be found locally (such as fishing maps, state park hiking and trail maps for example) that can supplement your physical terrain information.

Weather and climate are two terms more times than not used interchangeably. For the area study, the climatology statistics provide the long term averages for weather data. The best source for this information is the National Weather Service (NWS) followed closely by the state climatology office. Locate the NWS weather reporting station nearest to the AO and several in the AI. All the information is public domain and available for download. Data includes –

• Latitude, Longitude and elevation of the NWS stations
• Average days of precipitation (versus U.S. average)
• Average inches of rain (wettest and driest months)
• Average inches of snow (snowiest months)
• Average sunny days (versus U.S. average)
• Average summer high (average days per year over a certain temperature)
• Average winter low (average days per year below freezing)
• Average UV index (versus U.S. average)
• NOAA Weather Radio frequencies (provides local weather and forecasts)

I am still looking for a good online sun and moon data site. The U.S. Naval Observatory site has been down for quite a while. Having a year’s worth of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and moon illumination data would assist in contingency and security planning.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. Following. The department of wildlife for target areas will publish sunrise / sunset data tables for the purposes of regulation of hunting. I.e. legal big game hunting times, down to the minute. The hunting permit and tag issuance quantities data as well as success ratios for hunt unit areas is also valuable data for area study. This provides more puzzle pieces of data that is useful. (expected number of hunting “parties” inbound, economical seasonal influxes, state / local law enforcement interdiction and overwatch expectations, etc.) Just adding one other points of interest topic to the folk’s study regimen.

    1. Here’s another good link for sunrise, sunset, and moon phases, plus other things you can customize to print on the calendar.

      On the first link, enter our zip code at the top:

      After you’ve entered your zip code you’ll come to this page:

      On that page click either “Jan 2021” to see a calendar with sunrise, sunset, and moon quarters, or click “Custom Calendar” to add other things like moonrise, moonset, day length, etc. These options are underneath “Daylight Saving Type.”

      1. St. Funogas have you a site for creating calendars with phases of the moon and such? If things go sidewise we *might* not be able to buy calendars and you know as a gardener you NEED one for planning a successful garden.

        Also for more basic Area study KNOWING your last and first frost dates? You cannot plan your seed starting with out that information. Knowing the annual rainfall patterns as in about how much is expected each month? If your thinking about rainwater collection you NEED this data to plan and secure the needed gallons of water storage.

        Dirt farmers pray for rain, smart Kulaks store rainwater for the expected dry times.

        Ride your bicycle around your area. You’ll be very grey man and SEE a LOT you never notice driving. Like for example where old apple trees are, small fishing ponds and other resources as well as hazards like that old factory OR nasty trashy dump up stream from your planned water supply? You also might notice who has *Interesting* bumper stickers and flags for future knowledge.

        You will also notice secondary paths you can take when the roads *might* have road blocks-Check Points. You might notice areas difficult to drive a large vehicle into and thus a good rally point-hide for a cache of supplies? You *might* notice natural choke points for an “Accidental Fallen Tree” to slow an unwanted vehicle visitor.

        90% of your trouble AND Help will come from with in 20 miles, KNOW that radii.

  2. Following. This is a big gap in my own preparedness planning. I have two separate locations to work on, home and camp/retreat. Gotta find 11″ x 17″ binders! I’m lucky, due to my work, to have large format plotters available to save the printing expenses.

  3. Cooool. I have a zillion tabs open with all kinds of data about our retreat location, and now you’ve provided a way to organize them in hard copy and take them with us too. Thanks for this.

  4. At a much more detailed level, I believe there is also something called Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield. OCOKA. Maybe you could cover that later (Or should that not be shared with civilians? hee hee )

    While the Army obviously focuses on offense, Area Studies and IPB analysis are also useful for those focused on defense –i.e, looking to Get Out of Dodge. Not to get all Zen on the subject but seeing a hostile scout on key terrain is a good early sign that its time to pack up and move.

  5. Like everyone here, I will be closely following this, and thank you. My military training has taught me to be a big picture and security at different levels. One area of concern for me has been this area. It seemed when I tried, it just didn’t sink in. Thank you for using big crayons to teach a person like me.

  6. Hey Viking4, excellent article. I’ve had it on my list to do some of these things but you’ve definitely broadened the scope and given a lot more things to consider and write down, as well as reminding me to get it in gear and get it done.

    Do have you have any suggestions on the best way to create a grid map on a topo map so anyone listening in on radio communications wouldn’t know where the referenced area is located? And what would be the best scale for a 15-minute map?

    1. Thank you sir! It’s my understanding that the 15-minute map scale of approximately 1:62,500 has been abandoned. If you have those maps you can still use whatever distance for a grid map. I recommend that you choose one that allows you the discretion needed to capture key points but not making it so easy to decipher. Our team uses a rotational letter-number scale by date (1-31) so it adds some additional difficulty trying to figure it out (it also takes some training to learn to use). We use this method on not only our 1:24,000 scale maps but also with map extracts for objectives during exercises.

  7. For those who really like having the manual around, Field Manual 34-130 Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield is the original source. I tend to prefer hardcopy, so check you local Army Surplus stores.

    Amazon has a kindle version available for $2. If you do Amazon.

  8. Today is the anniversary of the second worst maritime disaster in human history: the torpedoing of the German hospital ship Wilhelm Gustloff by the vengeful Russians on January 30, 1945. Six thousand lives were lost. This sinking was conveniently forgotten or buried by the WWII victors.

  9. Good write-up. What you describe should be standard operating procedure for anyone entering the wilderness for any reason.

    Know thyself and surroundings.

  10. Area of Interest: American Redoubt. Includes everything in the U. S. from the divide at the top of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains on the west and the divide at the top of Appalachin mountains on the east (exception: Several large cities). This is the majority of land within the U. S., but it is also the least populated area. This is the area where belief in the Constitution of the United States as it was originally written is strongest. This is also the least represented area of the United States in the government because of its lack of population.

    Area of Operation: Anywhere you live in this area.

    Goal: To build awareness and community within this area to cooperate in developing plans for defense against enemies of the United States Constitution both internal and external, both of which are current threats to our freedom.

    1. @Grey Mann “This is also the least represented area of the United States in the government because of its lack of population.”

      Actually, the coastal urban Democrats claim the Redoubt is grossly and unfairly OVER represented.

      New York has a population of 19.3 Million and two Senators.

      California has a population of 39.4 million and two Senators.

      Wyoming only has a population of 570,000 people and also has two Senators.

      Alaska has 710,000 people and two Senators.
      Montana has 1 million people and two Senators.

      Not that there is anything wrong with that (hee hee).

      I mention this because you need to be aware of your advantages — and why we should all strongly oppose admission of ultra-liberal Washington DC as the 51st state. Which is one of the agendas being pushed now.

      The argument that Washington DC has taxation without representation is hilarious — Washington is a blood-sucking parasite on the rest of the USA and doesn’t give the rest of us any representation either.

      Unless you count being allowed to vote for whichever two puppets the billionaires’ oligarchy has allowed to survive the primaries counts as “representation”. Similar to the kind they had in the old Soviet Union.

      1. One of the many compromises in the Constitution to protect small states from large state tyranny. It is a vital part of the Constitution that is all that keeps California and New York from totally dictating to the rest of the country, which is a current threat since California (Nancy Pelosi) and New York (Charles Schumer) currently have total control over Congress. Nothing can be introduced or passed without their consent. This is why President Washington warned that the two party system could become a threat to our freedom, and it currently is.

        Washington D. C. should be returned to the states from which it’s land was taken, and only the Federally owned buildings should remain federalized. Statehood for Washington D. C. is simply a one party power grab.

        1. Agree the extra representation in the senate is built into the constitution, History class said to entice small states to ratify the constitution. The flip side to that is that the US actually has minority rule by the small population state conservative Senators. Minority rule and lack of representation isn’t good for the long term stability of a county. As conservatives complain about losing the country or all their rights all the liberals are thinking Conservatives/Republicans are already making more of the rules due to the structure of the Senate which was even more of an advantage with the filibuster.

      2. Say it loud, brother: “Unless you count being allowed to vote for whichever two puppets the billionaires’ oligarchy has allowed to survive the primaries counts as “representation”. Similar to the kind they had in the old Soviet Union.”

        This is why I prefer voting each day with my dollars. Direct democracy.

        Carry on

  11. Great article. Looking forward to the second part. We study the great DeLorme maps of our area and have for many years since we bike, hike and run. There are so many trails that are HUGE shortcuts and often go as the crow flies instead of the road that goes 5 more miles out of the way to travel “all the way around”. Some places you could definitely reach faster on foot. It’s also good to follow the creeks and streams on the map and for fun as it’s amazing how many join up with each other. The trails are also mostly wooded and shaded and easier on the joints and legs if you need to cover a lot of ground. Remember when orienteering clubs were popular? Taking a compass along adds to the fun, and then take notes. It certainly is a Covid-friendly activity and young people love it.

  12. Old Farmers Almanac published every year, worth the money – Gives moonrise sunrise moonset sunset dates and times

    Lots of recipes other really good information for planting and growing

  13. I’ve long been fond of everyday hard copy street maps. When the grid goes down you can’t google up any more maps. You can still often find street maps for free through the local Chamber of Commerce,
    and at local city halls or libraries. Also, when traveling from one state to another, the rest area Welcoming building can be a wealth of road and bike trail maps.

  14. I have not done a formal study, but a causal one. One way to speed up the process is to study your county and state emergency management plans, aka Disaster Preparedness, or other such terminology. Download it all, as there copious amounts one might find useful later, such as privately owned and operated microhydro electric plants, bridges, water processing and storage facilities, emergency radio band plans etc. Having been a local helps, yet there is critical information that goes over looked.

  15. This site will he useful for an area study. USGS mineral data maps that you can search by mine commodity or by mine type. This is useful for SHTF and day to day operations. For example I found an old uranium prospect in my retreat AO, plus some gold and silver that is outside the AO but in the same region

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