How to Survive an Abduction or Hostage Situation

One minute you're getting in your car to go to work and the next you're bound and gagged in the back of a speeding van. For most people, being kidnapped or held hostage is a terrifying experience. And it happens that fast. Sometimes so fast that you can't even attempt to escape your abductor(s). Fortunately, most kidnapping victims are released unharmed, mostly fairly quickly. Make no mistake though: any abduction can turn deadly, and whether or not the victim survives depends largely on decisions he or she makes while in captivity.


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    Attempt to thwart the abduction. If you can escape the initial abduction attempt, your ordeal ends right there. However, the first few minutes of a hostage-taking situation or an abduction are the most dangerous, and they become more dangerous if you resist. While in many cases, the potential for immediate escape outweighs the danger of resistance, there are times (if there are multiple armed attackers, for example) where escape is not realistic and therefore not worth the risk. Think rationally and be cooperative in this sort of situation. The first few minutes are often the best time to resist since there are probably people around you depending on where you are. If this is the case and there are others around you, this is the best time to fight back in a way that will gain others' attention and perhaps provide you with their help. After they have you where they want you (in a car or such) there will most likely be no one who can respond to your petitions for rescue.
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    Regain your composure. Your adrenaline will be pumping, your heart will be pounding and you will be terrified. Calm down. The sooner you can regain your composure the better off you will be immediately and in the long run.
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    Be observant. Right from the start, you should try to observe and remember as much as possible in order to help you plan an escape, predict your abductor's next moves, or give information to the police to aid in a rescue or to help apprehend and convict the kidnapper. You may not be able to use your eyes - you may be blindfolded, but you can still gather information with your senses of hearing, touch and smell.
    • Observe your captor(s):

      • How many are there?
      • Are they armed? If so, with what?
      • Are they in good physical condition?
      • What do they look and/or sound like?
      • How old are they?
      • Do they seem well-prepared?
      • What are their emotional states?
    • Observe your surroundings:

      • Where are you being taken? Visualize the route the abductors take. Make note of turns, stops and variations in speed. Try to gauge the amount of time between points. Try counting between each turn, e.g 128 left, 12 right. If you are familiar with the area, this can give you an advantage.
      • Where are you being held? Take in as much detail as possible about your surroundings. Where are the exits? Are there cameras in place, a lock on the door or other security precautions? Are there any obstacles, such as a large couch? Try to figure out where you are and gather information that may be helpful if you decide to escape.
    • Observe yourself:

      • Are you injured or wounded?
      • How are you bound or otherwise incapacitated? How much freedom of movement do you have?
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    Try to ascertain why you have been abducted. There are a variety of motivations for abduction, from sexual assault to ransom demands to political leverage. How you interact with your captors, and whether or not you risk an escape, should depend at least partly on your captors' motivation. If they are holding you for ransom or to negotiate the release of prisoners, you are most likely worth far more to them alive than dead. However, if you've been captured by a serial killer or sexual predator, or if you've been abducted in retaliation for some political or military action, your abductor likely intends to kill you. Your decision of if and when to attempt an escape should be made based on this information.
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    Keep a survival attitude. Be positive. Remember, most kidnapping victims survive - the odds are with you. That said, you should prepare yourself for a long captivity. Some hostages have been held for years but they kept a positive attitude, played their cards right and were eventually freed. Take it one day at a time.
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    Put your captor at ease. Be calm. Cooperate (within reason) with your captor. Don't make threats or become violent and don't attempt to escape unless the time is right (see below).
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    Keep your dignity. It is generally psychologically harder for a person to kill, rape or otherwise harm a captive if the captive remains "human" in the captor's eyes. Do not grovel, beg or become hysterical. Try even not to cry. Do not challenge your abductor but show him/her that you are worthy of respect.
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    Attempt to establish a rapport with your abductor. If you can build some sort of bond with your captor, he/she will generally be more hesitant to harm you.
    • If your abductor is suffering from a form of paranoid psychosis, it's best that you appear non-threatening, but also avoid doing anything that could be construed as manipulation (such as attempting to befriend them), as individuals experiencing paranoid delusions will likely assume you are yet another person conspiring against them. If they feel they are losing control, they may react with a violent outburst. Do not attempt to convince them that their delusions are unfounded, as they may become enraged, and either way it is unlikely they will believe you (from their perspective, their delusions make perfect sense and seem like reality).
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    Avoid insulting your abductor or talking about potentially sensitive subjects. You may think your abductor is a pathetic, disgusting individual. While captives in movies sometimes get away with saying such things, you should keep these thoughts to yourself. In addition, as in most conversations with people you don't know, politics is a good topic to stay away from, especially if you are being held by terrorists or hostage-takers that are politically motivated.
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    Be a good listener. Care about what your captor has to say. Don't patronize them, but be empathetic and they'll feel more comfortable around you and more benevolent toward you. Being a good listener can also help you gather information that would be useful for an escape or to help police apprehend the abductor after you're freed.
    • Appeal to your captor's family feelings. If you have children and your captor also has children, you have a powerful bond already in place. Your captor can probably "put themselves in your shoes," realizing the impact their abduction or death would have on their family. If you have pictures of your family with you, consider showing one or more to your captors if the topic comes up.
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    Try to communicate with other captives. If you are held with other captives, talk to them as much as is safely possible. If you look out for each other and have others to talk to, your captivity will be easier to handle. You may also be able to plan an effective escape together. Depending on the situation, your communication may have to be covert and if you're held for a long time you may develop codes and signals.
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    Keep track of time and try to discern patterns. Keeping track of time can help you establish routines that will enable you to maintain your dignity and your sanity. It can also help you plan and execute an escape if you can detect patterns of when your abductor comes and goes and for how long he is gone. If there are no clocks available, you will need to make a conscious effort to keep track of time. If you can see sunlight, it will be fairly easy but otherwise you can listen for changes in activity outside, make note of differences in your captor's awareness level, try to detect different food odors or look for other clues.
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    Stay mentally active. Think about what you'll do when you get back home. Hold conversations in your head with friends and loved ones. Do these things consciously and you won't be going crazy - you'll be keeping yourself sane. Captivity can be boring and mind-numbing. It's important to challenge your mind so you can remain sane, but also so you can think rationally about escape. Do math problems, think of puzzles, try to recite poems you know, remember the lyrics to songs; do whatever you can to keep yourself occupied and mentally sharp.
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    Stay physically active. It can be difficult to remain in shape in captivity, especially if you're restrained, but it's important to do so if possible. Being in good physical condition can aid in your escape and keep you in good spirits during your captivity. Find ways to exercise, even if it's just doing jumping jacks, pushups, or even pushing your hands together or stretching.
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    Ask for small favors. If you're settled in for a long captivity, gradually ask for small accommodations. Request a heavier blanket, for example, or a newspaper. Keep requests small, at least initially, and space them far apart. You can make your captivity more comfortable and make yourself more human to your captors.
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    Blend in. If you are held with other captives, you don't want to stand out, especially not as a troublemaker.
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    Watch out for warning signs. If your captors decide to kill you, you need to know as soon as possible so that you can plan an escape. If they suddenly stop feeding you, if they treat you more harshly (dehumanizing you), if they suddenly seem desperate or frightened, or if other hostages are being released but your captors don't appear to intend to release you, be ready to make your best move. If they suddenly stop hiding their identities after wearing masks etc, this is a very strong sign that they are planning to kill you, so escape as quickly as possible.
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    Try to escape only if the time is right. When is the right time to escape? Sometimes it's safest to just wait to be freed or rescued. However, if the perfect situation presents itself - if you have a solid plan and are almost certain that you can successfully escape - you should take advantage of the opportunity. You should also attempt to escape, even if your chances are not good, if you are reasonably certain that your captors are going to kill you.
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    Stay out of the way if a rescue attempt is made. Hooray - the cavalry is here! Before you get too excited, keep in mind that aside from the first few minutes of an abduction, the rescue attempt is the most dangerous time in a hostage situation. Your captors may become desperate and attempt to use you as a shield or they may simply decide to kill any hostages. Even if your captors are taken by surprise, you could be killed by the actions of police or soldiers, who may use explosives and heavy firepower to enter a building. When a rescue attempt occurs, try to hide from your captors, if possible. Stay low, and protect your head with your hands, or try to get behind some kind of protective barrier (under a desk or table, for example, or in a bathtub). Don't make sudden movements when armed rescuers burst in.
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    Follow the rescuers' instructions carefully. Your rescuers will be on edge, and they will most likely shoot first and ask questions later. Obey all commands they give. If they tell everybody to lie down on the floor or put their hands on their heads, for example, do it. Your rescuers may even restrain you with zip-ties or handcuffs while they discern who are hostages and who are the kidnappers. Remain calm and put rescuers at ease.


  • If you're placed in a trunk, try to escape. If you can't get out, rip out or kick through the panel leading to the brake lights, and kick the lights out. You can then stick your arm out and alert motorists that you are inside. If you can't push the lights out, at least disconnect the wires so police are more likely to pull the car over. In addition, yell for help and pound on the trunk lid whenever the vehicle stops or is traveling slowly. Try to get a good look at your surroundings to find out where you are.
  • If you are able to dial 9-1-1 or make any requests for rescue, it's better to do it unnoticed. For example, if you have a panic button or a cellphone, try to leave the line open so that emergency services can attempt to trace your call.
  • Be polite to your captors. Even though you may not feel like showing them respect, they may in turn, show you respect.
  • Avoid struggling if you are restrained. It's a good idea to discreetly test your bonds, but don't struggle too much or you could injure yourself.
  • If you escape, contact police and describe exactly what your captors looked like. They may, in the future, get caught!
  • Listen to sounds around you like car hooters, birds or sirens and smells are vital, if you get more or less the same smell each day you'll know it's a suburban area.
  • Develop a safe word with your family or friends. If your captors attempt to contact them, police or family will ask for proof of life, this is when you use the safe word or phrase. Make sure it's a word that you are able to slip into a sentence undetected.
  • Remember the turns that the captors take and things that you hear on the way like seagulls or jackhammers.
  • If you're a foreign national in a hostile country, or if you're captured during wartime, consider the implications of an escape. For one thing, if people won't help you or, worse yet, if they're likely to assist your abductors, you're probably better off not attempting to escape. There is also the possibility, especially during an active conflict, that you're safer where you are than you would be if you escaped. Weigh your decision carefully, because getting away from your captors may just be the beginning of your ordeal.
  • Eat whatever you are given and avoid complaining at all costs.
  • Do what you have to do to stay alive.
  • Get on your back and kick and scream so the captors can't get you that easily. Think that if you get caught, you die. Fight all you can.
  • If you're forced into a vehicle, open the door and get out if you can. If you can't get out of the vehicle, try to jam something into the ignition cylinder before the abductor inserts the key into the ignition or pull the key out of the ignition and jam something in. A button off your clothes, a piece of metal, a stick or the bubble gum in your mouth can all effectively prevent the abductor from inserting the key and starting the vehicle.
  • Remember to cooperate and empathize with your captors but only within reason. In long periods of captivity, captives may develop what is known as Stockholm syndrome, in which they begin to identify with their captors, sometimes to the point of helping their captors commit crimes or escape justice.
  • If possible, make sure that your hands are bound in front of you. An easy way to keep bonds loose is to ball your hands in fists and keep your wrists apart. If your are zip-tied or your hand are tied with rope, this can be highly effective.
  • If you are grabbed try to make a huge fuss or get your phone out so it looks like your calling the police if all else fails try to stab them in the windpipe with your fingers this should give you time to get away safely.
  • If there is more than one person, try to get on good terms with them, especially if they are not the 'leader'. It will be easier to escape if they feel bad for you.
  • Always be calm with the captor and collect everything you need to survive.
  • Be careful what you eat because it could be spiked or drugged.
  • Don't consume any food or drink they give you. They may be drugging you.
  • When being restrained or tied up, remember to stiffen your muscles, as this will make them tie the ropes around around more loosely. Once they are gone, you can un-stiffen them. It will be easier to slip out of the rope/zip ties.
  • If you are in the back of a new car, use it to your advantage. Law states that car trunks open from the inside. Getting a bruise is better than being abducted.


  • Keep in mind that if you are recaptured after an initial escape attempt, you will very likely not get another chance to escape - make your escape count.
  • Don't get your hopes up. A positive attitude is important but if you get excited and then get let down, it will be hard to stay positive. If your captors begin to talk about your release, take it with a grain of salt. Don't set yourself up to be let down.
  • Don't attempt to remove a blindfold, and don't try to take off a mask, either off yourself or off a captor. If the captor doesn't want you to see him/her, it could be a good sign: he/she may intend to release you and doesn't want you to be able to identify him. If, however, you then see him/her, he/she may decide to kill you because you can identify him/her.
  • Be careful not talking to other captives, especially about escaping or about classified information you may have. A fellow captive may rat you out to court the favor of the kidnappers, or one of the "captives" may in fact be a spy for your captors.
  • Be careful about what you tell abductors. If they're holding you for ransom or for political collateral, it's usually best if they think you're wealthy or important, even if you're not. If they abducted you to kill you in retaliation for some political action, however, you want to seem very unimportant and uninvolved, even if you're not. It's very important to determine your captors' motivations so you can determine what to tell them, and what not to.
  • Your attacker will likely be very mad when you fight back, especially if you cause him/her injury. Only become violent if you think you have a good chance of escape, and then do not hold back when attempting to injure your attacker - be as vicious and forceful as possible. It is imperative you escape once you stun or incapacitate the abductor because if you are recaptured he/she will take his/her anger out on you.
  • Attempts to dial 9-1-1 or contact police might result in your captor(s) becoming enraged and possibly causing damage to you or any other persons in captivity. Do it unnoticed.

Sources and Citations

  • U.S. Air Force The Individual's Guide for Understanding and Surviving Terrorism (US Marines publication)
  • Tips to help a child escape an abductor

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