10 Survival Tricks Learned from Homeless People

Do you remember that movie from 2004 called The Day After Tomorrow?

It is an end-of-the-world scenario where a group of people find themselves trapped in a library as a storm plunges us into a new ice age. How do they stay warm through the blizzard and freezing cold?

Luckily for the group, one of them was a homeless man – and homeless people have all sorts of tricks about how to stay warm in the cold.

He told them to stuff their jackets with wadded-up paper. That extra layer of insulation saved their lives.

While we might dismiss them and put them at the fringes of society, there is a lot we can learn about survival from homeless people. After all, who would you trust more with survival tricks: someone fantasizing about disasters or people who live through disaster-like situations daily?

Here are some survival tricks that homeless people use that could one day save your life.

Control Your Desperation

A guy who goes by afrostyplease had a great blog called Guide2Homelessness. That is where I read some of the best survival advice I’ve ever heard. It is about controlling desperation in bad situations. Here is what he had to say:

“Where will you sleep tonight? What will you do tomorrow? Don’t focus on what you can’t do or haven’t got. You have a lot of resources, if only you will recognize them. Try to identify your most pressing problems individually, and find a straight line to a solution. You need a warm place out of the rain? How about a hotel lobby, or a hospital waiting room, or a laundromat, or a bus station, or a fast food restaurant? You need to clean up? That’s easy. You need some food? You can fill your belly on less than a dollar’s worth of rice… My point is that to begin surviving, you need to change your head. Abandon anger, desperation, depression, melancholy. Embrace confidence, strength, abilities, resources. Be positive, by all means.”

If You Fight, You Get Hurt

Anyone who has studied martial arts will tell you it isn’t about fighting or self-defense. Martial arts teaches you not to fight.

The best way to win a fight is to not get into one in the first place.

This is something that homeless people have learned well. They know that engaging or responding to hostility doesn’t help them achieve their goal (and the goal is survival).   Yes, it can shatter your ego when someone is hostile. It can seem weak to back down when someone comes at you.

But if you fight when you don’t have to, you risk your survival.

Will fighting serve your ultimate goal? Unless you are trying to prove yourself as some alpha male, I highly doubt it (and that brings us back to the ego being the main reason for fighting).

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever fight. If someone is attacking you, fight until you can flee.

Blend In

You know how we are constantly being criticized for not noticing homeless people and how they are called things like America’s “invisible population”? Part of this is because homeless people don’t want to be seen.

You could become a target for predators like thieves when you are noticed. When you are noticed, you might be kicked out of your location. When you are noticed, hostile people might come at you…

Keep this in mind when you are fleeing in a survival situation. For example, if the grid goes out,  you have a generator and turn it on. Now, your home is the only one on the block with lights glowing out of the window.

Guess where all the scared masses will come running to?

You’d be better leaving the lights out rather than drawing attention to yourself!


Clothing has many uses, like as rope, bandages, napkins, shelter, collecting water…

Choose your clothing wisely! Everything must have a purpose.

Dress in layers so you can easily adjust to changes in weather. A big bulky winter jacket won’t help you, especially once you start sweating and then freeze from being wet. You will be better off with multiple light jackets that you can add/remove as necessary. They will dry faster, too.

Again, remember that you’ve got to blend in. You might have some great survival clothing – but don’t wear it if it will make you stand out from the crowd.

Staying Warm

Staying warm is vital for survival because so much of our energy goes to heating our bodies. More specifically, about 50 to 80 percent of your calories go to maintaining body temperature. If you get cold, you will need more food, which means using up your precious stockpiles.

In wilderness survival situations, you can make one of these survival shelters to help you stay warm. You can also use homeless tricks like:

  • Putting cardboard under you to create a layer of insulation between you and the cold ground
  • Get a mylar blanket. Put it between two blankets, which will help the blankets hold in much more heat. Wrap the blankets around you.
  • Fingers and toes will get frostbitten quickly! Buy some hand warmers from a camping store. Or pour boiling water into water bottles (wrap the water bottle in a towel because it will leak!) and use these to warm your hands.

Read more about cold weather survival.

Staying Clean

In survival situations, cleanliness can quickly go out the window. But cleanliness is essential for survival!

  • What if you get a cut on your dirty leg? It will get infected, and then you’ve got a severe problem.
  • What if you get a rash or blisters from all that dirt rubbing on you? Good luck walking far!
  • What if you get sick from eating with dirty hands? There go your chances of survival!!!

We notice the dirty, downtrodden homeless people but most are quite clean looking. This is because they use all sorts of tricks. Yes, they really have mastered the art of taking a shower with a water bottle.

One cool hygiene trick used by homeless people is wet wipes. Rub yourself with a wet wipe, and you will be as good as new! The ones with lotion on them will take off dirt really well. You can also make your own wet wipes.

Get a bottle and mix the following:

  • 2 tbs baby oil
  • 2 tbs body lotion
  • 2 tbs shampoo
  • 1 cup water

Put a bit of this mixture on a napkin and use the napkin to clean yourself. It will take off all the grime and smell!

And another hygiene tip: use sunscreen. If you get burned, the burn can quickly become sore and get infected.

You Need a Companion

Have you ever wondered why so many homeless people have dogs and will even buy dog food for the animals, even though they can barely feed themselves? It is because you need a companion to survive. A canine one will do the trick if you don’t have a trusted human companion.

The companions serve multiple purposes;

They help protect you (safety in numbers).

They keep you company so you don’t get overwhelmed by desperation.

They help keep you warm by sleeping next to you on cold nights.

They can serve as lookouts.

homeless vet with dog

Image credit: Iowa City by Alan Light Found on Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Stay Where You Know

Why don’t some homeless people venture into subway tunnels while others stay solely in the tunnels? It is because of the advice stay where you know. If you don’t know what is lurking somewhere, avoid it! It is much safer to stick to familiar terrain.

This is particularly good advice for all of those preppers who plan on bugging out into the wilderness somewhere when SHTF. I am all for bugging out in the wilderness – but only if you’ve taken time to scout out the terrain first.

Otherwise, you are probably much better off hunkering down in the familiar location of your home and neighborhood.

Never Take Your Pack Off

Your survival pack is your life. Sleep with it strapped to you so no one can steal it.   Or, use it as a pillow but keep your arms hooked around it.   Not only will this help prevent theft, but it goes along with the next survival trick.

Not sure what to pack? Read this article about the 11 things you need in your survival pack.

Always Be Ready to Leave

You never know what to expect in survival situations. You have to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice. So, even if you’ve found the best bug out location and set up camp, don’t get too attached. Your disaster plan should always include a contingency in case you’ve got to go. And fast!

What do you think – will you be ready to survive when SHTF? Let us know in the comments section.

Your Vital Information, Organized and Ready!

Get our Emergency Binder.

Instant Download. No Ads.

emergency binder

Comprehensive, easy-to-use Emergency Binder

Effortlessly populate your binder: type your information into our easy-to-use PDF, save a digital copy for easy access, and print a copy for physical backup.

It couldn’t be easier. There’s no confusion or headaches. Just clarity and peace of mind.

Learn More

Leave a comment

  1. living in a car. 77 blind one eye deaf one ear.
    cold at night. i always go from one location to another so no one thinks im squatting.cant trust anyone.

  2. Im57 & Disabled to to the high cost of living I can no longer pay my bill & will be Homeless Soon thank you for everything you have helped but I’m still scared for its my first experience being homeless. May God Bless Everyone

  3. Hello everyone. I know this is an old article but, the problem never goes away. Just wanted to send encouragement and hope to all who are struggling. I have been living in a tent for 6 months and trying to prepare for the cold weather. I am fortunate that I have a place to set it up and have access to running water. It is hard though. I have a job and have been able to look presentable but it’s a constant struggle. One thing I have learned is how long it takes to set things up and take care of whatever problems to deal with for the day, get what you need, etc–while relying on what daylight you have. A good headlamp is essential but be careful to use when or where you won’t draw attention to yourself. Have a back up plan in case you get to your site and find things have been destroyed by weather, people, animals etc. The words about the feeling of desperation are so true.. Even when I stay at a family members for the night or think I might be in a home again, I find it very difficult to truly relax. Does anyone know how to lose that feeling of guardedness and impending doom? I wish you all comfort and ease!

  4. Was a working homeless person one summer. lived in my van, ate canned food for the first 2 weeks cold. with my first paycheck I got a coleman stove. I learned to wash my clothes by hand and hang them in the woods near where I was able to park.
    I think my biggest helpful hint-find a Dollar Tree. a box of band-aides and a small tube of triple antibiotic ointment is a must. Getting the full sized bottles of shampoo, toothpaste and all for a dollar will last you longer. Get a bottle of vitamins. All kinds of cleaning items, fresh pair of socks, sometimes even t shirts.
    You can count out cans for a few days, split that can of pasta if you have to, but
    Everything being a dollar makes it easyer to count out how much you have. BUT be careful, cause You can get in trouble buying to much just as fast.
    Ive always been told to know my surroundings.
    God Bless,

  5. In several countries Church services are followed by tea + loads of cake, sandwiches, fruit sausages etc. Also – including Brisbane’s St.Vincent de Paul’s gives free or cheap accommodation + meals for those staying there + meals out back for non residents. Over the years in Portobello Road, London & Sydney Markets i have been able to largely feed an entire apartment with market vast left-overs. A tiny folding bike is indispensable, as were British, Yank & Australian Survival books for bush tucker – including Vanuatu villages where hurricanes have destroyed all food gardens. In 1960s & 1970s the book “Golden Guide to South & East Asia” fed & housed us from Malaya to Afghanistan & Iran via India, Thailand, etc.

  6. Thank you for this. I am facing homelessness, in about 25 days actually. I am a 45 year old woman, with many, many health issues, and am unable to work. I have been fighting disability for about a year and a half. I currently live in a very, very small town, on low income housing. I am being evicted because my daughter moved out and the rules state that 2 people must live in the home, because there are 2 bedrooms. The 1 bedrooms are for disabled, and since I am not technically disabled I do not qualify. I’ve exhausted all resources, and will be taking my dog and 3 cats to live in my car with me. Let me add, that I live in one of the coldest states in the US, with below zero temps and alot of snow. Anyways, Since I’ve had a bit of time, I’ve been researching how to stay warm, how to live in your car, etc. etc. This is by far the most helpful article I’ve read, and I really just wanted to say thank you. You just never know who will benefit from your words. Also, a big thank you to all of the other posters for their tips.

    • Heartbreaking story Chris, thank you for sharing. Humbling to know that this article has helped so many and to all the people who have commented and shared their own experiences we are truly thankful, your words are helping others through some bad situations. Be careful out there.

  7. HI. A large plastic garbage bag with a hole for your face cut in the corner (think contractor bag) makes a quick, waterproof shelter-easy to unfold, refold, carry.
    Many wild plants are edible. Google will help you. I have seen mullberries growing not far from Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan. Delicious.

  8. I understand fully – lived in my car for a year … was able to get food, just no place to live & no job … if you get the chance, buy veg. seeds to plant in different areas in the spring – the rain will water your little so called garden where you can at lease have something to eat – lettuce, green onion, garlic, doesn’t take too long to grow … use plastic water or pop container to warm water or if in a spot where you can’t get warm water – pee in the bottle – it’ll help keep you warm … I know it sounds gross but it works … best to not get into that situation but you never think it’ll happen & when it does & no help available – survive the best way you can.

  9. I hawe read a lot of these sights where people preper. But this page gave me a shiver. I am so impressed with the wisdom and coolness I am speach less. Hope that all the goods are smiling one you and your family. And from the bottom of my heart thanks for good advice.
    Love Ola

  10. My thoughts on prepping exactly. Spending a ton of money on all the elaborate gear will mean nothing if you can’t do what homeless people do. If you can hitch cross country and pan handle a little bit, you’re miles ahead of people with expensive equipment, because you learn how to adapt psychology and work with the social order, without the benefits of being part of it.

  11. I have never really visited this site a whole lot before the last month or so but this post and the comments from tony really hit home. My family(wife, daughter Olivia-age 7 now and daughter Ashlynn age 4 now)and I found ourselves in a new city scammed out of our last bit of money that we thought we were using for a place to live and with no one or nowhere to go to. We went from living in a 6 bedroom house best neighborhood, $200k a year and due to family illnesses, unfortunate company closings, and then being scammed out of money and place to live…homeless in a place we had never been and nobody we knew.

    It all seemed to happen so fast it was like one day things were tight but still just fine to homeless the next day. As tony said you try to not look homeless especially with the two little girls you know where to avoid how to keep clean etc. It really is a fight for survival everyday all while trying to fool your kids teacher’s into thinking they had a normal home life.

    I really never knew what it was truly like to be homeless and how hard all the stupid little things become that were always taken for granted, restroom, showers, cooking or eating at all. The one advantage we had was we had the car we showed up in with to sleep in at night but even that becomes a challenge you have to move every couple night to avoid being noticed but only a handful of spots are suitable so you rotate through different spots you find to stay unnoticed by people, police, other homeless. We ended up renting a storage unit so we would have constant access to restroom and running water and a place to store and change clothes.

    Look for ymca and rec center that do the first visit free to check out facilty so we could get full showers. Anyways as tony already made clear every every single day is a fight I was blessed and hurt by having my family to take care of because it gave me a reason to not let the depression and sorrow take over and force me to give up but it also meant 3 mouths to feed and bellies to fill before I could bring myself to eat anything I always stayed well hydrated because I had more than one occasion where a granola bar was all i had to eat for 2-3 days.

    It took us a year to get out of that situation and on May 1st, 2018, one month ago tomorrow we were finally able to get off the streets and we still have our kids with us thank god CPS never got called somehow. It was a very trying time that seems almost designed to keep you there once homeless. My dad family is doing great and I couldn’t be happier.

    I myself have a little ways to go to be considered healthy I’m sure after losing 70 pounds and probably a little of my sanity lol. I think thw weirdest part about being in a place we can call home again is I still feel like I can’t just stop and relax or be done for the day. I feel like I always have to be out finding money, food, work, clothes or whatever the immediAte need is that moment or come morning. I will find myself waking up at night and just walking around apartment like I have to be ready to protect or feed them which I do always but we are finally relatively safe yet I can’t seem to grasp it yet. I apologize for so much rambling and sob story I just never thought it could happen to us and then I thought we might never get back out at times

    • Truly inspiring story Joshua. With that kind of grit and determination I wasn’t surprised to read you came through your situation. Stay strong and thanks for sharing.

      • Wow I’m getting such an appreciation for the everyday things I take for granted from yours and Tony’s stories. I heard something wonderful once that said, If you woke up today with only the things you prayed about and asked thanks for yesterday, what would you have? I can truly say I appreciate this story immensely and will try to be more thankful for the little things, thank you for sharing and so happy you found a better situation for you and your kids.

    • Hey Joshua,

      I was inspired by your story.

      I am a widower, a single dad, father of three biological and seven adopted kids. I am also fostering right now and am in the process of adopting four more kids.

      I have found that involvement in a community of faith has been a great resource to my family in times when we have found ourselves in challenging circumstances, like the death of my wife due to cancer. Our faith community assisted and encouraged us in so many ways. I encourage you to get involved in such a community as the people there will wrap their arms around your sweet family when you need them the most.


  12. This is a very interesting topic. I have never really thought about how the homeless are the ultimate survivalists. It is hard to put yourself in the position of a homeless person and this article really allows the reader to get into their minds. I get irritated and upset when I see a homeless person with a dog but now I will think twice before I get angry and realize that it is his/her way of survival!

  13. Thanks Tony, I enjoyed your post as much as the original story. Be blessed man. I hope the wisdom shared will touch people to make sure they do what they can to help others.

  14. I was homeless myself for awhile due to undiagnosed Depression & PTSD(I am a military veteran). One thing I did was to avoid the traditional “homeless areas”, which are usually in really shifty areas of town… yes, it was harder on me as there was no soup kitchen within walking distance, but the added security was worth it in my mind. Sure, you STILL worried whether someone was going to slit your throat in the middle of the night, but the odds of it actually happening where greatly reduced. I slept behind a flower shop, sneaking into the area after dark and back out before dawn to avoid getting caught. In the town I was in, the police were VERY hard on the homeless, as if BEING homeless was a crime! But it was a HUGE vacation hotspot, so we can’t have anything jeopardize those almighty tourist $$$… let’s just shuffle that pesky *reality* out of the way so it doesn’t interfere with the coffers being filled. I also made sure to never leave anything behind that might alert someone to my presence. I would go to the library to use the Internet to have some sort of connection to what was going on in the world besides my own day-to-day survival. The 99 Cent store was a boon to getying cheap food. I had to make a single can of refried beans last 2 days once… but there were days when I had nothing at all. One time – JUST ONCE – I was VERY hungry and I asked the guy behind the counter at a 7-11 convienance store if I could have a hotdog. He said “no”. I have no doubt whatsoever he knew my situation… but I also know from experience that there is a tiny segment of the homeless population that the entire thing is a scam – a way to live without responsibilities, to get as much for free, by hook or by crook, as possible. Honestly, I was shocked when I came to that realization. “These people have actually CHOSEN to live like this! They think this is some sort of con game.”, I thought to myself. Once again, reaffirming my choice to avoid those ‘homeless areas’, which added to my isolation, which just made my Depression worse, but added to my safety at the same time. I made sure to pay attention to my appearance, both out of not giving the cops any clues to pick up on, and shame about my situation. One morning I was sharing food with an old homeless man who would sleep by the library(he never caused trouble so the nightime security guards wouldn’t run him off) & I finally admitted to him that I was homeless too… he had no idea. I tried to stay clean & groomed as best I could. I remember wearing just a pair of shorts & taking a “shower” in the automatic sprinklers of the big city park that would water the grass at night. That would have been a sight had I gotten caught! LOL

    Oh wow. .. sorry, didn’t mean to write a book here… just sharing info gleaned from real life. This all took place almost 20 years ago – I am in a much better place in my life now.

    • Tony you do need to write a book on your experiances of homelessness. Not only is it educational but inspirational too. You could help others to see homelessness in a more humane light.

      • Makes me angry to read comments people make about homeless people. “They’re lazy, get a job, there are jobs everywhere, they’re just alcoholics & drug addicts.” Maybe some are, but the majority are not. People assume & judge when they really have no clue what it’s like out there.

        • Your right. But there is still good people out there. Unfortunately there is more miserable people out there that just can’t mind there own business.. they would rather make someone else miserable because they are. Why can’t people just be kind?

        • I agree people judge and don’t know situation. I been in those shoes being homeless and my family do homeless on Christmas day and my birthday do homeless and misplaced. My passion to help. Christmas day is our family time to spend with others

    • Wow, thanks Tony that was awesome, and if you did write a book I would buy it, sounds amazing. Glad to hear you are good now.

    • Hi Tony, I started out reading site from Jacob and landed on you. You my friend need to write this book. I can tell you have some amazing stories. Please sit down with someone and do this. I beg of you to reach out and it will help so many more than you know. Thank you and god bless you my friend! Herb

    • Tony
      So glad you are doing well. I’m in a situation that I can not work because of medical issues. I have been given disability but it has taken 31/2 years and I’m still in a holding pattern. So need less to say times are tight. I feel like if it wasn’t for friends I could have very easily been homeless. I however have been most lucky not to be at this point. We have lots of homeless population in the city I live in. I’m in the process of making and opening a food and supply pantry. People may come and take what they need and if they have any extra they may leave it for the next person. All of this with no questions asked. What is the most helpful item that I could put in the pantry. I’m thinking food and dog food. I was told by the local homeless shelter that the most needed item was clean dry socks. What would you add? Thank you in advance for your answer . The article was awesome info.

    • Thank you for that helps Addison education I truly need I’ve learned a lot from the desert but in the city that’s something entirely different I help once in awhile when I can but not if I think they’re going to spend it on booze I won’t do that I took a Christmas bonus one time and spend it on a big chicken dinner for mother and a couple kids you could tell they didn’t have any place to go so I gave him the chicken and soda and milk that was only about $30 I gave them the rest of my bonus that way it meant something the guy at work for was real interesting individual that’s as nasty as I’m going to get I know I’ve had a sandwich thrown back in my face when someone told me they were hungry she got to be careful if you’re going to help. Thanks for the info come up the book I’ll be more than happy to buy it and read it be safe

  15. This is one of the best post I’ve read in this series of dreamers. I know space is an issue but it would be nice for you to expand things such as first aid, making water safe, transported to areas where the weather will not kill you and how to do it, it cetera

      • I really enjoyed reading your article. I am homeless myself and have been off and on for the past twenty some odd years. I,myself also have alot of experience behind me from being homeless. All I can say to someone is take it day by day. That is the only true way to survive out here on the streets. It is a cruel world out there with it only becoming worse when and if you do find yourself becoming homeless. No one ever said that it all was going to be easy. Just know to take it easy upon yourself always being there for you and no one else!


Leave a Comment