Urban Survival: Essential Skills to Surviving Any Disaster in the City

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If you are an American or Canadian reading this, then you probably take it for granted that you will be safe.

There hasn’t been any recent war on American soil, and you might even think that your region is safe from natural disaster.

But the scary truth is that the risk of disaster is a lot higher than we likely realize.

This guide will introduce you to the essential urban survival skills so you can survive any disaster ranging from personal disasters like homelessness to all-out warfare.

Shelter

Just because you live in the city, don’t think you will be able to stay in your home in the aftermath of a disaster.
As stories from Bosnian war survivors talk about, they were kicked out of their homes by militants and civilians alike.

How would you stop intruders armed with automatic assault rifles?

If a hurricane destroyed your home, where would you go?  And HOW would you get there???

Do you know any homeless survival tricks, like how to safely sleep and stay warm on the streets should you find yourself homeless?

urban survival shelter
Image credit: “Homeless” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Mabacam

These are big issues to cover.  Don’t expect yourself to master the art of urban survival right away.  Right now, focus on ASKING yourself these questions.  The next step is to find solutions for all possible urban disaster scenarios.

Urban Survival Gear

Urban survival gear is a lot different than wilderness survival gear.

In the wilderness, you rely on natural resources.

In urban areas, you must rely on the survival gear you carry as well as what you can scavenge.

Let’s take a look at some of this basic urban survival gear.

The Get Home Bag

Similar to the Bug Out Bag (BOB), a Get Home Bag (GHB) is a survival backpack which contains everything you will need to secure your safety in an urban area during a disaster.

For example, a GHB should have water treatment tablets to destroy any viruses and pathogens before consumption (a standard camping water filter doesn’t kill viruses – read more about water purification systems here).

Urban Everyday Carry Gear

I am a big fan of everyday carry (EDC) items.  Obviously, you have items like a Swiss army knife or other multi-tool.  There are also lots of cool wallet EDC items.

You’d be surprised at how useful items like string and a paperclip can be in an urban survival situation!

I’d recommend building your own urban survival kit that you can carry every day, like an Altoids tin EDC survival kit.

urban survival kit EDC
Image credit: “Kit para emergências do dia-a-dia” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Dois Espressos

Scavenging

star wars scavenger

If you saw the newest Star Wars movie, then you might remember how it starts with Rey scavenging for supplies which she sells to ensure her survival.  I know it is just a movie, but scavenging is something that happens in the aftermath of a lot of disasters.

Here is where I should note that mob scavenging – aka looting – is something that almost always happens right after a major disaster.

Do not join in with looting after a disaster!

Hopefully you have prepared and have enough supplies to get you through (at least) the first 30 days.  Ride out this time as peacefully as possible.  Looters have a violent mob mentality and will fight you for anything you find.

At the initial stages of looting, the looters won’t even be going after useful items.  They usually grab up TVs, stereo equipment, expensive shoes… All things which are worthless for helping you get through an urban survival situation!

After the initial chaos has died down, then you can go start scavenging for supplies you need.  For example, you might scavenge:

  • Spare parts for fixing machinery
  • Scrap newspaper to use for making paper logs
  • Plywood for reinforcing your windows

You’ll have to know where to look for items.  This is a SKILL!

Think of how homeless or terribly poor people survive everyday life.  They know how to spot a “rich” trashcan instead of wasting time on trashcans which have no useful items.

On our Urban Survival Gear Checklist, we’ve included tools that you need for scavenging such as a crowbar and heavy-duty gloves.  Make sure you look at the checklist!

Lock Picking

picking lock

In a post-SHTF world, you might just go knocking down doors to gain entrance.  However, there will probably be many situations where you want to leave the door intact.

For example: Let’s say that your family is fleeing to a secure location but can’t get out of the city before nightfall.  You could find an abandoned building, pick its lock, secure the premises, and stay there for the night.

If you bang down the door, you’ll be inviting anyone to come on it!

I’ve played around with lock picking kits (Amazon Link) before, though admittedly this is a survival skill I really need to work on!  I can barely get a pin tumbler lock picked and those are considered to be the easiest type.

It is a pretty fun hobby though, so you might actually enjoy practicing this urban survival skill.

I’d recommend going online and looking at the types of locks and techniques used to pick each of them.  YouTube has a lot of videos on this topic.

Repurposing Everyday Items

I truly believe that the most important skill needed for survival is creativity.  Yes, creativity!   When you are creative, you are able to think outside of the box to find solutions to problems.

Creativity is about looking at what you have around you and doing your best with it.

Consider what the world will look like after a disaster in the city.  There will be many items around you, like abandoned cars, piles of trash, rubble of buildings… All of these things can be utilized for your survival.

Want to see how?  See these posts:

Gray Man Tactic

man in fog

Gray man refers to the survival skill of being able to blend in with the crowds during an emergency. The goal is to prevent yourself from becoming a target.

For example, a gray man wouldn’t go into the streets carrying his Bug Out Bag loaded with gear on his back.

He (or she) would put his Bug Out Bag into the same crappy plastic shopping bags that everyone else is carrying to make it seem like he also had to grab random stuff and flee like the unprepared masses.

In addition to looking like the masses, blending in also means you will act like the masses.

If everyone is running in one direction, then you better run too.  If everyone is freaking out, you better pretend like you are freaked out too.  It’s Tactical has a great article on Gray Man Strategies you should check out.

Situational Awareness Skills

Situational awareness is something that we should practice every day, and not just in disaster situations.  In short, it means being aware of what is around you at all times.

If you are texting on your cell phone while walking down the street, then you aren’t being aware.

If you can’t immediately identify where the exits of a room are, then you aren’t being aware.

If you can’t describe the people in your immediate vicinity, then you aren’t being aware.

Situational awareness does NOT mean that you walk around constantly scoping the environment, paranoid, and with a racing heart.  This is referred to as your “baseline.”

You should be CALM but ALERT so you can avoid dangers (like that mugger who is tailing you) and make decisions quickly (like to get away from the mugger by turning on a busier street).

The military, law enforcement, and even forestry loggers all practice situational awareness training.

There are a lot of drills you can do to improve your situational awareness.  The Geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor has a great guide about the how to hone your situational awareness.

Food

Everyone should have at least a 30-day supply of food and water stockpiled in case of emergency, as well as stockpile of non-food supplies.

But these supplies will quickly run out in a large-scale disaster.  Or you might be forced to leave your home and all its supplies behind.

In the wilderness, you can forage for food.  It isn’t so easy in the city!

Yes, there are plenty of urban plants that you can eat

In the great depression, people ate dandelion green soups.

  • In Syria, people are eating tree leaves to survive.
  • In besieged Leningrad, people ate breads made from shrubs.
  • In Italy, people ate cats to survive famine during WWII.
  • In North Korea, people have endured eating tree bark, roots, and insects…

But history tells us that these quickly disappear in long-term disasters.  This is why it is essential to either:

  1. Get out of the city (bug out) while you still can and go somewhere with natural resources (and actually know how to use them!)
  2. Have a secure and sustainable source of food, such as a backyard garden or aquaponics system.

Water

urban survival drinking water
During natural disasters, the water treatment system doesn’t work and there may be sewage flooding. You must purify water before drinking!

One thing that many people take for granted is that their plumbing system brings them clean potable drinking water…

Until a “boil alert” is called.

As defined by the Public Works,

A boil alert is issued when the pressure is lost in the water line and there is the possibility of any foreign substance entering the system.

Because of aging infrastructure, boil alerts are on the rise in some areas.

If an old pipe can make water undrinkable, imagine what happens after a major disaster like earthquake or hurricane!

Maybe you remember those reports after Hurricane Katrina of sewage floating down the street!?!

An important urban survival skill is to know how to treat dirty water, such as with water purification tablets, boiling, and filtering (and when to use each method).

Transportation

Just because a disaster has struck, it doesn’t mean you won’t need to get around.

Imagine how difficult it will be to scavenge for food and supplies on foot.

Think how dangerous it will be to walk past mobs.

In a small-scale disaster, your vehicle might still be a good transportation method.  But history tells us that cars can’t get through the debris and crowded streets after a disaster.  And good luck getting gasoline for your vehicle!

Better options for urban survival include bicycles and motorbikes.  Make sure you know how to repair them though, or they will be useless when you encounter a small problem like a broken brake cable.

Self Defense Skills

woman sparring in self defense

Perhaps the most important urban survival skill is knowing how to protect yourself against other humans. Read our quick and dirty guide to Self Defense.

Our “lizard brains” kick in during the aftermath of a disaster.  With our brains focusing only on survival, even “civilized” people will have no problem stealing the pack from your back or fighting you for a scrap of bread.

I recommend you read our post on how to survive a bad neighborhood, because the tips also work in post-disaster survival situations.

Here are some of the most important urban survival self-defense skills to know:

  • Back Down!!! Just because you CAN fight, it doesn’t mean you SHOULD fight. Whenever possible, back down.  The goal here is survival, not to boost your ego.  Avoiding a fight means you’ve already won.
  • Don’t look like a target. Blending in matters here, so leave all that camo gear at home and don’t flash your survival supplies.
  • Have weapons ready! A weapon is pointless for urban survival unless you actually intend on using it. So don’t flash your gun or knife unless you are prepared to take action

Creativity

There are a lot of skills you need for urban survival, but I believe the most important one is creativity. Yes, creativity!

Creative people are able to think outside of the box to find solutions to problems.

They don’t look at problems as a jigsaw puzzle in which you need each piece to complete the picture.

They treat problems like a quilt.  You see what you have available and use them to make something.

There are literally thousands of way that you can exercise creativity as a survival skill.  I couldn’t possibly go over them all.

However, I want to share with you some of my favorite urban survival hacks using everyday items.

These hacks should get your imagination going about the many ways you can use what’s around you to survive, so long as you act creatively.

Make a Fire with a Battery and Piece of Chewing Gum Foil

Fire is one of the fundamentals of survival.  You need it for warmth, for purifying water, for cooking food…  But how do you make a fire without matches?

One option is to grab a battery.  Now touch the ends to a piece of foil at the same time. The current going through the foil will cause the foil to light on fire.   A chewing gum wrapper works great for this if you don’t have any tinfoil.  You can also touch the battery to steel wool to light it.

Note that this will give you about 10 seconds to use it to light a fire.  It will drain the batteries, so don’t use this urban survival hack with batteries you actually need!

Turn a Crayon Into a Candle

If you have a kid like I do, then you probably have a bunch of crayons around the house.

These actually work great as emergency candles.

Just heat up the bottom of a crayon so the wax starts melting.  Then set it onto a plate.  The melted wax will dry and stick the crayon upright.  Now light the top of the crayon.  It will burn for a couple hours!

Make a Stove Out of Aluminum Cans

Basic design
This is one of my favorite emergency stove designs.  It goes by a few names, including a “hobo stove” and a “penny stove.”

There are a few variations on how to make them and we show you step by step instruction in this post – How To Make a Hobo Stove

Brick Rocket Stove

brick rocket stove design
A rocket stove is a great emergency stove for people who don’t have their own wood-burning stoves, gas stove, or other off-grid stove.

You can make rocket stoves out of all sorts of materials.

One of the simplest methods of making a rocket stove is to use bricks and a metal pipe.

Check out more DIY rocket stove designs here and learn  how to make your own.

Rope from Plastic Bottles

plastic bottle cutter to make rope
One of my favorite devices is this plastic bottle cutter.  You just put a plastic bottle into it and spin.  The cutter will cut off thin strips of plastic.  Basically, you are getting super-strong rope made from plastic bottles!

As this video shows, you can easily make your own device.  It just requires a piece of wood, a sharp blade, some nails, and a knife for cutting the wood.

Paper Logs

One of the things which really concerns me is urban survival in the winter.  Yeah, I know how to make an emergency heater – but I will still need fuel to burn in it!

A great solution to this is to make your own “logs” out of scrap paper.  As you can see in the video, it is actually pretty easy (though it does take a while for the logs to dry before you can burn them).

You basically just follow these steps:

  1. Drill some holes in a sides and bottom of the bucket.
  2. Fill it with shredded scrap paper.
  3. Cover the paper with water and let sit.
  4. After the paper has gotten soft, mix up the paper (this will take some time without an electric mixer). It will turn into a mushy pulp.
  5. Put something heavy on top of the pulp to press the water out of the holes.
  6. Let the water drain for several hours.
  7. Remove the drained pulp from the bucket and let it dry.
  8. When the pulp dries, it will be a long-burning paper log.

Here is a video showing you exactly how it is done.

Rebar Tomahawk

To survive in an urban environment after a disaster, you are going to need weapons.  And you are going to need weapons which look damn intimidating!  My theory is that simply having a bizarre DIY weapon will keep people away because you will look so threatening.

One of my favorite DIY weapons is the rebar tomahawk.  There is a bit of a learning curve required for making this because you’ll essentially be forging the metal.  However, even an unskilled person can make a tomahawk.

Check out the video to see how it is done.  Or check out these other Terrifying DIY Survival Weapons.

Don’t forget to practice!

I admittedly prefer practicing wilderness survival skills.  Practicing those skills means I get to go out into nature and unplug.  Some of the urban survival skills don’t seem nearly as fun.

However, with a bit of creativity, you’ll find that you can actually enjoy practicing your urban survival skills.

For example, I’ve made a game into scoping out what dumpsters would be best for scavenging specific supplies.  Gross, but useful.

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