While survival skills are almost always good to know, the set of skills you’ll want to learn for an urban environment are different from if you were in a wilderness survival situation. (To learn more broadly about urban survival tips and tactics, read our urban survival guide)
For example – being able to build a fire, or improvise shelter – if you still have access to an apartment or house, these are much less important skills to have. On the other hand, since you’re much more likely to run into other people (who may pose a threat), skills that help you manage the dangers of other people more effectively are going to be useful if you’re stuck in a free-for-all in a city.
So, here are a list of important urban survival skills that you should prioritize if you want to be fully prepared:
Stealth doesn’t just mean putting on camo and hiding behind trees. True stealth is a combination of skills – firstly, blending in (learn more about blending in and gray man theory) (learn more about blending in and gray man theory). Not appearing to be a threat, but also not appearing to be an easy target. Having an appearance that’s unremarkable and easy to forget. In a dense urban environment, it’s very difficult to avoid being seen entirely, so a part of your goal is to fade into the background even if you are spotted.
Stealth is also about avoiding people. This includes travelling via unconventional routes (e.g along rooftops, in subway tunnels underground, choosing less popular paths), or being willing to travel at night with minimal light (which requires navigational confidence and the ability to deal with danger if it arises).
The more stealthy you are, the easier you’ll be able to get from A to B without encountering danger.
Finding and Filtering Water for Drinking
One thing we probably haven’t talked about enough so far is drinking water. While water is something you’ll be able to scavenge in the ways described above, you’ll be hard pressed to rely on scavenging as your only source of water. We use a lot of water in our everyday lives, and even if you’re the type of person who only drinks bottled water, you probably still use tap water to cook (not to mention things like cleaning, showering, etc). Obviously in a genuine disaster, if the water supply is dead and tap water isn’t available, cleaning will take a bit of a back seat and you won’t be bathing as frequently as you would ordinarily but still – you’d be shocked by how much water we use casually even if we’re trying to conserve it.
So, being able to find water, and purify it for drinking and cooking with, is going to be important just in case the taps stop working. There are a number of ways to get water in an urban environment, including harvesting rainwater, collecting water from reservoirs or natural sources (rivers, lakes, etc), “reclaiming” water from pipes, hot water tanks, and other parts of the water system. Of course, scavenging water can also play a part in your strategy.
The truth is, most human “settlements” are built near bodies of water, and the bigger the city, the more likely there is a size-able source of water near it. So if you live in medium to large city, chances are there’s some sort of natural water source nearby that you can tap into if needed.
The next question is how to filter your water. One method is to make activated charcoal (or scavenge it) and build your own filter. Alternatively, we outline a number of emergency water distillation methods in this article.
Forced Entry/Lockpicking/Creative Ways To Enter Buildings
If you want to be ahead of the curve when it comes to scavenging, then you need a way to get places that others can’t. Even in desperate times, a lot of people might see a locked door to an office building and give up, opting for an easier target. What they don’t know is that those “easier targets” are going to be full of other people, competing for the same supplies.
If you have the ability to get through locked doors or windows, you’ll be able to access supplies that the vast majority of other people have pretty much given up on.
Whether you want to do this by learning to pick locks, or you just want to learn how to use a crowbar, a bolt cutter, and force to get through different types of locked doors and windows – either way works. The point is, being able to get places other people can’t get to is useful, so learn how to do that one way or another.
Obviously, don’t practice this while things are normal (except on your own property) – breaking an entering is a crime. On the other hand, in a post-disaster world where lawlessness prevails, knowing how to “break and enter” well secured areas will be a big advantage you’ll have over most people.
Siphoning Gas, Hotwiring and other “Car Skills”
In an urban catastrophe, cars give you a chance to escape. But maybe your car is on the other side of the city and inaccessible, or damaged due to the disaster, or maybe you don’t own a car at all. If you don’t have access to a working vehicle, then “car skills” could come in handy – either as a potential path of escape, or just as a way to go faster and further – which means more potential supplies, and safer traveling.
Ideally you should know how to break into a car without damaging it, how to siphon gas, how to hotwire a car, and basic car mechanics/troubleshooting in case of a breakdown (likely, since many vehicles will likely be damaged). Essentially, you should know the skills required to “steal” a car and get it going.
Again, these types of skills aren’t that easy to learn, and are definitely hard to practice in our normal everyday lives, but if you get an opportunity to (maybe on an old car that’s near worthless), having these skills will give you an advantage over many others.
Urban Foraging, Hunting, and Trapping
You might be thinking that this isn’t practical – you might be thinking that there’s nothing to forage in the city. The truth is, there are many plants that we see as “weeds” that are edible. There’s probably a pretty good bounty of food available for foraging in the nearest decent sized park. Dandelion greens are edible, as are clover leaves (not just the ones with four leaves either).There are probably weeds growing in the sidewalk near you that are edible.
As far as hunting and trapping go – again, you might think that it’s absurd to suggest that there are animals to hunt in the city. But let’s just take a step back and remember that pigeons are entirely edible – and we all know how common pigeons are in cities.
Squirrels, rabbits, and racoons are edible too – and while it may not sound appetizing in the slightest, so are rats and mice (and a lot of other rodents).
An added bonus of hunting/trapping these animals in the city if you’re in a dangerous post-disaster situation is that you’re unlikely to be competing with anyone. Most city folk are probably far too squeamish to even think of hunting anything at all, let alone the rodents and birds common in urban areas.
Cooperation among humans is largely driven by self interest. We work together because by working together we can get stuff that we wouldn’t get by working alone. That’s pretty much the foundation of the modern global economy, and even if money becomes meaningless in a post-disaster urban environment, “things” will still matter. Barter trading with those around you increases your mutual usefulness with each other and therefore decreases the chance of violent conflict.
You can barter trade with goods or services. If you were a doctor, you could trade medical services for supplies. Or maybe you’ve stocked up on first aid supplies but you’d like more drinking water, and someone else has purified a large amount of water that you can trade for.
Think about what skills you have and what things you can make that others might want. A good example is something like activated charcoal. If you know how to make activated charcoal, you could almost definitely trade it for other useful supplies and items because activated charcoal has a range of useful applications when it comes to survival.
We have a few articles on this site about things that will probably make good barter commodities in a post-disaster scenario which you might also want to read.
Situational awareness is of the utmost importance in any urban crisis. The ability to sense where potential dangers might be coming from and how to avoid them will keep you out of countless bad, potentially violent situations. Being able to size up a person or a group of people from a distance and get a good sense of whether they have good or bad (or neutral) intentions means that you’ll be able to make on-the-fly decisions to avoid danger.
So how do you do this? In truth, it’s partially innate – our evolutionary instincts are pretty well honed to sense danger. In a lot of cases, it’s just a matter of paying close attention. Keep your eyes on your surroundings and your head on a swivel. Don’t be distracted by irrelevant thoughts, don’t daydream. A big part of good situational awareness is understanding that it is an active task, not a passive one (unless you’re exceedingly well trained). When it comes to situational awareness, paying attention to what you’re doing and where you’re going goes a very long way.
Beyond that, you should try to actively analyze any other people you’re seeing. What kind of clothes are they wearing? Do they look gaunt, hungry and desperate, or well fed? Are they relaxed, or tense? Do they appear to have any weapons on hand or nearby? Are they paying attention to what’s going around them or are they distracted by conversation? Are they blocking the way, or are they off to the side and un-obstructive? Are there women or children in the group, and if so what are the ratios. How old do they look? Young men tend to be the most impulsively aggressive (and thus the most dangerous to you).
Just by asking these questions, you should be able to get a decent sense of how you feel about any people you come across.If you feel any kind of threat, it generally pays to be cautious, particularly if you’re stuck in a dangerous disaster scenario. So if you sense a threat, change course, take another route, or even retreat to your safe shelter and venture out another time or another day.
Deescalation of potentially violent or dangerous situations is a crucial skill to have in any situation where you’re likely to encounter other people looking to do you harm. A lot of people rely on instinct when dealing with these kinds of situations – the natural “flight-or-fight” response. The problem with flight-or-fight is that it escalates the situation – if you flee, you’ll be seen as prey, and they may chase you. If you fight, that’s obviously a form of escalation – and even though you might win, you won’t escape unscathed. Also, escalation can lead to further escalation – what started as someone looking to steal your bag of supplies might turn into a lethal encounter (e.g your attacker might pull a knife, forcing you to use a firearm).
Deescalation is difficult and requires a high level of composure under stress. Your goal is to make it obvious that any violent confrontation is simply not worth your attacker’s time. That means you need to demonstrate strength and minimize the potential reward (downplay whatever it is they might want from you).
If you’re armed, make it clear that you have a weapon. Speak confidently, but don’t be arrogant, and definitely don’t insult or provoke your attacker with insults or any other unnecessary “fighting words”. Something like the following:
“You should know that I have a weapon on me. I think it’s probably best for the both of us if we both just walk away from this. I don’t want to get hurt for no reason, and I’m sure you don’t either”.
In short, to deescalate a potentially violent situation, you need to be able to project strength and confidence, but without belittling, mocking, or otherwise hurting your would-be-attacker. Make it clear that it would be a losing situation for him, but without doing anything that might provoke retaliation.
Deescalation is a very difficult skill to master (and we don’t claim to be experts either). It’s also hard to find ways to practice it if you’re not in law enforcement or some other profession where you deal with the potential of physical violence frequently. However, you should always attempt deescalation if you get a chance. The truth is, uncontrolled violence frequently has chaotic and random outcomes – any opportunity you get to avoid violence entirely is one you should try to take.
Urban Self Defense
Self defense is the last resort. Once it has become clear the deescalation will not work (e.g your attacker is rapidly approaching you with obvious intent to do harm), then it is time to act quickly and decisively.
That means if you have a weapon of any sort, whether it’s a firearm or a non-lethal self defense weapon like pepper spray or a taser – use it now. If deescalation has failed, then you want to be the first to strike.
Ideally, you’ll have a “ranged” weapon with you of some kind. If not, you should definitely have a closer quarters weapon on your person (like a knife, a baton, or something similar).
If society has truly broken down and you’re in a post-disaster situation where there are no laws, then you have no way of knowing what level of violence this attacker plans to unleash on you. You’ve already attempted to de-escalate, and your attacker is acting irrationally. At this point, you have no choice but to defend yourself vigorously.
The idea is that you never have to put self defense skills to the test, but if they are tested, you should have them. Keep in mind that “effective self defense” isn’t kung fu, or even krav maga. Having a firearm and knowing how important it is to maintain distance between yourself and your attacker – that’s highly effective self defense. The same applies to any ranged defense weapon that you might have.
Having a weapon, even a close quarters weapon, is a huge advantage, and just the act of having any kind of weapon on you at all times is a form of effective self defense.
Grappling, punching, and kicking your attacker should really be the last resort of all last resorts. If you’re in a post-collapse society and you get attacked, and you have to resort to punches, then you’ve essentially failed as any kind of “survivalist” or “prepper”, no matter how well you can punch and kick.
This isn’t a skill exactly, but having a good level of general physical fitness, from both a cardiovascular and a strength perspective, is a good idea for any kind of survival situation. Firstly, it improves your general health, which means you’re less likely to need medical care when none is available. Secondly, it allows you to move quickly and nimbly, as well as bypass obstacles and so forth when scavenging. Thirdly, it allows you to project strength and confidence in confrontational situations, and improves your ability to defend yourself if a situation turns violent.
Attaining a good level of physical fitness requires no money or resources other than time and dedication – if you’re genuinely committed to the idea of survivalism or prepping for times of crisis and disaster, there’s literally no reason not to get in good shape (unless you have pre-existing health issues that preclude exercise or are already too old or fragile to do so).
One thing you should note if you do decide to try to reach a good level of physical fitness – too much strength and “muscles” is inefficient for survival – it means you need to consume significantly more resources to be able to survive. Cardio and muscle endurance (rather than strength) should be your main goals. The best survivalists in the world tend to be those who live in the mountains – think gurkhas or sherpas in the Himalayas. They are small in stature, with tremendous endurance. Their bodies are highly efficient, requiring less food, water, and even oxygen than “normal” people. That’s the kind of fitness to try and strive for.
These Urban Survival Skills Will Keep You Safe
If your main objective post-disaster is to keep yourself and your family safe, and well-resourced, then learning to master these skills should be a priority. This list of essential skills for an urban SHTF scenario is quite different than the kind of skills and abilities that are recommended for a wilderness survival environment.
It’s important to remember that even “survival experts” have areas that they specialize in, and that just because you’d be able to survive for an extended period of time in the wilderness doesn’t mean you’re fully prepared for an urban disaster situation (or vice versa). There’s always more to learn, and if you want to be well prepared for a situation where all hell breaks loose in the city you live in – well, you should start brushing up on some of the skills that we’ve listed above.