How to Survive an Urban Disaster
Just imagine it. You’re in a city that just experienced a devastating disaster. Help might not be coming for weeks. You can see the desperation growing in the people around you… Some of them might have lost their homes, others have no access to clean drinking water now that the taps stopped working. Others have run out of food and are wondering how they’ll feed their families.
There are metal trash cans everywhere with fires burning in them… Just kidding. That’s probably just something from the movies.
While the truth of surviving in an urban SHTF environment is probably less exciting and more mundane than what’s shown in the movies, the dangers of an urban survival situation are very real, and your ability to make it out of this kind of situation will rely on your level of preparation and any survival skills you’ve managed to hone.
In this article we’re going to outline what exactly we mean by urban survival, what makes it distinct from other kinds of survival (particularly wilderness survival). We’ll also discuss some survival skills that are particularly crucial in an urban environment and essential gear you should have with you in an urban survival situation.
What is Urban Survival? Not just “Street Smarts”
When we talk about urban survival on his site, we are specifically referring to surviving disaster or crisis situations in high density, urban areas. We are not talking about getting by and surviving in urban areas that have elevated levels of crime, but otherwise haven’t experienced a distinct catastrophe or crisis like a hurricane, flood, bombing, etc.
In other words, we aren’t just talking about regular “street smarts”. We’re discussing ideas and strategies that you can put to use if society has broken down and law enforcement and “the authorities” no longer exist in any meaningful way. In other words, a SHTF urban survival situation.
Obviously crime is an issue and there are survival strategies and techniques that can help you prevent crime or defend yourself if or your property are under threat. But for the purposes of the term “urban survival”, you should know that’s not what we’re referring to. If you want to learn more about preventing/deterring crime and self defense, we have an entire section on self defense here.
When we discuss urban survival, we primarily mean surviving in dense, metropolitan cities. We’re generally not talking about suburban areas (although many of the lessons would also be useful in suburban areas). In particular, we’re not talking about rural areas, where you have easy access to vast parcels of unpopulated wilderness. Think medium to large sized cities, with an emphasis on “big cities” like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, and so forth.
Urban Disaster Survival vs Wilderness Survival
Urban survival follows many of the same principles of wilderness survival – your order of priorities is roughly the same in terms of the importance of air, shelter, water, and food. On the other hand, the ways you go about achieving your survival goals is vastly different.
In some ways, surviving in an urban environment should be dramatically easier than surviving in the wilderness. First of all, urban areas are almost always full of resources – just think about how a small section of any grocery store could probably feed your family for months if not years.
Urban environments are full of well built, relatively sturdy shelters – even if a big storm wrecked your house, there are probably large concrete structures like schools or municipal buildings that you could use as shelter in a genuine emergency. Medicine and first aid supplies, including prescription medicines, are widely available in pharmacies and doctors offices, ready to be scavenged as needed. In an urban disaster, you wouldn’t have to worry about wild animals or poisonous insects and plants.
Given all of that, you might be thinking that urban survival sounds relatively straightforward and easy compared to trying to survive in the wilderness, right? After all, you have all the resources you need right at your fingertips, there for the taking…
But you’d be wrong. Because the description above left out the most dangerous and unpredictable aspect of any urban survival scenario.
With wilderness survival, ultimately most things are predictable. If you have the right survival skills, you’ll probably make it. We can learn which plants are edible, and how to hunt and trap food. We can learn to find water, and how to make it clean enough to drink. Even the more unpredictable elements – wild animals, or the weather, for example – we can make educated guesses about their likely behaviors. We know that rain and storms are more frequent in the summer, for example. We know that bears generally don’t attack humans unless they feel their cubs are threatened. Wilderness survival is mostly predictable – if you do the right things, you’ll survive, just like our primitive ancestors survived.
In a sense, there’s a formula to be followed that’s been honed over many millennia and refined over hundreds of generations of humans. For example, we know for a fact that fire is pretty important for survival, so if you want to survive in the wilderness, you’d better know how to make a fire. If you know the formula, and have the requisite skills, your chances are pretty good.
Urban survival on the other hand, is mostly an unknown quantity. Relatively speaking, the human race doesn’t have that much experience with surviving disaster in urban environments. Besides, cities nowadays aren’t really comparable to cities from even a hundred years ago, so whatever we do know might not even be useful in a modern context. The wilderness hasn’t changed that much over the last 10,000 years, but New York City for example has transformed drastically over the last 100 years.
Ultimately, the massive difference between urban and wilderness survival is people, and more specifically, how totally unpredictable people can be. Just imagine how utterly easy it would be to survive in a city without people in it. You’d have endless food and water at the grocery store, and virtually limitless options for shelter. A single pharmacy would have almost any medicine you’d need, and you could probably find an endless supply of fuel and therefore electricity at any Walmart or other big box store.
At the end of the day, other human beings are the X factor that you can’t really plan for, and as we say frequently on this site, preparation is absolutely key to survival. But how can you prepare for something unpredictable?
Our #1 Urban Survival Tip: The Biggest Danger is Other People
So, we’ve established that other people are the most dangerous aspect of any urban survival situation. The natural consequence of this fact is that the goal of any survival preparation or planning that you do for an urban disaster should aim towards minimizing your contact with other people (other than your own family and very close friends).
So what does that mean exactly? We’ll dive more deeply into this idea in the urban survival skills section below, but broadly speaking it means:
- Minimizing interactions with the outside world by prepping the essential resources that you need to survive
- Targeting areas and locations that the average person is less likely to think of when scavenging for resources in an urban environment
- Understanding the threat that other people pose and recognizing that deescalation and avoidance is almost always the right answer when you’re dealing with the dangers of dealing with desperate humans
- Knowing when and how to defend yourself and your family as the last resort when no other options are available to you
If you can follow these four steps (in the order they’re listed here), you can minimize the danger that other people pose to you, which in turn maximizes the chances that you’ll survive.
Urban Survival Tactics and Priorities
We’ve discussed what urban survival is, and what the main differences are between urban survival and wilderness survival. We’ve also illuminated the most dangerous aspect of urban survival – other people. But what do you actually want to do in an urban disaster scenario?
As a hypothetical, let’s say a massive hurricane or earthquake has just occurred and the city you’re in is unrecognizable. Homes businesses are destroyed, there are no emergency services available, and it’s unclear when things will get back to normal (if ever). What do you do?
1. Locate your family and get everyone to safety
Family comes first, and during (or in the aftermath) of any disaster situation, your first priority should be finding your family, then getting everybody to safety. It’s very possible that when disaster strikes, your entire family is split up. Cell phones may not work, either because the network is overloaded or damaged.
It makes sense to have a family survival plan that includes a pre-arranged rendezvous point that’s easy for everybody to get to (obviously, this would only work if your kids are old enough to be on the move by themselves). Your family should also be aware that in certain disaster scenarios, sheltering in place is safer than being on the move. Travel to a rendezvous point should only be done in the aftermath of the disaster, not while it’s still happening (e.g, make sure they know that they shouldn’t try to travel in the middle of a hurricane or earthquake).
If your kids are too young to understand how to get to a rendezvous point, then you’ll need to go get them. Once the disaster is over, most people will still be in shock – that’s the time to act. Other people are unlikely to be a threat in the immediate aftermath of a crisis – this is before people realize what they’ve lost and before desperation and hunger have set in. Take the opportunity, locate your kids, collect them, and get them somewhere safe – if your home is still standing and structurally sound, then go there. But you should have a backup plan of where you might be able to take shelter safely in case your home is damaged or destroyed.
2. Find out exactly what’s happening
The next thing you need to do is assess the situation, and in order to do that you need information. If cell phones aren’t working for one reason or another, then things like data plans and WiFi aren’t going to work either. You can try to find a working television, but those might not work either.
Your best bet for getting information after any kind of major disaster is radio. Radio waves can be broadcast from very long distances, and if you have the right kind of radio, you won’t need access to electricity (and in some cases, not even a battery). Get an emergency hand crank radio and you can guarantee that if there’s news to be heard, you’ll be able to get your hands on it.
Assess the situation. Is help on the way? Is the disaster short term, or will there be a prolonged crisis? Is this a “things will get back to normal” situation, or is this a “we’re going to have to fend for ourselves for a while” type of situation?
If flooding or fissures have made certain regions inaccessible to vehicles, then you might be effectively cut off from the outside world – airplanes and helicopters can only carry so many people and supplies, particularly if airstrips are also damaged or airports aren’t functioning. Or maybe the disaster situation is widespread (bombings across several major US cities), such that there aren’t enough resources to spread across all the damaged areas.
The point is, it’s not impossible that a large scale disaster also leaves the area that you’re in stranded or cut off from the rest of the country (or the world). If your radio has given you useful information, you need to take that information and make an assessment – is this disaster scenario something that society will recover from or is it a calamity that will tear down the social fabric. If it’s the former, then hunker down in a safe place and wait for help. If it’s the latter, then you need to start taking action immediately to make sure that you and your family aren’t victims of the chaos that can occur in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.
3. Decide whether or not you should try to “escape”
If you’ve decided that the situation you’re in will subside reasonably quickly, just stay where you are, stay safe, rely on your stockpile and ride it out until things go back to normal.
If you’ve decided the opposite – that help will be slow to come (or won’t come at all) and things are going to get tough – then the next question you need to ask yourself is are you going to stay put or try to “get out”.
This, of course, is the age old survival question. Should you bug in or bug out?
The answer depends on three things.
Firstly, Is there even a way out? If roads are damaged and undrive-able, how are you going to escape the urban area you’re in? On foot? How far would you have to go to be “safe” from the chaos that might ensue?
Secondly, do you have a place to go? Is there a cabin in the woods with your name on it? Maybe you’ve got a hideout somewhere with a decent stockpile. Obviously the existence of a place you can bug out to makes bugging out more attractive if you can get there. If you’ve got nowhere to go, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bug out – if the urban area you’re in is dangerous enough, then you might want to go anyways. In some cases wherever your home is becomes too dangerous to stay in (that’s why INCH bags exist). But if you’ve got nowhere to bug out to, then living off the land could end up being the more difficult option.
Thirdly, how good (or poor) is your ability to survive in the wilderness? You need to be honest with yourself here. What is your confidence level that you can feed both yourself (and your family if you have any) in the wild for an extended period? If you’re travelling on foot, then the supplies of food and water you’re carrying aren’t going to last you long. Without considerable bushcraft and wilderness skills, your family could go hungry.
In any case, you’ll once again need to use your best judgment and decide:
Is staying in the city and dealing with the risk of other people more dangerous, or is trying to bug out into the wilderness and fending for yourself more dangerous. Weigh the danger of one against the other and make a decision.
4. Prior preparations pay dividends in disaster
If you’re reading this now and you haven’t done any prepping… Well, now’s your chance (before a major natural or man-made disaster has landed). Don’t say we didn’t warn you. If you’re panic-browsing this as the storm of the millennium approaches, well… It’s too late for you I think.
In all seriousness though – preparation is the largest component of survival. Even if you live in a tiny apartment, there’s probably some cupboard or closet space where you can store some kind of food and water stockpile. So if you’re not doing it, do it.
We’re agreed that in an urban environment, the biggest danger to your survival is other people. If you have a big enough stockpile of supplies, you can circumvent that altogether. Then all you need is a decent lock on your door and you’ll be fine for weeks or months.
At the very least, with some semblance of stockpile, you can ride out any initial panicked frenzy that might happen post-disaster. Think huge mobs of people fighting over the last canned goods in the grocery store, or riots and looting as people realize that “the law” has been put on hold for a while. People are at their most unpredictable when they’re panicked, scared, or desperate, and those emotions will be at their highest right after a disaster, when the populace realizes that no help is coming and it’s every man for himself.
So, if you want to avoid that dangerous frenzy? Make sure you’ve prepared beforehand. Ride it out in the safety of your own home and if necessary you can venture out to try to scavenge after things have calmed down a bit.
5. Learn the lay of the land
You might think that an understanding of navigation and positioning are only important in wilderness survival, but you’d be wrong. Having a good understanding of where you are, where you’re going, and how best to get there is important in any survival situation – whether you’re deep in the forest in the dead of winter or stuck in a lawless city after a disaster. In a crisis situation, If you need to leave the safety of your shelter, you should plan out the safest, surest route that you can take. It doesn’t matter whether the safe place you’re leaving is a wilderness camp or an apartment in an urban high rise building. The principles remain the same.
With that said, it’s very important that you know the lay of the land. Wilderness experts know that they should always have navigational gear with them – a compass and a map of the area are the bare minimum. They also understand that having a map doesn’t replace actual first hand experience and knowledge of an area. Seeing the environment on the ground will always give you a deeper understanding of your environment than seeing it on a map.
All of this applies equally to an urban environment. Perhaps you can forgo the compass if your cities streets are aligned with the cardinal directions – but you’ll definitely want a map. I’m talking about a physical map, not something on your phone or laptop. You have no guarantee that electronics will be functional in a crisis
On top of having navigational tools, you’ll be better prepared to avoid danger if you actually know your surroundings intimately. That means knowing the shortcuts in your neighborhood to high value locations like hospitals. It means knowing which areas of your neighborhood tend to be more crowded, and what routes you might be able to take to avoid running into too many other people. It also means knowing the character of various neighborhoods of your city, down to the block if possible. In particular, focus on areas within walkable distance (let’s say within an hours walk). You have no way of knowing what the conditions of the roads will be post disaster, so you should plan to be on foot.
In order to acquire this level of knowledge about your location and its surroundings, you’ll need to prepare now.
Take your paper map and mark out high value locations that will likely have supplies. Retail shops shouldn’t be your first priority – every average Joe is going to be looting retail stores, so they’ll almost definitely be full of people, which means they’ll be dangerous. We’ll expand on this idea in a bit, but for the time being think of places that will have lots of useful supplies that the average person might not consider, like schools, office buildings and so forth.
This isn’t just theoretical. You’ll need to actually do “dry-runs” of these routes as a form of urban survival training.
Now, once you’ve marked out all the high value locations in your surroundings and the routes you can take from your safe shelter to those places, go test those routes out. While you’re walking these routes, make sure you’re staying very aware of your surroundings. Keep the following questions in mind :
- Are you walking through any spots where people congregate?
- Are you walking through neighborhoods that are considered dangerous?
- Are there any potential shortcuts that aren’t marked on a map? Are any of these potential shortcuts likely to have less people on them than the main routes that you’ve marked?
- Do your routes pass by any areas that could be highly dangerous?
Grocery stores, big box stores like Walmart, pharmacies – people will be fighting over scarce supplies in and around places like these, and they will attract many more people than they normally do. If people are willing to trample each other on Black Friday, think of how much worse it would if it’s literally life or death. Avoid going near the “obvious” places where you’d get supplies, and divert your routes away from them where possible.
Cities are often more accessible vertically than you would think. What we mean by this is that in some places, you can get pretty far by focusing only on rooftops, elevated walkways, and so on. If you can avoid being at the ground level on the streets, you’ll be able to avoid most encounters with other people. Obviously you won’t be able to test these routes, since you can’t just travel across multiple rooftops without trespassing, but keep an eye out to see how far you might make it without needing to travel at street level.
So, in short, you need to have a map. You also need to have a very good grasp of your immediate surroundings, including shortcuts, potential areas of danger, and so forth. Your routes to high priority scavenging locations should be preplanned.
If you’re in the midst of a disaster and you haven’t done any of the above, at the very least you should try to locate or produce a physical map of some kind, then sit down and decide what locations should be high priority for scavenging.
6. Urban survival scavenging and prioritizing targets
Now, if you’ve successfully followed all the advice above, you’re probably doing much better than almost everybody else. But stockpiles eventually run out, and maybe there’s no end in sight and no help coming. As far as you can see, society has collapsed.
You decide that you want to venture out to try and scavenge some additional resources.
If you rode out the initial wave of chaos, then chances are that the most obvious places have already been stripped clean of all resources. People are creatures of habit – so most of them will go to the same places to get supplies, whether or not there’s a disaster going on.
That means people will go to the grocery store to try and scavenge food, they will go to the pharmacy for medicines and first aid supplies, and go to hardware stores if they need tools, and so forth. People will be acting on instinct, and that will cause them to default back to their habits.
You need to think beyond that first step and target less obvious locations. Here’s an example.
If you need to scavenge food – anywhere where they serve large groups of people at once will likely have large reserves of food. Restaurants, schools, cafeterias in office buildings. Caterers offices, hotels, convention centers. Wedding venues, government buildings… the possibilities are endless. Any place where large groups of people gather to seat, or where events are held, you’re likely to find large reserves of food. Many of these will remain un-scavenged.
You can do this brainstorm with other types of supplies as well. For medicines and medical supplies – hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices are obvious, but what about pharmaceutical offices and university research labs? What about veterinarians offices?
What about warehouses? In a disaster, if you could locate a single warehouse for any large retailer (e.g Walmart or Target) you’d likely have enough resources of every kind to survive for years.
Once you can do this kind of brainstorming, you should be able to find plenty of places to scavenge that haven’t been completely stripped dry of supplies. Because urban areas are so dense, they also contain a massive amount of resources. All you need to do is think beyond the obvious and you’ll have access to an incredible amount of supplies for surviving that most other people haven’t thought of.
So now you know what your general priorities and approach should be in an extended urban survival situation.
Next, you should make sure to read our extensive article about the essential urban survival skills that you need to make it through an extended period of chaos and danger after an urban disaster.