Surviving in an Urban Environment- Part 2, by J.M.

I am sharing experience and ideas about surviving in an urban environment in the event of short-term or major, long-term emergency situation. We’re currently talking about getting home, whether from work or campus, since home is where our supplies are most likely stored.

Get Home Bag

On the subject of equipment and supplies, you’ve probably heard the term “Get Home Bag” (GHB). A lot of the discussion you can find regarding GHBs deals with handling a multi-day trek through the wilderness. Most of the time, the recommended content focuses on things like starting fires, building shelter, finding water, et cetera. Most of that shouldn’t be necessary for an urban trek of any more than (hopefully) a few miles. Below is my recommendations for urban GHB items you should have with you whenever you go out.

Spare Keys

Always have spare keys with you. Getting home safely doesn’t make any difference, if you can’t get in once you’re there. You should always carry a complete set of spare keys necessary to get into your apartment (outside door, deadbolts, et cetera). Use something like a belt with hidden pockets, your wallet, or wear a spare set around your neck on a dog tag chain. But always have them on you. Don’t depend on hiding a spare set near your apartment, since there are very few nooks or crannies that will stay undisturbed for very long in most urban environments.

Carry Bag

This carry bag can be a backpack, briefcase, or even a small waist bag. If you don’t normally carry a backpack, you can get an inexpensive packable one. You can even just use a shopping bag, although you should try to keep your hands free if possible. You can also put all of your GHB items into smaller organizer bags that you can transfer between different backpacks or briefcases.

Breath of Life Mask

The majority of fire-related deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, so a mask is important. For some reason (at least in the movies) disasters always result in fires. If you spend time in any building taller than two stories, I highly recommend having one of these on you at all times.

Emergency Cash Stash

Depending on the type of event, stores may still be open and, if the electricity is down, will probably only accept cash. If you’ve prepared correctly, there shouldn’t be anything you need. Still, it’s always nice to be able to pad your stocks or to handle any gaps, like that knife/hatchet/crowbar you weren’t allowed to bring into the office with you.


Get a paper map that covers the area between your work or school and apartment. If available, get a laminated one like the StreetWise series, since that will survive getting wet. If you have to detour around a rioting mob, you may end up having to take a route you’re not familiar with.


Even if you know your route home, you may end up having to make a detour or running from danger, and you may end up someplace you aren’t familiar with or where you can’t see any landmarks and need a compass. Being able to orient your map could speed up your trip home.

First Aid Kit (FAK)

A first aid kit is important in any emergency. Depending on the nature of the disaster, how long you waited to head home, and your route, you may encounter looting mobs, fires, car crashes, rubble, and other obstacles you don’t normally have to deal with, all of which significantly increases your risk of injury. Since even minor disasters tend to overwhelm most urban emergency services, you should always have the ability to treat injuries yourself. You don’t need a full-blown FAK; it just needs to have enough supplies to handle any serious injuries that might prevent you from getting home or that might turn into a long-term problem without immediate care. You can buy a good pre-built kit, or you can roll your own. I’d recommend including the following:


Carrying a knife can be tricky. I’ve been in places where just making a chopping motion with your hand will bring security a-running. Then, there are other places, where a Bowie knife strapped to your leg doesn’t raise any eyebrows. You need to do some research for your city/state as well as the various offices, buildings, campus, et cetera that you frequent to see what’s allowed and what’s not. For the most part, I’ve found that a simple Swiss Army Knife (SAK) is okay in most places. The Hiker model is the one I’ve carried for years. However, you should do some research to figure out what would work best for you. If you can get away with carrying it, you should also consider a locking folding knife. You can find a decent locking folder starting at around $4, and the features and prices go up from there. I’ve found that, in some places, security will hold items for you while you’re inside the building and return them to you when you leave. Note that unless you’re well-trained in knife fighting, the knife is meant as a tool and not a weapon. Even if you’re trained, trying to fight someone using a Swiss Army Knife will probably do more damage to you than your opponent.


Multitools are just so incredibly useful in an urban environment. You can find decent ones for not much money, but you may run into the same issues as you do with a knife, since most of them have knife blades. One exception is the SOG PowerLock Traveler, which doesn’t have a knife blade. (But, it does cost a lot more.)

Pry Bar

I’m mixed on the idea of recommending a pry bar. It can help you open doors, cabinets, et cetera, but in order to be really effective it needs to be large (and hence, heavy). You can find quality smaller ones for around $10, or you can get an inexpensive regular one at your local hardware or home store. There’s also an entire class of tools known as “demolition tools” that incorporate a wide range of other features along with a pry bar. Analyze possible issues and obstacles to getting out of your daytime building and on your route home to determine if you need one. Keep in mind that some places will consider it a weapon.

Filter Mask

Protects you from smoke, dust, and many biological transfers. Get one of the N95 fold-flat ones with an exhalation valve. If you’re worried about germs floating around in the air and you want to look slightly less paranoid, carry some of the anti-viral face masks.


You may have to climb, move rubble, or pick things up, so you’ll need to protect your hands with gloves. You can go with either basic leather work gloves or the mechanic/tactical type. You should also carry a pair of nitrile gloves, in case you have to deal with a biological disaster, like an epidemic.


Goggles provide protection for your eyes from smoke, dust, bodily fluids, et cetera and can also be useful in the rain or snow (especially if you wear glasses). Get a pair with indirect venting. I put my gloves and filter mask inside the goggles and wra rubber band around them.

Small Convex Mirror

This mirror is useful for checking around corners for any potential threats before exposing yourself or for checking if you’re being followed. You can find a side-view mirror stick-on type for a few dollars at almost any store that has an auto parts section.


Since you never know when you may need to operate at night in a city without power, a flashlight to read your map and check those dark corners could be critical. I recommend one that uses AAA batteries (small size), offers a low and high mode, and produces at least 120 lumens. You can find them for anywhere from $15 to hundreds of dollars. Don’t forget to include some spare batteries, and to check it once a month.


I’m a huge fan of headlamps, since they let you throw light wherever you’re looking without having to use your hands. This can be especially useful if you need both hands to dress a wound on yourself in the dark. Get one that has specs similar to your flashlight (batteries, modes, and lumens). The Olight model I pointed to also has a red light mode to help preserve your night vision.

Repair Materials

For repairs, carry some paracord and 10’ or so of 1” Gorilla Tape rolled up on a small dowel or in a flat pack. You can do emergency repairs to your bag, shoes, et cetera that might make a difference in getting home safely.

Food & Water

This may not be necessary for a short trip, but a few snack bars might be useful if your blood sugar starts getting low. Also, clean water can be used for washing out wounds or clearing debris out of your eyes or mouth. A full metal water bottle with a paracord lanyard or large carabiner attached also makes a pretty effective swinging club in an emergency.

Corrective Eyewear

If you wear glasses or contacts, include a spare set of eyewear in your bag in case you lose or break your primary pair. Get your current prescription from your optometrist and order an inexpensive backup pair from Walmart or an online site, like ZenniOptical.


Your poncho doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just something to keep you dry in case it rains during your journey home. You can stock one of those inexpensive plastic disposable ones, since it only needs to survive for one trip. However, a decent one can be useful for many other situations and will last a lot longer.

Self-Defense Weapons

I’ve saved the best (and most difficult) for last. The various business, school, city, county, state, and federal rules and regulations regarding firearms and other self-defense weapons can be complex and incredibly restrictive. But, if there’s any way for you legally and safely to carry a concealed handgun, I’d highly recommend doing so. Cities can be dangerous even in the best of times. If people think the rules are about to go out of the window due to a disaster, things will probably quickly turn into a free-for-all. If you can’t carry a firearm, try to at least carry a decent pepper spray device and several reloads. A stun gun could also be a viable option, but it requires close contact to be effective. An expandable baton could be a good choice, since you can use one if you can swing a club. Whatever you end up with, make sure you get some training and practice using it.

The Bag

All of this will fit into a fairly small bag. This whole kit can be put together gradually over a period of weeks or months for around $200, not including the handgun/weapon. Make sure you practice using and are comfortable with everything in your GHB.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about some skills necessary to survive the trek home.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

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  1. Good point on checking the laws, but you may be better off checking directly with your state’s official web site. For example, the Cabela’s document shows that a license is required in Massachusetts, but that changed last year – you can only buy pepper spray from a licensed firearms dealer, but you only have to be 18 or older – you no longer have to have a firearms license to buy it.

  2. Keeping a handgun in your vehicle, where legal, is a good alternative, especially where your employer prohibits weapons in the office. I’d also suggest deliberately taking different routes home to familiarize yourself with alternative routes in the event of a route closure. I’ve commuted anywhere between 2 and thirty miles one way to work during my life. The get-home strategy changes with distance and intervening terrain.

  3. Regarding the Breath of Life mask, can anyone discuss it’s effective protection against phosgene, fluro-phosgene, cyanide and all the other poisons that are toxic in parts per million? I read the specifications but I have not yet searched for the typical/expected concentrations of the many toxins formed by burning plastics, fabrics, finishes, etc. If anyone has practical knowledge of what level of protection is needed it would be appreciated.

  4. I’m not sure about specific toxins, but their web site has some good info on the specifications:

    You can also contact them directly if you want to find out more specifics. I selected them as a solution after a lot of research based on my requirements of effectiveness, price and portability, but your specific needs may be different.

  5. I would suggest that having more than one get home bag is useful. I have a bag that stays in the car, a bag that stayed in the bottom drawer of my office desk(it was heavy on snack foods after getting snowed in at the office for four days), a bag I carry hunting, and a bag I tote around when the grand kids are with me.

  6. Maybe you mentioned it but I didn’t see it, but don’t forget toilet paper. I also keep a small package of wet wipes, cornstarch powder for chafing and even a small tube of diaper creme if its really bad. Sounds dumb I know but it works.

  7. Maybe you mentioned it but I didn’t see it, but don’t forget toilet paper. I also keep a small package of wet wipes, cornstarch powder for chafing and even a small tube of diaper creme if its really bad. Sounds dumb I know but it works.

    1. cornstarch works ok, but this stuff works far far better than anything I know for chafing or rash, some places this is called Sudocream, has lots of zinc in it and rapidly heals chafed and very sore red / cracked skin, can be used to hydrate the skin and heals blisters , or facial rash ,any mother with a small baby uses this stuff, did I mention cheap ?, put this in your go bag.

  8. My focus was on someone that commutes to work either walking, biking or on public transportation, but I agree that if you have the resources and storage capability, multiple GHBs make a lot of sense.

    Some TP/wipes are probably a good idea – I should have also recommended that you use an available bathroom before heading out 😎

  9. A small locking keybox from Lowes has already relieved many family key emergencies. Check them out. We put it convenient to the door. All mechanical, resets to a new 4 digit pin quickly. If someone needs the PiN we can text it and change it afterwards. No more drilling locks or damaged doors.

  10. Whatever you choose to do, do it quickly. In major events there is a “shock” value. I was in Boston on 9/11. When the second plane hit, my company ordered an evacuation. I thought for sure it would be absolute horror driving home. Nope. People were so numb and shocked, they actually let cars cut in front of them, and no one was beeping. (In Boston car manufacturers might as well build cars with the horn permanently on).

  11. Re: ‘Do it quickly’ – I agree, but I would also qualify that with ‘do it appropriately’. That’s why I emphasized gathering intelligence and staying up to speed on what’s happening in your area. For example, if your city got a tidal wave alert it might make sense to hole up on an upper floor and wait for the wave to recede before heading home.

    +1 on horns in the Boston area, but I would add that manufacturers should also get rid of turn signals, since no one uses them 😎

  12. I have COPD. I am more afraid of pepper spray than a gunshot. With proper medical attention I might survive a gunshot. Hit me with pepper spray and I can’t breathe. DRT.

    Pepper spray in some instances is a lethal weapon.

    1. Indeed; something you can walk a long way in; something you can RUN in. Anyone who’s been in the military will tell you one thing; have the best footwear you can get. Compromise somewhere else!

  13. Note that people respond to pepper spray differently. Anyone that has been through the CS chamber in basic training can tell you that (if they still do it). Some people freak and start ripping at their face, some will run like crazy until the smack into the nearest object, some will puke, some will laugh at it and be near unaffected, and some will become extremely, and I mean extremely, violent. Try to avoid using if if you can, but if you have to then be ready for all.

  14. 100% agreed on the quality footwear. I think what you need will depend a lot on things like the distance you have to cover, time of year, type of terrain and what you can afford. Most young people I’ve met that live in cities tend towards sneakers for casual shoes and, if they’re into outdoor activities, a decent pair of hiking boots. The problem a lot of them will have is justifying spending money on a quality pair of boots to leave in their office/college for emergencies.

  15. A cane (medical device) is a Very effective defensive weapon. And as a medical device cannot be taken away from you. In any environment! But, be prepared with an explanation (story) of why you need it.

    1. Good point re: a cane. If you’re going to take that approach I recommend you look for some martial arts training in your area that can help you use it for maximum effectiveness.

  16. Just a comment about the bag…remember to pack as light as possible….too many tools, liquids, etc will weigh you down. You don’t need to haul a gallon of water if you have a life straw for example. Weight will slow you down, etc. I work 27 miles from home and to get there would require about an 8 hour walk (I have tried it 3 times in the past year). In my rubbermaid tote in the back of my SUV, I keep a small skateboard that I found at a garage sale….may not be quick transportation, but quicker than walking. Stay safe out there everyone!!

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