Surviving in an Urban Environment- Part 3, 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 just wrapped up the Get Home Bag, list of recommended contents, and explanations. Let’s look at skills.

Skills For the Trek Home

You’ll need to develop some skills necessary to survive a trek home under potentially difficult circumstances. These include:

Physical Fitness

Your physical fitness is fundamentally important. If your only regular exercise is from walking to and from the subway, you’re going to have a hard time walking 20 blocks to your apartment in any reasonable amount of time. Furthermore, you won’t be able to run away from danger if you need to. Remember that rule #1 is cardio! There’s a lot of good information available on basic survival fitness. It’s something you can do for little or no cost.

Situational Awareness

A lack of situational awareness can get you killed. A normal urban environment is a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells, which you’ve probably gotten pretty good at tuning out; however, in a disaster scenario, things will change quickly and you need to be aware.

Unarmed Self Defense

You don’t need to become a black-belt ninja, but even some basic self-defense skills can potentially get you out of a dangerous encounter alive. Many groups offer free or low-cost self-defense classes in urban areas. You can also get involved in some of the more structured martial arts like Krav Maga.


Parkour is probably optional, but having the ability to move quickly through complex urban terrain could make a huge difference. If I had known about this back when I was in my 20’s, I definitely would have partaken.

First Aid

You’ll need to know how to effectively use the items in your first aid kit. Therefore, you should take at least a basic first aid class. Many urban businesses, fire departments, colleges, and medical schools offer low-cost or even free first-aid training, so do some research for your area.

Bugging In

With regards to your apartment, you need to ask yourself, “Can I survive here for X weeks/months?” You need to define your “X” goal, which is how long you think you might be able to survive, and against what types of threats. If your main concern is short-term survival (as in days or weeks) for things like blizzards, hurricanes, and the occasional riot, you probably don’t need much. However, if you want to be able to handle medium-term events (for weeks or months), there’s a lot more you can and should do. As I mentioned earlier, long-term survival (months or years) probably isn’t practical in an urban environment (outside of the movies). For this reason, I’ll focus on the medium-term stuff.


The general rule-of-thumb is that you can survive for three days without water. Clean water is critical, and it will probably be one of the most difficult-to-obtain items in a post-disaster, urban environment. For cooking and drinking, an average person needs about one gallon of water per day to stay healthy. This measurement doesn’t include water use for sanitation. (I’ll have more on that later.) The first thing you should do after a disaster is to fill as many containers with water from your faucets as you can, since you don’t know how long clean water will be available. Collapsible water containers [P1] don’t take much storage space when empty, and you can use them to collect and store a lot of water before your supply shuts off.

If you have a bathtub, you should also consider having a WaterBoB or AquaPod [P2] on hand. They allow you to store up to 100 gallons of water in your tub. (And your tub doesn’t even have to be clean!) You should continue to use water from your faucets for as long as you can before using your stored supplies, but keep in mind that municipal filtration systems may fail any time after a disaster, so you may have to start purifying it.

Storing Water

Since you can’t be sure that any water will be available from your faucet immediately after a disaster, you should also plan on pre-storing at least 10-20 gallons of fresh water per person [P1]. There are various sizes and types of water storage containers available, including the Aqua-Tainer, WaterBrick, Jumbo-Tainer, et cetera. Find something that you can fit into your available storage plan. Put eight drops of plain liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water into each container when you fill it to prevent mold. Store the containers in a dark location, and plan on emptying and re-filling the containers every year or so. Keep in mind that water weighs 8.34 lbs. per gallon, so don’t stack more in one place than your floor can support. (That’s why waterbeds aren’t allowed in some buildings. For you younger readers, read this.)

Collecting Water

No matter how much water you store, eventually you’ll run out. Therefore, you’ll need some way to collect and process more. If the government’s still around in some form, they’ll probably be distributing water, so refill your containers any chance you get. If there’s no water being delivered or it’s too dangerous to leave your apartment, you should have some way to collect rain or snow [P2]. You can buy a drain tarp with a hose connector that you can hang up on your balcony, roof, fire escape, or from a couple of poles stuck out of a window, or you can make your own for a couple of dollars with some clear plastic sheeting, a drain fitting, and a length of garden hose.

You should cover the drain opening at the bottom of the tarp by duct-taping down a piece of cloth to filter out dirt, insects, and other suspended particles. Do not assume the water is safe to drink as it’s collected. Take down your water collection system when it’s not in use to cut down on dirt, bird poop, and other contaminants as well as to protect it from potential wind damage.

Other potential sources of water in urban environments are the fire and water systems in commercial buildings. You can open many of those types of valves with an inexpensive sillcock key.


There are two types of contaminants you need to worry about with untreated water– biological (germs) and metal/chemical. If you collect rain water, your primary concern will be germs picked up from your collection system. If you collect water from a ground source, like a nearby river or lake, you also need to be concerned with metal and chemical contaminants.

Rendering Water Safe To Drink

There are a number of options available for rendering water safe to drink, depending on possible contaminants:

Chemical Treatment (For Germs)

This can be through the addition of eight drops of plain chlorine bleach for each gallon of water. Or, you can use water purification tablets.

Boiling (For Germs)

Boiling will kill most of the organisms in the water that could impact your health. However, this will require a significant long-term heat source to boil the water.

UV Light/ SODIS (For Germs)

You can use UV light from the sun to kill germs in water, with some caveats:

  • The container must be completely clear to allow sunlight in.
  • The water must be perfectly clear. Any sediment in the water will reduce the effectiveness of the process.
  • Since the sunlight loses effectiveness as it passes through water, the biggest container you should use is a standard 2-liter soda bottle.
  • It takes about six hours of full sunlight to purify a 2-liter bottle of water.

Filter (For Germs/Chemicals)

This is probably your best bet. It’s important to pay attention to the type of filter. Some filters, like the LifeStraw or Sawyer Mini, are good at filtering biological elements, but they don’t filter chemicals. You want a filter that has a 0.2 micron or smaller element to stop germs and also includes an activated charcoal element if you need to filter chemicals. At the high end, you can get something like a Berkey water filter, which is generally recognized as one of the best available and can provide over three gallons of clean water per hour. You can also purchase a kit and make your own countertop filter using a couple of plastic buckets.

More compact and less expensive options with replaceable elements are also available. Just be aware that they don’t provide the same rate of filtering per hour.

Whichever option you chose, you need to have some hoses and connectors to transfer the water into the filter and back into your clean containers. Make sure you clearly mark each container and hose to indicate if it’s for clean or dirty water.

Distillation [For Germs/Chemicals]

Distilling involves collecting evaporated water that condenses on a colder surface. Evaporation can be from natural exhalations from a plant, natural humidity in the air, or from water that’s been heated. When water evaporates, it usually leaves most impurities behind, so the evaporated water tends to be drinkable. Collecting water using plastic around trees, in the ground, or heated by the sun produces water slowly. Using a heated still to produce steam requires a source of fuel. So these two methods aren’t generally suitable for most urban environments. The one big advantage to using a solar or heated water still is that it can produce drinkable water from salt water. So, if your city is on a coast and you have access to a consistent heat source, it might be worth buying or building a still.

There’s a lot of good information on the web regarding purifying water (as well as a lot of bad information). I recommend you do some research and pick a solution that works best for you.


Food is only slightly below water in term of its importance to survival. An average person can survive (but not necessarily function effectively) for two to three weeks without food. There are a lot of variables involved in that number, such as weight, age, gender, and level of activity. While a lot of prepping advice revolves around stocking up on canned and bulk items and growing and canning your own food, much of that isn’t practical in the limited space available in an urban apartment.

With the considerations of cost, storage volume, and preparation requirements per meal, the best option for urban dwellers is probably freeze-dried (FD) food in #10 metal cans. They have a long shelf life (20+ years), only require water (hot or cold) to prepare, come in a wide variety, are rodent-proof when unopened, and the average #10 can contains around 20 or more servings. Assuming three meals per day with two servings per meal, ten #10 cans should be roughly enough for one person for one month.

Stocking Up Food

Here are some notes on stocking up on food:

  • Prices of #10 cans of freeze-dried food can vary from $8 to over $50, depending on the type of food. Check around for sales and compare prices at local camping and Walmart stores when buying.
  • Some vendors, such as Mountain House, provide individual FD meal pouches as well as #10 cans, so you can try them out to make sure you like them before buying a full can.
  • Plan your food stocks with an eye towards variety and nutritional requirements. Stock a good selection of both full meals and extras, like crackers, vegetables, and fruits, and include some condiments like sugar, honey, butter, and spices sealed in mylar bags.
  • Include some cold FD breakfast meals, like granola and fruit.
  • Include some drinks, like fruit juice powder, instant coffee, and hot chocolate.
  • Shelf-stable non-FD foods should be in your preparations, like food bars, for situations where you might not be able to prepare your FD food. These are useful in case you need to leave your apartment for a while and want to take food with you.
  • A lot of people think of military MRE meals (Meal, Ready to Eat) when they think of survival food. Most people that have had to eat MREs for any period of time tend to dislike them, but I’ve met some folks that love them. My recommendation is to buy a few and try them. Then decide for yourself. Keep in mind that they tend to be more expensive per meal than #10 FD cans, and they only have a 5-year shelf life, but they can be easier to prepare. (There’s no need to add water.)
  • Keep a decent measuring cup handy for measuring the food and water portions.
  • If you’re going to be storing metal #10 cans someplace that can get wet or has high humidity, consider getting some packing protection or put them in plastic bags with moisture absorbers to prevent rust.
  • Don’t forget to store can openers!

Additional Bulk Foods

If you want to store some additional bulk foods, like rice, pasta, beans, or grains to extend your FD food supply [P3], use mylar bags and oxygen absorbers inside of square plastic buckets. The square buckets store more efficiently than round ones, since you don’t have the gaps between them. And you can get them in smaller sizes. Check out your local bakeries and delis. A lot of them get their food supplies in food-grade plastic buckets, and they may be willing to give them to you for free.

Preparing Food and Heating Water

In order to prepare stored FD food, you’re going to need a method for heating water. There are a lot of low-cost compact stove options available, including propane, butane, wood, white gas, et cetera. The best option for an apartment dweller is generally a simple alcohol camping stove [P1]. Most apartments don’t allow you to store compressed flammable gas, like propane, and having even small wood fires burning inside your apartment probably isn’t a good idea.

The alcohol stove usually involves two parts – the burner and the stove or pot support. You can buy an inexpensive burner, or you can make one yourself from a couple of soda cans. The stove/pot support holds the pot above the flame and can be a folding unit. Or, you can make one yourself for almost nothing. A quart of fuel costs around $8 and should last a few weeks. Make sure you also stock a small funnel for pouring fuel into the burner. You’ll need a stash of Bic lighters or ferrocerium rods for lighting the stove, and a small pot for heating up the water.

It’s critical to remember that burning anything, even alcohol, in an enclosed space consumes oxygen and can produce dangerous gasses. While this shouldn’t be much of a problem even in a small apartment, pay attention to your physical condition while using the stove. If you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, have trouble breathing, or get a headache, extinguish the stove and get some fresh air immediately. Also, keep a fire extinguisher handy.

Caution About Odors of Cooking

Once all of the normal pollution and other odors in the city dissipate and people are starving, the smell of cooking food may carry a long way and attract a lot of people who firmly believe they are entitled to your food. (These people may be inclined to use violence to enforce that belief.) If you have enough to feed a large group on a regular basis and chose to do so, then bless you. If not I’d recommend that you plug the gaps around your door and keep any windows or outside vents closed until the smell has dissipated.

Tomorrow, we will continue with discussion on hygiene and safety/security.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part three in a six part entry for Round 75 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

  1. A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
  2. A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate. This can be used for any one, two, or three day course (a $1,095 value),
  3. A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses, excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
  4. DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper. These have hammer forged, chrome-lined barrels and a hard case, to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel. This can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools. It also provides a compact carry capability in a hard case or in 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
  5. Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
  6. A $250 gift certificate good for any product from Sunflower Ammo,
  7. Two cases of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), courtesy of (a $180 value), and
  8. American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses.

Second Prize:

  1. A Model 175 Series Solar Generator provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
  2. A Glock form factor SIRT laser training pistol and a SIRT AR-15/M4 Laser Training Bolt, courtesy of Next Level Training, which have a combined retail value of $589,
  3. A gift certificate for any two or three-day class from Max Velocity Tactical (a $600 value),
  4. A transferable certificate for a two-day Ultimate Bug Out Course from Florida Firearms Training (a $400 value),
  5. A Trekker IV™ Four-Person Emergency Kit from Emergency Essentials (a $250 value),
  6. A $200 gift certificate good towards any books published by,
  7. RepackBox is providing a $300 gift certificate to their site.

Third Prize:

  1. A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
  2. A large handmade clothes drying rack, a washboard, and a Homesteading for Beginners DVD, all courtesy of The Homestead Store, with a combined value of $206,
  3. Expanded sets of both washable feminine pads and liners, donated by Naturally Cozy (a $185 retail value),
  4. Two Super Survival Pack seed collections, a $150 value, courtesy of Seed for Security, LLC,
  5. Mayflower Trading is donating a $200 gift certificate for homesteading appliances, and
  6. Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord (in-stock colors only) from (a $240 value).

Round 75 ends on March 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. 1) Re Water, Sawyer has a kit that lets you connect their filter to a plastic 5 gallon water bucket with a hose — for filtering larger amounts than what will fit in the plastic squeeze bags.
    2) Most cities have large rivers running through them. If the water system fails (no electricity to run the pumps that lifts water to the high reservoirs) then you need a way to haul water from the river. A stolen shopping cart might work but it will be stolen by someone else after a while.

    One reason why I like military surplus ALICE packs is that they have a cargo shelf attachment that lets you haul 5 gallon water cans like the ones made by Spectre.
    However, 5 gallons of water weighs 41.65 lbs and would make it hard to respond quickly to a sneak attack so it would be best to use something with wheels , if available. A kid’s play wagon, for example. But wheels only work on unbroken pavement — not out in the woods.

    3) Re cooking, an apartment 5+ stories above ground level and with a balcony has advantages. (You could screen the balcony rail with cloth to hide your presence.) It reduces the concern about cooking odors betraying you and it allows use of a small hibachi grill that burns odorless charcoal (legal in most cases to store in your apartment or in a storage cage in the basement.) Plus the grill could burn twigs picked up from nearby park areas. If you have a hatchet or ax, you could even cut tree branches for drying on the balcony if ground clutter gets picked clean by others.

    If management allowed it, a Coleman stove with an adapter hose to a 20 lb propane tank
    would allow a month or more of cooking depending upon how many BTUs are used per meal.

  2. This series has been incredibly informative for me. I work in Dallas and am most likely going to be working here in 10 years, so someone dedicating this much time to getting out of the city has been great for me. I carpool since I live as far away from the city as I can and can only throw a get home bag in the trunk and count that as my means of preparedness. This resource will help me get more prepared in the event that I need to get out of the city fast. You’ve got my vote to win the writing contest.

  3. I have used the wine boxes for water storage. You have seen them; the 5 liter cardboard boxes wirh a pull out nozzle. I cut the glue seal at the top that closes the box leaving an undamaged box. Pullout the plastic bag and run tap water into it and empty it a few times to clear out any remaining wine. Then fill the plastic bag with 5 liters of water.

    This is easier than it sounds. Turn the faucet on so that a steady stream of water about 1/4 inch in diameter is flowing. Place the bag in the sink with the nozzle facing up. Position the outlet of the nozzle directly under the stream of wat and press the valve to open it. The water flows right in, suprisingly easily and quickly.

    When the bag is full with 5 liters. (I use my kitchen scale to get this correct. Too little water and you are wasting storage space, too much and the box won’t go together easily.) Put the bag back into the box orienting the nozzle correctly so it can easily be deployed. Place some white glue on the box lid where you pulled it apart and after repositioning the top set it down upside down and the weight of the water is sufficient to press the flaps together until they seal.

    I also paint the boxes. This isn’t necessary but it prevents them from being seen as wine. Also because I put a couple of them in my trunk I don’t want them to be seen and a dark brown makes them less obvious.

    These boxes are excellent. They protect the very tough plastic bladder, they have a convenient carry handle, the weight (about 10 1/2 lbs) is reasonable to carry, they can be carried in a backpack as is or remove the bladder for a makeshift hydration bladder that takes up less room when out of the box. They are cheap, typically you throw them away or recycle them after first use anyway. They store well, you can line them up on a shelf, pack them in a tote, stack them in the corner. They are “almost” bullet proof and they are free.

    Since I travel in a motor home I also reuse the boxes for storage. I use a few to hold magazines, books and papers.

  4. A very nice article series. I can’t agree enough on the physical fitness aspect of all of this. Let’s be clear on this: if you’re fat, you’re hosed. I’m not trying to be mean or harsh. If you’re fat (and you know whether you are or not, lying to yourself is only hurting yourself here) you’re not walking any distance with any sort of efficiency. Think you’re running from a gun a gun fight? Think again. Outfighting someone? You’re not. Think about your situation, honestly. You can’t run, you can’t fight, you are accustomed to over-consuming calories that are no longer available, and you’re not able to work at the pace of others who aren’t fat. Your cholesterol is likely high, and you may very well have diabetes. Additionally, your knees, feet,
    ankle, and back are breaking down faster than someone your age that is not fat, making you fat more susceptible to stress injuries that will be very common in a new environment. All of these factor you squarely in the catergory of “liability”. LOSE THAT GUT FOLKS! It WILL kill you.

  5. I think it’s an illusion to believe that people living in cities don’t have situational awareness. In fact I would say it’s just the opposite. Don’t confuse ignoring, for unaware. I’ve lived in both the country and a large city (few), and I can tell you they take situational awareness to a whole other level.

    1. With the exception of the woods/back country, I would even say that country folks are the ones really lacking in that skill set. Here are a few things that blew my mind moving to the country:

      Women don’t wrap their pocketbooks around the leg of their chair when sitting in public.
      You count money in public
      High ratio of cars unlocked: heck unlocked, engines running and pocketbook/valuables inside
      Friendly with strangers
      Will leave valuables, including pocketbooks and cell phones on a restaurant table, alone, while you getup to do something.

      Now there are reasons that these things happen. I like to say that everyone in the south is nice because everyone is armed. But the above is an example of some very bad, very dangerous and very situationally unaware habits.

      Before you think I’m picking on country folks, keep in mind that nothing is funnier than watching a city person run into a black bear or the first time, or show up for a hike with some kind of flip flops on.

  6. Re: situational awareness – I didn’t mean to imply they have no situational awareness, I just don’t believe it’s the kind that would be completely applicable in a survival situation. Most city folks seem to be instinctually aware of what’s going on immediately around them that could impact them and their immediate goals – someone walking into them, a door opening, a traffic jam, etc. The type of situational awareness I was referring to involves a constant awareness and subconscious analysis of potential short-, medium- and long-range threats and how they could impact them. I’ve also seen a lot of 20-somethings walking into doors, lamp posts, etc. because they had their face in their phone instead of watching where they were going 😎

    1. You didn’t imply that, but for those that haven’t lived in one it could be seen that way. What I wrote wasn’t a critical of what you said. It’s really difficult to put a concept as complex as what situational awareness is into a sentence. I just wanted to add a clarification for people that have not lived in a city but might be traveling in/to/through one. It can be a real pain writing sometime.

      1. Understood and thanks for the feedback. I find the comments for these types of articles frequently provide as much if not more information than the article itself.

  7. In the anti-Vietnam riots of the Summer of 1967 I was riding a motorcycle across country. I was on I-70 in Ohio near Columbus and needed gas. I could see the black smoke from a couple of fires and since I had seen them before I knew they were part of the riots. But it was midday and I was young, strong and overwhelmingly confident so I pulled off to search for a gas station. The exit just kinda dumped me onto a city street where a few, not many people were milling around. I began to sense the urgency as I searched for a gas station. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw movement from the sidewalk on my right. A young man, perhaps 14 was preparing to throw a broom stick at me and I watched as he did and it was obvious he was aiming at my front tire. I touched the brake and it was just enough because I watched that stick pass just in front of my tire. It would have been a disaster had it hit and gone into the spokes. I grew up back East in a rough city, I knew the city and it’s risks. There were some signs of course but this happened in a second and could have been serious. I shouldn’t have been there. I know that now, but I allowed circumstances to give me no other choice. I got my gas and got the hell out of ‘Dodge’.

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