Surviving in an Urban Environment- Part 5, by J.M.

We are in the middle of reviewing ways to improve your security if you are caught in a short or mid-length emergency while in an urban apartment or dorm.

Safety and Security (continued)

Let’s continue with our list of ways to improve our security in case of an emergency.

Know Maintenance People

Get friendly with your apartment’s maintenance people. Tell them you have an interest in or are taking a class in civil engineering and want to know more about your building’s systems. They can show you all of the hidden nooks and crannies in your building, particularly if it’s an older one. I had a friend who accidentally busted a hole in the wall of his apartment in an older building and discovered an unused dumbwaiter shaft behind it, which would have made a great emergency escape. Make sure you know how to access the roof (including from inside the elevator shaft) and are able to bypass any locks that may prevent you from doing so. Another good source of information would be your local Building Commission. In most municipalities builders have to file a copy of the blueprints. If it’s an older building that’s been modified or rebuilt there may be multiple iterations of blueprints.

Use Signs to Practice a Little Psychological Warfare

Put a biohazard sign and some quarantine tape on your door or the main building entrance. Fill some biohazard bags with clean trash and set them outside. For added realism, find a dead rat, chew up a corner of one of the biohazard bags with a sharp needle, and leave the rat on the floor next to it. It won’t fool everyone. But even the strongest thug will think twice about trying to get in, especially if the disaster involved has a biological component.

Use Adjacent Unoccupied Space for Entrance

If there is an unoccupied apartment adjacent to yours, make an opening in the adjoining wall/floor/ceiling and go in and out from that apartment. Cover up the opening between the apartments with furniture or rugs when not in use. Add some extra door security in the second apartment, and leave a window open or make an obvious opening to a third apartment. That way if someone follows you and breaks into the decoy apartment, they’ll think you just escaped out another way. Install some noise-making tripwires or booby traps, and make sure you obscure the trail to your secret entrance in the decoy apartment by walking around to cover up obvious footprints.

Track What’s Happening

Keep track of what’s happening around you. Talk to your neighbors while they’re still around. Watch out your window and go up to the roof regularly. Also, monitor events in the local area. Get a good set of binoculars or a monocular, and keep a log of what you see. Just make sure you practice “seeing, but not being seen”. Use your handheld scanner radio to listen in on radio broadcasts, and consider adding an extended antenna up the outside of your building or on the roof to increase your reception strength.

Weapons, Handgun and Shotgun

Let’s go back to the subject of weapons, specifically guns. In many locations, even if you can’t get a permit to carry a concealed handgun, you can still buy a firearm and keep it in your home.

For an urban environment with limited sight distances, a handgun is probably your best bet, since it’s small, light, and you can carry (and find) a lot of ammo. A shotgun would also be a good option. You can usually find a decent one for around $200. Don’t forget to stock up with a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition for each weapon, and practice regularly.

Weapons, Tactical Tomahawk

In addition to a firearm, a tactical tomahawk is also a good choice of weapon for an urban environment. They can be used to defend, chop wood, break through walls, and, with the right model, pry things open. Less-expensive alternatives are also available.

Body Armor and Ballistic Helmet

It’s not cheap, but consider investing in some body armor and a ballistic helmet. There are a ton of firearms already in most urban areas, and it could save your life once bullets start flying.

Night Vision

A city with no power and no lights will be extremely dark at night, and that’s probably the best time for you to go out if you need to dump trash, get water from the river, et cetera. Since using a flashlight will essentially make you a target, you should consider getting a night vision device. They’re also not cheap. A low end infrared unit, like the Bushnell Equinox Z, will cost around $200. Military-style night vision goggles can run in the thousands of dollars, and they all require some kind of battery to operate. However, it can make the difference between seeing a threat and being taken by surprise.

Adjusting to Natural Night Vision

If you need to go out at night and don’t have a night vision device, turn off any lights in your apartment well before you go out to allow your eyes to adjust. It takes your eyes around 10 minutes to partially adjust for night vision, 30-45 minutes for 80% adaption, and several hours for full night adaption.

Vary Routine

If you do need to go out occasionally, vary your routine. Stagger the times and routes you take to reduce the chance of someone learning your pattern and planning an ambush.

Secure Access to Your Floor

Secure access to your floor by chaining or pinning the emergency stairway exit doors, blocking the main stairs with furniture or booby traps, and “locking” elevator doors with a couple of screws and some wire to keep someone from prying them open from inside the shaft. Blocking the main first floor entrance could also help. However, since someone can usually get into a first-floor apartment via a window, it’s probably not that useful.

Dealing with the Environment

No matter where you live, you’ll eventually have to deal with Mother Nature. If it’s summer time and you don’t have electricity, you’ll have to figure out how to stay cool. If it’s winter, you’ll have to get warm. You may also have to deal with smoke, dust, odors, et cetera. Below, you will find some ideas.


  • Put up natural fabric curtains (cotton or linen) and put the bottoms into a container of water. If there’s any breeze coming through the curtains, the water will wick up and evaporate, which will help cool your apartment down.
  • Stock some evaporative cooling towels.
  • Use room darkening drapes, dark plastic, or even aluminum foil over the windows to keep the sun from heating up your apartment.
  • Consider sleeping in a hammock. It allows cooling evaporation around your entire body at night. Make sure you have a solid way to hang it up.
  • Leave windows open at night (without turning any lights on or making any noise) to cool down, and close them during the day.
  • Minimize your activity during the hottest parts of the day.
  • Stock up on and mix electrolyte hydration powder into your drinking water to replace what your body sweats out.


  • Stock up on blankets. You can frequently find inexpensive fleece ones on sale for a few dollars at Walmart or your local drug store, or check out second-hand shops.
  • It’s a lot easier to warm a smaller space, so try to limit yourself to a single small room, like your bedroom. Tape plastic sheeting over any windows to add another insulating air space. Cover windows, doors, and exterior walls with blankets to add even more insulation. Don’t forget that if your apartment gets below freezing, your water supply may freeze. So keep as much of it in your warmer living space as possible.
  • Your alcohol stove or some candles can be burned for short periods to add some warmth. Just be careful about asphyxiation.
  • Those shiny survival blankets actually do a good job of reflecting heat back to your body. Get a decent one that will last more than one or two uses.
  • Consider using a cold-weather mummy-style sleeping bag instead of regular bed covers.
  • Due to the potential downsides, I’m hesitant to include a small wood-burning stove, but it’s an option. You can make an inexpensive one yourself out of an old military ammo can. Just search the web for “ammo can stove”. You’ll find a lot of articles on how to do it. Just keep some things in mind:
    • You’ll need to vent it outside, so you’ll have to drill a hole through a wall or a window cover for the hot exhaust pipe. Ensure it doesn’t come into contact with anything flammable, too.
    • Unless all the components of the stove are well-sealed, you run the risk of asphyxiation from leaking gasses when using it in an enclosed space. The stove also needs oxygen to burn, and it will draw it in from your room, so make sure your room isn’t completely airtight.
    • Finding wood to burn may be difficult but not impossible. Wooden pallets in the back of stores, lumber at construction sites, furniture, and trees are all potential sources. Make sure you stock a small folding saw, if you choose to do this.
    • Wood smoke can be smelled for miles away in the cold winter air, so it will draw people towards your location. On the other hand, if there are any other people alive, they’ll probably be burning stuff to stay warm too.
    • The risk of something catching fire is pretty high. You’ll need to keep a fire extinguisher or a bucket of sand close by.
  • If you live in a city that gets lots of snow, consider taking up snowshoeing as a hobby. It’s great for fitness and will help you get around once the snow clearing services stop.


If there’s smoke or dust in the air but you need to have your windows open, cover them with some cloth to act as a filter. If you’re concerned about breathing contaminated air due to a gas or biological attack, consider building and storing an air filter fan. You’ll need AC power for this to work, so either your power has to be on or you could use a battery power station to run it for a few hours. You’ll also need to store plenty of sheet plastic and duct tape to seal your apartment off.


While not absolutely critical, the ability to charge and use small, powered devices (like a security camera) can make survival in an urban apartment a lot more viable. A small tablet loaded with books, movies, and games can help keep you sane, and a portable solar charger isn’t that expensive. You can find a wide variety of rechargeable batteries that you can charge with the solar panel, or you can charge up a USB battery bank and use that to charge your other devices. There are also various types of collapsible solar-charged lanterns available that can run for hours on a single charge. Check out the MPOWERD Luci and Solight Solarpuff, for some examples. If you do get a scanner radio, make sure you also have the ability to recharge it or its batteries from a USB power source.

You could also buy a small generator. But keep in mind that they’re noisy and have to be run in a well-ventilated space (preferably outdoors). Additionally, gas and oil storage in an urban environment is can be difficult, although there will probably be a lot of cars around that you can siphon gas from.

Mental Health

Mental health may be a challenge. Staying sane during and after a disaster may be more difficult than staying physically healthy, especially if you’re alone. The stress of having your normal world turned upside down can be debilitating, and having to adjust to a completely new and dangerous reality (even temporarily) may be too much for some people. Note that up to this point I’ve been focusing mostly on survival for a single person. If you want to include someone else, like family, a friend, a roommate, or a significant other in your preparations, having another person to interact with can ease your mental burden. Just be aware that after a few weeks cooped up together in a small apartment, your attitudes towards each other may change. Additionally, you’ll need to stock significantly more supplies to support them. My general attitude is that if a person materially contributes to your preparation activities then they should be allowed to benefit from them.

Staying Mentally Healthy

Here are some suggestions for staying mentally healthy:

  • Develop and follow a schedule for your daily indoor activities. This can provide some needed structure.
  • Since physical and mental health are tightly intertwined, you should develop and follow a regular exercise routine. Tai Chi is a good art to practice, since it helps with physical and mental health as well as self defense. Avoid high-energy and high-impact activities, since these will burn a lot of calories and tend to make a lot of noise.
  • Stock a digital tablet and load it up with eBooks. There are tons of free eBooks available on the Internet. Just search for “free ebooks”. Reading can be very relaxing, and it will help fill your time productively. You can even find a daily-updated list of free survival-related eBooks on Amazon here. Just remember that your eBooks have to be stored locally on your tablet, storage card, or a USB drive. They won’t do you any good, after a disaster, if they’re stored on Amazon’s cloud.
  • Pick up a hobby, like wood carving or drawing. Don’t forget to stock up on supplies.
  • Learn and practice meditation.
  • Read the Bible.

Tomorrow, we will take a look at other equipment, including medical supplies, storage, and a few other topics.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part four of 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.
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  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),
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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. J.M.,
    Great series so far! It has served as a great re-cap of the basics for long term preppers that get lost in the weeds of minutiae as well as good advice for those just starting out.

    In addition to the maintenance guy, don’t forget the trash guys! These guys know where EVERYTHING is in your neighborhood; urban or rural. Every alley, every backroad, what everyone has in their backyards; they see it everyday. We tip ours every Christmas and make sure we keep them happy. I have also made it a habit, no matter where I’ve lived, to pick one corner grocery or Mom&Pop store that I give all my business to for other than major grocery purchases. During an emergency, your loyalty and friendship with these people could make the difference if you need food or a gallon of gas.

    1. D.D. – Excellent point on establishing other relationships with people in the neighborhood. I might also include the mailman and the local beat cop(s) as people worth being on good terms with. If there are any (rational) homeless people that reside in your area it can’t hurt to give them a dollar or two once a week or so – since they’re around most of the time they might be able to warn you about any strangers or suspicious activity around your building.

  2. Harbor Freight often has “moving blankets” in large sizes on sale, and they are good as insulation, not just for furniture. There are other sources of surplus wool and other blankets as well.

    1. I also like the moving blankets, however…

      Be sure to test your skin against them before using them. One I had, purchased new, caused a terrible skin rash that took months to get rid of.

      It was the only one that did it. It was pure misery and I pitched it.

  3. One very tough issue is finding a tribe to join. I think it would be very difficult for a lone person to survive for very long if things got really bad. If you have friends who are preppers and can be trusted then it might be best to go with them. Some people, of course, would be needy and worthless.

    Hooking up with strangers runs the risk of meeting a psychopath who kills you in your sleep or when you are off guard.

    Even if you join a group, it is still important to make friends within the group who will defend you from attack or from being screwed by a clique. If bad things happen and paranoia sets in, you don’t want to be the automatic (and expendable ) suspect or regarded as a hostile spy/mole.

  4. Don – I agree, but the whole discussion around establishing solid relationships is a topic that would have taken as much space as the original article. If you’ve got some thoughts on the topic I’d encourage you to put something together and submit it to

    1. Problem is JM is most people are set in their ways and could not be moved from it to save their life…So writing an article will just assuage somebody’s belief system or it will be blown off by those who disagree…So I’ve found its better to just throw out tidbits here and there and if people want to respond positively or negatively then its no skin off my back…

  5. lineman – I agree that a lot of folks are never going to change their ways, but I’ve also found that younger people can sometimes be influenced by a well-presented dialogue. I work with a lot of younger (relative to me) interns, and in the course of discussions on various non-work topics I’ve frequently heard them say something to the effect of ‘I read an article on so-and-so and it got me thinking’. That’s my goal when I write something – not to change anyone’s mind, but just to get them thinking about possibilities.

  6. I think the series is covering a lot of what people who are in urban environments need to be aware of, how to prepare, and the possibilities of what to do if you either decide to stay and ride out the situation, or if you need to plan to escape to a better place.

    Most of the major metro’s tend to have at least 2 major freeways running through them and in some cases, more than 2. There are usually several State Highways as well that provide a means to get out of the metro area.

    There are some metros that have more limited means for leaving, and the one that always come to mind for me, as I grew up out there was San Francisco. Being on a peninsula really limits your means of being able to leave easily. The same may be true for other coastal cities, even if they are not on a peninsula.

    If you are on the coast you’ll have in some cases many miles of city to go through before you get out of it, so unless you have a boat or know someone who does, getting out of the metro area could be difficult to extremely difficult. One example that comes to mind is the Los Angeles area where if you are in Santa Monica or Redondo Beach, trying to get out of the metro area could prove nearly impossible.

    I think the series of articles is doing a good job of providing lots of food for thought. Not only for those living in those areas, but for those of us that could be visiting friends or relatives in those areas when something happens. If you are visiting then you are at quite a disadvantage in some cases as you would not have everything available to you that you have at home.

    Definitely some good insights on the different travel/preparedness bags/packs you can keep in your car/truck for such instances. If you fly out to visit in a metro area, you could really be up a creek without a paddle.

    Overall, very good food for thought.

  7. Part 5 was GREAT!!!

    I lived through “Hurricane Elvis” in the early 2000’s in Memphis, Tennessee.

    We were stuck in a tower without power, or shower. Misery I tell you! And it was only for 8 days.

    We were on the 8th floor in the summer – hot and humid. My husband acquired 168 mosquito bites in the first night. And we had screens on our windows. He was so miserable I thought he was going to throw himself off of the balcony.

    Pack some citronella candles and bug spray. It can give you much needed relief until you can figure out an alternative solution.

  8. Power

    Battery banks using vehicle, or deep cycle marine batteries (boat batteries) can be used to provide a pretty decent source of emergency power and they’re silent. Having watched many of the store rushes prior to hurricanes, I didn’t see a lot of people hitting up the hardware store for boat and car batteries for emergency power. This would allow you to power some low power lights, charge your phone/tablets, and run some low-power fans as well. The batteries in your bank could be recharged using a vehicle with fuel in it, or you could use other batteries in their place. While there might be a gas shortage, vehicle batteries might be left sitting in the cars that the owners abandoned, or shiny new ones might sit unnoticed in auto parts stores.

    Steven Harris provides some solid guidance on battery banks here:

    I would also recommend investing the cash into his videos that give step-by-step instructions on building a battery bank, potential pitfalls and common questions. I built my first bank using his info and it’s pretty easy once you understand the basics.

    Plus you could load his videos up on a USB thumb drive and plug that into your phone via a micro-USB/type c/lightning adapter to USB adapter and have access to the videos for reference for when you need them for reference.

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