Surviving in an Urban Environment- Part 1, by J.M.

Let’s talk about surviving in an urban environment. In my younger days, one of my first jobs was in a mid-sized city in the Midwest. Being young, I wanted to enjoy all of the virtues and vices that the city had to offer. So, I got an apartment that was close to the city center. I had camping gear, and I always made sure to have a decent stock of food, water and medical supplies. However, with the knowledge and experience I’ve picked up in the ensuing decades, I look back and realize how unprepared I really was to survive an even moderate disaster.

The Goal of This Article

The goal of this article is to share some of what I’ve learned over the years in order to help folks who want to be prepared to survive for a few weeks or months and are, for whatever reason, living in an urban environment. For the purpose of this discussion, I consider “urban” living to mean you are living and working within 20 miles of a city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. It’s critical to understand that urban environments are not a good option for long-term survival. Between the population densities (average is around 4000 people/sq. mi.), criminals/gangs, and lack of sustainable resources, you can probably plan on surviving on your own resources for a few weeks or months at most. After that, you’d better hope things either go back to normal or have a “Phase 2” plan to get to a better survival location.

Since many folks who live in urban areas tend to be younger and not have a lot of disposable income, I’ve tried to provide the least expensive recommendations that could still meet requirements. I’ve provided online links for ordering where I could. But keep in mind you may be able to find many items (or equivalents) less expensive in your local Walmart, dollar store, second-hand shop, or even on eBay. Since living spaces in most urban areas tend to be smaller multi-story apartments, I’ve also tried to minimize storage requirements. These conditions could also apply to college students living on or near a campus.


What’s Happening?

The first thing you need to do in any disaster scenario is figure out exactly what is happening [P1]. Don’t spend your entire day with your face buried in social media on your cell phone. Pay attention to what’s happening locally, nationally, and globally. If all of a sudden people around you start dropping like flies and you know the CDC recently published an alert regarding an extremely virulent and deadly form of flu that includes your city, you’ll be a lot better prepared to react appropriately than most people. If the power in your office building goes out and you notice that cars and phones have also died, you’ll know that it was probably an EMP or CME event and not just a local power outage.

Read multiple sources of news to find out what’s happening in your area and think about how it can impact you. Learn to separate opinions from facts, and don’t just rely on the mainstream media for all of your information. Gathering and correctly interpreting information is critical, because knowing the scope and potential duration of the event can allow you to make the right decisions regarding what actions you should take. Once you’ve made a decision, act on it. Avoid the “herd” mentality. A lot of urban people will have the attitude of “we should wait for someone in authority to tell us what to do.”

Scanner Radio

A scanner radio can make a huge difference in amount and accuracy of the information you can collect [P1]. With cell service or a standard AM/FM radio you can get some basic “for sheeple consumption” information. But being able to listen in to the emergency services, Ham operators, marine radio, et cetera will provide you with a much more accurate and up-to-date picture of what’s really going on. At the low end ($25), you can get a Baofeng UV-5R. The next level up would be something like a Uniden BC75XLT or BC125AT. Understand that you won’t be able to listen in on trunked radio channels (which are what most urban police departments use these days) on these lower-end radios.

If you want to listen in on those, you’ll need something like the Uniden BCD325P2, which is a lot more expensive ($360). Whatever you end up with, get an ear piece so you can listen to it without broadcasting the fact. Also, learn to program and use it and have the ability to power and recharge it. I also highly recommend as a resource to identify what channels would be relevant in your area. If the Internet is still up, you can listen in on emergency service radio broadcasts using an online service, like Broadcastify, which has apps available for cell phones.

Getting Home

People tend to spend anywhere from 8 to 16 hours away from their residence every weekday. So, the odds of a disaster occurring while you’re not home are pretty high. For most urban dwellers, your apartment is the only space that you have significant control over and will most likely be the base for most of your preparations. If a major disaster occurs, one of your first objectives should be to get home as quickly and as safely as possible.

Clothing and Footwear at Work or Campus

To begin, you should store a decent set of season-appropriate, comfortable, and non-descript clothing and footwear at your workplace or campus [P1]. While your suit and tie might get you that promotion at work, being able to change into a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, and hiking boots during an emergency might allow you to get home safe and alive. You’re also a lot less likely to get assaulted walking by a crowd of looters if you’re dressed casually. Avoid “tactical” or military-looking gear, since that will probably make you more of a target in an urban environment.

Get Out of Building

The next thing you may need to worry about is how to get out of the building you’re in. If you’re above ground level and need to get down to a street exit, do not take the elevators. Even if power’s not out at the time, there’s no guarantee that it won’t go out when you’re somewhere between floors. Learn where the stairs and elevator shafts are in your building, and use the stairs whenever possible. Also learn where any emergency equipment is located in your building. These can be designated as such, like firefighting/medical equipment, or they can be potential sources for improvised equipment like supply, maintenance or security rooms. Learn where all of the exits are, including loading docks and fire exits, since your primary exit may be blocked.

Without a Motorized Vehicle

Once you’re out you’ll need to get home without a motorized vehicle. You should assume that public transportation won’t be available and that the roads will be impassable to vehicles. Fewer people in the city drive (or even own) cars, but bicycles are very common. If you rely on a bicycle, make sure you always have a basic repair kit with you and the knowledge to use it in case something breaks and you need to fix it in a hurry.

Regardless of what your usual mode of transport is, you should also plan on having to walk home. I highly recommend that you practice walking home from your work or campus several times throughout the year, under varying conditions. Learn multiple routes. Find what’s along the way, such as potential hiding places, choke points, dangerous areas, and possible detours. I’d also recommend avoiding any underground routes, like subway tunnels, since they can collapse or flood, and your options will be very limited if you need to flee from any threats.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part one 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:

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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. Thanks for the article and for reminding me why I moved!

    On a side note, if you are looking for a scanner make sure to check local resources first. Legacy analog VHF is gone in a lot of places, the trunking systems may be encrypted, and there’s a congressional move to nationaly standardize on FirstNet (sorry for the never ending link below).

        1. I take that HF comment back. I just went to look up the frequency and couldn’t find it in the FirstNet docs. Original they planned on having one as a emergency longer distance backup if the towers go down. Now it seems to be missing. I other words, it’s no more reliable that the tower. They can still do point to point but at those frequency ranges it is really limited.

  2. For some disasters –or imminent threat of disaster — evacuation is the only viable response. Nuclear war, for example.

    1) A person on a bicycle is pretty vulnerable –even with rifle. A pistol can be handled with one hand but is banned in many cities. But a bike can cover a lot more ground than walking if the streets are not broken (e.g, by an earthquake )
    2) Most large cities have a radius less than 20 miles — a day’s walk.
    3) Best time to walk/bicycle outside is early dawn into morning rush hour — crooks tend to sleep in.
    4) If things are really bad, look for water transport. To the best of my recollection, every city has a large river running through it for the essential water supply. During the Sept 11 2001 attack, the roads and tunnels out of Manhatten were jammed but a lot of people got off the island via ferries and other boats responding to the Coast Guard’s call for help.

    5) There probably needs to be a plan for each possible disaster — although there will obviously be be overlaps in the range of possible responses to the various disasters.

    6) Important to distinguish between point disasters versus national or global disasters. In a point disaster, aid will rush in from the rest of the country and staying in place/focusing on surviving the first week may work. In national disasters (e.g, nuclear war or pandemic flu) you are on your own and may need to get to a better location. Maybe even outside the country.

    7) For example, San Francisco is vulnerable to a major earthquake. But if you look at the major faults, the San Andreas quake would cause major destruction largely on the west side of the Bay and the east side may be largely unscathed aside from areas near the water. Similarly, a Hayward quake on the east side would leave the west side largely undamaged. It would be difficult to get out of San Francisco via highway in either event but the Bay allows massive assistance to come in via ship. So it seems to me it would be better to plan to evacuate to the opposite side of the Bay and survive for a week rather than try to get across the mountains to Stockton.

    In that regard, streets near the Bay would probably be broken (liquidfaction) but streets two miles inland would probably be in reasonable condition. What poses a major but largely hidden risk is the network of underground natural gas pipelines and — in the northern region of the Bay, the many large oil refineries.

    In theory, the huge reservoirs near the TOP of the mountains overlooking San Francisco could wipe out huge sections of the city if they broke but the two large ones on the San Andreas Fault survived the 1906 quake so hopefully Redwood City won’t be hit by a tidal wave coming downhill.

  3. If you have never lived in a big city there’s a tendency to see the area it occupies in two dimensions. In other words in miles. However the “center mass” of these large cities can be industrial horizontal (like Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt), shanty like Saigon and parts of Mexico City, or vertical like NYC, or Taipei.

    I mention the above because physical fitness takes on a whole other level walking down 40 floors to spend the next 5 hours weaving between cars, then walk up another 30 floors.

    Levels of crime also also varying. Surprisingly places like LA, NYC and other US cities are actually much safer to travel through than other cities across the planet. My wife grew up in Saigon and is visiting there right now. People don’t put on nice jewelry in public because it’s common, yes common, for criminals to steal it by using a machete. They will push your moped into oncoming traffic just to steal a pocket book. So like mentioned in the article, blending in is important, but blending in looking like you have nothing to take is even more important.

  4. Sad and glad that I no longer live in Redwood City. I had some very good times there.

    Good point on second hand stores and eBay. Many of the second hand stores get there stuff from thrift stores and yard sales. So don’t forget those either. On the thrift stores my wife finds she gets better prices from the ones associated with hospices. They tend to be run by older folks who are more conservative on the prices they set for the items. Goodwill seems to be getting really pricey and their prices are set by younger folks. Fifteen dollars for fishing pole might seem reasonable to them but rather high for an older person. When I was growing up $20.00 was a considerable amount of money to a kid from today it’s like a $5.00 bill from 15 years ago. It’s relative to your life experiences. Thrift store stock tends to change rapidly so it an be worthwhile visiting frequently.

    eBay sales can also be a great money saver. Trick on these is to bid at the last second and check the sellers ratings. If the seller has sold 130 items and has a 100% approval rating it’s probably safe to order from him or her. If they have 15,000+ ratings they are doing it full time. Check the sellers approval ratings also, especially the negative ones. I won’t buy from someone with a less than 99% percent approval.

  5. Skateboards did not exist when I was a kid, and I am certainly not going to try to learn to use them at my age now.

    Unfortunately, I work in the bowels of Downtown LA hell. I take rail to the office on most days. From time to time after I am walking the last couple of blocks to my office, young people on skateboards whiz past me on the sidewalks.

    It has occurred to me that younger people who do not drive their own automobile to work might consider keeping a skateboard or Razor at the office inside a discreet cardboard box. No one would give a second glance to that box stored under a desk or cubicle or propped up in the corner. A bicycle would be better, but then not using it frequently would raise questions by others, and the space required to store it would be significant.

    For OPSEC purposes, if asked about the box, I am sure that a cover story could be invented so as to explain it.

    Just as kids fly across large college campuses on skateboards in order to save time, the time required to get home after a major emergency on one would be reduced to a fraction of what it would be on foot.

    While this alternative surely won’t work for everyone, some might find it to be a very useful solution.

  6. I live in Redwood City, Ca. and it is just a few miles from the San Andreas fault. With the recent explosion of new office buildings and 6 story apartments houses, the population density downtown is huge. These building are full of young professionals that have no clue about prepardness and are woefully unaware. In the neighborhood I live in, full of lawyers, engineers, and Doctors, they are also unprepared. I am a retired firefighter/paramedic and if the big earthquake hits, there is no escape. I stress to my friends and neighbors to be prepared.

    Redwood City is in the north end of Silicone Valley. I can bike to the hqs. of Facebook and Goggle.

  7. For anyone thinking of surviving in a city should read up on what Selco went through…He actually survived SHTF but he did say US food drops were their saving grace which I don’t think we can count on that here…

  8. I enjoyed your article, and encourage you to write more. Without sounding too fatherly, I humbly, really, believe that the places we should live in the immediate future, should be places tied to growing your own food; And the small towns and villages around them.

    I look forward to how you will address this, and keep up the great work.

    God bless,

    1. That kind of living situation is what Thomas Jefferson and some other Founding Fathers wanted the new country to be, more agrarian. Everyone have enough land for growing food, and for some livestock. That way you are more self-sufficient, and less dependent on society for your needs.

  9. JM,
    I appreciate very much your concise use of language, and your logical progression of thought and presentation of information in approximately the order of progression of probably societal distresses. You are doing a good job. Keep it up; be encouraged.

  10. One thing I would point out about vehicles/foot travel is that it depends on your situation.

    I live reasonably close to Denver and to Boulder and attend graduate school in Boulder. If something happens there is, quite frankly, no way that I’m even attempting to walk home. I’ll carjack someone before I try walking.

    It’s 30+ miles which is quite a ways. It’s also over reasonably open terrain where you’re not going to hide from someone who wants to harm you/rob you and in the winter trying to walk back home would basically be a suicide mission with the winds that come up. The only way you’re walking back safe from the winter winds/weather is with a full-on single piece snowsuit rated to -20F like they sell at Cabela’s. Otherwise it really is a suicide mission. You’re also going to need layers to avoid sweating and a pretty big bag of gear like food (especially for those of us lucky enough to require large amounts of food because of medical conditions, thanks life).

    I’ll stick with my vehicle and, if necessary, yank other vehicles out of the way or go around them. 4WD/AWD is a necessity as are car based tools to move other vehicles. Studying the road to know where problems could crop up is definitely a good idea.

    1. I absolutely understand that in some scenarios it may be necessary to drive/bike to have a reasonable chance of getting home, but the article was already too long so I had to focus on the walking scenario. Something that focuses on a driving scenario might be good topic for a future article.

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