The Ultimate Guide to Urban Survival and Preparedness

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As we saw and continue to see during the coronavirus pandemic as of this writing, cities are some of the most challenging places to live during unprecedented emergencies. Supply chain shortages, public transportation failures, and downed grids can all place citizens in dire straits. Challenges seem to be magnified in gridlocked areas with high population densities. Whether you’re up against earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, or man-made disasters, you should have an emergency plan in place.

Unfortunately, disaster preparedness has become a concept that's closely associated with conspiracy theories and paranoia. According to a survey by the Ad Council, only 17% of Americans claim to be ready for an emergency. It turns out that emergency preparedness makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Mostly, it shakes us out of our comfort zones and complicity.

In this guide, we are going to walk you through all the basics of urban survival preparedness.

Know Which Disasters or Hazards Could Impact You

It's hard to build a one-size-fits-all guide to urban preparedness. According to the U.S. Natural Hazard Housing Risk Index, each city has ranks differently when it comes to the risk of certain natural and man-made disasters.

Sign up for WEAs (wireless emergency alerts). Moreover, make sure you have a way to tune in to NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) and the Emergency Broadcast System.

Building an Urban Bug Out Bag (BOB)

Bug out bags are portable packs that contain all the items one needs to survive disaster conditions for 72 hours. Why? According to the Heritage Foundation, the federal government needs 72 hours to muster national resources in the event of a disaster that exceeds the capacity of local and state responders.

While there are plenty of prefabricated bug out bags for sale, very few commercial options cater to urbanites. All survival bags are designed to provide the basic elements of survival, including shelter, water, warmth, first-aid, and food. However, an urban bug out bag is going to be slightly different than one designed for rugged, backwoods survival.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of disasters that could prohibit you from traveling by car or public transit. As such, you'll want to be sure that your bug out bag is light enough to carry on foot.

Here's what you need to build an urban bug out bag from the ground up:

Bag: People don’t always put a lot of thought into their picks of bug out bags. While we love modular, tactical bags as much as the next survivalist, a discreet, modest backpack is going to work even better for urban disaster preparedness. Good options include:

VooDoo Tactical Discreet Level III Assault Pack: Discreet exterior, rugged materials, padded shoulder straps, and plenty of interior organizers.

Maxpedition Entity 35 CCW-Enabled Internal Frame Backpack: Low profile, lockable compartment, lots of internal organization, two-way access CCW compartment

Shelter: The city is an excellent place to be if you need to seek out shelter. After all, there are buildings and structures at every turn. A Stanley 55-121 Forcible Entry Tool will enable you to enter closed spaces, open hydrants, and even shut off the gas. Toss in some duct tape, a plastic tarp, and some emergency sleeping bags (make sure there is one for every member of your household). Bivy sacks (some people consider these lightweight shelters as emergency sleeping bags) are other essentials that will offer you warmth and protection outside of your apartment.

Scout out places that you could shelter in place in the event that you have to evacuate your home. Formulate a list that includes:

  • Community shelter spaces
  • Friends' or family members' homes outside the city
  • Hotels or motels outside the city
  • Potential destinations in all directions
  • Legacy Food Storage

    Food: You don’t want to be without food in the event of an emergency. Consider purchasing some genuine U.S. Military surplus MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat). ReadyWise Company’s Emergency Food Supply* comes with 60 servings of freeze-dried meals with a 15-year shelf life (check price here).

    Another well-respected brand of emergency foods is Legacy Food Storage

    Oh, another thing about Legacy: they're not just for shopping. Check out their blog for their articles about "How to Write a Plan" and "Are You Prepared" among other informative features.

    High-calorie granola bars are also a great option (When we're talking about a true "emergency" and "survival" now is not the time to be concerned with "low calorie" bars. You'll want calories!). Since space is limited, your goal should be to stock up on the most compact, calorie-dense foods possible. 

    For more ideas, check out our picks for the best survival foods. You should have a bare minimum of three days worth of backup food for each individual in your household. In an ideal world, you should have enough grub to stretch three to six months.

    Water: Obviously, this is one of the most important considerations since potable drinking water is critical to survival. You're going to want at least one water filtration system that you can take on the go. Since water is quite heavy (one gallon weighs around 8.33 pounds), a compact, portable water purification system (such as the Survivor Filter Cleanable Water Filter Straw, the LifeStraw, a water filtration bottle like the GRAYL, or the Sagan Life) is going to be an option you'll want to consider.

    Yes, you should definitely ALSO have a filtration system that is capable of handling more volume. You'll want to keep something like this not only if you are on the road, but also if the power goes out during a storm and you're stuck in some apartment with nothing but rainwater coming off the roof, etc. Consider the Sagan Life Drinking Water Kit/System, or the Survivor Filter Pro.

    Check out some of the examples we just discussed in the table below. You're also going to need to know where and how to find alternative sources of water. We talk about this in detail below. 

    Warmth: If you live in a temperate climate, you're going to need some bug out bag essentials that will keep you warm and dry. Sturdy, moisture-repelling boots, gloves, and hats should be among your bug out bag essentials.

    First-Aid: Make sure you have an IFK (that's military speak for an individual first-aid kit) and essential medications for all members of your household. Refill your prescriptions every 25 days to ensure that you always have at least two months of supplies on hand. Refer to Red Cross's "How to Make a First Aid Kit" for a complete list of first-aid kit essentials.

    An excellent company that specializes in First Aid Kits is MyMedic, and we have written about this company in our in-depth MyMedic review here. Other personal essentials include:

  • Prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Filtered facepiece respirators
  • Over-the-counter drugs
  • Personal hygiene products, including soap and toilet paper
  • Personal Protection: People can become unruly in the event of an emergency. Consider stocking up on non-lethal self-defense tools, such as keychain pepper spray or a heavy-duty stun gun (Check those Amazon reviews on this one - over 20,500 of them).

    What You Need in Addition to Your Bug Out Bag

    Portable Emergency Kit for Car: According to the U.S. Government, every vehicle owner should have a roadside emergency kit. Kits should include a reflective triangle, ice scraper, cell phone charger, blanket, map, sand, and jumper cables.

    Be sure to maintain your vehicle's gas levels, and keep an extra gallon of gas on standby. When we lived in the mountains of New England, and I had to drive through a mountain notch to work, we made sure our car had emergency gear - especially important when there is no cell-phone service or pay phones for miles. Flares are a good idea as well. 

    Get Home Bag A get home bag is a miniature (24-hour) bug out bag that is designed to be taken on the go. You might keep yours in your car or office. At the bare minimum, your get home bag should contain:

  • Water
  • Nonperishable food
  • Change of clothing
  • First-aid kit
  • Sleeping kit
  • EDC (Everyday Carry) An everyday carry kit will have you prepared for even the littlest blunders. Think of it as an extra set of accessories to be kept alongside your keys, phone, and wallet. EDC basics include:

  • Folding knife
  • Compass
  • Notebook (or paper) and pencil
  • Basic first-aid items
  • Paracord
  • Car and apartment keys
  • Phone and charger
  • Multitool
  • Flashlight
  • Reusable water bottle and water purification tablets
  • Train for Evacuation

    Evacuating a high-rise or multi-story apartment building is incredibly difficult, especially when the power is out and elevators are no longer functional. In most cases, stairs are the only backup option for evacuation. Would you be able to ascend and descend multiple flights of stairs without heeding to exhaustion? Utilize your building’s stairs regularly so that you will be physically and mentally ready to travel large vertical distances in the event of an emergency.

    Develop an emergency evacuation plan that includes how you will exit your building and where you will go. Identify alternative routes and destinations so that you are prepared in the case that one path is no longer accessible. Keep a small pry bar on hand just in case you need to break through a stuck door, window, or wall.

    Gather Backup Power Options

    Whether it be a manmade or natural disaster, one of the first modern conveniences to fail is electricity. If you are no longer able to garner power from the grid, you’re going to want to have a few failsafe sources of backup energy. Since traditional propane generators are not an option for most apartment dwellers, here are a few alternative backup power options:

    Solar-Powered Generators Some of the best backup power options for city dwellers include solar power stations. The 20-watt Jackery Power Station (panel sold separately) is perfect for individuals on a budget. You can power up to four different devices at once. Then, there are upgrade options such as the Blueetti Portable Power Station. The Bluetti AC200P offers up to 2,000 watts of power via six different outlets.

    Portable Power Packs Portable power packs, such as the Goal Zero Switch 10 Recharger, serve as space-saving alternatives. This solar-ready power pack comes with built-in charging ports and a foldable solar panel. Plus, it doubles as 110 -lumen flashlight. Another well-known solar charger is the SunJack.

    Solar panel generators and power packs are perfect for urban areas. You can safely leave them on a rooftop, window, or other exposed area. A generator makes it possible for you to preserve medications, run medical equipment, heat or cool your home, keep food cool, and much more.

    Have a Backup Source for Water

    What water sources could you tap into in the case that municipal water became inaccessible? Let’s face it. Urbanites would face some huge hurdles and heavy competition if they were required to scout out local sources of H2O. Since the average human can only survive a maximum of three days without water, it's important that you know all your tap water alternatives.

    Rainwater Fortunately, the earth has a way of recycling and redistributing water. If you aren’t living through a disaster and a drought at the same time, rainwater is one of your best off-grid water harvesting options. In urban environments, rainwater harvesting is only possible under certain circumstances. You’ll need to be within the limitations of your local development ordinances, have the available space, and have enough average rainfall for harvesting it to be worthwhile. Of course, you’ll also have to cope with the fact that your rainwater probably contains an egregious amount of germs and other contaminants.

    But you can filter rainwater with relative ease these days, thanks to vast improvements made in portable filtration units like the Survivor Filter Pro - a highly rated filter that is quickly overtaking some of the "old guard" among backpackers. (Quick sidebar about Survivor Filter - they have filter "straws," "filtration bottles" and other options as well. Definitely worth checking out. Added bonus: They give Military and First Responder discounts!)

    Here are some rainwater water collection options for apartment dwellers:

    Rainwater Pillow: The original Rainwater Pillow measures 9 feet x 11 feet x 2.5 feet and holds about 1000 gallons. As such, it’s one of the most space-efficient water collection devices on the market. However, it has only been approved for installation in ground-level crawlspaces.

    Rainwater Hog: These are stackable 50-gallon storage tanks that can be installed in tight spaces. You can fill them with rainwater, tap water, or gray water.

    NOTE: While it's nice to think of the lovely soft rainwater from the sky as being nice and clean, remember: You don't really know what's in it. Did it come off the roof? Along with whatever animal droppings it hit on the way in? (Ick...sorry...but I see this stuff on my own roof).

    That said, please consider filtering it and storing it in something like the AquaBrick for storing the filtered water, and either using their filtration system, or the Sagan Life system. See these options for ideas:

    Stockpile Space is limited in city dwellings. There’s no getting around the fact that water is spacious, heavy, and expirable. Still, the average person could get by on a bare minimum of 2 gallons of water per day. It’s best to have a small stockpile on hand, even if it means taking up some of that precious and all too limited floor space. Five or 10-gallon collapsible water carriers (like these) work best. You can fill them with purified or unpurified water. At two drops of liquid household bleach, such as Clorox, to preserve the quality of the water while it is in storage.

    Natural Waterways: Take note of nearby lakes, rivers, and ponds. Then, stock up on portable water-safe containers, such as Smart Bottle collapsible containers or Collapsible Water Tank Containers.

    Toilet: Retrieve the water from the reservoir tank in the back of your toilet, but stay away from the bowl! While you’re at it, toss in any ice cubes from your freezer.

    Commercial Buildings: Large commercial buildings often house their own internal water towers or greywater systems. In the event of an emergency, you may be able to tap into an external spigot with the help of a sillcock key, as seen here.

    Water Heater: The EPA says it’s okay to tap into a water heater in the event that H2O becomes scarce. As you can see in this video, there’s a spigot at the base of every water heater. Attach a hose to the spout. Then, feed the hose into a 5 gallon or greater food-safe container. Use a screwdriver or wrench to open the spigot valve. You should find yourself with several gallons of unused water.

    Fire Hydrants: Under positively dire circumstances, you might need to obtain drinking water from a fire hydrant. Of course, breaking into a fire hydrant is illegal and incredibly dangerous. These systems contain highly pressurized water with a high likelihood of contamination. Still, for the sake of survival, you might want to keep a fire hydrant wrench, a female fire hose connection, and several storage containers on hand.

    Filtering Water: Any time you're harvesting water from an unconventional source, water purification should be your number one priority. According to the WHO, boiling kills pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Meanwhile, eight drops of 6% sodium hypochlorite bleach are capable of purifying one gallon of water. A portable water filtration system like we illustrated above will enable you to purify water on the go.

    Going to the Bathroom

    In the event that municipal water ceases to operate, going to the bathroom is going to become increasingly difficult and dangerous. Check out Corporal Corner’s “Urban Survival Toilet” to see how you can transform an ordinary 5-gallon bucket, a pool noodle, barrel liners, and kitty litter into a sanitary emergency latrine.


    Hot food isn't always an option during an emergency. It's best to have a few backup cooking options on hand in case an emergency leaves you without power or heat. Keep a regular camping stove, some backup propane, and matches (in a waterproof container) on hand. While a lack of ventilation will prevent you from using the camping stove in your apartment, there are always patios, public parks, and parking lots.

    Dakota Fire Method: This ancient fire-building technique is discreet enough for most urban settings. A fire is constructed in a 12-by-16-inch hole. The fire pit's unique construction maximizes heat while eliminating smoke.

    Thermal Cooker: Thermal cookers are non-electric pressure cookers that enable you to cook whole foods and boil water with very little heat.

    You'll also want a reliable can opener and camping spork on hand.

    What Else Do You Need?

    Here are a few more urban survival essentials:

    NOAA Radio As we've seen during previous natural disasters and terrorist attacks, cellphone service can become spotty or unavailable in the days and weeks following a catastrophe. Even if that's not the case, a downed grid could leave you without your trusty smartphone. For this reason and more, it's a good idea for every household to have an NOAA weather radio. We like this Eton - American Red Cross FRX3+ Emergency NOAA Weather Radio because it has built-in solar panels and a hand turbine power generator. 

    Plus, it functions as an AM/FM radio, an NOAA weather band digital radio, an alarm clock, a LED flashlight, and a flashing red beacon.

    Flashlight: Flashlights enable us to safely navigate dark spaces. Plus, you can use them to signal for help. SOS is a Morse code distress signal and all-around survival essential. You can produce this code by producing three short flashes, three long flashes, and three more short flashes with your flashlight. You're going to want a super durable flashlight, such as this solar-powered, waterproof model by Delxo Patriot.

    Educational Resources

    If you want to be ready for the next disaster, you're going to have to do your homework. Here are a few books and websites that will help you survive urban disasters small and large:

    Urban Survival Guide: Learn The Secrets Of Urban Survival To Keep You Alive After Man-Made Disasters, Natural Disasters, and Breakdowns In Civil Order: This book serves as a 12-week urban survival course. It offers readers actional steps that they can take to prepare themselves for natural and manmade disasters.

    Orienteering Orienteering is a competitive sport in which contests utilize maps and compasses to find the quickest path from one point to another. The same quick-thinking and analytical skills could save you in the event of a real urban emergency. Bjorn Kjellstrom's "Be Expert with Map and Compass" is an excellent book for anyone who's looking to refresh their map and compass skills.

    Wrapping Up

    If we've learned anything from this past year, it's that that you really cannot overprepare. This fact couldn't ring more true for city dwellers who could find themselves gridlocked in the event of an emergency. As Honest Abe once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” Preparedness can take away some of the fear, anxiety, and uncertainties that are so closely associated with disaster.

    Remember, even the most seasoned survivalists are constantly working to improve their methods of preparedness. Do you have the supplies and skills you need to survive an urban emergency?

    *"ReadyWise" used to be known as "Wise Company" and you'll still see some products with the older "Wise Company" logos as well as the newer branding that are shown here. Same great company with the same outstanding products!

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