Urban Survival Preparedness

Unused ferris wheel in Pripyat near Chernobyl
Photo by Timm Suess

Some may be under the impression that survival skills are only needed if you become lost or stranded in the wilderness. People living in urban environments may not believe they need to know where to find water, how to fish, forage for edibles or know how to start a fire. They may not believe it until a natural or man made disaster strikes and turns their city, town or community into a wasteland in a matter of minutes.

Regardless of the situation, the fundamentals remain the same for survival. You will need shelter, a water source, energy source, and food. Just because you have the fundamentals today does not mean you will have them tomorrow. You must have the knowledge, certain skill sets and mental fortitude to find life’s essentials in any situation, and that includes urban environments.

Urban Preparedness

Contrary to what you might have seen on certain reality shows or have read on the Internet it is not likely you will awaken one day with just “the clothes on your back” and then are expected to survive the situation. Not many would under these circumstances, but humans have the ability to reason and plan so you do not find yourself in a situation with just the clothes on your back. You can look ahead and prepare yourself, and it is never too late to begin.

You are not planning for the end of the world or “doomsday,” because what is there to plan for if the world ends. Essentially, you are preparing for the effects of a disaster and not so much the disaster itself, even though the disaster itself will be devastating the aftermath can be just as traumatic. The days after without electricity, gas for cooking and heating, disrupted water supply, civil unrest and the inability to travel are what you need to prepare for.

You are planning for a series of events, some of which may be insignificant and others can disrupt your life for weeks or even longer. You have to assume that any crisis will cripple the power grids, damage the infrastructure, and disrupt utility services.

Start with the basics. You have to realize that you probably will not be able to store enough food and water for a prolonged period so you have to know how to obtain more if the situation requires it. Stockpile between 14 and 21 days of supplies as a minimum.

It is assumed you would have the normal items found in most homes, such as cooking and eating utensils, personal hygiene items, and clothing and blankets so these types of items will be left off the list. For links to many of the following, check out our Zombie Bug Out Bag.

  • Water for two weeks and if you plan to use dehydrated foods you will need additional water for reconstitution of the foods so add an additional gallon per day for each person, and up to three gallons per day per person if you are planning for extended periods
  • Foods that can be eaten from the package or can.  If using only canned goods each person will need one can of vegetables, one of fruit and one can of protein daily. Storage may become a problem with canned foods because of the sheer number of cans needed daily if you are stockpiling for extended periods, so consider supplemental food sources as well, such as dehydrated foods and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)
  • Medical supplies
  • One gallon of unopened, unscented household bleach for emergency water purification
  • Coffee filters/activated charcoal/sand/cheesecloth for water filtration
  • Matches, lighters and alternative fire staring tools such as magnesium sticks and Ferro rods
  • Shovel for digging portable latrines, and for clean up from the disaster
  • Dusk masks, work gloves, eye protection and sturdy shoes for clean up
  • Consider using orange/red garbage bags that can also be used for signaling rescue personnel
  • Tarps, rolls of plastic, duct tape and possibly plywood sheets for emergency repairs to your home
  • Alternative shelters such as tents that can be set up on your property if your home is damaged
  • Personal protection
  • Firearms for hunting and gear for fishing
  • Communication devices other than cell phones or landlines, devices can include Walkie-Talkies or Citizens Band (CB) radios or even ham radios
  • Flashlights and oil or propane fueled lanterns
  • Water purification tablets
  • Rain gear for each person
  • Backpack for each individual
  • Portable charcoal grill and/or camp stoves/gas grills
  • Mylar/thermal emergency blankets for each member
  • Firewood/charcoal/one pound propane bottles for camp stoves and heaters
  • Optional items if space allows include portable chemical toilets or waste bags designed for waste, portable solar or fuel powered generators

For short periods, one gallon of water per day per individual is adequate for hydration, oral care and personal hygiene, but is not enough for cooking or laundry needs.

A simple wood or charcoal fire is the quickest source of energy and you can build a fire virtually anywhere outside your home if you have a portable charcoal grill. Even if you do not have a fireplace in your home, have an emergency stockpile of wood. Propane camp stoves and heaters are ideal for the short-term but once the fuel source is depleted, you will not have the means to resupply.

Urban Water Sources

You cannot know how long the crisis will extend in most cases, so regardless of your water supply you should attempt to gather more. Sources include private and public swimming pools, backyard hot tubs, public water features, ponds, lake and streams, which may be found in many public parks.

Any surface water source must be filtered and purified before it is considered safe to consume. Use coffee filters, sand, charcoal or even cloth to filter water.

Purification of Water by Boiling

The length of time water must boil for purification depends on your elevation. At higher elevations, water boils at a lower temperature because of a reduction in the air pressure. Lower water temperatures means the water has to boil longer to destroy the waterborne contaminates. Rapid boil for three minutes if there is any doubt in your mind as to your elevation. At sea level, water only needs to rapid boil for one minute. Boiling water for longer than is recommended does nothing to increase its purity. Over boiling will reduce water volume due to evaporation, which can be problematic if you have a limited water source.

Using Bleach for Water Purification

sodium hypochlorite bleach

Make sure the bleach contains between 5.25 and 6.0 percent of sodium hypochlorite (liquid chlorine) as an active ingredient. Do not use bleach that has any additives (thickening agents) that reduces splashing or adds fragrance. You will need an eye/medicine dropper for proper measurements. The ratio is eight drops per one gallon of water or two drops per quart/liter of water. Once added mix well and wait 30 minutes. Filtration, boiling or other purification methods will not remove poisons/toxins from the water.

Food Sources

Many cities and communities have public parks that have ponds and lakes. These waterways may be a source of fish and are a gathering place for waterfowl. All fresh water fish are edible as well as any type of bird or fowl found in the United States. The only bird in the world found to be toxic to humans is the Pitohui Bird species found only in New Guinea.

You need to know all applicable laws concerning the use of, carry laws and transportation of firearms in your community. If possible, it is recommended you hike to the outskirts of your community to hunt for food with a firearm in an emergency. Capturing ducks or geese or fishing in an urban setting should be considered if the situation is dire.

Remember the crisis will not last forever and you may be called to task to answer for your actions during the disaster.

Abandoned backyard or even community gardens may also be a source of food during a crisis and while it is not recommend that you raid gardens when people are still living in their homes, some may have evacuated because of the crisis. In an emergency, you should consider and weigh all options carefully.


Do not venture into commercials areas during any crisis. Looters and other criminal elements will be active in these areas. Stay inside your home, and do not allow anyone other than law enforcement personal inside your home unless directed to by the authorities.

However, do not barricade yourself inside your home to the point you cannot escape if there is a fire or possibly an intruder inside. You need to be able to exit your home quickly.

Being self-sufficient during any crisis is important because it means you do not have to travel about looking for supplies. Roadways and streets will be clogged with people attempting to flee, which will create a disaster of another sort. Sheltering in place is always recommended unless there is an immediate danger. You do not want to flee one crisis only to find yourself in another.

After the initial shock of the crisis wears off, people will begin to evaluate their situations and some may find they are ill prepared and once they become desperate they will be a threat to you and others. Aside from the crisis and the effects of it, the biggest threat you face in an urban environment is other humans.

Civil unrest is always a possibility in the days after a crisis. People will turn to their local authorities for help and when help is not available, some may turn against the local government. Demonstrations can turn into riots quickly and they must be avoided. Once anger is vented at city hall, the malcontents may focus on private businesses and other citizens.

Personal protection regardless of your position on firearms can save your life in a crisis or they can act as a deterrent to crime. Showing an intruder or violent demonstrator you are armed may cause them to move on to an easier target without the situation escalating. You have to face reality during a crisis, and that is people will be desperate and will act in ways you cannot predict. Friends, neighbors and strangers that are parents without food or water for their children will turn to violence in the name of providing for their family.