Urban Survival: How to Survive City Riots and Emergencies

In the previous articles, I discussed how to survive in the wilderness, in the desert and even on a deserted island. I would like now to address the topic of urban survival. A disaster or an emergency can occur at any time, whether it is an earthquake, a hurricane, looting in the streets or any other kind of an extraordinary event. Therefore, being prepared at all times is your only way to survive and stay alive.

In this article, I will explain the term “urban survival”, the skills that are required to survive in an urban environment and what you should be aware of. I will also share important urban survival tips, and at the end of the article I will recommend urban survival gear that will always come in handy in crisis and emergency situations. So, let’s begin.

The article is partially summarized in the following video:

What Is Urban Survival?

Urban survival is the ability to survive an extended disaster in a city by using the necessary skills and tactics. It is the ability to survive on your own means in an urban environment which is densely populated, without getting any help from the authorities.

Believe it or not, but it may be harder to survive in an urban and dense environment than in the wilderness on your own. You see, if a crisis or an emergency occurs, and there are various threats coming at you from all over, every person in the city would fight to gain valuable resources, so you won’t be fighting alone there.

You all will be fighting for food, water and shelter, which are the basic needs for survival. If you’re ready and trained, then your chances of survival increase greatly. Once the emergency strikes, there usually won’t be enough resources for everyone, so you have to know how to reach them first and obtain for yourself and your family.

It doesn’t matter whether you live in the city or a smaller populated area. You may be visiting there when a crisis strikes, so it’s always best to be calm and prepared to know how to deal with the situation at hand and survive. Such a crisis or emergency situation can last for days, weeks or even months. Just look at the recent year we had with COVID-19 spreading all over the world, shutting down airports, schools, businesses, and even causing countries to enforce lockdowns.

So, how do you survive in an urban environment? By implementing three key elements:

  • Preparation – Having organized action plans and emergency supplies when a disaster or an emergency strikes.
  • Resources – Being able to find and use resources available in your proximity.
  • Mindset – Staying calm and having the right mindset to survive any given situation.

Awareness to the Surroundings and Resources Nearby

It is always smart to be aware of your surroundings and where crucial resources are located. When disaster in an urban environment strikes, you are ready and prepared to act immediately without wasting a single second. Therefore, if you live in the city or find yourself in an urban environment, check the area and know it as well as the lay of the land. You should also try taking different routes to work and back home. This will allow you to learn about various shortcuts or back alleys that you weren’t aware about before, yet can serve you and come in handy when an emergency occurs.

On your walks and while driving, look for necessary resources for survival, especially water. I recommend having a sillcock key with you, as this key lets you open the spigot usually found outside of the most commercial and residential buildings, as well as some industrial structures. This will give you access to water. I will elaborate further down this article about important and recommended urban survival gear you should consider having with you.

Urban Survival Skills

Urban survival skills are different than your “regular” survival skills. Because you plan to survive in the city or any other urban environment that is crowded and dense with people, you need to master specific skills to succeed and separate yourself from the crowd. Here are 10 crucial urban survival skills to master in order to increase your chances of survival:

  1. The ability to blend in
  2. Finding water sources and purifying the water
  3. Finding shelter
  4. Foraging and scavenging
  5. Getting free and not being involved in a riot
  6. Being able to defend yourself
  7. Stealth movement
  8. Fixing skills
  9. Managing waste
  10. Bartering and negotiating

Now, that you have an idea which skills you should master, let’s elaborate on each and every one of them.

The Ability to Blend In

In an emergency situation when every person fights for survival and is basically willing to do anything to stay alive, it’s best to blend in and not stand out. Learn to become invisible by looking as desperate and destitute as everyone else, even if you’re not. Blending in means to do so at home, as well as outside and on the move.

  • How to blend in at home: Even if you have enough resources (water, food, supplies) at home to last for weeks or more, consider joining the crowd outside to look for resources and help, so no one will suspect you are ready or have what it takes to survive. Be out with the neighbors, ask for help, blend in with the environment. This is more relevant in extreme situations and not when there is still law and order and people still act civilized. Don’t turn on the lights in the house at night if the power is out. Minimize the smell of food coming out of the house. Wear normal and simple clothes. Be very discreet about your preps.
  • How to blend in outside/on the move: When moving outside with other people through the streets, blend in and keep a low profile. Do not have anything valuable with you, and if you do, hide it from others so they won’t see it, thus making you a target. This can be food, water and any other resource that can help to survive during the situation or event. When surrounded by other people, don’t have a backpack with you. Conceal anything important on yourself. If you’re planning to get away from the city and bug out, have your pack look old and grungy, and try not to fully stuff it. This way the pack won’t stand out and become visible to others.

Finding Water Sources and Purifying the Water

Finding water is a top priority. After air, water is crucial for your immediate survival (and then comes the food). If there is still running tap water in your house, gather and store some of it in case it stops. In case you need to find other water sources, here are some options:

  • Rainwater – You can always install a rainwater harvesting system and collect rainwater. There are simple systems and techniques and more complex, but the end result is using rainwater as a water source instead of them just going to waste. The easiest way is to install a catchment system and collect the rainwater from the roof of the house to gallons on the ground. I made a separate post on harvesting the rainwater, and I strongly recommend you read it.
  • Rivers, lakes, fountains, ponds – If you live near a river or lake or have access to a fountain or pond, then you have access to a water source. Collect some water in a bottle or container and take it with you on the road. Bear in mind that you’ll need to purify the water in order for them to be safe for drinking and consumption. I will cover this subject shortly.
  • Water from building taps – Remember the sillcock key? This is where you’ll need it. In the city, large buildings may have access to water on the outside. So, if there is still water running in the taps, you will be able to obtain it. With that said, the access to this water source is restricted, and in order to get the water you’ll need to use a four-way sillcock key. This will allow you to turn the water flow on. Every hardware store sells this key, which is very useful in extreme situations and is not expensive at all.

Now, let’s talk about purifying the water. It is advised to purify water that is not running from the tap of your home or if you’re not sure that it’s safe to drink. Here are some great ways to use in order to purify water:

  • Boiling – Boiling the water is one of the easiest ways to purify them.
  • Bleach – You can also bleach the water. The recommended amount is two drops of bleach per quart of water.
  • Purification tablets – Add to the water purification tablets to purity them. There are highly recommended and affordable Potable Aqua Water Purification Tablets, which you can get on Amazon.
  • Portable water filter – The amazing LifeStraw (also on Amazon) is capable of filtering out almost 100% of bacteria and chemical pollutants.

There are several other quick and efficient ways to purify water, which you can read in the linked article.

Finding Shelter

If you have a home, you can safely stay there until everything clears. In case you don’t have your own place or a car to stay in, or if your house or car got demolished, it’s time to find shelter in an urban environment. Here are some options in an urban area that can be used as a temporary shelter:

  • Stores
  • Malls
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Office buildings
  • Empty houses (be careful before you invade, and ensure that it is empty and abandoned)
  • Abandoned buildings/structures
  • Abandoned vehicles
  • Garages
  • Dumpsters (if you really have no other choice)
  • Covered alleyways
  • Sheds

Some of the places and buildings may not be easily accessible, so consider having a pry bar with you that will assist you opening doors. Again, we do not encourage breaking into places in any way. This comes as a last resort in case there is no other way, and you think your life is in immediate danger.

Above all, always keep in mind that shelter is critical to your survival – see the linked article to find out why.

Foraging and Scavenging

If the event lasts for a long period of time or society is in crisis and down, then stores will eventually run out of food. You may also decide or be forced to leave the city into the wilderness. You will have to adapt to the new environment and the conditions in order to survive there for a while. In this case, you have to know how to find and gather food and supplies as you move along. This is where foraging and scavenging come into play.

Let’s begin with foraging. The city or urban area is full with consumable food, and it is up to you to find it. For instance, the dandelions in front lawns are edible, and their roots can be used as a substitute for coffee. There are trees and parks where you can find edible fruits and plants. Here are some other examples:

  • Berries and fruit – Wild apple trees, wild grapes, raspberries, rose hips.
  • Mushrooms – Be extremely careful here and only pick mushrooms that are 100% safe to eat, or else they may be poisonous.
  • Greens – Wild onions, nettle, mint, dandelions, clover, lamb’s quarters.

The foods mentioned above are incredibly nutrient-dense. Rose hips have more vitamin C in them than a single orange. 100 grams of orange provides you with 53 mg of vitamin C, while 100 grams of rose hips provides you between 1,150 to 2,500 mg of vitamin C. Incredible!

Knowing to identify, harvest and cook wild edibles is a great skill to have, which will give you a real advantage on other people who will be lost when food runs out. See what grows nearby and ensure that you have access to it when emergency strikes, forcing you to harvest the food for energy and survival.

Another option for food is to hunt small animals like rabbits, squirrels, fish and ducks. I myself am an animal lover, so I suggest hunting only as a last resort, if you really can’t find anything else to eat in order to survive.

Now let’s talk about scavenging. When things become really bad, scavenging may be your only hope of survival, therefore you’ll be dependent on whatever it is you find or can grab. Here are some places in the city or urban area where you can find food and water:

  • Apartment buildings
  • Houses
  • Malls
  • Grocery stores
  • Restaurants
  • Airports
  • Office buildings
  • Gas stations
  • Dollar stores
  • Department stores
  • Gyms

Again, we do not encourage to break in or steal. This course of action should only be taken when conditions are extreme, when things are seriously bad, law and order have fallen, and there is no other possible way to survive or wait out until things calm down.

All the places I’ve mentioned may have kitchens, refrigerators, vending machines and other spots where food, water and supplies are stored. With that said, bear in mind that you won’t be the only one scavenging for supplies. So maybe try focusing on smaller places rather than the big places like malls or bulk stores, which most people will target first.

Try warehouses and office buildings first, as other people won’t think about them as a first option, which increase your chances of finding supplies there first.

Here is a great video on foraging from Rob Greenfield:

Getting Free and not Being Involved in a Riot

In extreme situations, people will do whatever it takes in order to survive. So, it’s very likely that fights and riots will break out in the city and the urban area. Stay calm and be as far away from the riots as possible. You don’t want to risk your own life. The city is a big place, so find ways to leave, get supplies or stay in home, quietly and safely.

If by any chance you do find yourself in the middle of a riot, try moving with the crowd and blend in. Be as natural as possible and move in the direction of the crowd. As you move along, gradually shift your position aside, to the crowd’s edge. If a small group breaks off the big crowd, try to join them. Breaking off with other people is safer and draws less attention than if you decide to break off on your own. Another tip I can give you is trying to avoid eye contact or doing anything that can draw any attention to you. Again, be as discreet as possible and blend in until you are able to break off and leave the area.

Being Able to Defend Yourself

Being able to defend yourself and your family is vital for the survival of everyone involved. When people face immediate danger, they don’t always think straight or follow the rules and laws, so you must know to defend your body and life. Always be aware of your surroundings. Try to anticipate whether things are calm or about to get worse, and act fast accordingly.

Here are some possible signs for trouble:

  • Someone is following you (can be one person or a group of people)
  • People are running and screaming
  • Anything that may look suspicious
  • Laws are being broken (stealing, looting, fire in the streets, burning cars, stores, and so on)
  • Fights/riots
  • Unusual smells in the air (gas, chemicals, smoke)

I recommend that you sign up for self-defense training, as it will also boost your confidence and make you ready to defend yourself, no matter what the situation is. Another tip is to secure the stuff and property, which are vital and valuable to you. Remember, a thorough SHFT planning revolves around self-defense.

Stealth Movement

Moving without being noticed or drawing attention is the best way to survive in extreme situations. There could be times when you’ll have to leave the house or your shelter to look for help, food or other resources, or even leave the city. Without any doubt, it’s best to do so quietly and safely. You will also need this skill if you wish to stay safe during martial law.

Here is how to do it:

  • Move by foot – Don’t use a car or even bicycles as they are too obvious and can quickly draw attention to you.
  • Move in the shadows – Walk anywhere there is shadow to be spotted less. This can be through alleyways, rooftops and different shortcuts through small buildings. Even using the sewer system is a possibility when things are extremely bad. The most important thing is that you are familiar with these passageways. You must know where they lead, know that they are safe and unoccupied, and no trouble awaits you there.
  • Maps – Study maps of the city and the terrain to know exactly where everything is. I even recommend that you practice moving to different places quietly and with stealth, to see if you can reach different destinations without being noticed.

Fixing Skills

In order to survive, you first need to be self-sufficient and depend on no one else. Knowing how to repair things on your own will help you to survive and to move more quickly. Here is what you should know how to fix in order to get through a disaster:

  • Vehicles
  • Roofs
  • Flashlights
  • Radio
  • Plumbing
  • Generators
  • Filtration systems
  • Bicycles
  • Survival gear and equipment

You will “gain extra points” from others by knowing how to fix all those things, making you more useful and valuable than other people. Knowing how to fix everything mentioned above is also great for everyday living and not just when disaster strikes.

Managing Waste

It’s important to manage waste in an urban environment, even during an emergency. You want everything to be clean, not to suffer from bad smell or draw insects or animals, not to mention possible diseases. So, you’ll need to know how to manage human as well as household waste.

  • Managing human waste: If the plumbing works properly, then there is no problem. But, what to do when plumbing isn’t working? Your best option is to prepare ahead of time and invest in a composting toilet. They are not cheap but worth every cent. Another option if you don’t have such a toilet is to do your business in a 5-gallon bucket and seal it very tight. You can later sanitize it using bleach. Bear in mind that you’ll have to bury the content of the bucket at some point, so do it away from food and water sources in order not to contaminate it.
  • Managing household waste: During emergencies, there probably won’t be any garbage picking from the city, so it is up to you to minimize the amount of waste of your household. Try re-using bottles, empty cans and boxes as much as you can, and compost the organic waste. If there is anything left, try to bury or burn it, and again, do it away from food and water sources.

Bartering and Negotiating

It’s always good to know how to barter and negotiate, on a daily basis or during emergencies. If you plan to stay in the city with the rest of the people, it’s best to know how to deal with them by using your negotiation and bartering skills. They will become especially useful when the dollar collapses.

Let’s talk about bartering. Maybe you have a shelter that needs to be fixed (like a hole in the roof), but you don’t know how. You can offer food, water or anything else to a person who knows how to fix, thus closing a deal. This is just one example. Every person is in different need during emergency, and you need to know how to talk to people and know to barter with them in case you need something from them.

People may look for coffee, alcohol, soap, matches, blankets, flashlights, food and water, batteries, shampoo, you name it! Knowing how to close deals with people in exchange for their services (or your services in exchange for resources from them) is an essential necessity during a crisis.

MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) are always a good bartering item, since they can last for years. I suggest reading my article that explains how long MREs are good for.

When negotiating, it’s best to have good social skills as well as high emotional intelligence. Start learning and practicing negotiating now in order to be ready when things go bad. Interact with people daily and become natural at it, so that it will be easy when necessary.

Here is an excellent video from SensiblePrepper that discussed important urban survival skills:

Urban Survival Tips

Now, I would like to share with you some urban survival tips that can help you to be prepared for any urban crisis.

  1. Have an exit plan
  2. Have a contact person
  3. Arrange rendezvous locations
  4. Store water
  5. Get some sleep
  6. Be cautious
  7. Think old-school
  8. Hiding cash
  9. Grow high-calorie foods
  10. Keep a full freezer
  11. Keep a survival bag ready
  12. Close wounds using superglue
  13. Avoid people

Have an Exit Plan

Have a plan to get out of the city as quick as possible. This is extremely useful in case the situation is so bad that it’s not safe any more to stay in the house and in the city. Know the exit routes and leave quietly, without drawing attention to yourself. Try alternate routes instead of main or official routes, since these will probably be extremely crowded.

Have a Contact Person

Designate a contact person that you can call and reach to leave them a message in case of separation. This can be a family member or a close friend.

Arrange Rendezvous Locations

In case you get separated from family, loved ones or close friends, arrange rendezvous locations ahead of time to meet everyone there.

Store Water

If you know ahead of a disaster or an emergency, gather as much water as you can. Fill up the bathtub, containers, bottles, jars, sinks, and basically store as much water as you can in any item that can hold it. Don’t worry if a water container is not clean, you can purify the water as I mentioned earlier in this article.

Get Some Sleep

It’s important to have sufficient energy and strength, especially during an emergency. Therefore, try to have good sleep, and if needed, sleep in shifts. You don’t want to be unfocused due to the lack of sleep, as this can cause you to make life-threatening mistakes.

Be Cautious

I mentioned this before. You have to be discrete, not to draw attention and not to attract unwanted people to you or to your house. Don’t make any noise. Don’t turn on the lights when there is a shortage of power. Don’t cook so that the smell won’t attract other hungry or desperate people. Try eating from cans, and if you do cook, do it without spices.

Think Old-School

Think about past days and how people used to get along and survive without all the modern conveniences we have these days. When emergency or disaster strikes, some of those conveniences may cease to exist, and you’ll have to manage without them, old-school. Want some examples? Look for hand crank mixers, lawnmowers that have no motors and operate as you push them, manual typewriters, and so on. Now you get it.

Hiding Cash

During an emergency or a disaster, even a natural one like an earthquake or a hurricane, ATMs may stop working. It’s a good idea to hide some cash around the house, in case you’ll need money immediately. Just don’t forget where you hid it.

Grow High-Calorie Foods

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always best to be self-sufficient and count on no one for help and assistance. This is a great urban survival tip, because when you grow your own food, you have one of the most important resources at hand right away and just for yourself. As for high-calorie foods, try growing nuts, corn, beans and potatoes, and not only common vegetables like tomatoes and cabbages.

Keep a Full Freezer

When your freezer is full, not only will you have meat and food when needed, but the meat will be kept frozen for two days. If the freezer is only half-full, then the meat will be kept frozen for only one day. In case you don’t have enough food to fill the freezer, I suggest you add water bottles to fill the freezer.

Keep a Survival Bag Ready

Be sure to keep a survival bag ready in your home, or bring it with you whenever you go to the city. The bag should contain important survival gear which I will elaborate about soon, as well as enough food for a few days, first aid supplies, a water filtration straw to deal with polluted water, and more. I suggest you also read my post on crucial survival gear, in order to stay on top of this subject. The linked article will provide you with a comprehensive list of everything you need in order to survive and stay safe.

Close Wounds Using Superglue

Your best option is to use a first aid kit to treat your wounds and injuries. In case you don’t have anything to help you close wounds, you can use superglue. Bear in mind that it will sting and some people may even suffer from allergic reactions, but we are focused on survival and staying alive first. If you’re unsure how to choose a good first aid kit, I prepared a detailed article that explains what any first aid kit should contain and ranks the best first aid kits.

Avoid People

This is an important and smart tip I can give you. People are willing to do anything when it comes to personal survival or defending a loved one, so try to keep to yourself, your family and close friends, and avoid other people. Think about yourself and the survival of the people that are close to you and no one else. You don’t want to risk getting hurt, injured, mugged or even dead. Now it’s time to survive.

Urban Survival Gear

Urban survival gear consists of necessary items to help you adapt and survive to the new conditions. Most of the items can be used in any survival situation, but some come to answer specific urban needs. In the list below, I mention some of the most recommended urban survival gear to have ready. Bear in mind that some are mandatory, while others are optional.

  • Food – Can foods can last for a long time and be used if you can’t cook or need to evacuate the city. There is also a great variety of nutritious and delicious emergency food provided with Wise Company Emergency Food Supply on Amazon. It does not require any cooking skills or equipment and can last for years.
  • Water – Have enough water to last for a few days, until you find a water source you can use or purify the water before using it.
  • LifeStraw – A portable water filter device that removes almost all bacteria and contaminants from the water. I highly recommend it! LifeStraw is available on Amazon.
  • Flashlight – Helps you see and navigate through dark alleys and hours. There are many amazing flashlights available to choose from today that come with multiple lights and functions. I recommend you read my extensive article about best camping flashlights which can be used for survival and emergencies.
  • Lighter – There’s an amazing lighter I recommend you to have, and it’s the lcfun Waterproof and Windproof Outdoor Lighter on Amazon. It is waterproof and water don’t get inside the lighter, even when it’s raining. It is also flameless and windproof.
  • Fire starter – In case you don’t have matches or a lighter, you can use the Survival Spark Magnesium Fire Starter (available on Amazon) to start fire in order to cook and stay warm.
  • 4-Way sillcock key – This key allows you to turn on the water from the outdoor spigot of a residential, commercial or industrial building. This is essential when there is no other available water source, or when you’re on the run and need water.
  • Pry bar – This tool allows you to gain access to different structures and buildings in case you’re on the lookout for a shelter. Again, I’m not encouraging to break into places, it’s simply a good tool to have just in case.
  • Lockpicking tools – Same as a pry bar, helps you get inside locked buildings and places for shelter and necessary resources, but only when things get really bad and extreme.
  • Emergency Mylar thermal blankets – In case there is nowhere around to find shelter, these blankets are designed especially for emergency uses, and can keep 90% of your body heat in an emergency and survival situation. They are windproof, waterproof, and also moisture-proof. There is Amazon’s Choice product called Swiss Safe Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets, it’s very affordable and has thousands of positive reviews.
  • Paracord – I have written a complete guide about paracords and their many uses during emergencies and survival situations.
  • Knife – Whether to cut or open things, or just for personal self-defense, a knife is a good item to have. There are many knives to choose from, so read my article about all types of survival knives. It will help you to choose the right knife for your needs and according to your budget.
  • Multi-tool – A multi-tool can serve you in many ways, having all sorts of items in one place. I have written a comprehensive guide about the best multi-tools you can find.
  • First aid kit – I think this goes without saying. You never know when you can get hurt or injured, so it’s always good to have a good first aid kit.
  • Door wedge – This may sound a bit strange, but in case you find shelter in the city, yet wish the door to stay open or closed so no one will see you or come into the room, a door wedge will do the job. It’s also very small and light, so it doesn’t take a lot of space.
  • Particulate mask – In case it’s not safe to inhale the air outside, whether there is a lot of smoke, chemicals, viruses and bacteria, use a mask. I recommend the N95 or better.
  • Goggles – Protect your eyes from smoke, dust and various particles in the air.
  • Map – You may say that no one uses a map these days thanks to Google Maps and the Internet. However, during a crisis, the Internet connection as well as cellular signal may be down. Use a map of the city and the surrounding, learn how to read it properly and know where everything is, including safe exit points.
  • Compass – A compass helps you navigate in any location and situation. However, choosing the right compass requires proper knowledge, which I provided in the linked article.
  • Cell phone – I think this one is pretty obvious. Just make sure that the battery is charged. Bring a charger as well.
  • Cash – In case you need to purchase something and the ATMs are down. The connection could be down as well, temporarily making the credit cards useless.
  • Ham radio – When everything is down and not working, a ham radio will help you communicate. Read about ham radio and other useful ways to communicate in my guide on off-grid communication.
  • Portable power station – This is a great device to own. Basically, it replaces the generator and is portable, meaning you can plug electronic devices into it so they’ll work or charge other devices. It is a great solution when power is out or to take it with you since it’s portable. There are a few highly recommended portable power stations (see the linked article for recommendations).
  • Gloves – In case you need to protect your hands or if it’s extremely cold, use survival gloves (see the linked article for a guide on selecting the best gloves for you).
  • Whistle – A whistle is used during emergency situations to alert about your location. When in crisis, whistle three loud and short blasts, when each lasting approximately three seconds.
  • Permanent marker and sticky notes – In case you want to leave messages for friends or loved ones, use a permanent marker, ensuring that the messages won’t get erased. Maybe try coming up with codes only you know, so that strangers won’t understand the messages.
  • Warm clothes – It may get cold at night, so have some warm clothes with you. Prefer lightweight yet warm clothes, like a fleece jacket. They will help you stay warm without power.

While this list may seem long, most of the items can fit and be easily carried in a backpack. At this point, I would suggest you check my post on what should be in a survival backpack and how your backpack can be customized to fit any condition and circumstances.

Final Words

I believe I have covered every possible aspect of urban survival in this post. You are now more knowledgeable on this topic and more prepared to face an extreme situation in the urban settings.

If you’re interested in efficient and life-saving survivalism, I recommend you take look at additional articles I posted. For instance, I made a detailed post on how to survive in wilderness with nothing, which can help if you become stranded in an unfamiliar environment. You should also take a look at my article on basic survival skills, perhaps there are a few that you’re still missing.

Surviving also means preparing ahead, but it does not require spending a fortune. Read my guide on prepping on low budget to learn how to save a lot, yet remain fully prepared for anything.

Stay safe out there, my friend!

Alex Rejba

Alex is a seasoned survivalist, with a passion to all things related to prepping, hiking and living off the grid.

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