The Ultimate Urban Survival Guide

More than 80% of the American population lives in urban centers and some of those urban centers are huge! That means that when the SHTF, a hell of a lot of people are going to be stuck in the cities, and chances are, you’re one of them. This means that you need to know how to survive in the city. If you think you are going to get out of dodge when disaster strikes, well… you might. But chances are you will be in the city for at least some time before you leave and you might even stay there, depending on your situation.

Now, regardless of where you are planning to bug in or out you will need to have a number of basic preps, such as food, water, and gear. Urban survival does come with a number of challenges you won’t find outside of the cities, or that are magnified inside the cities, and you need to know how to handle these challenges. With that in mind, let’s begin with the basics.

Dan’s note: if you live in the city, your plan A should be to bug out.

Basic Preps

As I said above, no matter where you are, you will be prepping the same basics as everyone else. You will need food, water, medical supplies, and more. The key difference in the city is that if you live in an apartment or another type of rental, you might have to get creative on where to store your preps. Let’s start with the basic list. You will need to store the following:

  • Enough food to meet the caloric needs of every person for whom you are stocking up:
    • Men (including teenagers): 2,700-3,800
    • Women (including teenagers): 1,900-2,600
    • Children 13 and under: 1,100-1700
  • A minimum of 1 gallon (4 liters) of water per person per day (more is recommended)
  • A good store of medical supplies
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Comfort items (such as coffee and chocolate)
  • A way to manage sanitation and waste (more on this below)
  • A means of communication (more on this below)
  • Weapons to maintain security

Food Needs

Even if you have stocked up plenty of food, it will eventually be gone. If you manage to survive your six months or year without having anyone steal your preps and you have lived relatively comfortably, you will use it all up. The backup plan in this case is to know how to hunt, forage, and grow food and all of these things can be more challenging in a crowded urban setting. Let’s take a look:


Unless you are like Will Smith in I Am Legend, chances are you don’t have herds of deer running through the downtown center of your city. Hunting within the city limits will limit you to whatever you can find that usually lives in the city. That means a while lot of squirrel, pigeon, and rabbit (if you’re lucky). If you are able to make it to the outer edges of the city, you might have more game, such as wild turkeys and deer, but in general, your pickings will be slim. Plus, if you have been eating from your preps for a few months, a lot of these animals might already be hunted to low numbers.

Having said this, these animals can keep you fed if need be, so you should have the weapons and tools you need to capture them. These include:

  • Animal snares and traps
  • Air rifle
  • Sling shot
  • A good knife


You should already have a solid knowledge of what wild edible foods grow in your area. If you haven’t built this skill yet, then do it because it can literally be a lifesaver. There are so many wild edible foods that grow within city limits, I guarantee you can go outside and find at least half-a-dozen wild edible plants within sight. Dandelions, purslane, violets, chicory, clover, thistle (wear gloves when harvesting), wild raspberries, and garlic mustard are examples. Learn to identify these plants, when and how to harvest them, and how to prepare them.


Planting a garden is critical. Seeds should be a part of your preps, and as you are eating your months’ supply of stored food, you should have a garden started so that when your food is gone, you have something to harvest. If you have a well-concealed backyard, you might be okay, but you don’t want people to see the food you have growing. For this reason, you might want to start a hidden garden.

Another option, which is ideal if you don’t have yard space or you live in an apartment, is to grow food via indoor gardening. You can do this provided you have:

  • Various size pots
  • Starter soil and regular soil
  • Water (see the section on Water Needs below)
  • Plant food (compost works great)
  • Lighting – this can be natural lighting, if you have older windows that don’t filter the sunlight or you can open the windows, or full-spectrum lights, but these will only work if you have electricity or can power them

There are a lot of different foods you can grow indoors, including:

  • Lettuce
  • Herbs
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Avocadoes
  • Lemons
  • Oranges
  • Green onions
  • Garlic greens

Water Needs

Since water is the most important prep you will ever have, a lot more needs to be said on the subject. You will hopefully have water stored away, but if the event that occurred lasts long enough or is permanent, then that water will run out just like the food will.

Being in an urban center puts you in a unique situation because water might be harder to come by. You can’t drill a well, and even if you have access to a water way, such as a river, and have a way to purify the (and you should), you won’t be lugging it from the water source on a daily basis – it’s too heavy! The solution? Harvesting rainwater!

Setting up a rainwater collection system is relatively easy if you own your own home or rent a house and it will provide you with all the water you need (unless you live in a drought-stricken area). Provided you can catch the runoff from your roof, you are all set. There will be contaminants in the water regardless of the roofing material you use, although the safest oness are steel or glazed tiles, so no matter what your roof is made of, you will always need to filter and purify the water.

For this reason, you should have a good water filtration system on hand. You only need a rain barrel to collect the water and black is the best color because it will minimize the amount of sunlight that can penetrate it, in turn minimizing the growth of algae. When collecting rainwater:

  • Allow five minutes of runoff to escape before collecting the rainwater by using a first flush diverter. This early rainwater will wash away most of the contaminants.
  • Allow the water to pass through a screen or other larger mesh filter to remove large debris.
  • The final step is to pass the water through a good purification system.

If you live in an apartment, then you will have to get a little more creative when harvesting rainwater. If you have a balcony, your job will be easier. You can set up a tarp on an angle or with the center cut out so that the rainwater it collects will be funnelled into a large bucket. Without a balcony, you will have to set the tarp and bucket system on the ground somewhere outside the building, on the roof (if you have access), or try to collect it from the apartment building’s waterspouts. Again, remember to filter and purify it.


Communicating with others during a disaster is critical to survival. You will want to know what is happening in the outside world and even across town. You will want to be sure you can contact your family and friends and ensure that everyone knows where everyone else is and where everyone should go. There is a good chance the phones, internet, and cell phone service will be down. If you have a ham radio, that is great, but not everyone in your group will have access to one. Walkie talkies are useful over short distances, but they might not work if you have a lot of buildings around you, which cut off a clear line of transmission for the signal.

For this reason, you have to think of forms of communication that will allow you to send a message without the need for a conversation. There are many of these, such as:

  • Using a marker or chalk to write words or draw symbols on the sidewalk, the back of a street sign, or anywhere else you can think of. The key with this is that you have a system of symbols or words your group has agreed on and that you have preselected locations at which to leave messages.
  • You can use mirrors to reflect the sunlight and send a message. It can be a simple “I’m here” or Morse code if you all know it. A flashlight can also be used in the dark.
  • Smoke signals sound older than the hills, and perhaps they are, but they are still useful. All you need is a grill with a cover or a blanket and you can burn paper and other material to produce smoke.
  • Using some sort of noise maker is a great way to communicate over shorter distances. Whether you are using a plain whistle, a bird caller, an air horn, or a drum, you can determine a system of sounds to use to pass messages back and forth.
  • Flares are a great way to let your people know where you are. Just keep in mind that this method of communication isn’t as subtle as some of the others and you will be letting everyone else know where you are, as well. However, in a pinch, it’s a good way to communicate.

Just remember, whatever system you use, make sure everyone connected to you, all of your family members and anyone who is part of your survival group, knows the system of communication. Everyone has to:

  • Agree on the forms of communication to be used (you should set up at least three methods of communication, in case you are unable to use one of more of them)
  • Know what everything means in the forms communication you have chosen (i.e. symbols, sounds, etc.)
  • Have the tools or equipment on hand to communicate in the ways you have chosen

Unique Dangers and How to Handle Them

When you are in an urban center, you will be trying to survive alongside a lot of other people. How difficult that is will depend on how bad the situation is as a whole and the size of the urban center in which you live.

There are definitely some unique dangers that you might not find or that won’t be as bad outside the cities. Essentially, these dangers have to do largely with the dense population in urban centers, something that will ultimately cause increased danger in a variety of ways. Here are some dangers for which you need to be prepared when surviving in the city.

Getting Home

Unless you work from home, homeschool your kids, and don’t go out much in general, one situation you are likely to run into when disaster strikes an urban center is being away from home at the time. You need to be prepared for this in an urban center more so than if you already live at your bugout location.

Chances are you and/or at least some of your family members will not be home when disaster hits. For this reason, each person needs a get home bag (GHB) that contains the supplies that will keep them alive and help them get home safely. The GHB contains enough food and water to keep you going for a few hours, as well as a way to light a fire, a radio, and good walking shoes.


Sanitation is going to be a serious problem. In fact, it might be your wakeup call that life is just not the same anymore. If you live outside of the city, especially if you have a bit of land to work with, you can more easily dispose of or burn your household waste and find alternatives to a toilet. However, in the city, these are often not options.

Just think about it. What would you do if your garbage didn’t get picked up for a month? You might live in an apartment or a house in the suburbs. What would you do with four to eight garbage bags full of trash, which includes a lot of rotting food? Where would you put it? The next time you take out a gross, smelly bag of garbage, imagine what you would do if you had nowhere to take it.

The same can be said if you couldn’t flush your toilet. I can attest to the difficulty of having no running water. Two winters ago was particularly cold and our water main froze solid. We went for three days before the city could send a crew to tap us into our neighbor’s water supply.

I had water stored away, so we were fine in that sense, but who wants to pour a 4-liter bottle of perfectly good spring water into a toilet to make it flush? Melting snow was an alternative, but not easy or terribly practical.

Not being able to flush the toilet was a challenge. Fortunately, I have a portable toilet on-hand, and since we still had trash pickup and a store at which I could purchase more bags for the toilet, we were fine. But if there was no garbage pickup and no working toilet? Sheesh!

The waterways and streets would be full of waste, both household and human, which is a breeding ground for disease. And this is the best case scenario! If you throw in a natural disaster that can cause the sewer system to back up or a pandemic that leaves dead bodies in the streets, then you have a whole new level of problems.

Solution: You will need to have a toilet system on hand, such as a portable toilet, or best case scenario, a composting toilet. You will also need to have extra supplies for hygiene and the removal of waste. Supplies include:

  • Bags – both heavy-duty garbage and Ziploc
  • Gloves – both disposable plastic and chemical
  • A system for composting human waste
  • Extra soap (including waterless soap) and hand sanitizer
  • Loads of bleach and cleaning supplies
  • Lots of hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol
  • N99 respirator masks
  • Antibacterial ointments and creams
  • Extra dressings for wound care
  • Ways to purify water, such as chemicals or a good water purification system
  • A large, strong pot you can use to boil water

Keep in mind, if the sanitation issues get too bad, you might just need to get out of the city.

Desperate People

Yes, you can run into desperate people anywhere you go during a disaster or post-collapse, but if you are in the urban centers, you will find more desperate people confined to a smaller space than if you were in the wilderness, a rural area, or even a small town.

After the first few days of a disaster, you will find that even the most respectable, regular folks from your neighborhood will start to behave in ways they wouldn’t usually. The following applies:

  • Keep your prepping under the radar. In other words, don’t go telling every neighbor who walks their dog past your house what you have going on in there.
  • When people are getting desperate, you need to blend in. If you go out and talk the way they talk, ask the same questions they ask, and act the way they act, they will be far less likely to suspect you have your prepping ducks in a row. You have to keep this up for as long as possible.
  • Decide how you will deal with those nice neighbors when they figure out you just might have food and water because they will come knocking. We will discuss this in detail below.

So when those neighbors and friends come knocking, you will need to decide whether to help them or turn them away. If you decide to help them, make it clear that they need to contribute to the group’s overall safety and survival, which might mean doing some things they find uncomfortable. If you aren’t going to help them, then you need to turn them away and you need to be prepared to use force if necessary.

However, you want to have as many allies as possible, especially in the city, so perhaps the best thing is to try to barter with these people. They must have something that is of use to you, even if it’s just manual labor, and you can trade for a bit of food or other barter items (stock up on these).

It might be wise to just include a lot of extra rice and beans in your preps for situations like this. You will remain on the good side of these people, people you know are generally trustworthy, and this relationship will come in handy when you have to deal with the other kind of people – the real bad guys.

The Real Bad Guys

These are the people that were iffy or downright dangerous before the SHTF. These are the people who weren’t mentally sound or who were gang members and really never cared about the regular population or the law.

These people are going to be more dangerous than ever once there is no law enforcement in place and these are not people with whom you can reason, barter, or make deals. You can’t just give these guys a little bit of rice and beans. They are going to come in guns blazing, probably literally, and take everything you have.

When it comes to dealing with these bad guys, you need to be ready to defend your turf. That means having weapons such as guns and ammo, crossbows, tasers, or anything else you feel you need and are comfortable with, and being trained and prepared to use them. You will also need good operational security, a solid defence plan, and to practice these until you have them down cold. This is where a good group of neighborhood allies can also come in handy. You can all band together to fight off looters and marauders.

You Get Trapped Inside

Another scenario that can easily happen inside the urban center is that you want to get out and you get trapped inside. Some reasons for getting trapped inside the city include:

  • You might lose your mode of transportation.
  • The roads might become so clogged you can’t get through
  • The military might put the city on lockdown.
  • Your city or your part of it might become a quarantine zone.

So what do you do if you want to get out and you can’t? Well, if the military has you trapped, there might not be much you can do, but in general, there are some tips that will help you get out before that can happen or even when things get bad:

  • When things first go down and you think it might be bad, then get out fast, before the roads get too clogged or military enforcement moves in.
  • Be prepared to face dangerous conditions on the way out. Have heavy gloves, eye protection, an N95 respirator mask, and good solid shoes and clothing to keep your body as protected as possible.
  • Keep from looking like a target by traveling in a group, keeping some sort of weapon on you for self-defence purposes, try to blend in as much as possible, and remain fully aware of what is going on around you at all times.
  • Do not follow the mob of people forming around you! Instead, follow your own solid knowledge and your instincts. These will serve you better than a mob of uncontrolled people.

The Need to Scavenge

At some point you might need to scavenge for resources in the city. This is a lot more difficult in urban centers than it will be in rural areas because there are a lot of other desperate people out there doing the very same thing. The best chance you have is to know your area of the city well and stay off the beaten track. The more you can move through your environment without being seen, the better, because once you leave the relative safety of your home or bug-in location, you will be at much greater risk of being caught by someone or injured.

Bring at least one weapon with you for protection and bring some sort of tool, such as a multi-tool or pry bar, with you so you can more easily access buildings that hold the precious resources you need. Remember to also bring a bag in which to carry your spoils home with you. When scavenging, consider targets that are less likely to already have been hit by others, such as:

  • Schools
  • Factories
  • Construction sites
  • Office buildings
  • Distribution centers

You will want to take with you any food, water, medical supplies, tools, and other items you find and think might be useful. You can also check out this article on preparing an urban survival kit.

Ultimately, surviving in a large urban center is not something that is easily done. Some would say it’s downright impossible, particularly the when it comes to the cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, that were crime-ridden prior to the collapse.

If you are in a smaller town, then you might have a better time of it, at least for a while, but eventually you might have to move on. However, while you are in the city, if you can watch out for the things discussed above, then you will have a better chance of surviving in the city long enough to bug out.

About Karen Hendry

Karen Hendry
An urban prepper and rural wannabe, Karen has been working as a freelance writer for a decade and prepping for about half that time. She has gathered a wealth of knowledge on preparing for SHTF, but there is always more to learn and she has a passion for gathering and sharing that knowledge with other like-minded folk. Karen lives in London, Canada with her two children and plethora of cats. In her spare time she is writing the next great apocalyptic novel of our time, full of government conspiracy and betrayal at every level.


  1. Avatar

    hello I keep this page for some time I live in venezuela … here we spent a month without drinking water in the residences ,,, and it was a calvary imagine without water or to wash a plate … or pull the toilet pace barias nights without showering after working for 16 hours in sales of fruit and vegetables..the 2 closest cities collapsed and the ugly thing was that people did not have water to cook food…thanks to your advice I managed to get ahead I am very grateful with this information God bless you and take care of you

    • Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your awful experience, hopefully following the advice on this website we can all avoid a similar situation! 🙂

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