The Urban Survival Skills Everyone Needs To Know

The Urban Survival Skills Everyone Needs To Know

The fantasy of an impending zombie apocalypse may inspire urban survival fantasies in the most level-headed of us, but zombie apocalypse or not, knowing how to survive the breakdown of social amenities we take for granted is a legitimate skill. Here’s a look at the basic urban survival skills you need to know, catered to your skill set.

Previously we took a look at the wilderness survival skills everyone should know, and a number of those skills apply here, but the daily and significant challenges in a city transform the types of skills needed and methods of survival.

To help get a good understanding of what’s needed for urban survival, I talked with Dr Arthur Bradley, author of The Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family and Disaster Preparedness for EMP Attacks and Solar Storms. He points to three types of survival skills people latch onto:

  • The Stockpiler: someone with a wide assortment of supplies but very little knowledge of how to actually do anything.
  • The MacGyver: someone who can jury rig anything with duct tape, a pencil and a pack of chewing gum.
  • The Survivalist: someone who can find dinner in an old stump and keep warm using a roll of toilet paper and a rusty coffee can.

We’ll guide you along the path to applying each type of skill to the main factors of survival: shelter, water, food, and rescue. Before we go into the specifics for each survivalist, we’re going to look at the most important skill that applies to everyone: safety.

Safety Skills for Daily Life and Natural Disasters

We all face dangerous situations on a daily basis, and most of us live in an area where at least some type of natural disaster is possible. If you know how to react to situations then you get out of them safely, so let’s look at a few scenarios you may find yourself in at some point.

Stay Safe Every Day and Know What to Do in Common Perilous Situations

Daily life has its own perils, and while it’s impossible to prepare for everything, it’s likely you will find yourself in one of these instances at some point.

  • What to do when someone breaks into your home: If you wake up to a burglar in your house, your first reaction is probably to hide under the bed as quickly as possible. That’s not the best approach. Instead, barricade your bedroom door, call the police and listen closely for the burglar. If they approach the door, get out of a window and leave if possible. If flight isn’t an option, grab some type of weapon from the room and attack if they try to enter.
  • How to get out of a mob: When a mob reacts, it starts to stampede, and that’s when things get dangerous. Survivalist Bear Grylls offers these suggestions: Stay on your feet. If you fall, cover your head and move sideways toward the wall. Once you’re at the wall, stand up and make your way to the exit.
  • How to know you’re being followed and what you should do: The easiest way to see if you’re being followed is to start making erratic movements. Cross the street a few times, take three or four left turns, or start walking faster. Just be careful not to lead your pursuer down an alley. If the person is still on your tail, duck into a safe building. If you’re in the city, this means a whatever business is open. If no business is available, go for a safe-looking house. This might mean a home with children’s toys outside, a pleasant-looking set of window shades, or a nice welcome mat. Call for the police as soon as you can. If you do have to run, throw as many objects as you can between you and your pursuer.
  • Basic self-defence: If a chaser does catch up to you, basic is key. Chances are you’re not fighting a ninja, and as we’ve noted before one of the most important facets to staying alive in an assault is knowing where to hit. Go for the head, ears, groin or knees when you can. Most importantly, don’t stick around when you knock them down. Get out as soon as possible.

While the above dangers are certainly terrible, they don’t hold a candle to what mother nature can throw at you.

Stay Safe During a Natural Disaster

Depending on where you live you will probably encounter some type of natural disaster in your life. Thankfully, most natural disasters have simple and easy to remember procedures for when you’re caught in them.

  • Earthquakes — Drop, Cover, Hold On: This one is pretty simple. If you feel an earthquake, hit the ground, get under cover of some type and hold onto anything you can. This prevents the risk of objects falling on your head.
  • Floods: Floods are pretty simple: tune into the radio and do exactly what you’re told. Depending on where you live, you’ll be ordered to evacuate or not. If you can’t leave, get to the highest point you can as quickly as possible.
  • Fires — Stop, Drop and Roll: We all know “Stop, Drop and Roll” works when you’re on fire, but it’s also important to know how to escape a building that’s on fire. If you’re in a fire, hit the floor and cover your face with a damp cloth. Make your way to the closest exit, but remember you can’t touch the handle of the door. We’ve mentioned how to break down a door before, and it’s pretty easy. If the door swings outward, kick it near the handle because it’s the weakest point. If it opens inward, you can’t kick it down, but if you can find a hammer, you can knock out the pins on the hinges to take the door off.
  • Tornadoes and Hurricanes: If you can, go to a tornado or hurricane shelter in your neighbourhood. If that’s not a possibility, head to a low-level room without windows and cover yourself with something heavy. A mattress works best, but if one isn’t available, get under blankets. If you’re out in the open, move to the lowest point and lay down.

Knowing what to do in case of disasters is just the first step. The four keys to survival: shelter, food, water and rescue are important to all of us regardless of what situation causes us to lose them. Three types of people exist in these situations, so we’ll break down the types of skill needed dependent on the type of person you see yourself as.

Find Shelter To Keep Yourself Warm

Not having shelter is a dangerous situation. Thankfully, a city provides a lot of ways to get shelter no matter what happens. Let’s take a look at what you need for shelter in the city and how you can make the most out of what you can find.

For the Stockpiler: Hunker Down at Home with Stored Necessities

The stockpilier has every supply needed in their own home so looking for shelter isn’t a necessity. Store a few key items to keep you warm. Most likely, you already have a number of these items scattered in your home, but it’s still best to keep a separate set with your stockpiled goods (we’ll detail these in the in the next section) in case you can’t get to the rest of the house. Here’s what you need:

  • Several warm blankets or sleeping bags for each person.
  • Change of clothes for several different climates.
  • Disposable heat packs for warmth.

For the MacGyver: How to Pick a Lock and Get Into a Home or Building

For the MacGyver type, a lock-picking skill can come in handy when looking for shelter, because you can get into any building (including your own home if you lock your keys inside). The video above shows you how to pick a lock with a couple of paperclips, and we’ve shown you a few other ways to pick lock before. It’s a handy skill in case of an emergency. You can also pick a padlock with a soft drink can, or make your own lock pick set from a windshield wiper if you need to.

For the Survivalist: Cannibalise a Car for Shelter

Dr Bradley notes that those who are most likely to survive are the ones who scavenge materials into something useful. If you’re a survivalist, this is your primary skill. In the case of shelter, a car provides everything you need. Dr Bradley elaborates:

Those who treat a vehicle as a resource that can be cannibalised (such as burning fuel, oil, and tires, using carpet/upholstery as makeshift blankets or clothing, using headlamp reflectors to start a fire or signal for help, sticking floor mats under the wheels of a stuck vehicle) tend to live much longer than those who only see it as a shelter.

A car can provide you with shelter, warmth and supplies. They’re also easier to get into than buildings if you’re looking for quick and safe shelter in an emergency.

Find Clean Drinking Water in the City

Once you have shelter it’s time to hunt down water. Like wilderness scenarios, you have to make sure water is purified, but it’s easy to do in the city, even if your tap isn’t dispensing water. Here’s how to do it.

For the Stockpiler: Keep 27 Litres of Water Available

Stockpilers don’t need to worry about purification as much as having enough water available. It’s recommended you keep four litres on hand per person for each day. It’s also recommended that you keepbottled water in a cool, dark place. Commercially purchased bottles of water will have an expiration date on them and you should follow it and replace old bottles when they expire. Most plastic bottles have a two-year lifespan. Photo by Abdulla Al Muhairi.

For the MacGyver: Purify Bad Water with Bleach

The simplest MacGyver method for purifying water is to mix it with a little bleach. It might not make sense to drink bleach, but according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), you can purify water by adding one-eigth of a teaspoon of non-scented bleach to a gallon of clear water or 1/4 teaspoon of non-scented bleach to one gallon of cloudy water. Mix the bleach in well and wait 30 minutes before drinking the water.

Find Edible Food in the City

Finding food in the city isn’t as difficult as it is in the wilderness, but making sure it’s edible is a bit trickier than you’d think. Here’s how to get food in your stomach in a variety of a situations.

For the Stockpiler: Keep at Least Seven Days Worth of Food On Hand

You should keep at least three days worth of food on hand at all times, but extending that out to at least a full week is a good idea. You want a wide selection of non-perishable foods, but also make sure it’s food that won’t make you thirsty. They recommend a few cheap staples:

  • Ready to eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables
  • Dry cereal
  • Peanut Butter
  • Salt-free crackers
  • Canned juices

The key is to store foods that will last a long time without refrigeration and don’t require cooking. Keep the food in a dry, safe place and make sure every member of your household knows where it is.

For the MacGyver: Cook Meals in Almost Anything

For the MacGyver type, a lack of electricity isn’t enough to stop a good meal from getting cooked. As the video above shows, you can cook a hot dog with a battery and some cables. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Find charcoal or gas grills to cook anything you find in a fridge or hack together a bread recipe with a few common household items.
  • Make a solar oven from cardboard, tin foil, plastic, glue, scissors and a stick. Solar cooking typically takes longer than a conventional oven, but it’s better than nothing.
  • If you have electricity but no gas, learn to cook with a dishwasher or coffee maker.

For the Survivalist: Dig Through Garbage Cans and Make Meals from Almost Nothing

Any good survivalist knows how to properly dumpster dive. Like the forager in the wilderness, it’s about finding edible food sitting in plain sight. As with any food scavenging, the key is to find food that won’t get you sick. A few simple tips for knowing what’s safe in a dumpster will help you along your way:

  • Seek out sealed containers of non-perishable food with dents or dings from supermarket garbage bins.
  • Stay away from dairy and meat, because bacteria grows easily.
  • Look for packaged food like chips, cookies, juice and breads.
  • Most foods are not safe to eat with mould on them but a few meats, cheeses and firm vegetables may be salvageable.

Eventually, you’re bound to run out of food and water. To keep that from happening, you need to know how to get rescued.

How to Signal for a Rescue

Knowing when or if you’re going to get rescued is one of the most difficult survival problems, but Dr Bradley suggests the best option is to stay where you are and utilise what you have to create a rescue signal. Here’s a few ideas for different types of signals.

For the Stockpiler: Keep Signal Flares on Hand

Even if you’re safely hunkered down at home, you may still need to signal for help. A pack of emergency flares provide the easiest, most visible signal to rescuers looking for people.

For the MacGyver: Hack Together an Air Horn

If you’re stranded you need to make loud, obnoxious noises to call attention to yourself and nothing is more obnoxious than an air horn. You can build your own with nothing but a knife, a film canister, a balloon and a straw.

For the Survivalist: Piece Together Found Items into Signs

Grab any large items you have available and make signs on the roof of a house or an open field that spell out “help”. Use bright objects like tarps, clothes or blankets. This ensures any planes or helicopters will notice you. You can do the same by hanging a sign out of an apartment building window or on your front lawn.

It’s best to take a few tips from each of the different survivor types and turn yourself into an all-purpose urban survival master, but knowing your own skill set and strength can help you focus your attention on what matters. You never know when you’ll need these skills, whether it’s after a natural disaster, or even if you’re just stranded for a night with no wallet or keys. Have any urban survival tips of your own? Share them in the comments.

This article has been updated since its original publication.


  • Bookmarking this article might not be the best idea. Print 5 – 10 copies, laminate them, store them in multiple locations including up high and burial. If you are reading this post on a printed, laminated sheet from some time before the world went to shit, you’re welcome.

  • “Grab some type of weapon from the room and attack if they try to enter”. This is very bad advice. Has anyone ever heard about equal force laws in Australia? That means, it would be illegal for for the victim to use a weapon unless the attacker had an equal weapon himself. This happened to a friend a few years back. Her house was broken into and robbed while she was there. The attacker used his bare hands to start a fight and she grabbed a weapon. In the end – she was sentenced to prison.

    • Fantastic reasoning. Better to be raped and/or killed than go to prison. Though I doubt this story is true at all. There is no state procesutor in Australia that would pursue such a charge unless she gunned down a five year old retard that wandered into her house by accident.
      If you knocked the assailant out and then continued to beat them to death then yes, you would be charged. That’s about the most of it though.

    • Wrong.. If you have barricaded your bedroom door and called out that you’re armed anyone that tries to get through that door is an obvious threat and I would attack with the intent to kill the second they came through.

    • This is very false. I can say for certain in NSW, when you raise self-defence as an issue, it puts the onus of proof on the prosecution to prove that either :
      a) You did not genuinely believe to be in danger (in this case, pretty much impossible)
      b) That your response was not reasonable (once again, in the case of home invasion, very unlikely)

      The case you’re probably trying to apply is Zecevic v DPP, in which the defendant was stabbed by the victim, who then thought he was going to get his gun – so the defendant got his first and shot him. This is a case of not being considered reasonable, despite the defendants subjective opinion that it was genuinely necessary.

      • Or plant one on him from your kitchen post mortem. The prosecution will have an impossible time proving the intruder didn’t go there to arm themselves first. Of course it will have your fingerprints on it, IT’S YOUR KNIFE! You cook with it, you washed it and you put it away. That explains away your fingerprints on it, but now it also has the intruder’s too from being in their hand.

    • thats a myth !
      you are entitled to defend yourself, your family, your property or anyone else for that matter using reasonable force

  • If a burglar was the other side of my door, I’d sure as hell let him know that the cops had been called already, and his best course of action would be to GTFO. They’re cowards not looking for confrontation. They can grab my laptop and piss off. They won’t be happy that you’re awake.

  • I feel like the earthquake advice should be changed to inform people about the triangle of life, it can mean the difference between life and death

  • 1. The best type of burglar alarm is a dog.
    2. If your fighting someone don’t go for the ears or knees. Unless you are an MMA expert or a bow-wielder don’t even try the knees. Go for a lethal blow to the neck.

    • Dogs eat.They also let everyone know where you are. They can also make enemies among your neighbours. Unless it is a working dog, it is a liability.

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