Is Urban Survival Possible?

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There is a mantra within the hallowed halls of prepper knowledge, lore and opinion that goes something like this. The only way to survive TEOTWAWKI is to find a hidden retreat far away from any city of significant size and live there as self-sustainably as possible year round. This idea of the survival retreat has been around for years and it is actually a lifestyle I aspire to for myself and my family. I dream of a fortified home in the woods, streams rolling through my mountain location, solar arrays, livestock in fences, wild game aplenty and wood burning stove goodness all around me. There is one major problem with this mantra though and that is the prospect of moving everything we have and living in a cabin in the woods is nearly impossible for the large majority of us.

If you accept the argument that the hinter boonies are your best chance of survival, then the flip-side of the mantra and conventional wisdom is that everyone living in or near the cities will die. It can give you the idea that you are doomed unless you are living in Northern Idaho, chopping wood for your stove and tending to your garden every day of your life. Is that the only choice we have? Does ultimate survival come down to either living in a small handful of states or you are screwed – no matter what? Is Urban Survival an oxymoron? If you aren’t one of the lucky ones who lives 2 hours away from the nearest Walmart are you doomed to die a horrible death? The real question for the majority of preppers is this; is Urban Survival possible?

The problem with surviving in urban environments

I will readily concede that you have problems living in urban environments that will make survival tougher. Larger cities have a higher population of people living in closer confines. This makes any available resources like food and fuel deplete much faster in times of crisis just because there is greater demand for these resources. Sheer numbers overwhelm the system more quickly and the panic associated with a larger mass of people spreads faster, it is more chaotic and violent. It would be like a swarm of locusts.

Urban survival skills are different, but can save your life just the same.

Urban environments are a larger risk for terrorist attacks because of the higher concentration of people and media attention. If you blow up a few buildings in New York you will cause a much bigger stir (and kill more people most likely) than blowing up the same number of buildings in Steamboat Springs CO. It is the same with virus or disease in that it spreads much faster in higher concentrations of people. Larger cities pose a larger risk to a numerically higher number of lives so risk to your life is higher.

Additionally, urban environments for the most part have limited natural resources unless you consider buildings, parking lots and concrete or asphalt natural resources. Sure, there are trees in cities, even New York has Central Park, but can you imagine how long it would take for Central Park to have every single one of its trees chopped down if some catastrophe happened and people needed wood fires to keep their families alive? Some major cities are built along rivers, but the water is usually so polluted you wouldn’t want to bathe in it much less try to eat anything that lived in there. Along with that lack of natural resources, there is not an abundance of good soil for growing food, at least not in quantities sufficient to support the populations of those cities.

I am not saying that you have a better chance for survival in cities, but I think we should be looking for options in every prepping scenario.

Are there any advantages to urban environments?

Yes, there are definite problems with urban survival chances, but do cities offer any advantages at all? I think you could find some benefits if you know what you are looking for. For starters, cities offer much more secure buildings than rural environments. Large concrete buildings are much better at stopping bullets than the walls of any suburban home. I think cities would offer you a greater supply of materials to use in a worst case scenario as well. If things got so bad you had to outfit your vehicle, Ala Mad Max, all of those spikes and metal would be much easier to find in cities.

There are places to grow food in cities.

Scrap metal, fencing, chains, wires and building materials as well as spare auto parts (batteries and tires) would be much easier scavenged in a city. Try building a fence out of trees or a coconut battery… Yes, this is a worst case scenario but I wanted to at least discuss some of the potential upsides as opposed to simply saying if you live in the cities you will die. Cities offer a lot of advantages in the form of security and observation simply because you have tall, semi-hardened structures. You can position look outs on 4 buildings a few blocks apart and using simple FRS radios, command a huge area.

What do you need for urban survival?

So now we have discussed some of the drawbacks and possible resources you could take advantage of, what is really needed for urban survival? The simple fact is that you need the same things for survival in the cities as you do in the suburbs. The difference is finding some opportunities you might be able to use to your advantage if you find yourself stuck in the city after a disaster.

Food

Food is a constant survival need and I recommend stocking up as much food that you normally eat as possible and augment that with some amounts of long-term storable food like freeze-dried food or MRE’s. What will you do when your food supplies are gone? You will need to do what the people in the burbs are doing and that is bust up some ground and get your food growing as soon as possible. As a backup I recommend having a supply of Heirloom seeds with which to do this, but starting now will give you the best chance of long-term urban survival. That is assuming your city wasn’t nuked of course.

RoofTopGarden
In a grid-down scenario rooftop gardens may be necessary for urban survival.

 

Urban survival requires many of the same resources as survival in the country.

Food co-ops are a great idea, but you will have to rely on yourself for food in a survival situation. Roof gardens would be one way to grow vegetables. Could this feed a whole building? I don’t know but it is an option you have in the city that could allow for food production within the safety of your higher vantage point. Another option that the city affords is a high number of homes in a relatively small area. Each of these homes may have food or supplies after a collapse (assuming of course nobody is living in there) that could be available for scavenging. Scavenging is a polarizing subject I understand, but would be a possibility in a worst case scenario.

Water

Rainwater collection might be a little harder in the city as most buildings have flat roofs that house equipment, but if you have a flat surface that collects water that can be diverted into tanks, it should work the same as anywhere else. Another aspect of city living is that almost every building has water sprinkler systems and these can hold many thousands of gallons of water that should be safe for drinking or can be filtered with a good gravity filter. The trick would be to find the main drain valve which is commonly found in a stairwell on the same floor as the fire sprinkler heads that it supplies. The water may be draining outside so don’t turn that knob unless you know where the water will be coming out. Optionally, some buildings have water tanks right on the roof.

Fire hydrants also are a good source for water and if you find a low hydrant (lower elevation) you may be able to get millions of gallons from that source alone.

Shelter

This to me seems to be one of the benefits of urban environments that of course is weighed against the risks. There should be an abundance of shelter options for you but safety will be an issue here. In a TEOTWAWKI scenario, many people will leave, many could die. There should be available shelter that you can find. I would try to get up as high as possible and work on fortifying my entryway so that I could really make it difficult for anyone to get in. I would look for warehouses with heavy metal doors before shops with glass windows, but you may have to look at several places before you find a suitable location.

It aint pretty, but it could keep you alive.
It aint pretty, but it could keep you alive.

Shelter in this regard is primarily going to be focused with keeping you out of the elements initially. For something more permanent, I would be looking to live with a larger group of people for common defense and shared work duties. Could these be the people currently living in your building? Could you control access to your building now or after some fairly simple fortifications?

Security

Safety of the people in your group will be extremely important and this will rely on having observation at all times, a good communication system and a plan to deter threats. Solar panels situated on the roof of buildings could keep your power supply from being noticed (unless there is someone in a higher building) from the ground and reduce the risk of theft.

Solar panels mounted to the roof will reduce risk of detection or theft.
Solar panels mounted to the roof will reduce risk of detection or theft.

Access control to stairwells could prevent attackers from sneaking up unannounced. Barricades could be easily constructed from old furniture or equipment, even sections of fence. The height of the buildings will give you vantage points and could allow you to funnel any traffic into one location that could be manned by a couple of people with radio access to a spotter on the roof.

Would all of this be possible? It would depend on the disaster, where you are, what you have with you and a lot of other things. Would urban survival be more difficult? Maybe, but I don’t think it is hopeless. Unless there was some serious issue driving you out of the city, it may be safer to stay while everyone leaves and tries to survive on the road or in the woods.

I don’t think cities will be completely devoid of people in a SHTF event. I think some will find a way to survive as humans have for a long time.

What do you think?

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60 Comments on "Is Urban Survival Possible?"

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LWJ
Guest

I think it will be easier for people to thrive in an environment that they are familiar with, then trying to evacuate to a Bol that they are not. The bigger cities have as many resources as the hinterlands if not more if your willing to look and think outside the box. Security will be the biggest challenge to overcome since many of the big population centers restrict firearms ownership for the general population. Not being able to legally own a handgun or a semi auto rifle would put a big crink in my plans.

Pat Henry
Guest

Thanks for the comments LWJ.

Brad Milburn
Guest

Good points.

RDPaul
Guest

Of course next to no one is familiar with the environment of a grid down city. Lots of country folk are familiar with a grid down country environment.

LWJ
Guest

Yes until the department of transportation is unable to plow roads. Quite a few country folk still rely on those unseen services to get from point A to B. I know my in laws were shut down due to seven inches of snow.

Bolofia
Guest

I guess that depends on your definition of ‘country folk.’ I have rancher friends who live in remote areas that can only be reached by 2-track dirt roads. Run-off from storms, washouts and landslides are merely inconveniences to them.

LWJ
Guest
Yup because at some point those roads get graded. When that stops those roads over time will be less feasible to use. Go off into the ditch and your Chevy will sink like a Rock into the mud. Snow drifts will stop you dead in your tracks. It does not take much to be considered a Ranch these days either. Rural areas still rely on a lot of modern technology to keep on going. Then again I guess we can listen to some Hank and tell ourselves how a Country boy can survive…until he breaks his 4 wheel drive. The… Read more »
RDPaul
Guest

I am dependant on plows to drive my car…but if those roads were closed folks around me have snow machin, skis, sleds, and snow shoes. And quite frankly unless I needed to go to the Hospital I have no “need” to leave my house for the entire winter. I am not sure all my neighbors have enough for a winter but many do.

DrEvil007
Guest

My sister lives in NYC and she loses power at least three or four times a year often for several days. The infrastructure is shot.

RDPaul
Guest

No disrespect but your comment proves my point. A power outage is not grid down, it’s a power outage. There are LOTS of utilities in cities that run on AC, few fail with the loss of residential AC as they have backups and generators…when all that is exhausted that’s a grid down, no water, no heat, no ventalation, no elevators, no electronic key card access, etc. And not just for as building or a block but for an entire city.

NRP
Guest
Pat, it’s an interesting scenario you bring up. Let’s assume you’re talking a typical city such as NY-NY; with an estimated population of 8.4 million people and a land area of a little over 469 Sq-Miles. Now let’s assume, for discussion sake, that 90% are toast after the initial SHTF. That still leaves 1800ish people per Sq-Mile or a population of around 844,000 people fighting for whatever that might be left. Now let’s assume that you’re talking long term survival of growing food, heat, water, sanitation, security and so on with no infrastructure to supply them from the outside world.… Read more »
Pat Henry
Guest

Thanks for the comments NRP and no need to apologize to me ever! To me, the articles are all about generating conversations. I don’t believe I have all of the answers and this article is no exception. I do believe surviving in a city would be more difficult, I just don’t believe it is impossible for all people in all situations.

Thanks for keeping the dialog going.
Pat

LWJ
Guest

Pat why do you think that trying to make it the boonies would be any easier though?

Pat Henry
Guest

Are you saying city people trying to live in the woods after SHTF? I don’t think that would be easier,for anyone.

The point of this article was from the standpoint of all the conventional wisdom says to move to the redoubt or else you are screwed. I think some people could survive in the cities.

LWJ
Guest

No I am saying even a lot of rural folk will suffer when a lot of the basic services they rely on, no longer exist. All locations be they rural or urban will have challenges specific to them.

One thing that kills me is when people plan to head to the boonies because of the abundance of resources they think exist. How prepared are most people field gut an antelope in 80 degree weather? Then get the meat back to their Bol without it spoiling? If you can’t be efficient with what you have, your screwed.

Pat Henry
Guest

Oh, yes. I completely agree with you on that. I actually wrote about that in another post on the Prepper Myth that you can simply bug out to the woods: http://www.theprepperjournal.com/2014/07/21/prepping-myth-shtf-will-bug-out-to-the-woods/

Poorman
Guest
Hate to say it but the people that plan on bugging out to the mountains,valleys ect are not going to make it. I live in a mountain community and trust me if you think you are going to come up here and hunt our wildlife,fish our streams and lakes,drink our water you are sadly mistaken. first off the people leaving the city will have no idea how to hunt and fish enough to survive. We who live here everyday and know where the fish and game are come up empty at times so the flatlanders will starve. all they will… Read more »
DrEvil007
Guest

NY is not a “typical city;” it is the largest (population> city in the nation.

NRP
Guest
I just used NYNY for an example, you can cut/paste any city in there you want, I believe the results will be the same. Millions dead, millions fighting each other for a scrap of Spam, millions trying to overtake the folks in rural areas. Personally I feel a city is a city (population over 20K in my book) I have lived in a few “cities” (San Diego, Cincinnati, Portland) and will never (yea I know never say “never”) live in one again. Typical or not I believe there is no way “most” will survive the SHTF when living in a… Read more »
Matt
Guest
There are many cities in which the population is much more spread out. Taking Iowa and Wyoming for example, both places I have resided in the past, both have cities that are spread out with far less population to occupy the space. Heck when I was growing up in Wyoming in Casper and Riverton both fairly decent sized by Wyoming standards are tiny in comparison to LA or NY. So chances of survival in urban settings under a million in population would have a far better chance due to the space and wild life availability as well as a decent… Read more »
Bobcat-Prepper
Guest
There seems to be no common rule separating city vs. town by population. The usuage varies by country and state, and some US states have no dividing line for call one population a “town” or a “city”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town So it is hard to make a blanket statement that “Living in Town X is safe, but living in City Y is not”. But I paraphrase Rawles when I say over 500 people in a settlement is just looking for trouble when SHTF – too many mouths to feed, too much organization needed to keep processes efficient, too much incentive… Read more »
NRP
Guest

Good analogy Bobcat, makes me wonder what “thing” I live in 🙂
If 500 in a settlement is looking for trouble can you imagine the problems with 5000, 50,000, or 5 million?
NRP

Matt
Guest
Depending on your group, and the leadership capabilities in it, I believe that larger groups of 500+ can work. The human race has been doing it for thousands of years, SHTF will definitely stir up the pot and make it difficult again but humanity has done it time and again. If you try to put together a group of that size on the fly you are more likely to fail several times, but if you have a group already together with a clear command structure and organization they can be a force to be reckoned with. It all depends on… Read more »
Brad Milburn
Guest

A lot of issues are not addressed in this article. It mainly revolves around security. What about sanitation. Backup of all sanitation will be the number one threat to anyone left in an urban area. Can you imagine trying to fortify a skyrise with none of the toilets working? No two ways about it; except for short term situations or situations where the infrastructure is still in place and working, people are better off evacuating the urban area.

Pat Henry
Guest
Thanks for the comments Brad and you are right. I didn’t address every issue, but I think sanitation is an issue wherever you live. It needs to be addressed. I also don’t believe that the toilets everywhere are going to back up. That simply doesn’t happen and is one of the reasons back-flow preventers were designed. Even if no building had them, why would all of the sewer systems backup anywhere if the amount of poop going in were greatly decreased? Cities also have sewer systems which you don’t have as often in the rural area so I don’t know… Read more »
Matt
Guest
Working in a large corporate building myself, and having served in the military at a variety of posts I can tell you that the likely hood of a backup of all sewage is far from a reality. A vast majority of sewage systems in cities utilize rain water to help flush the system, and gravity helps a great deal as well. But as Pat mentioned regardless of where you are sanitation is going to be an ongoing issue. Knowing proper methods and having a back up plan is always recommended. If you fear the sewage system utilize your urine and… Read more »
Brad Milburn
Guest

Good article though. There are always different view points that have valid views and are good to think about.

BobW
Guest
I think we can all agree that NYC is not likely to be very survivable in the initial collapse. I’m also reasonably sure that Gary, IN will look like the Thunderdome. But what about after? Industrial complexes can combine elevated structures and some open space to create some opportunity. I’d question and “high tech” locations. Might be a lot of resources to loot like solar, but just too much glass and open sided structures. What about national guard or reserve armories? All have fences, most build out of concrete and steel. I think the biggest challenge is surviving the initial… Read more »
LWJ
Guest

I would stay far away from an armory, it is to high profile.

Pat Henry
Guest

I think the National Guard would have been there long before anyone else. It may be the case that for some reason they are all dead or died without removing anything from the armory. It depends on the disaster.

LWJ
Guest

It would still be an assembly point for troops trying to return to their unit, or any other personal to use as a staging base. I would stay far away from military instalations.

BobW
Guest
Yes and no. Remember, there are more than 5,000 guard and reserve installations around the country. Not all of them are going to be ground-zero for rebuilding whatever someone tries to rebuild. A lot of them are out in the suburbs of smaller communities. Google them in your area. The idea wasn’t so much considering invading one and taking it from them, but if the mil isn’t there, its a strong position to consider. I think there is some value to the idea of not abandoning the more urban areas. There is no value in relocating from your current squat… Read more »
LWJ
Guest

No need to Google them, I know where the ones are in my area. Trust me you would not want to go there, I am very familier with them and trying to sneak on to the home of the 90th Missile Wing, with a bunchy of jumpy Airmen and Guardsman manning the perimeter is a good way to get killed quickly. I don’t feel the military is going to be that generous in a true end of the world situation to the Civs, who are going to flock to the gates begging for help.

bensmagginolia
Guest
good article. I live in an apartment in a rather large city but my immediate neighborhood has lots of single homes too. there are 2 retention ponds within a mile of me and a large quarry pit another mile further so I can get to and purify water. I would rather stay where I feel safe – even temporarily – and take my chances until things calm down a bit. if lots of people leave, that will be good for me because I can see a lot from my high rise and see what goes on in the area close… Read more »
Pat Henry
Guest

Thank you very much!

And congratulations on building out your own local group. I think more of us need to work on that.

bensmagginolia
Guest

being retired makes it harder because so many my age have just given up or expect fema to come to their rescue. my main breakthroughs have been talking to others about hurricanes here in florida. some are too stupid to be afraid – including lots of younger people who are new to this area.

BobW
Guest

Time to talk with the maintenance man, and find out how the fire suppression system gets and stores water. Might keep you indoors getting water. Don’t forget to come up with a cheesy reason why you are interested.

bensmagginolia
Guest

good idea. I will work on that. the maintenance people here think im just a crazy old woman anyway so asking shouldn’t be to uncomfortable.

NRP
Guest

NEVER underestimate the power of a “crazy old woman”

bensmagginolia
Guest

it has definitely gotten me where I am today!!!! thanks.

NRP
Guest

HAHAHA, I love this lady already 🙂

bensmagginolia
Guest

I wish I could find some people younger to hook up with but there don’t seem to be any in my immediate neighborhood. even though, I think us old “grits” will take care of ourselves.

NRP
Guest

Ohhhh Ms. Magginolia, I will guarantee ya us old-farts have nada to worry about when the SHTF.

bensmagginolia
Guest

soooo true!!! im gonna be like my grandma and live to be 92 and stay a tough little old irish woman.

NRP
Guest

HAHAHA I have to laugh, My mother turned 92 this last Jan. And still going strong.

bensmagginolia
Guest

glad you still have your mom with you. mine would have been 94 this year

RDPaul
Guest
Couple of problems I see with the article. Certainly all things are possible and particularly with enough effort and $$$ ahead of time urban survival is POSSIBLE. That being said, since security is an issue, if you are going to survive in the city you are going to need to have people to provide serious 24-7 security. People means mouths and mouths mean food. The minimum space need to grow food for one person for a year is about 435 sq feet. Even if you are talking a super developed hydroponics system, that can operate without grid power, how many… Read more »
Pat Henry
Guest
Thanks for the comments RDPaul. You are absolutely correct that security will require people. It is the same regardless of where you are in a grid down scenario for the highest majority of us living in the U.S. The high proximity of super tall buildings you seem to be mentioning are only in the major cities in relatively small areas. Cities span hundreds of square miles while the downtown area (where are the skyscrapers are) is usually only a small portion of that total area. If you are trying to build a garden in a high-rise in Manhattan, you probably… Read more »
Bobcat-Prepper
Guest
I grew a plot of corn coplanted with beans last summer as an experiment – I wanted to know what was the minimum area needed to provide one person’s calories for a year. It turns out you need about 3000 square feet per person for corn+beans, the most calorie-dense combination I could find. Now if you account for the need for a varied diet, crop loss due to weather or disease and possibly a desire to grow extra to trade, and your size requirements balloon beyond the space available on your average rooftop, unless you are the only person in… Read more »
Elizabeth
Guest
This conversation made me think about the math of it all if everyone ran off to the woods. I really don’t think that’s the best idea. Anyway, I’m known in my trusted circle at work for asking the occasional out of the blue question, mostly because it’s fun and it gets people thinking about other things and makes them laugh. I do it when people are getting so serious that I can see their creativity shutting down. But there are times the oddball questions give me insight. To a person, when I asked what they’d do if the wonderful metaphor… Read more »
BobW
Guest
Help us understand what you are getting at here. 300 people (a lot to C2…too many lawyers) need the land mass of NM to survive? Hyperbole? Not sharpshooting here, but trying to understand where you are going with this. As for groups of 300 people, barring a massive, rapid die-off, I can’t see groups that size surviving without raiding. Too many mouths. It seems to me that groups that exceed 30 people will struggle to meet basic needs even if everyone works (good luck). IMO, in a grid-down situation, without compounding ‘armageddon’ event, people will break down into smaller groups,… Read more »
Pat Henry
Guest
I hate math! But, are you really saying that 300 people couldn’t survive (assuming they had skills and tools, etc.) in a space less than the size of NM? What about examples of colonial towns like Williamsburg. They were only about 320 acres and had more than 300 people. I know they had access to some shipping and trade and knew how to survive better than we do now, but I don’t think people need as much land as one square mile each to live. Again I suck at math. A square mile is a pretty big stretch for a… Read more »
NRP
Guest

Sure wish you-all would quit picking on New Mexico, I LOVE it here, and yes we have agriculture here, I have a Garden… hehehehe

Bolofia
Guest
Pat, I am a new reader to your site and want to thank you for the many thought provoking articles you, your contributors and responders have written. I’ve spent several days going through the articles and, although I may not agree with every point made, the important thing is that the comments represent a wide array of views about how people look at, or would deal with, the various issues. My very compressed response is this: I’ve spent a virtual life time hiking, hunting and exploring the remote and wilderness areas of my home state and I’m fortunate to live… Read more »
Pat Henry
Guest
Bolofia, Thank you very much for reading, your compliments on our site and for your comments! The comment section is definitely where the dialog happens and as you can see from this post, we have what I think is the most reasoned and intellectual conversations of any prepper blog out there. You bring up some good topics which have been covered in other articles but of course bear revisiting. This article deals with those trying to scratch out an existence in the city, but what about those people who travel in search of a better chance of survival. How does… Read more »
Bolofia
Guest
Pat, An excellent question for which there are no “easy” or comfortable answers and I imagine that a lot of people struggle with this. It is appropriate to make a distinction between a regional, temporary STHF and a cataclysmic TEOTWAWKI, where all safety nets have permanently disappeared. We are commanded in 1st Timothy 5:8 to provide for and protect our own families. The verse does not contain the clause “except when in a survival situation.” As with most people, our family has practiced charity – both in good times and when things were tough. On more than one occasion our… Read more »
Adam
Guest
I live about 20 miles west of Cleveland Ohio. We often use NYC as the archetypal city, but most of us live in the grey area between that and summit of the Rockies. I consider the diversity of talent and experience in my area to be advantageous. I have retired electrical linemen, a couple mechanics, and a good handful of vets. I have a few factories and machine shops nearby as well as a few farms and orchards within about 3 miles. Not to mention I have the largest body of fresh water on the planet nearby with rivers just… Read more »
Pat Henry
Guest

Thanks Adam,

Yes, I think generalizations work generally, but individuals will still surprise you.

Pat

Anthony
Guest

Those that are prepared will take from those that aren’t. First to die and lose their stuff will be the anti gun activists.

Lagoon
Guest
Strangely enough my plan is in fact survival in the city. I live in a city populated with around 40,000 people but I have been lucky with having 4 of my best friends in the sane apartment complex. I work in a 5 story building that is a 2 minute walk and has enough food and water to last a good year for 6 people (I’ve calculated based on calorie consumption). Security wise it is the perfect location as a massive load of cublicles will be thrown down the stairwells to block off access to one stairwell. The other is… Read more »
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