urban survival skills

What are the TOP 10 Urban Survival Skills to know in a real crisis?  My experience in this subject is one that comes from having worked several disasters with either construction aid or humanitarian aid. Disasters can and will happen to you. And almost no one is ever prepared when they happen. People always have this laisez faire attitude of it won’t happen to me. Then it does? Now what do I do?

My recent trip down to Puerto Rico was my best learning experience in urban survival skills to date. And I got to see what it looks like first hand to see every single element of infrastructure go down. The thing that still amazes me is how few people have any urban survival skills at all.

You can’t really understand the magnitude of these events until you’ve seen one first hand. It was like an nuclear bomb went off on the Puerto Rico and all services were gone! Roads were gone! There was no way to get money! It was absolutely the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. It’s why I self deployed down there on my own money. I felt the call to help. So I’ve got a lot of first hand experience in what happens during these disasters and what you’re going to need for long term sustainment in a disaster area.

urban survival skills

General Buchanan, (to left) 4 Star in charge of all military disaster operations in PR!


TOP 10 Urban Survival Skills to Survive a Disaster

1. Preparation- Like the old cliche goes, preparation prevents piss poor performance. So you’ll need to prepare ahead of time. That typically means gear or prepping is required. Hard and soft skills are great, but when it comes to urban survival. GEAR HELPS! Bushcrafting things is indeed handy and needed skills, but you can’t help other people very much with no equipment.

Remember that all your basic needs must be met as well as all your family members. That includes the elderly, kids, and dogs that you’re responsible for. And even if you are “The Survival Guru”, its unlikely your family takes an interest in it like you do. So you will be in charge of everything when this happens. Do you want to do that with just your wits, or would you rather have preps?

STOCK UP- Your home needs to be stocked with the most basic necessities to last you for at least 30 days minimum and those necessities need to be mobile capable. Meaning you need to be able to take your preps on the move with you if need be. If you’re bugging out, you can’t take likely take massive amounts of things with you. And if you’re staying in place, then what do you do if you have to go mobile. You need to have several options planned for bugging in versus bugging out. And don’t store all your eggs in one basket!

Check out this article on Bug Out Bag Checklists


2. Escape Route Planning- You need to scout out numerous different travel routes that aren’t likely to get bogged down by traffic. These may include off roading, going through ditches, and other inventive means to get around traffic. You need approximately 5-6 escape routes that aren’t contingent upon getting on major highways. Store caches at different points along the route, so that if you can’t get home you’ll have other options for supplies. Store backup EDC and sustainment equipment in these caches. Along with cash or other forms of currency. During disasters, the first thing to go is the internet and power, so there won’t be getting any money out of ATM’s after that.

Click here for an article on caches: Alternatives to Buried Survival Caches

urban survival skills

Main road in Puerto Rico after storm. This is what most roads looked like!


3. Water Procurement- You’ll need to know numerous methods for getting safe drinking water. During my time in Puerto Rico, that was probably one of the single biggest issues. Most of the PR people didn’t know how to purify water without boiling or how to collect it efficiently. You need to know how to collect and then make it safe to drink. Boiling might not be an option, so you’ll need to know how to build charcoal filters and improvised distillers from scavenged parts. You’ll also need to purchase some water filters for your family that will deal with chemical issues as well. The water is easily contaminated by dangerous chemicals in the urban environment, so choose a water filter with a carbon element in it.

4. Medical & Hygiene Skills- Enough can’t be said for having some trauma skills in an urban disaster! People will be hurt all around you and you can either help them or move on. You also might be injured as well and need the skills to fix yourself up. Because no one is coming to save you right after a major disaster. Trust me, they won’t be coming quickly. We met people in PR, that hadn’t seen the government at all even a month after the storm. They were on their own. Not only should you be able to stop bleeding and set broken bones. But you’ll need to know how to keep those wounds clean in an austere and dirty environment. That is easier said than done. A wilderness EMT course will teach you most of what you’ll need to know but a good ditch medicine course will suffice for most people.

urban survival skills

Veteran Medics Treating Gangrene infection only 3 weeks after the storm!


5. Communications- Our single biggest issue with organizing in PR, was getting comms with any of our other team members. Even with high priced radios, you still can’t talk very far away. So when we were doing runs into the mountains to deliver disaster supplies, we would have no comms with base. You need some kind of device that will deal with that issue over long distances that doesn’t require cell phone signal. Radios are good but HAM radios are even better. Satellite phones are an expensive option, and not always guaranteed to work. A cell phone signal booster is also a worthy investment and should be mounted to your car somewhere so you can drive to good signal areas.

6. Acquiring Fuel & Transportation- If you plan to leave the area, you had better plan on either walking, cycling or driving a vehicle. Depending on where you are, walking might not be much of an option. You might not be able to drive out either, so you’d better have numerous options for traveling. You can’t carry very much on a bicycle. And vehicles require fuel, so you’ll need to know how to acquire fuel. One thing I learned down in PR, was that the rich people left quick.  And they left everything behind to leave the island, no matter the cost. So nice neighborhoods would have vehicles that were unused, and their fuel was up for the grabs. We personally borrowed numerous vehicles during the storm from people leaving the island. I had several different vehicles that were all free during my time there.

Also, a must have urban survival skill is the ability to siphon fuel from gas tanks. Just remember that modern cars have security devices to prevent you from siphoning gas, so you’ll need to know how to get around that. You can bypass this cutting the hose behind the panel and going directly into the the tank. You can also pop a hole in the tank and collect the fuel as it spills out. Older vehicles or in third world countries, this shouldn’t be an issue.

7. Tactical Awareness- I can’t say this enough. The key to avoiding all violent altercations is keeping your head on a swivel and being aware of your surroundings. Once you’ve survived the disaster, its all downhill from there right? Think again. You’re chances of getting attacked after the storm for you preps just went way way up. Hopefully you didn’t tell all your friends that you’re a prepper. Because if you did, they are coming to your house! First rule of prepping, “DON’T TELL ANYONE”. Keep your head on swivel and be aware of the people around you. Anyone approaching you that is a military aged male should be watched and you should be formulating a plan for violence in your mind if something goes wrong.

urban survival skills


8. Knife Fighting- Almost all urban encounters of violence happen within close range and the scenario usually goes down like this. Someone approaches with hostile intent, they use deceptive methods to get close, and then they pull a gun or a weapon when least expected. That accounts for a huge majority of the violent situations you might find yourself in.

That being said, you need to learn how to quickly deploy a blade in close quarters and where to stab. You also must be proficient in how to defend against a blade. You’ve heard it said, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. But almost any gunfighter that has taken some knife fighting training will tell you different. Because the gun is only dangerous in one direction and if you can control that direction, it is worthless. The knife is extremely dangerous in close quarters and more than capable of killing in seconds and almost impossible to control. Pistols on the other hand are extremely easy to take if you can get your hands on them. And if almost all violent encounters happen in close range, then you had better have the skills to create distance to pull your gun, a blade, or be able to defend empty hands.

Also, you won’t have a gun anywhere else in the world. You can’t take your glock with you, but you can find a knife anywhere. And they are legal to own everywhere. Might not be legal to carry, but easy to acquire and simple to use. They are also your most important wilderness survival tool. Learn to be deadly with a knife and you’ll walk with so much more confidence.

9. Leadership and Organizational Skills- The most common thing I saw a lack of in disaster zones, is people with the ability to rally and organize groups efficiently. I can’t stress enough how important leadership and a chain of command will be when SHTF. Everyone will want to do their own thing and they may resent any leadership command. But if you want to get important things done, it will require team work. This is an essential element to all urban survival skills. You will be surviving with other people. Learn how to use them efficiently!

10. Lock-picking, Forced Entry, and Social Engineering- In most disaster areas, you won’t have to worry about covert entry into any buildings. Just pry the door open with a crowbar or knock it in with a sledge hammer because you aren’t worried about anyone knowing you were there. But some facilities may be more difficult to break into with those tools and they most likely hold the most useful supplies. We don’t necessarily suggest you try and pick the locks if other options are available. Its so much easier to just drill them out and remove the lock altogether. Remember that the city already holds everything you need to survive, even in the worst disasters, those items were there before and they are still there now. If you can break in, then you can have them.

Social Engineering- Another essential urban survival skill is social engineering and the art of human hacking. It is the ability to manipulate people into doing things you want them to do. That usually requires a good cover story and some great bullshitting skills. People can be your biggest asset or you worst liability. Either way, in any urban disaster, you’ll have to deal with a lot of people. You need to know how to speak to them in order to get them to do what you want. During my trip to PR, I deployed with a former CIA agent who was a master of talking to people. We showed up and within days we had social engineered vehicles, a place to stay, contacts with FEMA, and almost anything we needed. All by talking to people! This subject is extremely in depth, so here is a list of books to checkout on Social Engineering:

Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

Behavioral Programming: The Manipulation of Social Interaction

Conclusion: I think being in an urban disaster is much scarier than becoming lost or stranded in the wilderness. You don’t have to worry about much in the wilderness except shelter, water, fire, food, tools and navigation. You still need all those things in the city, but you add a security and tactical element to that equation as well. Your basic needs never change because you always need to thermoregulate, drink water, sleep, and eat food. No matter where you go. So its important to learn how to do those urban survival skills before the disaster happens. I suggest that everyone interested in learning these skills actually go to a disaster zone and help with humanitarian aid. Its the best way to learn how these events go down and what you need to know to prepare for them!


MUST HAVE! Survival and Sustainment Gear for Disasters


  • Warbonnet Hammock System– We used this all over the island of PR during our disaster relief visit. I slept in between pillars at airports, on beaches, and just about anywhere you could string a hammock up. It was the only thing I slept in while there. Best investment for a shelter system anyone can ever make. I’ve spent upwards of 6 months living out of one and can attest that they are the best in the world!
  •  (SUAOKI Led Camping Lantern) (MPOWERD Luci Lux – Inflatable Solar Light)- Solar lights were absolutely essential for around our sleep area and walking areas. These will stay lit all night and charge easily in a few hours of sun each day. Its an essential piece of any disaster kit and super cheap to purchase. I can’t state enough how important lights become when you won’t have electricity for days or months. It enables you to work at night time efficiently!
  • Ultimate Survival Technolgies 30 Day Lantern- This thing is legit a life saver. Put 3 D Cell batteries in and it will run for 30 days non stop on one set of batteries. And its super reasonable in price!
  • Goal Zero Solar Charger- Honestly anything in the Goal Zero line of products could be potentially useful. It really depends on what your individual needs are. One thing I can guarantee though. You’ll want as much solar gear as you can when it comes to a longer term disaster like I saw in PR!
  • NiteCore Headlamp and P25 Flashlight- There lights will run forever on a single charge. And you can purchase portable mini usb battery chargers from NiteCore as well, to charge these in the field. On their lowest setting, both these lights with run for several hundred hours. I’ve owned them both for several years now and had no issues at all!
  • Fjallraven Kai Backpack- When you have to hump all your sustainment gear everywhere you go, you better have a good backpack. Otherwise your shoulders and body will be killing you. Invest in a good backpack with good suspension system.

survival gear

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Meet the Author

Rob Allen

Full Time Survival Instructor, former wilderness EMT, disaster chaser!

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