How to Move Through and Survive in Urban Terrain

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Dense, built-up urban terrain makes for one of the most challenging environments to survive in.

From sprawling Southern cities to towering skyscraper hives of Northern metropolises, urban areas come in all shapes and sizes, but they all present similar advantages and disadvantages to preppers getting ready to survive tough times.

city map

You might not live in a city, but that may not count for much when facing a regional or national disaster.

Over three-quarters of all citizens living in the United States inhabit urban centers and, even if you are not one of them chances are there is someone important to you- family, friends or otherwise- that does.

You might be only visiting when disaster strikes, or you might be going in there to get them out after. No matter who you are and where you live, it is in your best interest to brush up on your urban survival skills.

We have plenty of examples scattered throughout history to illustrate just how tough the going gets for people who inhabit cities when the balloon goes up.

You’ll need to be on your toes, and know what to do to survive the challenges of survival in urban terrain. Today we will be presenting you with a guide on overcoming those challenges.

Survival Challenges Presented by Urban Terrain

No matter what environment you happen to be in when you find yourself facing a serious survival challenge you can be assured the environment itself provides you with certain advantages, and also certain unique disadvantages inherent to the environment.

Well, I guess that’s true unless you are in the vacuum of outer space, but I don’t know anyone living up there except our astronauts on the space station!

Some environments may provide an abundance of material for shelter creation.

Others may be mostly barren and desolate. Some environments will furnish ample amounts of food and water if you know where to find it or how to extract it.

Others will be a little more difficult in that regard. Cities are no different, but they do feature one element that every natural environment lacks: a massive abundance of people.

It is not a kind thing to say, but the people around you can present serious, even lethal survival challenges if you are forced to endure a situation in an urban environment.

This has nothing to do with my attitude or a pity bumper sticker that says “I hate people”.

It is cold, hard math, and the math does not lie: an enormous, local population will strip what limited amount of resources are in that environment barren in no time, just like the proverbial (and sometimes literal) swarm of locusts, while simultaneously generating incredible quantities of waste and refuse that will turn into gargantuan biohazards.

This tipping point usually spells doom for denizens surviving in the aftermath.

Many of these people will not be prepared for the events unfolding at all save what they little they have in their pantry and closets.

Desperation, irrationality and outright ruthlessness or misanthropy will see many of them turn into lethal threats against you and yours.

Aside from an incredible rate of resource consumption and massive generation of waste and trash the residents of a given city will turn into frothing mobs in absolutely no time at all, some trying to evacuate, some trying to reach their loved ones, and some degenerating into panic or looting.

Routes of ingress and egress will likely become horrendously clogged with these masses of humanity, hampering your ability to escape or get where you need to go.

The longer a situation lasts and the longer that essential services are offline, the closer and closer the populace will edge to total bedlam. Being able to deal with this certainty will, in large, part determine your ability to survive in a city.

Survival Requirements Don’t Change in the City

Just because an urban environment presents unique hazards when it comes to survival, that doesn’t mean the fundamental requirements of surviving, as a human being, change.

On the frozen taiga, in the burning desert or in the middle of the concrete jungle you still need the same four fundamentals in order to keep yourself firmly anchored on the mortal coil: air, shelter, water and food.

You require a never-ending and constant supply of all four, the only essential difference being how fast the lack thereof will affect you.

Air

Air is an obvious and constantly taken for granted requirement for continued survival.

Faster than any of the other requirements for life, a lack of air will be lethal. You have only minutes to go if you cannot breathe, and oxygen fails to reach your brain.

City environments can be especially challenging in this regard since they are so prone to burning and will easily turn an atmosphere toxic with contaminants, either from the smoke itself, or from the rupturing and spilling of various chemicals in industrial and commercial areas.

Shelter

Shelter is a requirement for maintaining your body temperature, most often to prevent your core temperature from falling too low, but sometimes to prevent it from climbing too high.

Exposure can get to you in as little as a couple of hours in the worst conditions.

Any city will not lack in this regard thanks to the abundance of buildings, but depending on the prevailing climate where the city is located, you may be more or less completely dependent on electricity or natural gas in order to provide heating, cooling or both.

You must have a plan for self-regulating your body temperature using clever shelter techniques even in the middle of a major metropolis.

Water

Water is an obvious and constantly fussed over survival necessity, and with good reason. Dehydration can be lethal in just a couple of days, and you will be severely hampered or incapacitated long before that.

You might think that being in an urban environment water is one of the last of your concerns thanks to the abundance of taps and faucets and mountainous stores of bottled water.

But, all of these are only tenuously provided thanks to incredibly intricate public utilities and the aforementioned non-stop deliveries that bring the bottled water supplies.

You must have a way to go to procure and purify water for drinking in an urban environment, just like any other.

Food

Food is one of the survival requirements you can go the longest without, especially most Americans, since we trend towards carrying a preponderance of portable fuel around our midsections.

Nonetheless, a steady intake of calories is required to maintain peak mental and physical performance in trying times.

As mentioned, above grocery stores empty in minutes if the supply in a city is interrupted, or if a disaster or emergency is on the horizon.

You can supplement your calorie intake with hunting, foraging and trapping even in the middle of an urban center, but you will need to adapt your tactics and techniques.

Urban Terrain Types

The impact that urban terrain will have on your survival plans cannot be overstated.

It will affect your movements, it will determine where you shelter or attempt to shelter, how you will scavenge for and procure needed supplies, security considerations and the likelihood of getting into or getting out of the city in relatively good order.

No two urban areas are completely alike, even ones found within the same country.

New York and Los Angeles are significantly different in America despite both being among the largest cities in the world, and neither one looks anything like New Delhi in India or Berlin in Germany.

Differences in underlying terrain, in culture and the age of the city all play a part in influencing its layout.

The layout of a city is far more than an incidental factor; it will significantly influence your planning and your approach to surviving in a given area.

Below we will discuss typical patterns of both city layout and street arrangement and discuss how they will inform and affect your plans.

These layouts can be found all over the world in cities large and small. Once you know what to look for, you can easily determine what type of urban environment you’ll be dealing with just by looking at a map.

City Layouts

The layout of a city is its overall configuration and is the predominant factor in determining its overall density. A city’s layout is influenced by the underlying terrain of the area where the city is built and has a terrific influence on both lines of communication and lines of travel.

Satellite Pattern

Cities built upon a satellite pattern consists of the classic arrangement of a central, large and overbuilt hub city surrounded by smaller enclaves that orbit it and are dependent upon it in varying amounts for supply, commerce and often jobs.

A city built with a satellite pattern may have the smaller orbiting towns and boroughs spaced irregularly or regularly around it.

Typically, the area between the larger and smaller centers is sparsely populated and developed if developed at all.

Network Pattern

A network pattern city is similar to a satellite pattern, but the chief difference is each individual settlement is more or less self-sustaining compared to its neighbors.

One of these urban centers might be the dominant one, but it will not have drastic advantages over the others.

The general shape of network pattern cities is a rectangle, trapezoid or some other “polygonal” arrangement, and will typically feature more routes to move to or from neighboring cities compared to satellite pattern cities.

Linear Pattern

A linear pattern city is built primarily along one major thoroughfare running through a region. Typically, this corridor is constrained by the natural terrain around it, perhaps a valley, a body of water or simply a major transportation route.

Cities of this nature often result when several smaller settlements built along the length of the travel corridor eventually sprawl out, meet each other, and then merge.

Cities of this type may also feature as a sub element of network or satellite pattern cities found along major avenues of travel going from one city center to another.

Segmented Pattern

When major terrain features break up or divide a city, you end up with a segmented pattern.

If a river, a canal, a major interstate or a major railway bisects a city in two distinct halves or even multiple larger “pieces” the rest of the layout will typically follow suit, being sectioned off by other terrain features, or by major avenues of travel.

Cities of this type of often have distinctly separated districts: commercial, residential, industrial, etc.

Street Layouts

The patterns and arrangements of streets, highways, roads and other avenues of movement throughout the city will dictate how you can move through it and just as importantly how you can expect other people to move through it, both on foot and in vehicles.

Understanding how the arrangements of all of the paths and roads work together is crucial for crafting a workable plan when it comes to surviving in an urban environment.

Making the wrong call on where you will go and how you will get there may see you hopelessly mired in massive crowds, or running into a hostile or irrational group of people that you don’t want to run into.

Radial

Cities that were built with the center of power in the geometric center of the city will often feature a radial design with their streets.

Think of the spokes on a wagon wheel, with each spoke being a major thoroughfare that radiates from a central hub where the seat of influence and power lies.

Some cities with a radial street pattern will have a “closed” arrangement, where each spoke can connect to the others either on the outer perimeter of the city or between the perimeter and the center, but others will not.

Cities in the latter category will often significantly constrain traffic flow, so be aware of that.

Grid

A ubiquitous and extremely efficient, not to mention adaptable, street pattern for any urban area is a grid pattern. Everyone can recognize this; imagine a classic chessboard or checkerboard and you have it.

Occasionally, cities with other street layouts will begin to connect their “spokes” in such a way that they end up with a rough grid arrangement if not a geometrically perfect one.

Grid pattern cities may be easy to navigate, but if they are too symmetrical it is easy to lose your bearing.

Irregular

Cities with irregular street plans seemingly follow no rhyme or reason and are often designed for aesthetic reasons.

They may constrain themselves flow along or through underlying terrain or geographic features or they may result from successive generations of changes in urban development direction and city planning, finally resulting in a chaotic mishmash of districts and streets.

A regular city must be carefully analyzed as they are and depend on significant advance work for you to truly understand the lay of the land.

The Anatomy of an Urban Area

You can think of your average urban area as being a sort of body and like any body it has an anatomy all its own.

The various districts and installations form body parts and organs, if you will, and understanding what these various parts of a city mean in the context of an emergency situation will be part and parcel of surviving for the duration.

There will be some areas you’ll be forced to travel in an emergency and others you should do anything to avoid.

Core

The beating heart of any city, the core, is often synonymous with downtown, and is often a central business district.

Comparatively small against the rest of the urban area it will contain a disproportionate number of public institutions, government buildings, offices and boutique retail establishments.

You definitely need to know where the core is so you know where the seat of power is in a city as well as where you can expect throngs of scared people to congregate in the early phases of the disaster.

Core Perimeter

The perimeter of the city’s core is often a distinct area that forms around the core’s edges. The perimeter could be made up of commercial or residential buildings, but they are generally smaller and newer than those found in the core properly.

High-Rise Districts

A high-rise district is typically comprised of tall apartment buildings, skyscraper commercial offices or large business HQ’s interspersed with smaller but broad buildings such as parks, parking lots and scattered buildings of various purposes.

Heavy reliance on mass transit infrastructure means that these districts typically emerge farther away from the core than might be expected.

Pay particular attention to these areas if they are predominantly residential, since they will contain a great many people in a comparatively small space and be almost totally dependent on public works for continued habitation.

Residential Districts

Residential districts can be found all throughout any major urban center, and may take the form of block houses, townhouses, smaller apartment buildings or suburbs.

The denser the city the more likely you are to see residential districts take the form of multi-family properties like apartments and condos.

Suburbs, in all but the most wide open city formats, will typically form on the periphery of the city area. Keep in mind that your suburbs, all total, often have a population that far outnumbers those living inside the city proper.

Industrial District

As a rule, you will find industrial areas developed only on the outskirts of urban areas or where mass transport is accessible, meaning around airports, sea- or river ports and major railway stations.

Industrial areas always feature large, massive buildings and wide open spaces that make it easy to maneuver large vehicles and specialized equipment needed and their given sectors.

Industrial areas are sparsely populated compared to the rest of the city, and will likely be even more depopulated in the midst of a crisis.

They may be areas where you can take a brief respite, but be aware that they have a reputation for high crime even in normal times.

Commercial Districts

Commercial districts are typically encountered in a strip format, with restaurants, shops and retail establishments on either side of major streets and avenues throughout urban areas.

These may occasionally be encountered in a way station format along major thoroughfares connecting two cities in a satellite or network arrangement.

It is important to know where commercial districts are not only as a source of emergency resupply, but also because they will become hot spots for looting, theft and other conflict during the initial and middle phases of the disaster.

Supply Issues during Urban Survival

Your typical city may seem to have everything the world has to offer in abundance, at all times, 24/7 and it is true that most true metropolises never sleep.

But their precarious supply situation is entirely dependent on an immensely complex and increasingly fragile logistical system that keeps the machine of society running.

Deliveries from trucks, barges and planes come and go constantly, like a beehive, in order to keep cities supplied with everything from food and medicine to water and clothing.

Hundreds of thousands or millions upon millions of hungry mouths means that storerooms and shelves must be constantly replenished.

You can count on that incredibly fragile system falling apart, or becoming severely hampered when the shit really hits the fan.

Any prepper worth the title will, of course, have a ready reserve of survival supplies and provisions to deal with almost any kind of emergency, but long-term survival in a city means you will probably have to rely on other means for supplementing what you have or for outright resupply.

Take food for instance. Please believe me when I say that the existing food supply in a city will seemingly evaporate into thin air, instantly, as soon as the trucks bringing it in stop rolling.

You may have a huge stash of food for you and your family to live on, but you have to account for losing some of it to spoilage or even outright theft assuming, of course, the situation does not drag on so long that you just run out.

Like any other environment in a survival situation you can both hunt and forage for food, as well as grow your own. You can do all that in the middle of the concrete jungle!? Yes, yes you can, so long as you have a little know-how.

You can rely on hunting and trapping the same as you could in any other environment- with a few caveats.

Now, chances are you won’t have any properly large game running around, but I can guarantee you there are birds in urban areas.

If one is well-equipped with snares and other traps, and the correct firearm, airguns or bow you can easily harvest quality-protein from the environment around you.

You can also grow your own food using indoor or outdoor techniques. Chances are, unless you inhabit the suburbs, you’ll be growing your crops in containers but aside from location all the techniques remain the same.

Growing a variety of vegetables, herbs and other plants may not pay off big in terms of calories but it will definitely help you stay healthy by providing essential vitamins and minerals for the long haul.

Additionally, wild plants grow all over cities the same as they do anywhere else. You can look for a wild parsnip, you can look for wild parsnip, dandelions, berry bushes, fruit trees and more.

A thorough knowledge of edible wild plants still pays off big-time in an urban environment.

Water is obviously an important concern for survival, and urban terrain can make that challenging when it comes to procuring it.

No matter how numerous and how good otherwise the public water supply is you’re not going to be able to trust it during a disaster. It is all too easy for it to become compromised or contaminated.

Any water you’re going to drink must be thoroughly filtered and sterilized before you drink it.

Using rain catching techniques is one way to supplement your stored water supply, and another is to draw water from places like swimming pools and even ponds in parks before treating it yourself through boiling and filtration.

Keep in mind that serious chemical contamination of city water sources of any kind is far more likely than comparable water sources out in a nature setting, and some chemical contaminants are very difficult to remove with typical prepper tools like water filters.

urban warfare

Countering Urban-Specific Threats

No matter where you live and what kind of City you and have it there is one universal constant in urban survival: you will be attempting to survive alongside an awful lot of other people.

As I have mentioned throughout this document it is the people that will be the chief variable and one of the greatest threats to survival in urban terrain.

Violence

The threat from your fellow man occupying urban areas during a major disaster will be ever present. This is a complex problem that requires an integrated and holistic approach in order to be successfully mitigated.

Even normal, moral people can become irrational when they are desperate. Missed meals, fear, and being surrounded by mayhem, death and destruction will push many people to the breaking point, and then they will start acting in ways that are out of character.

It is entirely possible and even likely that you will be attacked for what you have. Theft and robbery will be common occurrences in urban areas for the duration of the disaster so long as law enforcement is running at reduced efficiency or absent entirely.

One need only look to historical examples of disasters taking place in urban areas for proof.

Also, do keep in mind that you will see a lot of humanity on display in the form of people suffering with barely what scraps of clothing they have on their backs to their names.

It’ll be lots of outstretched hands, and no, I’m not saying you should not help these poor wretches and the less fortunate, but you must bear in mind that once you give them something there will be a dozen more hands reaching out for succor, some more insistent than others.

It will not do anyone any good if you burn through your entire cache of supplies trying to right the wrongs of the world, and comfort the suffering only to end up joining their ranks.

Your best bet for avoiding the soft predations of those who would steal from you or accept handouts is to not stand out. Don’t look like you are better equipped, better fed or cleaner than anyone else.

You need to look as miserable, downtrodden and penniless as the typical urban dweller slash survivor does for the duration.

Blend in with the herd. People who look like they’re well-off stand out like a lighthouse in times like this, and that will attract attention that you definitely don’t want and can ill-afford.

There is one subset of any urban areas population you must remain especially vigilant for, and I’m referring of course to the dedicated criminal class. Organized crime, street gangs, looters, opportunists, psychos and rapists.

While they are certainly dangerous and ever present in cities prior to an SHTF disaster, they will become especially active during and in the wake of one when law enforcement is overwhelmed, disorganized, or entirely absent.

Many of these scumbags will seize the opportunity,, and have their heydays. You will not necessarily be able to beg or submit your way out of a confrontation with these people.

You’ll be lucky if you can have a conversation with them at all, since much of the time they will shoot you or shank you and take what they want, leaving you for dead and if that is all they do you will be fortunate.

Many of them will be out hurting others for sport, or pillaging to their hearts’ content.

There is no other way about: You must be armed and know how to defend yourself if you want to offend these people off.

Guns are ideal, but depending on where you live you may be taking a substantial legal risk if you are in possession of them ahead of an SHTF event. Many cities, even ones in staunchly pro-gun states, often have strict rules on ownership of firearms.

And, of course, having the tools alone is not enough. You must know how to use them if you want to stand a chance.

Don’t think you can play around with your gun or knife periodically, and then fool yourself into believing you are really competent. You must practice continually, and get professional training if you want to grow your skills.

Remember, if you are surviving alone in urban terrain and get into a fight, there will be no one coming to save you.

Even passers-by will be entirely too consumed with their own problems and their own survival to risk getting involved on a stranger’s behalf.

If you have a partner, have family members or a part of a proper survival group hopefully you have a wingman that can intervene and save the day, but if not, you’ll live or die according to your own skill and will to survive.

Sanitation

The threat that people pose won’t just be in the form of interpersonal violence, either.

The mere existence of other people in this type of environment, and this type of survival situation, will slowly, almost gently become a severe threat in and of itself if public utilities such as waste management, sewer service and water are interrupted.

I am talking about the looming threat of a total collapse in sanitation.

Think it through: How much trash would you say you generate on a daily basis? Probably about a bag of trash, right?

Okay, now let’s multiply that by the number of people on the same floor as you in your high rise apartment building, and let’s just say for the purposes of example there are 11 other people who generate the same amount of trash that you do.

Now we are up to 12 bags of trash, daily, created by just one floor and one apartment building. What is in this trash? All kinds of things, from food scraps and dirty tissues to soiled diapers and waste paper.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. How many floors are in your apartment building? Let’s say 10 just for kicks. That is now 120 bags of trash, every single day, and no one is picking them up and hauling them off to the landfill.

I don’t need to tell you just how quickly that trash will turn into a mountain, and pretty soon every single sector in the city that is inhabited by people will be looking exactly the same.

Aside from being absolutely disgusting and permeating the atmosphere with a terrible stench, heaps of garbage and human refuse is the calling card of classic pestilential outbreaks.

Rodents, dogs, cats and the microorganisms they carry love to get into trash like this and all the germs contained therein, and then they will take off spreading them far and wide.

Pretty soon you have an honest-to-goodness plague ripping through the population trapped in a city making a bad situation far, far worse.

And mind you, reader, this is just garbage output we are talking about; I haven’t even touched on the subject of actual fecal and urinal waste.

If the sewer system is knocked out, or running inefficiently for the duration of the crisis, you can go through that same example that I just did.

Substitute the garbage bags with pounds of actual human waste, and pretty soon you’re painting a dreadfully grim picture, one that has an even graver outlook when it comes to disease.

The solution to this in the short-term is relying on alternate methods of human waste collection using a self-contained indoor toilet with absorbent media or even a field improvised method using a bucket and heavy duty contractor bags with some sawdust.

This is only a stopgap measure for your own shelter, however. Given enough time, with no relief in sight from public works, the waste output of the hundreds of thousands or millions of inhabitants of a city will eventually completely overwhelm it with filth and disease.

It is for this reason more than any other you must make every effort to get out of a city before it gets past the sanitation tipping point.

Becoming Trapped

One of the worst possible outcomes if you’re trying to survive a disaster starting off inside the city limits is actually getting stuck inside the city for the duration. Unfortunately, this is something that is highly likely.

You can bet that the first sign of major trouble all major thoroughfares are going to clog terribly with panicked, stampeding masses of people. The roads will be solid gridlock, and even the sidewalks and secondary routes will be completely jammed with cars.

Even without a major traffic situation shutting down all further movement by road, the city itself could be put under lockdown by authorities or in case of quarantine.

Even if the road situation is not that bad, you may not be able to access your vehicle, it being stolen, or inoperable or destroyed before you can get to it.

That means you’ll be facing a bug-out on foot. A dicey proposition in the best of times, but especially dangerous if moving through a major metropolitan area.

If it comes down to that, your best play is to get out of the city before it reaches critical mass with people leaving in a huge wave.

Some disasters have a sort of prologue to them, with a series of smaller events, or symptoms if you will, culminating in a sort of big bang before they kick off.

Don’t wait until it is too late to escape! Other disasters arrived with all the suddenness and subtlety of a cannonball, though. You will have no warning and no head start.

In situations like this one, you’ll just have to do the best you can.

If the time comes to actually get away, it will be imperative that you take the most direct but alternate routes you can come up with.

The idea is to avoid as much foot and vehicle traffic as possible since they are most likely to become parking lots and will also be host to much of the violence that will inevitably result.

Try to take side streets as a rule, and avoid any major choke points like tunnels, bridges and narrow highways.

What you might try to do though, especially if your city is not too large and spread out, is go by unseen routes: consider taking corridors through buildings, underground maintenance accessways, and even potentially going through sewers.

A great many people don’t know about these places and fewer still will even dare to try them in an emergency in their panicked rush.

To make this a viable strategy, though, would require a considerable amount of urban exploration and path finding in advance, work that in and of itself is dangerous.

No matter what strategy you take for trying to get out of a city under siege, you must be prepared while you are escaping.

Heavy gloves, wraparound eye protection, and a respirator along with sturdy but lightweight clothes and rugged shoes suitable for long movement by foot will be mandatory.

large city

Urban Terrain when Bugging Out or Getting Home

Urban terrain presents significant hazards for preppers who are bugging out or who are trying to get home.

In almost any major disaster, cities will become very difficult to traverse and full of all kinds of hazards, ones that we have described throughout this article.

A lone individual, or perhaps a pair of individuals traveling together carrying large packs that are stuffed full of gear will be extremely appetizing targets to desperate people and criminals alike who remained behind in the aftermath of a disaster.

That alone is reason enough to detour.

Other hazards abound aplenty in urban terrain, not the least of which are higher instances of disease as we have covered already, and potentially contaminated atmospheres from smoke or chemical spills.

Cities that are burning make the air around them extremely toxic since so much of what is going into the air is man-made material that generates secondary hazards along with the smoke particulate.

Your chances of becoming disoriented, cut off and trapped in a city ablaze are always high. 

Any urban terrain will also make travel very difficult unless you remain solely on the outskirts.

All of the factors that make cities so hard to escape the longer you wait also makes them extremely difficult to move through, with pretty much all major thoroughfares and the majority of secondary routes completely clogged my vehicles, blocked off or suffering from some other obstruction.

On foot or in a vehicle it will be extremely easy for you to run into detours and be ambushed while in the city.

It is true that cities may still contain some supplies if you are willing to search long enough to find them, thanks for the preponderance of hiding places, nooks and crannies but this is almost always a deal with the devil if you are a prepper who’s transiting between two places.

Your chances of something going wrong when you stop to rummage through any urban environment are always increasing linearly the longer you remain within the confines of the city.

If you are bugging out or trying to return home and your most direct path takes you through a major metropolitan area, you should carefully weigh how much a detour around the city will cost you in time and material before deciding to move through the city: The risk will always be substantial in a SHTF situation.

Conclusion

Urban terrain presents more than its fair share of challenges for modern preppers.

But, as with any terrain, if you learn to understand it assess it correctly and then plan accordingly you can help ensure you have the best possible chance of attaining a positive outcome no matter what kind of disaster scenario you are facing.

Urban terrain is a complex subject with many variables, so make sure you’re putting in the time to study and do your advance work before you come up with your own survival plan to move through it.

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