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Escaping A City During SHTF

Learn how to escape any urban environment and find out where to go when you DON’T have a dedicated bug out location in the country.

If you spend much time reading prepper or survivalist blogs (including this one) you’ve probably heard the standard advice to get out of any city or heavily populated areas when the SHTF.

This is for good reason and solid advice. There’s no doubt that cities will be dangerous, much more dangerous than areas outside of the city. You can look at Venezuela for proof.

The problem is over 70% of the US population lives in or close to an urban area. The second problem is not everyone has a place to go if they leave their homes.

Escaping to some homestead or rural acreage to save your butt is your best choice, but the reality is it’s simply not feasible for the majority of the population. Most people, if hardly anyone but the most serious preppers, have a second property set up as a survival location or anything resembling a self-sufficient homestead.

Heck, most people don’t have a second of anything because it takes all they make to afford what they do have!

The reality is you have to prep within your means and you can’t live in your head plans of elaborate bug out bunkers, $20,000 bug out vehicles, 20 acre farms, hundreds of lbs of food and water stored at multiple locations, and the like. Truthfully, 97% of preppers will never have any of that.

The reality is you have to prep within your means, not hope for fantasy scenarios. Click to Tweet

Should you remove yourself from large population of people then? Absolutely! We’re not saying stay. Get out, and get out at the beginning. But where to go and how to get there is a question and the focus of today’s article.

If you have that 20 acres of land out in the mountains that’s stockpiled to the brim or can meet up with family or friends in a remote location then do it and don’t look back….

These are all great plans…. if you have the money for that second property now or if you have family living on a farm somewhere and the means to reach them.

But what if you don’t have that luxury? What if you want a better plan…

What if all you can do is grab your BOB and head for the woods? 

Your Local SHTF City

First, let’s consider what your average SHTF city will be like by putting ourselves in one.

It’s a post collapse situation of your choosing. There may not be any food, water, or electricity depending on what scenario you’re most worried about, but for the sake of argument let’s say there are still bare bones basics such as water and electricity.

There are random blackouts, the lights rarely work and the water is generally unsanitary and needs to be boiled. Food is rare but can be bought for a very high price and usually includes a fight.

The city would be under martial law no doubt. What’s left of law and order is currently shoot first and ask questions later. Hospitals and jails are full, and it’s a lot easier to shoot a criminal under martial law than to deal with a situation completely out of control.

What’s left of the police, fire, and EMS are highly understaffed and ran by the National Guard. Their own families are probably missing or bad off, many have left the city or are at home protecting their families and starving with everyone else. Stress is high and never-ending.

The situation is dangerous for you. If you don’t starve to death or get killed by indirect fire the next threat is all of the local gangs that have sprang up and also the desperate people looking for essentials. They are looking for food, water, shelter, gold, jewelry and anything else of value that can be used or quickly sold. A backpack of supplies and gear is a clear signal that you should be robbed to these people.

Learn more about urban survival from our best posts

Your Options

So how do you survive this until things improve? Head to the woods or hunker down? Hit the rooftops or live in the sewer? hmm…

Hunkering down is what most will do and if so your journey ends here. Good luck out there….you’ll have to protect your house or apartment and fight for what you have and fight for what you need. If luck is on your side the worst of it will pass you by, and if you’re unlucky it will all fall on your lap with nowhere else to go.

Some will go lone survivor and travel the city, never staying in one place for long and scavenging what they can. This could work but every day is a gamble. Will you open the wrong door today, or will someone find you while you sleep tonight? Every day you’ll roll the dice one more time. Eventually house will win. House always wins.

Like we talked about before, even if you don’t have another house out of the city or some family nearby that you can get to, you still have the woods. You can stay there once you’re set up or you can travel back and forth from your camp to the city for supplies. The woods give you options.

Why The Woods Then?

Why the woods and not some place in the city, you ask? After all, your house or just an abandoned building offers much more than the woods at first sight. Shelter, security, who wouldn’t want that?

The city has water, food, and other supplies in all these abandoned homes and businesses. You have neighbors and friends to think about after all, and sometimes food comes in and you can fight over some scraps.

So why leave this SHTF “paradise”?

One word: people. People are the real danger of a city. It’s not the buildings or lack of amenities. It’s the guy who wants what you have or the new gang that just set up on your street, or the next riot and the fire that comes with it. The list goes on and on.

A person may be sweet and kind, but people are bastards. It’s the locust mentality. A single grasshopper is harmless, but put them in a group and they transform into a plague of locusts. Groups of people who have their own plans are dangerous when they get desperate or have free run of a place.

A person may be sweet and kind, but people are bastards. It's the locust mentality. Click to Tweet

There are far fewer people in the woods than in a city, obviously. Going to the woods then is safer. Water and food can be found if you have the most basic of wilderness skills. Shelter can be made. Fire and cooking can be had. Life can continue without the danger of mobs and riots, without people.

Traveling Through the City and Woods

The first consideration is how you’ll move around without being seen. You want to become a grey man, someone who dresses and behaves in an inconspicuous manner in order to avoid any unwanted attention from strangers or authorities.

The New Homeless
Urban travel covers the inner city and the outskirts. There will be many new homeless people living on the streets in these areas, so your best bet for long term movement is to blend in with them.

Move on foot at dusk and the early night while there is still a little light and if you have some ambient light from buildings or can risk using a flashlight you can continue to move until dawn.

Sleeping on the roof of a two-story building or on a patio cover will give you all the cover you need inside a city. You would be surprised how few predators think to look up when hunting, including us humans. If you cannot get to a roof or if the weather is bad, try to find the inside of an empty building and if all else fails blend in with the homeless but be wary because in this kind of situation everyone is dangerous.

Urban Camo (no, that isn’t a new clothing brand)
You’ll want to be prepared to travel between wooded areas and the streets at least once, and maybe many times if you have to. You’ll need to do this with without drawing attention to yourself. This will mean a unique take on urban “camo”. Wear clothes that make sense for street wear and that are practical in the woods.

Firstly, dress for the season. Nothing says “look at me” more than an oversized hoodie in the middle of summer, except maybe full camo and high-top boots in the middle of a city.

A pair of OD green pants, a simple brown t-shirt and a black pullover with a pair of trail shoes is an outfit that works for the street and is good enough for the woods. However this is just the beginning, you really will want the ability to switch to full camo once you’re out of the city.

Best pick for a cool and dry long sleeve camo tee

Predator Camo 100% Polyester Long Sleeve Tee For Any Season


Camo Layer #2
Keep a thin camo long sleeve shirt with dark gloves and a bandanna in your pack. Remember, you want neutral colors found in nature or natural camo patters only. Once you get into the wooded area take a minute to change.

The idea is to add a camo pattern over your main layer and cover any exposed skin. Of course you could go full camo here will a pullover set, or even a complete ghillie suit but those options are heavier and hotter, and if someone looked in your bag they would be a dead giveaway. The trade-off is superb camo.

Pick a camo pattern that will match the season and your area. In a wooded area you want to stay concealed as much possible. You might have caches or shelter in those areas, or you might be followed. Being seen comprises the entire area and there’s no happy ending to being found.

Site Recon and Shelter Building

Your current house or apartment may remain your primary shelter or you may decide to never go back to the city (which would be my choice because I am prepared now with the gear and supplies I need and wouldn’t need to go back).

Even if you decide to stay in your house you’ll want a backup location within a couple of hours hike, or possibly a 2-3 day hike (more on this in a minute), from the city in case your house is destroyed or attacked by looters or other threats.

PRO TIP: A location for a semi-permanent shelter in the wooded area of choice should be scouted out now and plans prepared now. Don’t wait until you need it.

This location should be within reasonable distance of your house or apartment by foot or bike. It should also have multiple exit and entry points and have a source of water nearby. On the side of high ground is preferable for security.

When I say it should be within a reasonable distance I mean that you should consider:

  1. your ability to hike with a loaded pack and how far you can reasonably travel
  2. how much food and water you can reasonably carry before you’ll run out
  3. how far most people from the city will tromp through these same woods
  4. your plans to go back to the city or not

If you’re staying in the woods permanently then push yourself and go as far as you can. You may even want to set up a few temporary camps and travel for weeks. If you plan to go back and forth you’ll have to stay closer to the outskirts of the city, but go deep enough that you can’t see the city or be seen by it.

Think about fire at night and the smells of cooking, and the sounds of gunshots and trees falling. You don’t want anyone to see or hear these.

PRO TIP: Biking the whole way may sound like an option but you want to stay off the roads and preferably hit the woods quickly, so a bike will only get you so far.

Once you’ve selected a (nearly) perfect area and done a thorough site recon it’s time to build a shelter. There are many guides for building wilderness shelters so I won’t go into incredible detail here. If you’re lucky you packed a lightweight tent, or at least a sleeping bag and a camo/green/brown tarp.

Find a spot that has the most cover year round. Think about sight lines on the ground and above your head. Look for kudzu, vines, and thick brush that will always be there no matter the season.

Once you’ve locate this area, burrow into the ground cover and make your site a part of it. This way you’ll blend in with the terrain. Keep your clearing to a bare minimum and let the natural undergrowth fill in the dead space and sight lines around the shelter.

Dispose of any left over materials by breaking them down into a small pile and drying them out. Burn them slowly when they are dry enough. A big pile of freshly cut materials means someone is around and will give you away.

Final Thoughts

Forget about playing Rambo in the woods or I Am Legend in the streets. Urban survival is a skill just as much as wilderness survival. They both have their own rules and if you abide by those rules you’ll be ok, but if you push against nature or man too much you’ll pay the price.

We all need to cultivate and grow our skills, and sometimes that skill is waking down a busy street like a grey man. You and only you can create a realistic survival strategy for your needs. It’s fun to imagine ourselves with backpack and prybar in hand parkouring around city rooftops like some lone survivor ninja, or busting through roadblocks in a vehicle right out of a movie, gatling gun and all…. but that’s not a plan, it’s fantasy.

Another consideration is your urban survival kit. Do you live in a city or on the outskirts of one but have a bag full of wilderness survival equipment and zero urban gear? If you’re wondering what the different is or what you should include we’ve wrote extensive posts on how to build an urban survival kit and how to create a personalized W.E.B. (Work Emergency Bag).

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Meet The Author

Robert Rickman

I have been practicing survival and prepping skills since the 70's through backpacking across the USA and outdoor living in the wild, and also at my off-grid homestead with my family of four.


Add a Comment
  1. Great info!!
    I have a wife that is moderately handicapped, so walking/hiking is out of the question. I’m working on a BOV (one of those “little” school buses with a hydraulic lift)as it will allow me to store lots of items and afford safety/security from the elements. I’m a former EMT, so my med skills are pretty good. I have built sheds/raised garden beds etc. so I’m pretty good with my hands.

    1. Sounds like you have a solid plan Steve. Just keep the rioters and looters off your stuff and you’ll have a good chance of getting out if you go quickly.

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Escaping A City During SHTF

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