Prepping in an Urban Setting

exterior view of apartment complex

If you live in the midst of the bustling city and you want to get prepared for emergencies, you face some unique challenges. Limited interior space for food and water storage is only the beginning of your difficulties. How to evacuate among large crowds, then how to find and communicate with friends and family, near and far, can also be complicated. Preparing emergency shelter, light and power sources as well as how and where to cook a meal will also need some advance planning.

Where to begin? You should start with the basics like everyone else—water first, emergency kits second, food storage next, then other supplies; you might have to go about it a bit differently, that’s all. Here are a few issues that you’ll probably face, along with some suggestions for dealing with them


If you’re living in the city, you’re likely living in a space that’s smaller than homes in the suburbs. When it comes to storing food and water, you may wonder where to put it all.

There are several ways to combat the space issue. One is to buy furniture that has built-in storage space, like a bed with drawers underneath, or an ottoman that has storage space inside. The furniture is going to take up the floor space anyway, so why not let it serve a dual purpose?

You can also store your items behind or under furniture throughout the house. Pulling your couch, bed, or TV stand out just a few inches from the wall would allow you to store some AquaBlox, AquaLiterz, or some MyChoice™ cans behind the furniture, and you probably won’t even miss the space. You can prop up your bed on risers to create additional space below for storage.

man looking under the bed

The unused portions and floors of closets are also great for storing emergency supplies. Do you have a section of your closet where you hang shirts that don’t reach the floor? Well, you can put a bucket, cans of food, a kit, or other items in the space below for quick access in an emergency.

Making furniture out of your storage is another option. If you don’t have the space for food storage, think about turning a couple of 5-gallon buckets into a side table—or use #10 cans and plywood to make a small shelving unit. There are a variety of configurations you could put together based on what items you plan to store and the amount of available space.

Food Storage and Preparation

In an emergency where your utilities are intact, you will likely be able to prepare and eat food much as you normally would. If supplies to grocery stores are cut off, then you’ll need to rely on your food storage if you’re staying at home for the duration of the emergency

girl using a bbq

If you’re sheltering at home but your utilities aren’t working, you’ll want to have just-add-water meals and MREs that don’t require any cooking—especially if you don’t have an outdoor space or a spot in your home that is safe for open flames (like a fireplace).

If you have to evacuate, having a supply of calorie food bars and MREs in your kit will allow you to keep energized and nourished without carrying a camp stove or other cooking gear with you. Calorie food bars are non-thirst-provoking, so you won’t need to compensate with extra water. And MREs can be heated or eaten cold, without the need for plates (you can eat them straight out of the metallized pouch). All you’ll need is a fork, knife and spoon.

Water Storage and Treatment

Water is the most important thing you can store for emergencies. You can live much longer without food than without water—just a few days without water can be fatal. FEMA recommends having a two week water supply at home for each person—at the rate of one gallon per person per day. If you live alone, easy peasy. Buy a 15-gallon barrel, and you’re good to go. Or stack three 5-gallon water containers or two 7-gallon containers in the closet.

If you’ve got a family or roommates, it can be difficult to find the space to store all that water. But like we talked about above, with a little creativity, you can use smaller nooks and crannies in your home to store small-capacity containers—a liter at a time if that’s what it takes. Just be sure to keep your stored water in as cool and dark a place as possible.

Do not store your water supply in milk jugs; they are biodegradable and will eventually break down and leak. That’s not a mess you want to deal with—water storage is supposed to put your mind at ease, not make you want to pull your hair out.

inside of a toilet

If the water supply is interrupted, and you don’t have stored water available to use, there are two potential sources of water in your home—your water heater and your toilet tank (the tank, not the bowl!). You can drain the water from your water heater into pitchers or other containers. Take the time to learn how to do this—and keep easy-to-follow instructions for doing so right near the water heater. To use the water from your toilet tank, it must be free from chemical cleaners—so if you’ve used bleach or other toilet cleaning chemicals or tablets in the tank, don’t use it for drinking. You could still use it for cleaning—it’s got the chemicals in there already, anyway!

You should also have a way to treat and filter water—at home, and in your evacuation supplies. At home you might want to keep a large-capacity filter system, especially if you don’t have space to store much water. Then you’ll have a way to treat water you find from local sources like rivers or streams.

You should also have a lightweight, portable water filter to carry with you during evacuation (more on this below).


If you had to evacuate your home 15 minutes from now, would you know what to take with you—and would you be able to find it and get it into a sturdy bag within the allotted time frame?

What about your kids (if you have any)? Would they know what to do and where to go if a disaster happened while they were in a different area of the city than you?

People living in an urban setting will have to address one issue that those in suburban or rural settings don’t—the sheer number of people they’ll have to deal with just to evacuate.

You may have an established evacuation (or “bug out”) location outside the city—but don’t forget that you also need to address how to get there in an emergency. If you own a car, you might not be able to get through traffic, or there might not be gasoline available, even if you have money. A few extra steps in your preparedness will help you deal with the evacuation issues you might face:

cars stuck in traffic

Plan to Leave Early if You Can

The longer you wait, the greater the chance crowds or other events will throw kinks into your plan. If you’re dealing with a situation of an approaching storm such as a hurricane, evacuating before everyone else means you don’t have to fight additional traffic, you can get gas for your car, and you’ll have plenty of time to get to your evacuation spot.

It also means not sitting in jammed traffic for hours when you need to use the restroom, not having to use your emergency rations to tide you over just for your evacuation, and evacuating in safer conditions.

Have Various Evacuation Options

Don’t plan on your favorite routes always being available for evacuation. They might be jam-packed, inaccessible, or completely destroyed. Do you have an alternate means of transportation? If you plan to leave by car, do you also have a plan for leaving on foot? By bike?

Also have a plan in place for getting injured family members or neighbors out of the building—especially if you live several floors up.

Also have an evacuation plan for getting home or to your evacuation location from work if you aren’t able to meet up with the rest of your family.

Have Extra Supplies in Case of a Long Evacuation

Having additional food, water, and sanitation supplies will be especially important if your evacuation suddenly takes two, three, or four times longer than planned. For example, if you unexpectedly have to leave on foot rather than by car, your evacuation will take much longer than planned. One idea to incorporate in case of a situation like this is having a secondary emergency kit for an on-foot evacuation. On foot you’ll have to take fewer things overall, but adding a rolling duffel or other wheeled bag will allow you to carry extra water a water filter, food (make it extra light-weight, like freeze-dried pouches), and other gear that might weigh down your basic emergency kit.

Another thing to think about is where you’re most likely to be when an emergency occurs. If you may be at work, having an Evac Pack at the office will be helpful so you can get home to your family and your stored supplies. These are also great for kids to keep in their lockers or cubbies at school.

A great item for evacuation is a Katadyn MyBottle Microfilter water bottle. If there is a source of fresh water (not salt water) along your evacuation route, you can simply take this bottle instead of carrying a supply of water with you. The bottle will filter 26 gallons of water before you need to replace the cartridge.


Most people who live in a big city or a large urban area only know certain areas well—the areas around home, school, work, parks, and their daily commute.

If the areas you are familiar with in your city became inaccessible, would you know where to find a pharmacy, a grocery store, a police station, a hospital, and other important places? Would you be able to navigate an unfamiliar neighborhood without getting lost, putting yourself in danger, or going in circles?

One important aspect of preparedness in the city is keeping a current, easy-to-use map on hand that shows the streets of your city. Mark important locations so you can find them in a crisis. Many city maps are available as small booklets with multiple pages, to make it easier to navigate a specific neighborhood without holding, unfolding, and refolding a huge map. A map or atlas that shows the route to your evacuation location is also important to have. It will give you the flexibility to find a new route without getting lost if your first evacuation route is blocked or unsafe. A printed out Google map with specific locations, resources, and geographical features marked is a great idea, because you won’t have to carry a whole atlas with dozens of pages you won’t need. Laminate it to protect it from dirt and moisture.

Know which direction is North so you can orient yourself in the city and accurately follow maps or verbal directions. Be able to recognize landmarks in the city that will give you an idea of your location as you evacuate or navigate to a specific location, like a police station or shelter.

Crowds and Safetly Issues

In the city, one issue you’re practically guaranteed to face is dealing with huge crowds of people. Many people might be panicking or scared, and there will likely be some violence and looting.

If your city officials give an evacuation order, follow it immediately and be prepared to deal with crowds of people who are also trying to evacuate.

In a worst-case scenario, you may have to use some self-defense techniques to protect yourself or your family. Speak with local law enforcement officials about your neighborhood, and determine what you think will be the best course of action for your safety and that of your family.

You might not think of this as a safety issue, but when the power goes out… so may the keypad to get you into your building. If your building doesn’t have physical keys, but relies exclusively on electronic keypads, talk to your HOA or your superintendent about updating the system to allow for both entry methods.


In the case of a power outage especially, it can be difficult to keep communication lines open. Having some tools on hand before an emergency will allow you and your loved ones to keep in touch.

Have a way to charge your electronic devices, like phones and laptops. And have a back-up charging method (or three). It’s a good idea to have a battery-powered, hand-crank, and solar charger available to give yourself multiple options.


security camera

Having alternative light sources will come in handy for most emergencies—and for the occasional temporary power outage because of a thunderstorm or a randomly downed power line. In an emergency such as an earthquake where there is the possibility of gas leaks, you should never use candles until your building has been checked. It’s a good idea to keep flameless sources of light available—items like the LED glow stick, headlamps, flashlights, solar lanterns, and spotlights are all great choices.

In an urban setting, it’s more likely you live in an apartment building. Check with your super to see if the building has a backup generator for the stairwell lights. And if not, a handful of light sticks might just make you the building favorite for allowing your neighbors to find their way up and down the stairs in safety (always keep the light sticks OFF the treads of the stairs to avoid causing accidents.


emergency essentials portable toilet

If the water supply or power is out for very long, then sanitation can become an issue really quickly. No working toilets means everyone will have to find another way to deal with waste, and in a big city, this can quickly lead to issues with sanitation and the spread of disease.

Be sure to have options available to deal with sanitation in case the plumbing is on the fritz. A Tote-able toilet or Double Doodie bags are both great choices. These options are only temporary, of course, so if the situation goes on for very long, your best bet might be to take a little breather from the city and evacuate to an unaffected location.

First Aid

It’s likely that in a disaster scenario, first responders will have major accidents and injuries to deal with, so they won’t be able to travel to your area of the city to help.

Get some basic first aid training and have a good stock of supplies on hand for sheltering at home. If you’re evacuating, keep some of the most important items, like bandages, finger splints, tweezers, over the counter medicines (pain relief, cold/flu, allergy), cleansing and disinfecting wipes, triple antibiotic ointment, and any prescription medications you’ll need.

As with your evacuation plan, have a plan in place for getting injured family members or neighbors out of the building—especially if you live several floors up.

Shelter and Warmth

If you have to evacuate, or spend the night in your office building or school, having some shelter and items to keep you warm will be invaluable. Something as simple as the Sportsman hooded blanket/poncho can serve not only as a blanket, but as protection for yourself and your emergency kit. It can protect you from the elements—crucial in keeping your body temperature normal. In the heat, the reflective side of the poncho can be turned out, to reflect sunlight away from you.

shopping in an emergency essentials

An emergency sleeping bag is an inexpensive and compact item to help you stay warm. It retains up to 80% of your body heat and is small enough to fit in your pocket.

The SOL Escape bivvy is an excellent way to keep warm and protected from the elements if you’re stranded outside—or at home without heat in the winter. It retains and reflects most of your body heat, while allowing moisture to escape, so you don’t sleep nice and warm only to be freezing in the morning because you were sweating all night.

Something you might not think about when considering how to stay warm is a change of clothes. Staying dry isn’t always possible in an emergency, so to avoid losing more heat, change out of wet clothes as soon as you can.

And don’t forget the simple but effective warmth provided by hand and body warmers. They are compact, inexpensive, and can make all the difference in a cold situation.

Emergency Binder or Folder

Many people like to keep copies of important financial, medical, insurance, and identification documents in a binder, folder, or sturdy envelope that can easily fit into their emergency kit in case of evacuation. The contents of your binder will all depend on your individual circumstances, but you can get some good ideas here.


Know what resources are available in your neighborhood, and those that are offered by your city, state, and federal government. Also be aware of hospital, medical clinic, and Red Cross locations, along with the locations of shelters, public restrooms, police stations, churches, food banks, soup kitchens, and emergency response resources throughout your area.


group of people planning

Networking is one of the most important things you can do in your preparedness efforts. Having a group of like-minded people around you in an emergency can be priceless. If you haven’t already, start building a network of people you can rely on for help in an emergency—people you will also be willing to help if they have an emergency situation.

It’s a great idea to have a network of people in your neighborhood, and also to have a network along your evacuation route—people you trust who would allow you to stay the night, stop for a rest from the heat or cold, take a shower, or fix a meal. Include people in your networks who have skills you don’t. Knowing a dentist, doctor, EMT, electrician, and builder could come in quite handy in a time of crisis.

Ask if your local community center, school, or church group has a preparedness group you could join. These groups will often have space and resources that individuals might not be able to access.

Develop skills that will make you a valuable resource—having valuable people in your network is great—and you’ll want to be sure you have something to contribute to them in a time of need.

If you live in an urban area, keep these issues in mind as you plan and prioritize your emergency preparedness efforts. Thinking strategically through scenarios that may occur where you live may give you additional ideas. Many steps toward emergency preparedness are the same no matter where you live—but knowing what extra steps to take for your specific situation will certainly pay off in a crisis.