Urban Survival kits

Preparing for Natural Disasters and Major Incidents

In 1986 John "Lofty" Wiseman's book "The SAS Survival Handbook" bought the concept of Survival Kits to the public attention.   Tobacco tins were looted and crammed full of fishing hooks and candles and anything else small and useful you could fit into them.   After a time, when people realised you couldn't eat them and they didn't keep you warm at night, the realisation dawned on schoolboys up and down the country that carrying survival tins for wilderness situations was, perhaps, a little foolish. 

25 years ago survivalism was a niche area - the preserve of the military and dedicated bushcrafters.  

There is no evidence to suggest that the number or scale of natural disasters have increased in modern times but the explosion of travel industry to more remote areas, a greater number of independent travellers and increased urbanisation in and around areas with high probability of Natural disasters have increased our exposure to such events.

Other heightened threats include political uncertainty, civil unrest, military action and the Post-9/11 world of modern terrorism.

'Survivalism' is experiencing a resurgence in the form of 'Preparedness' for major incidents in urban environments, at home and abroad. 

In the same way that the contents of your First Aid kit should reflect your needs and situation, the equipment you might consider should similarly reflect your:

  • Geographical location
    • areas of political / civil / military unrest
    • Terrorist targets - typically western city centres, especially business districts.
    • Your occupation
      • Diplomatic service, NGO's, Financial sector, frequent traveller 
      • Proximity to definitive safety
        • Urban versus remote
        • Home nation versus travelling abroad

What do I need?

To best answer that it is worth considering the likelihood of experiencing a hostile situation (kidnapping, terrorism etc) or natural disaster (earthquake, flooding etc.) and deciding which Tier of preparedness is appropriate for you.

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Tier 1 - Every Day Carry

Every Day Carry (EDC) is a term for the items you would always want to have about you to help get you home safely or safely out of harms way.   The key to it being an 'everyday' list is that it needs to be a small list and things that you would really have the tenacity to carry with you all day, every day.   It is very easy to let this list grow.  Before you know it you have a belt full of pouches and you bulging key ring is full of whistles, torches, compasses, knives and so on, which becomes an inhibitor to carrying it.

Your EDC should be small, unobtrusive and be able to fit in your pockets.

Mobile Phone
The cheaper the better as it is less likely to get stolen but a dual sim quadband phone is recommended for the frequent traveller.  A smart phone will be able to make use of the many Apps which in tandem with most smart phone's GPS will be able to give you an accurate location which is important when trying to establish help, be it in a foreign country or a nondescript British B road in the dead of night.  Read more about Mobiles Phones here.

Credit Card
It is a good insurance policy to have a credit card with as much limit as you can negotiate which you never use.  This requires willpower.  In most urban areas, anywhere in the world, having a Visa or MasterCard with £1000 can get you food, accommodation or even a plane flight home.

Money
As much as you can reasonably afford to lose.

Watch
As with the phone, in many ways cheaper is better.  A posh watch will draw attention to yourself which is not wanted in a hostile situation and a cheap one won't hurt if it gets stolen or broken.   The key thing with a good watch is to ask yourself "what do I need it for?"  The answer should be 'to tell the time' and nothing else.   It doesn't matter if it is analogue or digital; the face needs to be uncluttered and easy to read.   Esoteric chronographs have overtones of the 'professional pilot' but you will never need to time anything down to 1/100th of a second.  Similarly, a digital watch laden with accessories and features is unnecessarily bulky, unnecessarily difficult to read and unnecessarily expensive.   Numbers, Day, Date.  That is it.   If it glows in the dark or illuminates properly, all the better.

For more information, read our article "The Ideal 'Adventurers' Watch"

Multi-tool
Again, it is about functionality.   Don't go for the biggest tool with the most features as its size and weight will put you off carrying it around with you all day.  The Leatherman Wave is great balance of function and size.

Torch
A small AAA battery torch like the Fenix E05 or a lithium LED 'pinch' torch which is small enough to fit on your key ring.  Whilst you would not expect it to illuminate you journey home, these powerful little torches provide enough light to guide you out of a dark or smoke filled building or even signal your location over short range.

Disposable Lighter
The basics of survival, be it urban or remote, short or long term are shelter, food, warmth and signalling.  A lighter and any combustible material can provide the last two.

Permanent Pen
A fine point marker pen is more use than a thick marker for making notes and can write on more surfaces than a ballpoint pen.  Don't worry too much about carrying a notebook as you can usually lay your hands on some writing material somewhere. 

Tip - Be frugal.  Each item should have a purpose and they should be essential.  Avoid gadgets or gimmicks such as credit card sized multi tools or carabiners with a built in torch and compass.

Tier 2 - Grab Bag

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Food
Enough for 72 hours or more.   Cramming 3 days of food into a 30Ltr rucksack means it won't be fine dining but make sure that whatever you carry is high in calories and easily digestible.   Try several brands of dehydrated food or foil packed 'wet' food such a Wayfayrer meals to ensure they do not disagree with you.

Water
A 2-3Ltr bladder system is ideal in a rucksack, taking up next to no space when not in use.   Also consider carrying a larger fold-flat water carrier such as the ones from Ortlieb or Platypus, if you need to stock up on clean water when it becomes available.   For short term use, water purifying tablets will suffice but in areas where water is expected to be dirty as well as contaminated, or when larger quantities of clean water will be needed a water purifying system such as those available from  Katadyn and MSR are attractive but weighty.  Really dirty water can be cleaned through disposable coffee filters before purification; these are cheap and lightweight.  All water, purified or filtered should be boiled for 3 minutes before drinking.

Lighting
A torch is an essential Grab Bag item.   The brighter the better; the Zebralight SC600 offers a ridiculous 750 lumens on full power but requires 18650 batteries which are incredibly expensive and difficult to come by, especially abroad.  Headlamps have the 'hands free' advantage and the Petzl Myo RXP offers a range of output levels, is small, light and runs on commonly available AAA batteries.  Other well known high power torches include Fenix, Led Lenser and Sure Fire which use more commonly available CR 123, AA or AAA batteries.  

There is real milage - especially when traveling in developing countries - to ensure all of your electrical products run on commonly available batteries.  Always carry spares. 

A couple of chemical lightsicks have their place too, notably for marking people and places.

Documentation
Birth certificates, insurance documents, driving license and immunisation certificates should be carried with you at all times, either originals or good quality copies.  We came across Loksaks recently which are completely waterproof document wallets; ideal for slipping discretely into shirt pockets.

Phone Charger
Your phone might have 300 hours standby time but the 12 hours talk time will quickly be eaten up if trying to arrange repatriation home from abroad or if you are the only point of contact via phone with the emergency services.

Personal Hygiene
No need for deodorants or make-up but wet-wipes, toothpaste and toothbrush.  Wet wipes have the advantage of not needing water to give yourself a rudimentary clean.   Shower Gel in an arid environment or when there is no water will just be frustrating.   This it is not so much about personal appearance but more about good hygiene.  Hygiene prevents illness and infection which can be debilitating.

One spare change of clothing
Appropriate for the climate and environment.

Waterproofs
Even if you don't think you will need them pack a small, lightweight waterproof jacket and trousers together with a hat and pair of gloves.  The warmest of places can become very cold on a cloudless night.

First Aid Kit
Enough for you, with your medication.  More information here

GPS, Map and Compass
A small, basic GPS unit (with spare batteries) is of more use abroad or when evacuating an urban area.  Maps of the local area and a compass and knowledge of how to use them are always useful.

Knife & Folding Saw
A more purposeful knife than the multi-tool carried in your EDC.  Remember there are strict laws on carrying and travelling with knives and these laws may be different depending in what county are you are in.

Sleeping Bag
A good nights sleep can have a profound effect on your psychology, whether it is on the floor of an airport waiting area or an emergency refugee camp.  Down filled sleeping bags provide the best warmth to weight/size ratio but provide no insulation when wet.   Modern synthetic bags are nearly a good in terms of warmth to weight.  Choose the lowest warmth rating (expressed as 'Seasons') as you can get away with.   A combination of a 1 Season sleeping bag with a 3 Season sleeping bag can provide a more flexible system depending on the climate at less than the cost of one Down filled sleeping bag.

Shelter
If your risk assessment include the risk of benightment - being without shelter then a solution must be considered.  The two best lightweight shelter systems are a bivvi bag with tarp (or 'basha') or a Hammock with tarp.  Hammocks are more comfortable and don't require an even, flat surface beneath you to get a good nights sleep but they do require two good fixing points from which to hang.  Hennessy Hammocks make very good hammock/tarp sleeping systems.  Conversely, you will probably find more suitable locations to bed down in a bivvi bag.  A Thermarest may seem like a luxury but do not underestimate the psychological power of a good night's sleep.

Para Cord
A good length of Para Cord will satisfy a multitude of uses, not least for setting up your tarp to sleep under.

Cooking
Several options:   The Hexamine stove is often favoured for its diminutive size but it is far from the most efficient stoves and is limited in fuel choice - typically hexamine fuel block, fire lighters, charcoal etc.   The Jetboil is one of the most efficient gas stoves on the market and is sold as a complete cooking system together with pot and lid, that stacks away inside itself for ease of storage.  Again it is limited to one type of fuel source that may not be available.

If traveling, remember that there are strict laws on traveling with pressurised canisters.   The most robust multi-fuel stove is the Primus Omni-Fuel which will burn almost any liquid fuel and also works on conventional gas canisters.

To cook in you will need pans.   Traditional army style mess tins really can't be beaten, certainly not on price.  At the other end of the scale the MSR Titanium Kettle is favoured with alpinists as their all-in-one camp kitchen.  An 850ml pot with lid that is large enough to cook something in and small enough to drink straight from as a mug.   Whatever you choose it is an added benefit if your stove can fit in you pans to save space.

Save more space and weight by just packing a spoon or a 'spork'.  But do pack a green hairy scourer and a small bottle of washing up liquid.   This may sound luxurious but hygiene is not a luxury, it is a necessity to prevent illness.

Tip:  Avoid camouflage clothing and equipment at all costs:  It can be a benefit to be unobtrusive but there is also a benefit to being easily seen if you need rescue, furthermore, in many parts of the world camouflage clothing or army surplus equipment will make you look like a terrorist or member of a paramilitary organisation with serious consequences.

Tier 3 - Vehicle Equipment

If you have use of your own vehicle you are instantly able to carry more equipment, expedite yourself away from danger and remain self sufficient for longer.  The contents should be securely and unobtrusively stowed.  Most accidents on expeditions involve vehicles so seek further training if appropriate and learn the basics of vehicle repair.

Most serious accidents which happen abroad - whether package holidays, business trips or pioneering expedition for unexplored areas - are caused by vehicles.  The incidence rate of accidents increase ten-fold when driving off road.  The use of a vehicle should be seen as a responsibility rather than a luxury. 

As well as driving skills it is wise to know what to do when things go wrong so as well as packing vital items, learn how to use them. 

Things to consider:

  • Additional First Aid Kit - more substantial, especially with more wound dressings for serious bleeding.
  • Additional Food and Water - sealed water if possible.  In a vehicle Hot Cans can easily be carried
  • Blankets
  • GPS & Software for your area.
  • Phone Charger
  • Tow Rope
  • Additional Torch
  • Jump Leads
  • Fluids - Antifreeze, Coolant, Oil and Spare Fuel
  • Spare Tyre, Jack, Wheel brace and Foot Pump
  • Tool Kit (minimum)
    • Selection of spanners - open and ring
    • Socket set
    • Selection of screwdrivers
    • Pliers
    • Hex & Torx bits and driver
    • Hacksaw
    • Hammer
    • Rescue Equipment
      • Shovel
      • Bow saw
      • Pry Bar
      • Sledge Hammer
      • Axe
      • Bolt Cutters

Ensure your vehicle is maintained and roadworthy.  POWER is a useful prompt for regular and pre-journey checks:

Petrol or Diesel:  Enough fuel in both the main tank and a reserve Jerry Can
Oils:  Check levels of Engine Oil, Brake, Clutch and Power Steering Fluids.
Water:  Engine coolant and Anti Freeze levels are checked.
Electrics:  Check all lights and wipers.
Rubber:  Check tyres (including the spare )for tread depth, pressure and uneven wear.  Check wiper blades and drive/fan belts.  Carry spare of both.

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