Urban Survival: How to Manage Difficult Times in the City

Following the Rule of Threes is the key to modern-day urban survival.

Ragnars Urban Survival Cover

The keys to urban survival would be important to know in the rare case of long-lasting power outages.

Cover Courtesy Paladin Press

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In Ragnar’s Urban Survival (Paladin Press, 2000), America's leading survival author, Ragnar Benson, debunks the myth that the only way to survive is to stock a retreat in the mountains. He tells urban dwellers how to find water, trap and butcher game, preserve food, position a retreat for maximum safety and barter with other survivors. Ragnar gives you the solid information you will need to make it if the worst-case scenario becomes a reality. In this excerpt from chapter 1, “Basic Survival Philosphy,” learn all about the Rule of Threes.   

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Ragnar’s Urban Survival.

“When it is extremely important that your pants stay up, use both a belt and suspenders, along with buttons on your shirttails,” a Russian proverb says. This basic homily echoes the Golden Rule of Survival, known as the Rule of Threes.

The Pacific Northwest Nez Percé Indians probably deserve the most thanks for refining this rule into a genuinely workable survival plan. Most likely this plan became part of their culture in about 1730 with arrival of their first horses. The Nez Percé were the only tribe of North American Indians who learned to selectively breed their stock, leading to development of the famous Appaloosa warhorse.

The Nez Percé were unique in several other regards. They were the only tribe that did not routinely starve every winter. They had a lifesaving survival plan that soon became an integral part of their culture.

It was a model of simplicity, explaining in large part its great success. The Nez Percé discovered that for everything really, truly important to life, three separate and distinct methods of supply must be developed. As it evolved through the years, this Rule of Threes proved to be extremely wise. Obviously the Nez Percé applied this rule to their life in the country, but experienced city survivors have found that it works equally well for them.

The system’s corollary proved equally profound. The Nez Percé found—especially in the short run—it does not take very much in an absolute sense to stay alive. Elements of basic survival were simply seen as food, water, energy, shelter, and possibly articles of personal encouragement. In our culture these personal items might be art, music, or perhaps a Bible. One woman I know believes this should include a hot shower once a week. Because these items are so absolutely necessary, positive provision for their supply must be made. Twentieth-century experience suggests that we must include medications, clothing, and self-defense in this list. But we also now know passive defense systems— such as simply laying low and hiding—are often as effective as active ones.

First contact with Europeans for the Nez Percé came on September 20, 1805, when Lewis and Clark rode down out of the mountains into their remote area of what is now the state of Idaho. At that time the Nez Percé already owned six modern (for that era) rifles! These had been bartered from the Mandans and Hidatsa, who had bought them from French and British traders. Because their Appaloosa horses were so valuable, the Nez Percé were able to trade for equally valuable items such as rifles, powder, and balls. Another rule of survival comes into view.

Even before firearms, the Nez Percé were able to survive using their Rule of Threes. Later on, having a few figurative trade dollars in their pouches allowed them to survive in much better style. It’s still true today—those with their financial houses in order will survive better and more easily than those who are forced to live under more basic conditions. Those with money for guns and ammo, especially in cities, have a far better chance at survival.

While the basic Rule of Threes works in a day-to-day, practical sense in the city or country, it can also be deployed by those who are into recreational nuts-twigs-and-berries primitive survival. The rule gently draws all of us into a workable plan. People don’t have to leave their current homes for mice-infested, drafty cabins in the hills in order to live.


Employing the Rule of Threes, we know that when food is vital for you and your family’s survival, you should develop at least three separate and distinct sources of supply. No one source can in any way be dependent on the other for its implementation. Each on its own should be capable of feeding you and your family during an emergency.

My father and his family in post-World War I Germany, for example, relied on the rabbits and pigeons they tended, the garden vegetables they raised, and wild edibles they found in the fields and city parks, as well as what they bartered for with surrounding farmers. They lived in the center of a large city.

In a more modern context, city dwellers can expect to rely on their domestic rabbits, their gardens, and scrounged edibles gathered from surrounding fields, parks, and rivers, as well as consumption of stocks of previously stored supplies as needed.

The other vital rule is the Rule of Survival Thermodynamics. This means that you must never put more energy into a survival activity than is taken out. Those who fail to heed this warning quickly become casualties.

This generally rules out sport hunting and fishing, but opportunistic shooting of critters for the pot in the course of other survival-related activities probably would not violate this precept.

Keep in mind that in Indian cultures, most edible critters were caught in snares or deadfalls. Theories of fair chase and conservation did not enter the equation.

Gardening as a survival technique may also be impractical for many people who haven’t gardened before in their specific area. However, survivors who are already practiced in their city-based gardening skills can probably see a net gain for their efforts.

Foraging in the city can also yield food, but it is difficult. Our early Indians learned to properly treat acorn meat (washing out the tannic acid), hunt wild bees, dig edible flower bulbs, and collect cattails and many other edible plants. Today, in the city or country, the only foraging technique that practically qualifies for most Americans involves gathering cattails. Other edibles are sparse, hard to recognize, of little food value, and generally unavailable in winter. As a practical matter, collecting nuts, berries, and twigs generally makes little survival sense. 

But the good news for city dwellers is that cattails are everywhere. My old, old account regarding cattails with which many survivors are already familiar, involves the time I was riding in a taxi from National Airport at Washington, D.C., (now Ronald Reagan National Airport) into town with a skeptical newspaper reporter anxious to discredit all survivors. We passed acre upon acre of cattails growing wild along the Potomac River. My point about these being an excellent survival food that was commonly available in an emergency was instantly made.

During the fall and winter, cattail roots can be sliced and boiled, substituting for potatoes. In spring and summer, tender shoots can be harvested and steamed for the table. In season, cattail pollen is relatively easy to collect, substituting for flour as much as 50 percent by volume in biscuits. Green cattail flowers are also nutritious and abundant when collected and eaten before they mature and brown. Most important, easily identified cattails grow everywhere in the United States in great abundance. Nothing else  looks like a cattail and they are never toxic. The danger is, of course, that over time, many city survivors will obliterate limited city cattail beds, but so far this has not happened. Despite my best efforts at promotion, few people seem to know about and use cattails!

Another valuable food source available to city dwellers is rabbits and pigeons. Those who have never raised livestock before will find these animals fairly easy to raise. Rabbits are some of the best composters available, and they eat just about any cellulose at hand. After learning how to handle them, three females and a buck will produce enough meat for two rabbit-meat meals per week, while simultaneously fertilizing the garden. And they are good city animals. I recently discovered an extensive, mostly hidden, rabbit enterprise in a crowded English city.

As a food source, common pigeons are another critter with great charm when raised in the city. They fly out to get their own food and water from a roost that can be established virtually anywhere. Fifteen adults easily produce sufficient meat for another two meals per week. There will be more about raising these critters in the city in this book.

Game animals of all kinds from rabbits to carp are best trapped. Learning how isn’t difficult. Set out great numbers of traps, repeating what works. In cities, expect to catch cats, dogs, and rats; in the country, look for deer, rabbits, and geese. Trapping wild or semiwild game is part of the Rule of Threes for both city and rural survival.

Bartering with farmers and stockmen for edibles is another alternative. Those living near farms may be able learn how to preserve harvests themselves.

Like country survivors, the city variety must be willing and able to preserve their own food.

Caching and Storing

Most city survivors will elect to make stockpiling a large part of their three-legged food survival program. Understanding how to effectively stockpile intimidates some folks. Here’s a simple way to determine what you’ll need: Instead of guessing about what you think you’ll need, just start buying doubles of all the essential items you normally purchase. For 8 months preceding the hour of need, start saving all these extra supplies in one set-aside survival area. Soon there will be more than enough lightbulbs, hand soap, sanitary napkins, coffee, and so on, to see you past an emergency.


Three sources of potable water are a must. One source could be the municipal pipe into your home, but is not a source you can count on. City dwellers might consider renting a shallow well auger to sink their own backyard well. It is not too early to think about the availability of pond, river, or lake water as part of one’s water Rule of Threes. You’ll also want to consider a rig to catch and store rainwater from house and building roofs. All that is needed to implement this collection storage plan in most city circumstances are some extra gutter, plastic tarp, and plastic storage barrels (which for some reason are most often blue). Other suggestions are to store water in bottles, bladders such as waterbeds, or fiberglass water tanks.


Planning three sources of energy is not tough once you overcome the realization that they probably all must be purchased well ahead of need or, within cities, actively scrounged up by creative survivors. I plan to use 1,000 gallons of stored fuel oil to run my generator and provide some heat, and 1,000 gallons of propane to cook, heat water, and perhaps warm the house. Large propane storage tanks may not be legal in cities, but I know of two current survivors who have 1,000-gallon propane tanks buried out of sight under their garage floor. My third energy source is 25 cords of scrap wood that I can replenish from abandoned buildings and storage areas as needed. I could heat, cook, and survive with scrap pallet wood alone.

Depending on one’s specific circumstances, there are also coal, geothermal devices, solar cells, and fuel cells. Small, increasingly inexpensive fuel cells used for direct electrical conversion from LP (liquid propane) gas are coming on the scene. There are also very unconventional fuel sources. My father ran out every time a team of horses came by to scoop up any road apples, which were either dried for fuel or shoveled into the garden as fertilizer. Although road apples have gone the way of dinosaurs in most places, your city survival plan will eventually entail these sorts of improvisations.


Shelter in our list of threes also encompasses clothing and emergency medical supplies. Most people in our outdoor-oriented society have sufficient boots, jackets, and warm, woolly sweaters to wear when the place can’t be kept at 62 degrees. Emergency medical supplies are a complex, separate, and very philosophical issue that should be addressed by survivors as quickly as possible.

Shelter might be your present home or apartment. First backup can include an abandoned cellar, backyard dugout, a tent, or perhaps a cooperative area, depending on risk levels. Others may have a travel camper, old bus body, or even an old warehouse in which to hide a shelter. You may make tentative plans to move in with your kids or back to your parents. Anything just so long as the Rule of Threes relative to shelters is addressed.

It’s tough advice for city people, but no matter what, never, never become a refugee. Survival rates among refugees with no control of their destinies are dismal. Refugees are totally the wards of government. If you believe the government does an adequate job of running the post office, Social Security, and the military, then you will probably be satisfied with the way it will run your life as a refugee. Effective hiding is an important part of city survival as it relates to the Rule of Threes.

Our technology is changing quickly. For this and reasons of personal circumstances, skills, and likes and dislikes, our personal survival plans are never final. Readers should include survival means that I have never dreamed of within their own Rule of Threes. A survivor in east Boise, Idaho, has his own private geothermal heat well, for instance! We will miss opportunities unless we are constantly alert for them.

This is the overall guiding philosophy to survival. Obviously it applies to city survival. Commit to it and you will live. To gloss over parts of it is to suffer extreme consequences.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Ragnar’s Urban Survival: A Hard-Times Guide to Staying Alive in the City, published by Paladin Press, 2000. Buy this book from our store: Ragnar’s Urban Survival Guide: A Hard-Times Guide to Staying Alive in the City.