Urban Survivalism: What's in Your Pack?


There are two kinds of urban survivalists. One embraces "less is more" and "smaller is better," and like our automobiles of late, is all about downsizing and traveling ultra-light. The other kind is more like your traditional survivalist, except instead of hunkering paranoid in some cabin in Idaho, fashioning a cannon from junked car parts and waiting for Helter-Skelter, they live in New York City, or some other large metro area. They existed prior to 2001, but 9/11 multiplied their numbers, and forced people to take them a bit more seriously. (Now there was really something to survive.)

The first kind, the essentials-only traveler, are people like screenwriter/blogger (and fellow USC alum) John August, who describes his travel philosophy this way: "I'm headed to Seattle tonight for a quick screening of The Nines. I'm packing almost nothing: my iPhone, my Kindle, toiletries and a change of undies. Over the past year, I've found I am packing less and less, to the point that it's become a sport to see how little I can get by with. It's like urban survivalism. It even has its own subcultures: I've become an adherent of bundle wrapping."

Bundle wrapping? You know -- like the ladies in Africa who carry things on their heads, wrapped in a sheet. Turns out bundle wrapping is one of the better ways to avoid having your clothes wrinkle during travel; if you wrap them around a central object (preferably a round one), you eliminate the need for folding, which is what causes wrinkles.

Pack-light advocates make a convincing case: taking just one carry-on sized bag along when you travel means you don't need to check bags (which now costs money on most airlines), you don't take the risk of checked bags being stolen or not arriving (which has happened to me on several occasions), you can take any sort of public transportation because you're not lugging huge suitcases, you don't need to arrive at airports particularly early because you have nothing to check, you use less energy lugging crap, you're more adaptable to crises and changes in plan ... the list goes on. Consider me a convert.

As for the other kind of urban survivalist, There was a great article in New York Magazine awhile back that profiled a number of them in New York City after 9/11, and found that their calling was experiencing something of a Renaissance. They held seminars on growing food hydroponically in your apartment, outfitting yourself against the smoke and toxic dust that filled lower Manhattan on 9/11 (a pocket-sized $79 poncho/gas mask combo would've saved many lives), and so on. These are the guys who always have a bag packed, who are always ready and truly ready for anything; the true Last Boy Scouts. So, we had to know -- what's in that twelve-pound fanny pack?

NY survivalist Aton Edwards made his own fanny pack out of neoprene, rubber and stainless-steel mesh. "'Inside are eighteen different tools, including a soldering iron, a pencil-size butane torch, and three kinds of lighters. 'The tools make it so much easier in any emergency,' he says. 'Pliers can make the difference between life and death if you have to turn off the gas.'"

Inside his apartment, a few steps from the front door, Aton keeps a 90-pound black nylon duffel. This is his "grab-and-run" bag, for when the big one hits -- or at least hits far enough away that he isn't incinerated. Inside is a backpack, a first-aid kit, a flashlight with batteries and an extra lamp, heat-resistant smoke hoods with charcoal-activated air filters, a fire extinguisher, emergency candles, a solar-powered AM/FM radio, a multi-tool, a knife, a pry bar, rain gear, a small tent, a whistle, a water filter, duct tape, work boots, gloves, enough freeze-dried food to last four people 72 hours, and kitty litter (for "emergency human-waste disposal"). "I'm not trying to protect from Armageddon," he says. "When it's time for the lights to go off, there's nothing anybody can do about that. This is really about comfort. I don't like to be in a situation where I feel like I'm helpless. So what I've done is I've tried to hedge the bets."

A NYC man who would only call himself "J" takes pride in making himself invisible -- and ready for anything.

He hasn't eaten in a restaurant in eight years. He doesn't watch TV ("That shit's a distraction"), and he listens only to instrumental music ("Lyrics are another part of conditioning"). He owns two different kinds of gas masks, a hand-crank flashlight, a generator. "I don't rely solely on Con Edison for my electricity, the phone company for my communication, the television for my education, and definitely not the supermarket for my food," he says. He has most of his food shipped to him, freeze-dried, and over the years he has found that there are certain bugs that you can eat. He carries a white plastic shopping bag. Inside is his kit, containing a multi-tool, antibiotics, bandages, a long knife.

Both camps -- the Prius-driving light-packers and the urban-dwelling survivalists -- try to pack only as much as they can carry. What separates them is, in a way, optimism vs. pessimism; the former, not expecting bombs to rain down anytime soon, needs only an iPhone and a Kindle for equipment; the latter, assuming the power grid will fail, takes a soldering iron and a razor-sharp multitool. What kind of survivalist would you be?