Life in the city is a daily exercise in chaos theory. With so many people and so many variables anything can happen and quite often does. Most of the time the results are minor inconveniences that don’t lead to catastrophic consequences but as more people move into cities and the infrastructure and resources stretch to their limit anything is possible. Good urban survival skills require balancing the urge to prepare, healthy doses of imagination & paranoia with serious attention to situational awareness. Classical survival caches are stored in the deep woods surrounded by miles of wilderness where the likelihood of anyone but a stray deer finding it are fairly unlikely. Urban caching provides a unique set of challenges that while daunting are not impossible.
Imagine a worst case scenario where there is an unexpected major disaster and you’re in an urban area like Chicago, London or Toronto. The power is out and the roads are clogged with traffic, emergency services are overwhelmed and public transportation has been halted. Unless you’re hunkered down in a safe place and you can tough it out, your commute just became impossible by regular means. You have to think on your feet to get safely home, to your hotel or embassy. Jason Bourne had the good fortune of having several passports, a firearm and oodles of cash in a safe deposit box but the rest of us have to make due with our wits and ingenuity. And what if the power was out and he couldn’t get to his cache? He’d have never gotten the ride he needed and the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
Situations where caches are required are so personally defined that it’s recommended that you first build a threat matrix by giving serious thought to potential emergencies and their consequences. There are numerous volumes written about threat analysis and matrix building but we can break it down into a few key points that should help narrow your decisions on what to cache and where. The factors are simply distance to safety and threat level.
Distance to safety – How far away are you from your current location to a safe point. This will be your home in most cases or in a travel situation it could be a hotel, friends home or embassy. The cache should be strategically located in an area where you’ll get the maximum benefit from retrieving it. For example don’t put a cache of water 20 miles from your start point when your objective is a 21 mile walk.
Threat level – What kind of circumstance are you looking at the most probability of encountering? Take a SHTF (Shit hit the fan) scenario and work backwards and look at the most common case you’d need to prepare for and work from that assumption as your first cache. Planning for all scenarios is great but covering the most common cases is going to give you the biggest short-term benefits in both being prepared and peace of mind. For example caches in your home town don’t generally need to have your passport and spare credit cards whereas a cache in a city you travel to where you have no support system are fairly crucial if you are parted from your money and credentials. Something as simple as a charged up pre-paid cellphone could get you aid in a mugging on your way home from work but someone robbing your hotel room in Guatemala and taking everything you own is another matter. Copies of your passport and a few hundred in the local currency stuffed in an air duct in an adjacent building could be a total life saver.
Based on the results of your personal analysis you should build several caches that correspond to different locations and different needs that address the most likely threats you will possibly encounter. Your home is a special case scenario so leave that of the list. Start with any place you visit regularly or semi-regularly where things can go wrong and you may need access to supplies. For most people these include work and the route between their office and home.
The following are some of the locations you’re most likely to think of when starting out and trying to find places to stash your cache.
- risk: homeless, garbage men
- plus: away from foot traffic, gutters, vents and misc hidey holes
- risk: generally under mild surveillance
- plus: not generally scrutinized by foot traffic and maintenance personnel
- risk: line of sight from taller buildings can arouse nosy neighbors, exposed to the elements
- plus: zero foot traffic
When it comes to camouflaging your cache size seriously matters. Items like cash, documents and even knives are flat and small and options for caching them securely are very abundant. The larger your cache the harder it’s going to be for you to find a secure place to keep it long-term without discovery by either people or animals. Small items can be wrapped in a few layers of saran wrap and good quality freezer bags to protect it and stashed just about anywhere but the larger caches require some creativity. The infrastructure of a city goes largely unnoticed by the public so using that to your advantage is key. You can buy empty electrical junction boxes for a few bucks that can readily be painted and scuffed up to look like they’re years old. Then just find an out-of-the-way spot and attach it to the wall with some Mighty Putty. Check on it periodically but this method is one of the best for a medium-sized cache just about anywhere.
When you’re hiding your cache fit into the baseline of the city as best you can. Dressing and acting like someone who should be there is your best defense against arousing suspicion by possible onlookers. The use of disguises when placing caches can be key. $15 at your local hardware store can get you a hard-hat and safety vest. With the addition of a clipboard you can be taken for any number of inspectors that roam the city daily. Being invisible when you place your cache is just as important as making your cache invisible.
When planning a cache location accessibility should be a key concern. Think about the hours you’re most likely to need access to it and make sure that there are no outside influences that could keep you from your goods. For instance, a cache by your workplace would be very handy if you had to evacuate the building during normal business hours in case of a fire so storing some goods locally in say a parking garage would make sense. Since most garages close at night it’s not a prime location for all hours access in a GTFOOD (Get the fuck out of Dodge) type of situation but storing some extra cash and a few essentials in case you have to hump it home on foot makes perfect sense. Each cache should be used for distinct situations according to your threat matrix so make sure you factor accessibility into your choice of location.
Most caches will be anonymous goods like food, weapons, or cash but sometimes you need to cache credit cards, credentials or other personally identifiable information.Caches that can be directly traced back to you should ideally be for a limited time and only in the most secure locations you can find. This is common sense but don’t store anything illegal in the same place you store your passport. Take extra care when placing these caches and don’t forget to retrieve them before you leave town if you’re in a travel situation.
Since the purpose of these caches is to have materials where and when you need them it’s a good idea when starting out to test your skills. Place several caches around the areas you want to cover with a single dollar bill in them. If they’re found someone will most definitely abscond with your hard-earned scratch. Then you know that location isn’t secure and you can focus on the areas that worked. Lather rinse repeat and build up a network of caches so you’re protected for all occasions. Urban caching is going to be different for everyone but careful analysis and action could mean the difference between getting caught with your pants down and being safe and secure.
On a final note I’d like to say you should take all preparedness seriously but not TOO seriously. There is a very real side effect that can come with too much focus on thinking all the bad things in the world are going to happen at any given moment and that’s a very real case of depression. Preparedness can be fun if you keep a positive mental attitude and don’t focus so much on the negatives like too many of the hardcore survivalists do. Instead of worrying about an impending zombie apocalypse pretend you’re playing James Bond and it’s a whole different ball of wax.
Simple Urban Cache in minutes for under $20
I spent 10 minutes at Home Depot and picked up everything I needed to do a full cache from scratch. It will be even cheaper if you have the tools like a saw which I didn’t have handy.
- Small 3/4″ junction box – $2.97
- 2 3/4″ 90 degree elbow pipes – .73¢ each
- Small pipe saw – $3.97
- Epoxy Putty – $3.67
- Industrial Velcro – $3.59
- Total: $15.66 + tax
Fit the pipes and trim the longer one to match the bend. I left it a little longer to provide a little more stability when put in place.
Plug the ends of the pipes with the Epoxy Putty to keep out the elements and let dry.
While the epoxy putty is drying gather your stash items. For this particular cache I’ve got money, small lock pick kit, car keys and an LED flashlight.
Wrapping everything in a Ziploc bag cram and stuff it all so it fits in evenly and so there are no gaps when you screw the plate back on.
Cut a piece of the industrial velcro to fit and attach it to the back of the junction box. I got the kind that’s meant to attach to porous surfaces which helps stick it to the building.
Place the cache in an out-of-the-way area by other similar items. In this case an air conditioner helps cover the cache. Normally I would also take time to match the surrounding by aging or painting the cache.
Use your imagination and good luck!
All photos by Jason DeFillippo
Also published on Medium.