We have had an underground survival shelter for more than 7 years. It has been a challenging and rewarding experience. We hope that some of the lessons we have learned will be helpful to readers and preppers.
Our survival shelter was built as part of new-home construction, the best way to do it of course. We work on it in fits and starts—upgrading, we call it—and after all this time, it is quite well prepared for, well, whatever.
Though not earth covered—the survival shelter roof forms the garage floor—the 10-inch-thick concrete-and-sled top provides considerable protection from radiation and blast. It should be completely adequate for any reasonably expected natural disaster.
We live in northern New England, well away from the guaranteed ground-zero desires of any known enemy. Our chances are perhaps better than most that we could survive even full-scale nuclear war.
Note the word chances—it is a big word in the field of preparedness. If you analyze the possibilities and probabilities of the whole survival situation seriously, the chance may well prove to be the most important factor of all.
There is a chance, even if you live in a high-risk target area that the missile intended for you will malfunction, and you will be spared. Conversely, if you live in a completely improbable target area, you might be hit squarely by an off-course missile intended for Orlando, Florida.
Essentials for your survival shelter
If you have been thinking about building a survival shelter, but are hesitant to do so because you can’t protect against the ultimate disaster—ground zero of a multi-megaton weapon—don’t let that be an excuse to do nothing.
When the time comes—maybe it will work—and maybe it won’t. This little truism applies to almost any piece of safety equipment. Whether it is a parachute, seatbelt, motorcycle helmet, life raft, or your home survival shelter, there is a set of circumstances lurking out there that can surely kill you no matter what precautions you have taken, and how thoroughly you have prepared.
Few can afford even to attempt to protect themselves against the ultimate, but given the range of possible emergencies short of that, there is a lot that can be done.
Remember the little survival shelter advocated by Civil Defense in the 1950s, the one comprised of a sheet of plywood covered with sandbags in the corner of a cellar?
Incredible as it seems, in an all-out nuclear war, with every family in one of those things, millions would live that would otherwise die. Still, everyone should try to do a little more than that.
First, let’s examine some of the possible threats that we can reasonably expect and for which we can prepare.
An all-out nuclear war with you at ground-zero presents a grim picture: you’re probably dead. On the other hand, a limited nuclear exchange—accidental or otherwise—in which all the weapons fall well away from your area should be quite survivable with a good survival shelter.
A government and/or economic collapse with attendant large-scale social disruption is even more likely to be survivable. Severe weather or other natural disasters with widespread and lengthy power outages and disruption of the logistics systems would be a piece of cake.
Note that the severity of the possible disaster is roughly inversely proportional to the probability of occurrence.
In addition to a survival shelter, you must stock and equip it, and you need a plan. You must have food, water, weapons, and medical supplies. Moreover, that stock must be tailored to your individual family needs.
For us, canned food is the basis of our stored food supply. Stock rotation is the key to success. There is a great deal of controversy as to the shelf-life of canned food. The canners, fearful of lawsuits, say that 5 years is about the maximum. Some food processors put expiration dates on cans. (Campbell’s Soup is one.) Canners think 2-3 years is about right.
We have safely eaten canned soups, potatoes, meats, vegetables, fruit that is over 5 years old. Surely the nutritional value was diminished, but it tasted good, and we weren’t hungry after we ate it. Of course, careful attention should be directed to the condition of the container. and to the odor and appearance of its contents.
Foods packaged in cardboard boxes present another problem. They absorb moisture quickly, and the stuff inside swells. It is still edible, but less than perfectly preserved. Cake mixes, roll, and muffin mixes. dry macaroni and cheese as well as potatoes, pizza mix and dry milk, should be assigned a rather short shelf-life, say two years, and then be discarded if not used. Store all paper packaged stock in scaled plastic bags of course.
Water from a deep capped well has no substitute. If you don’t have an absolutely inviolable water supply, you must store at least a few week’s supply. A large, glass-lined electric hot water heater is one of the most economical ways to do it. It can be hooked in series with your present hot water system, assuring that stored water is always fresh.
Such a tank should last for more than a decade before springing the inevitable leak. You can also use it as a backup hot water supply for your home.
Recommended article: Emergency Water Storage Solutions
So much has been written about toilet facilities that nothing else needs be said except. “Don’t forget the toilet paper!” There are substitutes for it, but none is known that is satisfactory for modern Americans. Store all you can make room for, then store some more. It’s super trading material, too.
You must assume that medical services will be virtually nonexistent for a time, even in the lowest grade emergency, and that someone in your care will become sick or injured.
The obvious first concern is to stock extra prescription drugs for anyone who is using continuing medication. At least 2 month’s supply should be stored, more is better, but check the drugs and be wary of shelf-life—some preparations do not store well.
We have developed a medical plan based on a marvelous little book, Survival MD. It is a guide for preppers who venture beyond the range of immediate medical assistance. It contains comprehensive supply lists, plus detailed instructions for treating many illnesses, as well as complex surgical procedures. It does not include brain surgery or entry into the thorax and peritoneum, but most everything short of that, including amputations, is addressed.
After your survival shelter is complete and your medical supply is as well rounded as possible without prescription drugs, go to your family physician, explain what you have done, and he or she will, in all probability, prescribe a goodly lot of medicines.
Don’t be surprised if you don’t get certain classes of drugs. If the first doctor refuses—some of them are dead set against any form of self-medication—try another. When you get the drugs from your pharmacist, ask that the expiration dates be included on the labels. Seal them in plastic bags and replace them when they expire.
You might wish to take them back to the doctor who prescribed them just to show him you are not abusing his trust. Surgical instruments can be purchased through retail channels, but keep in mind that many electronic tools are based on surgical designs and will do the same job at half the price.
Weapons are important, though not as important as many gun lovers’ magazines would have you believe. There is no need to get emotionally involved with the hardware: guns are simply tools for a specialized job.
A shotgun, a .30 caliber or larger rifle and a few smallbore pieces should be sufficient to defend your redoubt against anything short of a panzer division. Ammunition is another matter. It stores exceptionally well. Keep plenty on hand.
If at all possible, make your survival shelter your tool storage area. Tools, hand tools, in particular, would be invaluable during and after any emergency. Sure, you will have to spend a few hours a couple of times a year rounding them up and returning them to their proper place, but at any given moment, most of them will be where they belong in case you have little or no warning of impending disaster.
If a kingdom can be lost for lack of a horseshoe nail, think of how rough life could be without a Phillips-head screwdriver. The survival shelter is also a good place for all your miscellaneous hardware, nails, nuts and bolts, wire, tape, etc.
There are only a few situations requiring radiation detection equipment, nuclear war, or accidents involving nuclear materials to name the most likely. This subject is well covered in other writings, enough to say that, as a minimum, you should have a few dosimeters. It is amazing to find how much radiac equipment turns up at garage and yard sales and swap meets. Keep your eyes open and you might acquire a Geiger counter and dosimeters with charger for less than $25. We did.
A source of filtered air must be provided for your survival shelter. All sorts of contraptions can be bought or fabricated for this purpose, using automotive or furnace filters and blowers from clothes driers or heating plants. They can be hand-cranked, bicycle-powered or electrically operated.
The choice is yours, but if your survival shelter is under or very near your house, don’t forget to include a source of air far from flammable structures. We have a remote air Intake (disguised as a lawn ornament) that is well isolated from the house. Make sure it is screen covered, or you will find soma creature living in it.
Emergency power is a must. It doesn’t, however, have to come from a 55,000 diesel-electric set. In fact, if you don’t need 115/230-VAC power for your water pump, you would do very well with a 12-VDC current unit. It will charge batteries, power all sorts of communications equipment and lights. The really nice thing about a 12-VDC unit is that it is cheap.
Easily made, using an automobile alternator and just about any 3 to 5-horsepower engine. These units are frugal with fuel and easily maintained. If you build it, you surely can fix it. If it is belt driven, keep a spare belt or two. Spark plugs, ignition points and oil for the engine should be part of your supplies.
Gasoline storage is a problem. It is dangerous, doesn’t keep well under some circumstances, and is ever so necessary. Our solution was to bury, vertically, two 100-pound liquid propane storage tanks outside the survival shelter. These tanks are so thick that they won’t rust through in the immediate future, they are capable of withstanding more than 400 pounds pressure, and they are relatively easy to obtain.
The two tanks hold about 50 gallons of gasoline in complete safety. We use the fuel throughout the year in the lawn tractor and snow blower, replenishing it often. In the course of two years, the entire supply is rotated.
Needless to say, you won’t run a generator all the time. An hour or so a day for battery charging and ventilation is likely, depending on the nature of the emergency. Forget refrigeration— it’s just too expensive.
Recommended reading: How To Make A Gas Cache
Emergency lighting should be provided by 12-volt, battery-operated lights and kerosene lamps—the lamps for long term use, the electric lights for occasional needs for brighter illumination. Yes, the lamps will use some oxygen, and in hot weather will impose some extra heat load, but it will be better than sitting in the dark for intended periods.
Kerosene can be stored indefinitely with relative safety. We use plastic, 2-liter soft drink bottles for storage. They are safe from breakage and easy to pour from. Don’t forget extra wicks for the lamps. And marches!
Paper matches store very well in sealed plastic bags. Those little disposable butane lighters seem to have a good shelf-life too.
In cold climates, you must have fuel for heat, though most underground shelters are not subject to sharp drops in temperature. We have two cords of wood in ours and the fuel lines for the home heating plant pass through it so fuel oil could be burned in the Franklin stove in an extended emergency.
Remember to provide some alternate form of fuel for cooking: there are some situations that dictate closure of the woodstove chimney for days or weeks. A two-burner propane camp stove is our solution to that problem.
No matter what the nature of the emergency that put you there, you must be able to find out what is happening outside the survival shelter. A broadcast band and shortwave radio receiver for general coverage is a must. In an international crisis, the foreign broadcast stations are likely to be more candid than domestic news sources.
Ham radio requires special licensing that precludes its use by most, so the great majority must consider CB as the only possible form of two-way communications. A simple CB is almost as good as one costing ten times as much. Your survival shelter will be isolated without one.
An antenna that is not subject to being destroyed by the blast, along with your above-ground structures, is important too. It doesn’t have to be elaborate but radio reception in an underground shelter won’t be very good without one. If your antenna disappears with your house, you’re out of luck.
A simple vertical pole antenna about 23 feet long, located at some distance from flammable structures and having a buried, shielded feed line will work for both your shortwave radio and the CB. Don’t forget spare batteries, if possible, obtain radios that will operate from your 12-volt power supply.
Those who are old enough to remember World War II recall that there were shortages of a number of items: razor blades, coffee, sugar, meat, gasoline, and tires, to name just a few. Any future emergency will probably make those shortages pale by comparison. In addition to storing things for your own use, you must store for barter.
Imagine the strategic advantage when you have coffee, bicycle tires, over-the-counter medicines, or any of the myriad other likely to be impossible-to-get items to trade. Select things that have a long storage life as well as eventual future useful-ness should there never be a disaster.
Instant coffee, aspirin, toilet paper, and stovepipe are trading items to be stocked.
Can you imagine the value of a 6-inch galvanized stovepipe elbow a year or two after a major catastrophe?
This brings us to the moral aspects of personal survival shelters. It is a deeply personal problem that you must wrestle with alone. The biblical account of Noah and his ark project is often seen in survivalist writings. “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark,” is often quoted in relation to shelter ethics. It should also be noted that Noah took only members of his immediate family as passengers.
If you live in the country, far from the nearest store, you will probably find that you steal from yourself. There are a number of items in your survival shelter stock that are not essential to survival, but surely would be nice to have. A bottle of Jack Daniels, your favorite hand lotion, and cosmetics are in that category. These hems are subject to a kind of robbery by the survival shelter owner. You need one of them, and it’s a rainy, cold night, so you borrow it, fully intending to replace it the very next day.
You don’t replace it, though, and your shelter is left without the item that would make life a little less unpleasant in an emergency.
One good method of protecting against such thefts is to place these items in a wooden box and secure the cover with wood screws, not just a few wood screws, but lots of them. This will discourage opening the container for frivolous reasons, yet in an emergency, the supplies will be available after a period of tedious unscrewing.
The wide range of possible events demands a set of procedures to guide you and those under your care during the minutes or hours or days preceding your entrance into the survival shelter in an emergency.
Comprehensive checklists should be developed to direct your actions during these trying times. For example, with 5 minutes warning time, the checklist would be short. “Go to Shelter-Close All Doors-Seal Ventilation System.” would be all there would be time for.
With a week or more of mounting international tension, with war an obvious possibility, your checklist might outline several hundred actions that would lead to complete preparation, including the removal of most of the loose food, clothing and personal items from your house to the survival shelter.
You can’t wait until the action is needed to decide what that action should be. You can stage emergency drills to simulate what might happen, but the one thing that can’t be simulated is the cold, stark terror that will accompany the threat of imminent destruction of your way of life. A carefully prepared plan, in checklist form, could mean the difference between life and death.
The list could go on and on. Save old eyeglasses, never throw away serviceable clothing, make sure you have soap, tooth-paste, and deodorant, keep at least a year’s supply of garden seeds, keep all reference books in your survival shelter as well as entertainment reading material, toys for the kids, playing cards, the family photo albums and even save your old dentures or better still-have spare ones made. The point is —PLAN.
And remember—when you are even marginally prepared for nuclear war—you’re well prepared for anything else.