The dictionary definitions of bugging out include ‘fleeing’ in face of military operations or ‘departing in a hurry’ if there is some kind of emergency.
Some people plan their bug out shelters years ahead by buying land in what they consider a safe yet remote area, but not so remote that it cannot be reached fairly easily in time of emergency.
Here they will construct hidden shelters that are more permanent in nature, and they will have secret caches with items they will need to survive.
This article is however concerned with temporary shelters for people who do not have the luxury of affording a second home as a bug-out location, who have been forced to flee before their plans of buying land and building a cabin could be completed, or who have been forced to flee in a direction different from their main bug-out route.
This article is all about temporary shelters that can be used for a week or more while on the move to safety, where people can wait out the time until it is safe to return home.
Why Learn to Make Shelter?
A bug-out shelter should keep you warm, dry and relatively safe. This is a shelter you can find or construct fairly easily when things go wrong– like a hurricane, riots, flooding or fire.
If you leave home for safety reasons you need to be able to choose a bug out location wisely and be able to construct a shelter without too much trouble.
Shelter is among the most critical of survival priorities because exposure is statistically what is most likely to kill you while trying to live outdoors. Lots of preppers worry about water and even more about physical security, but it is simply getting too hot or more commonly too cold that will see your mortal thread broken.
In ideally terrible conditions, your body temperature can fall too low, and send you spiraling into hypothermia and as little as a few hours, with death soon to follow.
Even if you live in a temperate or seasonally temperate zone, being exposed to cooler night time temperatures with damp skin or wet clothes can be more than enough to make you hypothermic. Add in a stiff breeze or a driving wind and contact with the cold ground and you’ll have chattering teeth in no time.
Accordingly, much of the time when you are forced to survive outdoors, be it in a rural zone or urban area, you must prioritize the location or acquisition and improvement of suitable shelter.
Waiting too long to do this could see your condition degraded to the point where meaningfully improving your position is gruelingly difficult or even impossible.
Other Shelter Considerations
You will need to keep your bugout shelter hidden, because people who want your stuff or to do you harm may come calling. You also need to keep your shelter safe from predators and lesser creatures that can make bugging out very uncomfortable.
When you are on the run there is little time to erect a shelter, which is why it is suggested a person choose a bug out location that can be reached within a day’s journey on foot and a max of 2-3 hours in a vehicle.
If traveling on foot you need to know how many miles you can comfortably cover in a day, and plan to have a tarp or bevy in case you can’t reach your location within a day.
If the plan is to escape by car, whether a SUV, the family sedan, an RV or a motorbike, it’s important to know the range of the gas tank and make sure you can reach your location on less than one tank.
In most cases, you only have the few minutes of daylight right before dark to get it set up, so there will be no cabin building lessons in this article. There are, however, a number of ways to quickly erect a shelter.
Traits of a Good Bug Out Shelter
Different environments require different types of shelters, but there are some basics that always apply.
- ✅ It is important that you are able to sleep off the ground. Sleeping on the ground draws warmth out of your body, and should be avoided. In addition, you are more likely to have issues with insects, spiders, scorpions, and snakes if you are on the ground. The next essential item to remember is that you need some sort of overhead cover.
- ✅ Most people don’t realize that the night sky also draws warmth out of your body if you do not have a barrier overhead.
- ✅ A third priority is to provide cover from the sun. Direct sun exposure can cause heat stroke, dehydration, and severe sun burns.
- ✅ Ideally, the roof should be at least somewhat waterproof. The rest of the design can be decided on a case-by-case basis, but you also need to pick a design that you can construct in a reasonable amount of time.
If it gets dark and you are only half way done, there is really no point in wasting the calories.
Since the majority of the population lives in an urban environment we will look at urban bug out shelters first, then move on to rural shelters.
Urban Bug Out Shelters
In the city your building materials and threats would be completely different from surviving outside of a major city.
Your main objective is to stay hidden and provide yourself with a protective barrier from other people.
It is preferable that you are not seen constructing this shelter, so if you can find a safe area without obvious building activity then that is the best route.
Here are a few temporary options that are ready to use…
Dumpsters actually make ok shelters if you can get past the smell. You also have to be prepared for visitors, human and four-footed ones, looking for food.
If needed, you can run cordage around the lid and tie it around your waist so people cannot get inside. It protects from rain, wind, animals, other people and requires no construction.
The area underneath a small staircase can be a good option as it is structured similar to a lean to and one can tuck in behind and be fairly invisible.
Shipping containers are another excellent option for ready-made, temporary shelter. Sturdy, ubiquitous and totally weatherproof (so long as they are in good repair) you can duck into a shipping container to completely block out wind and water.
They do have some disadvantages, namely the notion that other people will be eventually going through them one by one looking for supplies, and also the fact it is not impossible for you to be locked in against your will if you aren’t careful.
Despite this, a shipping container in an out of the way place and preferably one that looks roughed up and in an unappealing industrial area will most often go beneath notice when times are tough.
It is also worth mentioning that shipping containers make an excellent basis for a prefabricated shelter of your own, as they are available freely and cheaply on the open market much of the time. Easy to transport and easy to replace these containers have much to commend them.
Nooks and Crannies
Urban areas provide all sorts of unconventional but highly serviceable shelters, ones that can be safe from weather, human observation or both. Locating these usually takes some unconventional, out of the box thinking and even some risk-taking.
For instance, I once knew a guy participating in an urban escape and evasion course who had to locate and set up his site for betting down before dusk. He located a tallish, brick emergency generator shed near a large Park, but one that was too tall to scale.
His solution was to use a nearby tree branch to shimmy out close enough to grab the edge of the roof, and then haul himself up.
The surrounding brick parapet gave him significant protection from wind and Total protection from observation so long as he was lying down. Nobody even knew he was up there, and he was able to get some quality rest for the following day.
Other good options might be subterranean access ways, disused or rarely used inspection or maintenance tunnels and similar installations.
Above or below ground crawl spaces could also be worthwhile, or you might use a little bit of classic misdirection and simply hang up an official looking out of order or closed for maintenance sign on a public facility before locking the door behind you from the inside and turning out the lights.
Any vacant property or parks that have thick vegetation can be a good option. Many times, overgrown bushes will have a good space underneath, and the plants can keep you hidden, fairly dry, and out of the wind.
If you have a light bivy in a green or earth color that blends in, you’ll be fairly well set.
I recall a time when my vehicle broke down in another city, and I was stranded until it was repaired. I didn’t have the money for a hotel, but I found what looked like a row of trees.
It was actually a hidden creek bed that was lined on both sides with vegetation. I was able to spend two days in that area without seeing a single other person, and it was in the middle of the busiest part of the city.
Against a Wall
Many vacant lots have a solid wall on at least one side. If your shelter is placed so that you are protected from prevailing winds and rain, and can find a spot with a bit of bush or a few trees for screening you can set up there for a night.
Mattresses or Cardboard
If you need to construct a shelter, building a modified lean-to is the easiest solution. With one or two large pieces of cardboard or some building scrap, you can make a comfortable and somewhat insulated shelter.
Be aware though that if there are people scouring the area for supplies, they will likely check cardboard shelters. It is a good idea to hide your shelter behind some other debris.
When constructing a cardboard shelter, try to find some insulating materials like Styrofoam to keep you off the ground. If you can find wooden pallets they will also keep you dry and off the ground.
Pallets can also be used for building a shelter, but it is important not to make your construction too obvious.
If there is scrap building material lying around then construct your shelter in the middle, leaving the rest of the scrap on the perimeters so you are hidden, rather than cleaning up and constructing a neat little temporary home.
The biggest concern with constructing anything in an urban setting is finding a way to stay hidden.
Other Urban Shelters
There are some found shelter options that should be a last resort. These would be abandoned homes, abandoned cars, and entryways for businesses and apartment buildings.
If you choose to use one of these as a shelter, then prepare to defend yourself, as you will likely have competition from others seeking that space.
In most cases, these shelters were abandoned because they were difficult to defend and naturally drew other people to them.
People will be looking for resources like food and water in abandoned buildings, and will be digging through cars for supplies as well. I would likely never use one of these shelter options unless I had no other choice.
Rural Bug-Out Shelters
For rural and wilderness settings, there are a few shelter options that you can find along the way.
Caves / Rock Overhangs
The most obvious are caves or rock overhangs. While these are appealing to keep wind and rain at bay, they may already have animals or even other people inside them. Thoroughly check for any fur, prints, or scat, and move on if you think animals have been there.
Also, be very careful using fire in these shelters. When the heat from a fire warms up overhead rocks, they can break loose and crush somebody sleeping underneath. Despite all the negatives, it will work in a pinch.
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Rock is pretty hard on the bones so your bug out bag should have a foam pad.
Your choice of sleeping bag will depend on the time of year and type of climate in your area, but if it’s really cold this mummy sleeping bag will keep you from getting hypothermia.
If you do not have space for a foam pad you can collect some dry grass, leaves or pine needles to create a softer spot.
A tree shelter is a natural shelter that you would use in deep snow.
Many times, you will notice that the ground immediately around an evergreen tree will be snow-free and dry. In many cases, this area is already insulated with pine or spruce needles.
If you tuck in underneath the overhanging branches, you get some protection above you and have a dry area to sleep. However, the wind will still whip through those branches, and rain would be a problem if the temperatures rise.
If using this you need a well-insulated sleeping bag that can keep you warm in temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
The lean-to is still the easiest option to construct. To build one you simply lash a ridge pole to two trees and then lean branches against it at a 45 degree angle.
To further insulate you can pile leaves or spruce boughs on top, and you do the same underneath to create a bed. These take minimal time to set up and are fine to protect you from the wind and rain for a few days.
In your bug out bag you should have a tool like such as an axe with forged steel construction, in case there isn’t a suitable ridge pole lying around and you have to cut down a sapling to provide that ridge pole.
This type of shelter will work fine for most cold weather places as well. From a distance they blend into the bush, or will be covered with a sprinkling of snow, so most people wouldn’t recognize it as a shelter until they are within about 50 yards.
If you need additional protection from the cold and don’t have a fire, then a debris hut is the way to go.
With this design you make a bipod with two poles about four feet in length and then lay an eight-foot ridge pole against it. You then lean branches on either side at a 45-degree angle.
To finish it off, pile several feet of debris on top for a thick layer of insulation.
You are basically creating a natural sleeping bag that will keep you warm using your own body heat.
If you build it right, you will have just enough room to crawl in and shift around a bit. This shelter is even more hidden than a lean to, and many people would walk right by and never even notice it.
If you are in deep snow and have limited building materials, a snow cave may work best. This design is created by digging out an area to sleep inside a snow drift.
You need a drift at least four feet deep. If you don’t have one you can pile additional snow on top to get your depth. Next, you need to find some six-inch-long sticks, and insert them all over the drift.
As you dig out your cave, you know to stop digging when you see the end of one of those sticks from underneath.
The entrance needs to be just wide enough for you to crawl through, and should be at least two levels inside.
The bottom level is where the cold air will collect, and the top level is where you will sleep. Use your pack to block the entrance, and you will be completely out of the wind.
Emergency Blanket Shelters
Instead of a tarp, you may opt to bring an emergency blanket. This one, despite being ‘heavy duty’, weighs less than a pound.
These are basically smaller tarps but have a reflective surface on one side to reflect body heat back to you. I have one and use it constantly. It is large enough to build a suitable shelter in most situations.
Be aware that tarps and emergency blankets stand out in any setting, so do not be surprised if curious animals or people start poking around.
If you want the most complete and easy options possible, a bivvy tent or hammock tent may be the best way to go. A bivy tent is a small, one-person tent that is designed for a pack. It does take up some space, so I would normally strap it on the outside of my pack.
Although a bivvy tent adds a couple of pounds to your pack weight, it gives you a completely windproof and waterproof option.
It also gives you a decent barrier from animals and people, but like a tent it will stand out in your environment unless well concealed. You also need to choose a color that will blend in with your environment. Normally bivvy tents are quick to set up and break down.
A hammock tent consists of a hammock with a small cover or bug-net over the top. Slung up under the protection of a tarp they will keep you dry.
These take up some space and add a couple of pounds to your pack weight but they keep you off the ground and comfortable, while still giving you protection from the elements. Both options do require you to spend a little money, but for some people they are worth every penny.
Bug-out-bag Building Materials
The most helpful shelter building materials you can put in your bag are a lightweight tarp, and some 550 Paracord. Green or grey are your best color choices to blend in. Avoid any of the high viz colors.
Is also worth keeping four to six extra large, heavy duty contractor can Liners in your backpack. You can cut the bottom out of one and then tape it inside the opening of another to create what is essentially a sleeping bag.
Repeat the process with the other two, place one inside the other, and then fill up the space between them with crumpled newspaper, leaves, pine needles and any other insulating material. This way you can create a surprisingly effective sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner.
There are dozens of ways to make a shelter out of a tarp, but the A-frame and the hammock are probably the fastest to construct and most popular.
For an A-frame, you can run your cordage between two trees, drape the tarp over the cordage, and then tie the corners to rocks or stakes.
If you want a waterproof barrier underneath you, then make a smaller, lower A-frame, and fold a section of the tarp underneath you.
These type of hammocks are used in Asia a lot and are super lightweight if you are bugging out in warm climates. The advantage is that they are permeable rather than using a tarp as a hammock.
How to Turn Your Bugout Vehicle into a Shelter
Your bugout vehicle can also double as a shelter…if you plan wisely. You do not need a super expensive military grade bugout vehicle (although, that would be awesome!) to garner enough space for storing preps and sleeping.
A typical pickup truck, SUV, or van can easily be adapted for both getting the heck out of town with your preps and provide sheltered sleeping quarters. Check out these vehicles adapted to the camping lifestyle:
A motorhome could be a better choice for a dual-purpose bugout vehicle, but only if you can drive it to work and your child’s ball practice with you on a daily basis – but that could be a bit awkward.
Although the convenience and all in one nature of a motorhome as a solution to both shelter and transport concerns for prepping makes them highly appealing, they do come with some significant drawbacks, namely the fact that they require a lot of room both on and off paved roads and their off-road performance is extremely limited.
Attention-getting, gas guzzling and vulnerable to becoming bogged down or gridlocked you want to think long and hard before putting all of your survival eggs in the motorhome basket, if you catch my drift.
Now, I am not disrespecting the worthiness of having a motorhome or a camper as a bugout vehicle, both can have significant value during a doomsday disaster.
But, if you have to work away from home like I used to, and are on the road for children’s’ activities and community events, driving that bargain camper you turned into a SHTF home on wheels is not exactly going to be convenient.
There goes any hope you had of maintaining any level of OPSEC. Nothing screams “Prepper!” like a 1980s era (or older) motorhome decked out in camo colors.
The best option to ALWAYS be at the ready to bug out no matter where you and your family happen to be, is to turn your daily driver into a dual-purpose bugout vehicle… even if you are praying you never have to use it.
An extended cab truck will give you even more space for sheltering and storing vital preps. See how this man did it:
It is possible for one or two people, or a couple with younger children, to use a pickup truck as a shelter. I have primitive-camped at a state horse park with a cousin many times with nothing more than a Dodge dual cab truck for a “tent.”
As long as you are not especially tall, sleeping one person in the back seat and one person in the front seat with the console flipped back, it not only entirely feasible, it is fairly comfortable, as well.
The new Toyota Corolla sedan recently provided very comfortable sleeping for two people in the front seats – with the seats laid back and a cushion on the rolled down windows one could sleep with legs extended, toes peeking out the window.
It was parked in a safe space in a rural area, where unfriendly people or animals were unlikely to be around. When bugging out in a vehicle there is nothing worse than having to sit-sleep like on an aircraft.
The bed of a pickup truck could be used to sleep a couple and two children – although it is highly unlikely that both adults would sleep at the same time and leave the bugging out family unguarded.
Keeping four poles or wood boards that can slide down into the openings in the side of the truck designed as a spot for tow straps to be affixed, will allow you to use either a tarp or a sheet as a protective cover from the elements, depending upon the season.
Rooftop tents provide above ground protection from the elements. You can drive around town with the rooftop tent on the vehicle so you are always ready to make a break.
Truck tents range in both price and dimension. Larger tents, which come with what is commonly referred to as an “attachment sleeve” offer additional room for sleeping quarters when bugging out with the family.
Putting a canopy on your pickup truck will keep you preps safe from the environment, make them at least a little bit more difficult to steal, and give the family enhanced security when sleeping in the truck bed at night.
Installing an across-the-bed toolbox that locks onto the pickup truck bed will provide you with more space to store your bugout and shelter gear.
A rooftop cargo case could be attached to an SUV or a van to store the tent and additional gear at all times without attracting an enormous amount of attention.
Leaving space for sleeping or storing a tent and other camping gear will reduce space for storing preps, there is just no way around that. But, if you get creative and use every inch of space available, like folks who live in tiny houses do, there should be ample space to store the bugging out essentials.
Using a Livestock Trailer or Toy Hauler as a Shelter
Toy hauler trailers can also give you another option for shelter and the storage of vital survival gear. Using a weatherproof cover on a toy hauler will help protect both the family sleeping inside and the preps from the elements.
Watch this video to see what one couple did with their trailer:
If using a toy hauler as a SHTF shelter, consider the purchase of a screen attachment into your survival budget as well. Living inside of the metal container will get extremely hot during the summer months. The screen will keep bugs out while allowing you to keep a quality sightline at the same time.
By making just a few minor adjustments to a toy hauler screen, the accessories should be able to be mounted to the opening on a livestock trailer, as well.
Tents designed to be set up from the rear door opening of an SUV have also hit the market in the past several years.
Try to avoid tents that have neon orange or other bright trims. The more natural the colors the better.
Both trucks and SUVs are large enough and durable enough, and more often than not, 4-wheeler drive vehicles. All of these attributes are what help make them an affordable and durable prime mobile bugout shelter option.
You can always go the most economical route and simply pack a tent with you. Most tents, even large ones that encompass two “rooms” and/or a porch, fold up into a provided durable bag for easy toting and fairly compact storage.
Again, they need to blend into the expected area and be suited to the climate – a light color tent for snow, green for mountains and grassland. Never ever choose orange or red!
Truck and SUV Bugout Storage Tips
1. Store small items like flashlights, firestarters, knives, matches, immediate first aid items, a change of socks, gloves, and hats, under the front seats of the truck in Ziploc bags..
2. Use the door compartments to store batteries, compass, cooking utensils, and other small items.
3. Affix nylon cargo nets onto the interior hood of the vehicle to store lightweight items like travel pillows, sheets, and other sheltering or survival gear.
4. Purchase a hitch and ball for your truck, van, or SUV so that you can attach a livestock trailer, toy hauler trailer, or open trailer – like the type used to haul ATVs or boats, to increase your storage space.
5. Use a cargo storage attachment for the top of vans and SUVs to compactly pack as much gear as possible, including heavier items like a tent or camp stove.
6. Do not forget to make room for fuel cans, an extra battery, a spare starter, brake fluid, oil, and other common tools and parts that would allow you to keep your bugout vehicle on the road as long as possible during a SHTF event.
A truck, van, or an SUV are highly practical choices for dual-purpose vehicles – unless you live in an urban area where parking costs will be prohibitive and such vehicles would stick out like a sore thumb.
Here are a few reminders applicable to any shelter. To get your body at least a few inches off the ground you can build a bed, pile up debris, or use a hammock.
In many cases you would want to forgo fire entirely to avoid drawing attention to yourself, but sometimes it is needed. It is best to position your fire just outside of your shelter.
If you feel you need to build a fire inside your shelter, make sure there is decent ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. You can also dig a Dakota fire pit to hide the flames from other people.
Remember, stealth is the key, so you won’t want to be frying bacon, hammering a shelter together, or using bright colors.
If you have a bugout location in mind where you would like to set up your shelter make sure you have at least 3 routes to reach that location.
In the general exodus ahead of a hurricane warning, or other dire emergency the roads become clogged – you need to know back roads and safe off-road routes to get you to your location where you can set up your shelter
If you decide that you will be remaining in an area for more than a few days, then you may want to either improve your shelter or build a new one.
Most of the designs I have mentioned are only good for a few days at a time and are ideal for somebody on the move.
Every bug out situation is a little different, and your shelter needs must be assessed. Be realistic about what you can accomplish when building and leave yourself time to do so.
The Yurt is a heavier option to take along in a bug out vehicle. Setting one up can make for a shelter that is comfortable for a longer period of time untiI it is safe to return home. See how it is done here:
Remember, we are not building the Taj Mahal. We just need to stay warm and dry for a little while. It is important to have access to water, whether in urban or rural locations.
Look for locations near a tap in a city (providing the water doesn’t run dry) or where you can collect rainwater, or near a perennial stream in a rural area – as long as it isn’t in the floodplain.
It is a good idea to practice some of these shelter designs in advance. Even something as simple as a tarp shelter can be frustrating if you have never done it before.
The best suggestion I can give is to be as prepared as possible, to practice setting up different types of shelters – it’s quite a fun experience for kids, and will provide invaluable experience, and you will be ready to build a suitable bug out shelter for the family or just for yourself when the time comes.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.