Okay, so I know it is a bit of a survival cliché. Everybody can think of a war movie where people are riding out a nuclear war in bunkers, or one where a survivalist is heading underground.
However, do not be so quick to make assumptions. The fact of the matter is that an underground shelter is a very good idea for many reasons.
A bunker is the safest place to be during any natural disaster with high winds. When it is not in use, it can be great for storage or can even serve as a root cellar.
If ever there is a scenario where you need to separate yourself from other people, a bunker is the place to be. This could be riots, military invasion, or pandemics. If you need clean air during a chemical attack, nuclear winter, or volcanic eruption your bunker is the only option.
Studies have shown that even being a few feet underground with the proper air system could easily save people from a nuclear blast. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, it is a pretty darn good idea.
If you are willing to put in the time, expense and effort, having a bunker of your very own is a pretty darn good idea.
This article will walk you through the whole process, from siting and planning your bunker to construction and outfitting. Let’s get going, but grab your hardhat, you are going to need it!
Before You Do Anything, Check on Permits
The first potential step of building a bunker is a bit controversial… getting permission. Legally, you are required to get a permit before doing any major digging on your property.
I know many preppers are concerned that any evidence of prepping is being tracked by the government. In a way, telling anybody that you are building a bunker is putting yourself on the grid.
However, you may draw more attention if the authorities decide to give you a hard time…
They could easily fine you and force you to fill in all your work. If nothing else, you need to have your property marked by the utility companies so you are not digging up water, power, or gas lines.
I know, I know: what does it say about the state of this country that you have to get permission from multiple levels of government in order to modify or put an addition on your own property, to say nothing of simply digging a hole on it somewhere?
Further complications can arise if you are trying to get specific permitting for a bunker that cannot be passed off as an “addition” to your home or some kind of other structure.
Remember, you might have to contend with standards, building codes, sign off by inspectors and other hoop jumping at various phases of construction, and any of these factors will slow things down, increase costs and potentially snarl the project entirely.
However you feel about it, it is critical that you do your due diligence and look up all applicable steps for permitting, building codes and other related issues before you buy materials, rent equipment, hire workers and so forth. Disregard this advice at your own risk!
The next point I have to emphasize is safety. This is not a little project, and definitely not an easy one. Working underground or just below the surface of the ground is always fraught with peril.
If you have only one foot of soil on top of your shelter and it is not structurally sound, it will collapse. Dirt is heavy.
You will also likely be using some heavy equipment and power tools. Do not use equipment you are not comfortable operating.
If you do not design your ventilation system properly, you will suffocate. If you dig too close to your house, the foundation could give way.
There are a dozen ways to get hurt building your survival bunker. hese scenarios would really defeat the purpose, so be careful and take your time.
I’ll put it to you this way: this is not a project for duffers, even if you are handy or have a little bit of construction experience. Jobsite “cowboys” that work on projects like this get killed all the time.
Don’t be taken with the sometimes fantastical videos you see on YouTube and elsewhere of people excavating these marvelous underground structures using basic hand tools with absolutely no safety equipment, reinforcement or any other modern inventions.
If you decide to do that, you’ll probably wind up as an interesting item on page D of the local newspaper. Do it right, do it safely and see the task through to completion alive!
Step 1: The Plan
Now it is time to plan.
How well-equipped is your bunker going to be? What’s the layout? How much space will you devote to sleeping, living, food prep, supply and food storage, etc.?
A solid structural plan is absolutely vital for an underground bunker. One excellent idea, that precious few people actually do, is mocking up a life-size floor plan of your bunker using tape and cardboard to really get a feel for what the space affords you.
Looking at a layout that is expertly rendered on graph paper is one thing, but standing in a simulation of the room is another. Bare figures can be tricky that way.
One benefit is that you could easily move to your bunker without going outside. Another is easy access to water and electrical wiring.
Your other option would be building next to the home and having a separate entrance. This is a more simple construction, but you would either have to run utilities to the shelter or provide a separate source. You would also have to leave your home to get to your shelter.
Be prepared for whichever choice you make. To see what a bunker under your home looks like, please check out this video:
Next you need to be prepared to dig.
Planning the site is actually the hard part compared to planning the structure itself. Not only do you have to plan around the limitations of the terrain itself but also try to future proof your bunker against things like flooding, mishaps like treefall, cave in, erosion and so forth.
Test the soil in your desired area and know the challenges. Sandy soil will act differently than clay soil. You may even hit a slab of rock a few feet down.
Be sure there are no large tree roots in the area. Please know these things before you start any serious digging. You will need to plan a spot for the mound of removed dirt well away from the hole.
And, we must not forget about bunker costs. How much money do you plan to spend on your bespoke bunker? No, how much do you plan to spend really?
Uh, you’ll probably want to revise that estimate: bunkers have a way of turning into monsters that eat money and time, and unless you are dealing with a construction firm that is very experienced and the installation of bunkers you should account for cost overruns.
Depending on the size of the bunker, the square footage, the materials used and the amenities you can expect to spend anywhere from $100 to $600 a square foot on it. So called “luxury” bunkers may go for $1,000 to $6,000 a square foot depending on amenities.
Step 2: Determining the Bunker Material
As for the underground structure itself, you have a few options. Probably the WORST would be to buy a shipping crate or to have a premade steel structure . These options are pricey but the shipping container is also dangerous.
The shipping crate frame absolutely must be reinforced to hold the weight, and you’d have to live in fear that it could still collapse.
Wood is also a poor choice for an underground structure. Even when properly treated, lumber can rot over time. It’s also not structurally sound to handle the weight with which you may be dealing.
If you are having a prefab structure, insist on extra steel reinforcement. If you are reinforcing a crate, you should use steel beams.
Possibly the best option for your bunker is concrete. It’s inexpensive, simple to use, strong, permanent, and can be molded to any shape. A good concrete floor with poured concrete walls and ceiling are plenty strong as long as they are reinforced with steel rebar.
One person could pour the whole structure in a couple weeks if they do it right. Brick or cinder blocks can be used and are inexpensive, but the work is time consuming and can really only be used for the walls. If you are uncertain of your design, ask for help. Find a structural expert and get a second opinion. You only have one shot to get the plan right.
Step 3: The Dig
Now it is time for the first fun part of building a bunker. The dig! This is where you’ll officially break ground for the first time.
As I advised, if you are smart you will rent or hire an excavator or other heavy earth movers that are appropriate to the task depending on your build site. Otherwise you’re going to need a small army of men and lots and lots of sweat equity.
Remember to follow your plan, constantly check your figures and projections and leave a lot more room than you think you need for excavated soil.
Many people make the mistake of putting the pile too close. Just a little shift and it could cave in. Remember that you do not have to be buried for this to kill you.
If you’re buried above your naval, the pressure from the dirt on your torso can keep your lungs from expanding. Plan to have the proper equipment.
Sure, you can use a pick and shovel, but it will be a very long project. Normally renting or borrowing some heavy equipment is a good idea. When it encroaches upon the dig site, bad things start to happen.
If you are building a fully subterranean bunker near your home, think again: This is time consuming, frustrating, and very dangerous. I realize it may be cheaper that getting out the heavy equipment. However, you have to think of your time as money…
All building materials will have to be dragged into a tunnel to build your walls. In the meantime, you have to constantly move scaffolding around to support the ceiling. After all this work and risking your life, you will wish you had taken the time to do it the right way.
Step 4: The Build
Assuming you have planned properly for all phases of excavation and building, actually building the structure of the bunker is probably going to be pretty simple. Most of your hard work has happened prior to this point!
If you have a good working knowledge of construction techniques, and assuming the plan for the structure is sound, building is usually pretty straightforward.
Obviously the approach will vary depending on the location of the bunker, the type of structure and the construction materials you chose, but you need only to follow the plan.
Weather needs to be considered on a few different levels. While building, rain can absolutely ruin your project. Try to find a dry season to get the bulk of the work done.
Even once the shelter is built, rain can be an issue. It can cause concrete to crack and bricks to crumble. You should really put a waterproof lining all the way around your structure to protect it from moisture.
In addition, a sheet much larger than the roof of your shelter should be spread out before topping off the dirt. The less water that gets to the structure, the better.
Cold is another factor. Extreme cold conditions can make soil expand and contract. Factor this in when you choose your design.
Now is not the time to improvise! A visit from the Good Idea Fairy can lead to you making changes, tweaks or “improvements” that might cause your project to spiral out of control at best or at worst lead to total structural failure and collapse, potentially with you and your family inside.
I will assume that if you do not possess the necessary architectural skills to properly vet your build plan you had them inspected by a competent architect or engineer that did. Do not deviate from the plans!
Step 5: Outfitting
There are a few interior features that are a good idea. Sound proofing is not expensive. You can use anything from foam padding to egg cartons to save money, or you can get professional sound dampening materials.
Ventilation for fresh air is absolutely essential. You will have to do your research on which system you need, but all will need access to air, fans, and likely a filter of some kind.
A basic air filtration system will only remove basic dust, while others can even protect from radioactive fallout.
Electricity will need to be supplied, preferably from a generator or solar source. Certain items such as the ventilation and an emergency lights should be hooked to backup power as well.
If you can run water from a well to the bunker, this would be ideal. A filtration system is a good idea in case the water is contaminated.
Sewage is a separate issue. You can go for a simple bathroom with a composting toilet, or set up a septic system with a leach field.
Step 6: Concealment
Concealment should be a priority when designing your bunker. If you build it under your home, this is already accomplished.
However, bunkers away from your home can stick out like a sore thumb…
Entrances can be disguised as manholes or can be covered with a movable object like a fake planter or a kiddie pool. A shed can be built over your entrance to give you another layer of protection.
Anything that would stick out of the ground should be concealed or disguised. Ventilation tubes pipes or air vents can be surrounded by planting rocks. Radio antennas can be buried along the surface of the soil or can be run inside a flagpole.
Locks are very important as well. You may want to consider a dual door system, and each door should lock from both the inside and outside. Remember that your goal is to be 100% certain that you can separate yourself from other people.
Step 7: Supplies and Furnishings
How prepared should we be? The experts say that the average SHTF situation will last between two and three weeks. However, we can all imagine situations where this could stretch into months. Anything you can build that will give you an ongoing supply of resources is best.
Build a clean water supply, stash a hydroponic garden, grow catfish, or do anything else that can keep you going long term. As far as hoarding supplies, that depends on the amount of space you have, the money you want to spend, and how far you want to take it.
A little interior design can go a long way. You do not need to spend a great deal of money, but having nothing but a hole in the ground is not smart either. You need a comfortable place to sleep, so some cheap beds or cots are in order.
Your goal is to keep your time in your bunker as civilized as possible. Have a living area with places to sit, books, games, and maybe a TV. Have an eating area if you have the space. Make sure there is plenty of lighting.
Remember that there will be no natural light, so go overboard with the lighting. For privacy use curtains to separate the space. Even a cheap throw rug or a few pictures on the walls could be a good idea.
If you have never been through it before, living in a confined space for weeks or months is very difficult. Any little detail that normalizes the experience is vital.
Other Considerations for Building Your Bunker
How Deep Should the Bunker Be?
Your bunker does not need to be super far underground to provide you significant protection from nuclear fallout, direct radiation, hurricane- or tornado force winds and other above ground hazards.
Three to 6 feet of soil, combined with the material of the structure itself, is more than enough to protect you from exposure to any common hazard.
However, if you want protection from bombs, and nuclear bombs in particular, deeper is better in accordance with how close to ground zero of the detonation you are.
Concerning the largest nuclear weapons, your bunker will need to be dozens of feet underground to protect you from the blast, and even then survival is highly tenuous at best.
Is it Possible to Build a Bunker in Your Basement?
It is possible to turn your basement into a bunker of a sort. By fully enclosing it and reinforcing the ceiling and walls, along with providing all of the necessary systems described above like ventilation, sanitation and so forth, there’s no reason your basement cannot function as a bunker.
Indeed, this is a great way to hide construction under the guise of simply finishing out or changing the layout of your home’s basement!
However, it is imperative that you take the time to install a dedicated escape tunnel that goes some distance from your house before emerging in order to protect you from being intoned should your house collapse on top of your bunker.
If you live in suburbia or in the city, this will entail pulling permits as described above and that might prove to ultimately be as difficult and time consuming as trying to get them for a separate bunker structure!
Is Building into the Side of a Hill Better?
Digging a bunker into the side of a hill might prove to be ideal from a cost-benefit perspective. Even though the entrance to the bunker will be mostly exposed to the surface, the surrounding soil will still provide more than enough protection against above ground hazards, fallout and the like.
The biggest downside to digging your bunker into the side of a hill (or on any other slope) is that concealing the entrance can be far more challenging.
You also have to worry about the ever-present risk of a landslide, mudslide, or avalanche during construction and also after, as any could completely block access to your bunker. Similarly, routing and placing the secondary exit or escape tunnel can be more challenging.
Building a Bunker is a Huge Project, but Doable!
If you are considering this project, think carefully. There are dozens of scenarios in which a remote or backyard bunker could save the lives of you and your family. However, it is an expensive, time consuming, and difficult venture.
If you have unlimited resources you could have it done in weeks, but for most people a bunker is a project that will take several years.
If you build away from your house you can plan on staring at a giant hole in the ground and a mountain of soil next to it. If you build under your home it could become drafty and moldy.
You could be lugging equipment in and out tracking mud on every trip. If you are not careful, the building process can be very dangerous as well.
All that being said, it can be a very beneficial project for the right preppers. If you truly want to be prepared for any SHTF situation, a bunker is your best option. If you are one of those preppers, then all you have to do is start digging!
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.