Selecting a Nuclear Fallout Shelter (and When to Go to It)

What would you do if a nuclear bomb exploded in your city? If you’re like most people, the thought of a nuclear attack probably terrifies you.


The good news is that there are things you can do to protect yourself and your family from the dangers of a nuclear attack. One of those things is finding the right fallout shelter.

A fallout shelter is colloquially any shelter location that will protect you from a nuclear blast, but is specifically one that will keep you safe from the deadly aftermath full of radioactive ash and dust- the aforementioned fallout!

Knowing how to locate, select or improvise a fallout shelter is one part of the solution, and the other half is knowing when, and how, to head to it when the time comes!

In this article, we will discuss how to find a fallout shelter and what you should do to prepare yourself for a nuclear bugout!

Understanding the Nuclear Threat

Before we go running off looking frantically for a shelter, the first thing you need to do is understand the nuclear threat. There are two main types of nuclear attack: ground bursts and air bursts.

A ground burst occurs when a nuclear weapon detonates on or near the ground, creating a large crater. The blast wave from a ground burst can destroy buildings and kill people over a wide area.

The heat from a ground burst can also start fires that can spread over a wide area. A ground burst also produces a tremendous amount of nuclear fallout. More on that in a minute.

An air burst occurs when a nuclear weapon detonates in the air, over the target. The blast wave from an air burst can affect a much larger area than a ground burst, easily damaging or destroying buildings and killing people over a wider area.

The intense light and heat from the blast will also have “line of sight” to a larger area and so will start fires over a wider area in kind. Air bursts create fallout also, but not as much as a ground burst.

It is important to understand how these weapons work and what you can do to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear explosion.

In order to survive a nuclear blast, a factor of distance and proper shelter is more important than anything else. It is important to know where you are in relation to ground zero if you have warning of an impending strike.

The closer you are to ground zero, the greater your risk of being killed outright. Those closest to the impact point will be simply obliterated: nothing you can do.

Surviving the incinerating, apocalyptic blast of a nuclear warhead is only one part of the survival equation; the other is surviving the insidious, pervasive, lingering threat of fallout.


Both types of nuclear warhead detonation produce fallout, as mentioned. Nuclear fallout is made up of tiny particles of debris, now basically dust or ash, that are blasted into the air by the titanic explosion.

These particles are contaminated with radiation from the nuclear explosion and are intensely radioactive in the immediate aftermath of the detonation.

Although fallout rapidly loses strength over time, it remains highly dangerous for days, weeks or months following a nuclear blast.

Fallout will generally begin to settle back to earth after the explosion anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

When it settles depends on the size, type and yield of the nuclear weapon as well as weather conditions at the time.

The larger the explosion, the higher and wider the fallout will be lofted initially and so it will take longer to settle.

Nuclear fallout can be caught by the wind and blown for hundreds or thousands of miles from where a nuclear device was detonated.

It can also be caught in the updraft of a firestorm and lofted back into the air to rain down on an area again, or carried aloft by weather patterns only to come down hundreds or thousands of miles from where it first settled!

Wind, weather, jet stream and other factors also play a part.

Nuclear fallout is a serious threat to human health and safety. It is radioactive and readily clings to skin, hair and clothing, leading to an ever accumulating dose of radiation.

It is also easily inhaled by breathing contaminated air, or ingested when eating or drinking, or by touching you mouth with dirty, fallout caked hands. The latter instances are particularly harmful.

As this fallout settles down on all surfaces like a terrible snow, it will irradiate everything it touches and everything near it, drifting continually on wind currents or when it is kicked up by incidental movements. This is why having a good fallout shelter is so important.

The Fallout Shelter

Now that we understand what a nuclear attack is, and what fallout is, let’s talk about finding a fallout shelter! The first thing you need to do is assess potential locations.

A fallout shelter can be any location that will protect you from the blast, heat, and radiation of a nuclear bomb. It should also be easy to fortify against fallout in the aftermath.

A fallout shelter can be a man-made structure or a natural formation. Some common places people look for shelters are: basements, underground parking garages, tunnels, caves, and abandoned mines.

Purpose-designed nuclear shelters, both above and below ground, also exist around the country. It is even possible to design your own fallout shelter or install a pre-fab module on your property.

Any of these locations could work as long as they meet three criteria: They’re close enough to get to quickly (within minutes), they’re strong enough to withstand the force of a nuclear blast, and they’re large enough to accommodate you, your family and your supplies.

The next section will tell you all about what specific criteria to look for in a fallout shelter.

Good Fallout Shelter Characteristics

By learning what makes a good fallout shelter you’ll always be able to determine which location will be best no matter where you go.

The Golden Rules:

  • The deeper underground the better.
  • More material between you and the blast or radiation is better.
  • The denser the material between you and the blast or radiation the better.
  • Deep underground and surrounded by dense material is best.

Being indoors is massively preferable to being outdoors. A basement is superior to either, and a subbasement is even better than a basement.

Pay attention to building materials used in the construction of the building, shelter module or natural formation. Try to pick thick solid steel, concrete or stone. Brick is okay.

As mentioned, dense materials are superior to wood or thin sheet metal. Being outside or in a car may be considered the absolute worst situation imaginable. You are probably history.

Selecting Your Go-To Shelter

When looking for a fallout shelter, you should also consider the following factors:

Proximity to potential targets

The closer you are to potential strategic targets, the greater your risk of being caught in a nuclear blast, or near ground zero. A great shelter smack in the middle of a military installation is probably a bad call.


Even at long range, a nuclear blast will have a significant impact on the fallout shelter. If your shelter seems great on paper but will totally compromised in the aftermath, should you look elsewhere?

Radiation effects

The amount of radiation released into the environment following a nuclear explosion will also affect the safety of fallout shelters.

A shelter that is particularly easy to harden against fallout or particularly vulnerable to it should be considered in kind.

Ease of sealing

You must work quickly in the aftermath of the blast to seal up your shelter and prevent fallout from getting inside. Some shelters will make this easy, others will require a lot of work.

There are a few other things you can do to increase your chances of survival in a nuclear blast.

One is to have several potential fallout shelters in different locations, so that if one is destroyed or already occupied or contaminated, you have others to fall back on.

Another is to stock each shelter with supplies, including food, water, and medical supplies or place a hidden cache nearby that you can access.

And finally, it’s important to stay informed about the nuclear threat and have a current plan for what you would do in the event of an attack right now. A great nuclear survival plan that cannot be implemented immediately is a fantasy.

If you live in a city, there should be fallout shelters scattered around, either from the Cold War era or as a precaution measure, depending on your location.

Make it a point to find these and mark them on your survival maps. Focus on the ones closest to home or work.

Also keep in mind that if a nuclear threat becomes real, these shelters may not be enough to accommodate everyone.

Find out how many people they can host, compare that to the number of people in your neighborhood, and figure out whether or not they are a viable option.

When Should You Head to Your Fallout Shelter?

You should only go to your fallout shelter if there is a legitimate threat of a nuclear attack. Now, that part seems obvious.

But what isn’t as obvious is how much time you have to get to your shelter before the attack.

This is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on a lot of factors, including the advance warning, if any, you’ll have of a nuclear weapon launch, the distance you are from ground zero if it can be determined, the prevailing winds and weather conditions, and more.

In general, however, you should try to get to your fallout shelter as soon as you have any indication that a nuclear attack is imminent.

That might mean having a plan to head to your shelter immediately if the air raid sirens sound, or it might mean making your way there after the blast subsides if you hear an explosion, see the flash or see a mushroom cloud in the distance.

The bottom line is, don’t wait around to find out if a nuclear attack is really happening. If there’s any indication that it might be, get to your fallout shelter ASAP.

We’ll talk through the likely scenarios and your possible choices below:

Blast Detected!

A bad, bad day. You are able to directly perceive or are notified that a nuclear warhead has detonated already in your region.

This boils down to two kinds of occurrences: you can perceive the blast itself- light, heat, noise, rumbling- or you cannot. Near or far.

If the blast is near, take cover immediately! If you’re caught in the open during a nuclear attack, lie flat on the ground and cover your head with your hands.

This will protect you from some of the heat and debris that comes with the blast. If you can get inside quickly, do so, and then find a room or basement to hide in.

Get as much material between you and the outside as possible. The fallout shelter will not help you if you’re caught in the open during the initial explosion.

If the blast is far- you cannot perceive it but know it has detonated- you need to head to your best and closest fallout shelter at once.

You will likely survive the detonation where you are, but fallout can still kill quickly.

Try to determine the distance and direction of the blast, so you can choose a route that will get you in place ASAP while minimizing your exposure.

Once there, seal up your shelter to prevent fallout from getting in. Then stay put!


If nearby, or relatively nearby- you felt, saw, or heard the blast and may already be injured, but you are alive.

You have little time to act in order to escape the arrival of the fallout, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. If you were outside, get inside the nearest intact structure quickly and find a room or basement to hunker down in.

Get as much material between you and the outside as possible; fallout will be dangerously radioactive through walls and ceilings.

The fallout shelter did not help you being caught in the open during the initial explosion, but it will help reduce your exposure to fallout afterward.

If you have no suitable shelter nearby you must make tracks for the nearest and best fallout shelter ASAP, even if fallout begins to arrive. Being caught outside in the fallout for any length of time at this stage is certain death.

Nuclear Launch Warning

Your news tonight: A nuclear missile is in the air and on its way, or a nuclear armed bomber is nearing its target.

This means that you have minutes, or at most an hour, to get to your shelter before the detonation. This time must be spent as wisely as you have ever done.

If your shelter is very close, head to it at once.

But the farther away it is you must choice between the relative certainty of closer shelter that might not be as good as your pre-plotted one or risk being caught outside in a nuclear blast in an effort to reach the best, possible shelter. You must make the call.

There’s no easy answer in this scenario. This is why you must have a plan.

Elevated Nuclear Threat

A detonation is not imminent, a missile has not been launched, a bomber is not streaking through the sky.

But nonetheless, tensions between nuclear-armed powers are simmering hot with fingers creeping towards triggers.

Or perhaps there is an unsubstantiated rumor that a terror group or rogue state has smuggled a device into the country.

The time to batten down the hatches is not right now, but it might be soon. If you have not done so already, now is the time to develop or review your nuclear emergency response plan.

If your primary shelter location is fairly distant, try to move closer to it so that you may react more quickly when the balloon goes up. Stay away from major population centers and strategic or cultural targets during this time.

You should also double-check and if necessary stock your primary fallout shelter with at least a week’s worth of supplies- food, water, medicine, nuclear protection gear, clothing and other necessities.

Can You Just Live Fulltime in Your Fallout Shelter?

A lot of people seem to think that if they have a fallout shelter, they’re all set in the event of a nuclear war. But that’s not necessarily the case.

For one thing, you need to have supplies and essential utilities in your fallout shelter. That means food, water, medicine, electricity, waste disposal and other essentials.

You also, ideally, need to have a way to filter the air and purify the water in your shelter, and you need to be able to seal it off from fallout.

The bottom line is that most fallout shelters are either proper bunkers or incredibly dank, dark and dangerous natural or man-made formations in the case of caves and mines. Bunker living sucks and living in cave or mine is full of real risks and existential ones.

Caves and mines have pits and drops and suffer from cave-ins and collapses all the time, to say nothing of the health risks attendant with living in total darkness and damp, moldy stone and dirt.

If you don’t have to, don’t do it, unless you get down like that. But if the choice is spending two weeks in a bunker or two weeks in a cave, the bunker wins every time.

If you’re going to live in your fallout shelter, make sure you have everything you need to live more or less according to your (and your family’s) expected standard of living. That way you’ll at least be comfortable while you wait for the worst to happen. And who knows, maybe living in a fallout shelter will turn out to be an adventure or interesting lifestyle after all. Stranger things have happened!

What About Long Distance Bug-Outs?

The notion of a long distance bugout in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation is a fairly popular one among preppers, dare I say romantic, even.

The idea being that you would load up a vehicle with supplies and high-tail it out of the affected area to safety or across a devastated and eerily peaceful moonscape to flee the carnage. It is fairly poetic, I admit, but generally misguided.

It is not a good idea in almost all circumstances.

The viability of this plan depends greatly upon whether or not you will be crossing through an area directly affected by the strike or through a “hot zone” seasoned with fallout.

If you are fleeing from one unaffected area across another unaffected area to an unaffected area, you should be just fine barring some fallout drifts your way.

Note this theoretical landscape is highly unlikely to exist barring the most limited nuclear exchange or the detonation of a lone bomb; America is a big, place after all.

Any way, let us say you are attempting this quest in the aftermath of a legitimate nuclear war or a big-ticket nuclear exchange.

For one, chances are good that you will be caught in a morass of motorized and foot traffic as everyone else attempts to do the same thing.

Remember you will be doing this in a devastated landscape that will be treacherous and difficult to traverse, much less navigate.

Even if you are not, constant fallout will continually produce lethal levels of radiation for days, weeks and in some cases months after the initial detonation.

If you are caught outside in it you, will die. You might die soon, and horribly, or later and horribly, depending on the dose. Period.

Also reconsider your destination: The place you are fleeing to may be just as dangerous, or more so, than the place you are trying to leave. Why flee to a place that has been quite literally wiped off the map?

No, most times it is better to stay put and ride out the storm, so to speak, until hostilities cease and radiation levels subside enough to make the journey something besides total suicide.

Of course, if you live close to ground zero or another high-risk target there may be no other choice but to make a run for it in the aftermath.

This is where your pre-planning and route selection will come into play. If you have done your homework, selected good terrain and routes and are traveling light, fast and nimble you might just make it.

But again, this is all predicated upon the notion that you have planned, rehearsed and are traveling to and through an area that is unaffected or relatively so. All of this is a lot to think about, I know, but it is important.

Your Fallout Shelter is Your Nuclear Home Away from Home

Choosing a fallout shelter to protect yourself and loved ones from a nuclear attack and its aftermath is easy enough.

But as you can see, there is no easy answer to the question of when to seek shelter in a nuclear attack.

You will usually be reacting immediately or making calculated risks in response to a nuclear alert. Your choice depends on many factors, some of which are out of your control or even unknowable.

The best thing you can do is plan ahead as much as possible and be prepared to adapt, improvise and move quickly when necessary. Stay safe out there in the shadow of the atom!

bunker shelters Pinterest image

2 thoughts on “Selecting a Nuclear Fallout Shelter (and When to Go to It)”

  1. If you are not near a blast zone, could you put boards on the outside of the windows then seal inside with plastic sheeting? Would that at least keep the fallout out? We don’t have basements in Florida, but our house is concrete block and has withstood several hurricanes. but the sealing up tight is a big deal, I guess. Any ideas?

  2. It is in my opinion, based on my research and education, that while putting up physical window protection, such as the boards and plastic asked about will help keep fallout particles out of a place, they can only protect against Alpha and Beta radiation and do not do anything to speak of to reduce Gamma radiation entering the home. Only distance (quite a bit of it) or mass (a moderate amount) will block Gamma radiation.

    Just my opinion.

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