What You Need to Know About Survival Shelters - Types and Purpose

What You Need to Know About Survival Shelters - Types and Purpose

by Kiril Krastanoff


A scenario: A  storm suddenly hits, a metropolitan area is plunged into darkness when the power goes out, and you find yourself face-to-face with a dire catastrophic situation requiring that you find shelter immediately. 

Knowing how to bug out and survive a  SHTF event can be the difference between life and death in a world of growing dire possibilities and disastrous outcomes.  But some scenarios make bugging out extremely difficult if not downright impossible, and it is crucial to know the different types of shelters to seek, what is available, and what each sort of protective haven is effective for.

One of the most important aspects of preparing for a SHTF moment is selecting the right shelter for a specific emergency. This guide examines the various types of survival shelters–from temporary wilderness setups that can be built with just a few tools to more permanent shelters, including those that provide nuclear fallout protection–and also includes a list of essential supplies needed to keep your shelter stocked for all types of emergencies.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Types of Emergency Scenarios When Shelters Are Needed

  • 02

    Key Components of a Survival Shelter

  • 03

    Steps to Building a Basic Survival Shelter

  • 04

    Off-Grid Living and Wilderness Survival Shelters

  • 05

    Different Types of Survival Shelters

  • 06

    Important Information on Nuclear Fallout Shelters

  • 07

    Pre-Built Nuclear Shelters

  • 08

    The Supplies Every Shelter Needs


Types of Emergency Scenarios When  Shelters Are Needed

Three scenarios require the basic  knowledge of setting up a survival shelter:

1) Outdoor Emergencies (Peacetime)

Rudimentary outdoor survival shelter (Image courtesy of Envato)

Anyone negotiating the twists and turns of a remote trail, or venturing deep into the rough and distant terrain of the wilderness, must always have an SHTF survival plan. Flash floods and sudden storms happen; hikers get lost. Even the most experienced outdoor enthusiasts encounter dangers and mishaps on the most established trails. Surviving a life-threatening emergency depends on knowing how to find suitable shelter.

2) Rapidly Developing Civil Unrest, No Easy Escape Routes

Civil unrest–such as rioting, government instability, economic meltdown, and terrorist attacks–can rapidly escalate, causing a collapse of basic services, resulting in hardship,  panic, and gridlock. Bugging out is one solution to such a crisis and will require a campsite shelter–either a temporary solution or a more secure and permanent location or fallout shelter. 

3) The Mother of all SHTF Moments: CBRN 

A CBRN–a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear–incident is the most extreme emergency demanding immediate shelter. 

Basic wilderness shelters are inadequate for a CBRN event. CBRN incidents require permanent and fortified structures that can protect against these threats. This guide will examine the different types of shelters suitable for CBRN incidents, including options for DIY and pre-built solutions.

The Key Components  of a Survival Shelter 

Image courtesy of Envato

Protection from the Elements:

  1. Weatherproof (Rain, Snow, Sun): The primary objective of any shelter is to be dry and climactically comfortable.  A well-constructed shelter must provide a protective shield against rain or snow and defend against harsh collateral threats of extreme climate–hypothermia in cold weather and preventing exposure from the scorching sun. 
  1. Windproof: Wind can significantly increase heat loss, dangerously depleting the body of warmth, making even mild temperatures feel much colder, and accelerating exposure to dangerous elements.  A windproof barrier will create a calmer and safer environment inside a shelter, allowing those seeking shelter to maintain their body heat more effectively. 
  1. Ventilation  (Insulation for Heat Retention and Ventilation for Cooling): Ideal temperature regulation depends on the environment.  Insulating with available materials–leaves, branches, and, in cold climates, snow–can trap your body heat.  

Note: Depending on the situation, consider camouflaging your shelter to blend in with the environment and avoid unwanted detection and attention.  

Location, Location, and Location - the Foundation of Survival

Map and compass navigation (Image courtesy of Envato)

Choosing the right location for a shelter is the first–and arguably most important–step to take. Before you start chopping down branches and practicing tying those fancy knots with your paracord bracelet, please examine this basic checklist: 

  • When choosing where to set up camp, always seek high ground to avoid water accumulation and even flooding. 
  • Look for areas with natural windbreaks or existing structures that can provide additional protection from the elements. In colder climates, shelters should always be positioned on south-facing slopes because they maximize the precious rays of sunlight for added warmth. 

If you find yourself in mountainous terrain–especially during the rainy season–be extremely wary of potential hazards like falling rocks, dead trees, or areas prone to avalanches and landslides.

A well-chosen location can significantly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of your shelter!

Learn How to Read a Map

A hiker navigating through a wilderness trail (Image courtesy of Envato).

We have grown so accustomed to using our phones and modern-day satellite apps and tracking that provide remarkable military-grade location accuracy of our day-to-day movements. But in nature, and if disaster strikes, technology is always the first casualty of the elements. 

Having a purpose-built hiking GPS device should, of course, be part of your wilderness survival kit, but if its battery goes down, the next best thing is the back-to-basics: maps, a compass, and some very basic but necessary navigation skills.

Tip: Look for a location with access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.  Ideally, your shelter should be built near easily found and accessible materials you can use for construction or fire, such as fallen branches or dry leaves.

Steps to Building a Basic Survival Shelter

Using a knife to shape parts for a shelter (Image courtesy of Envato).

With a little knowledge and resourcefulness, even the beginner survivalist or outdoorsman can create a safe shelter with readily available materials. 

Here's a step-by-step guide inspired by top-rated wilderness survival books:

Step 1: Assess the Situation and Gather Tools

  • Evaluate your needs: Consider factors like weather conditions, duration of stay, and available resources.
  • Perform a Tool Check: A sharp rock or, better yet, a quality full-tang knife will help cut and shape other materials. A saw or an axe does the job of chopping much better than a knife (if you only have one knife, limit its wear and tear by using it carefully and try to use other tools as well).
  • Use Additional Materials: Try to have handy tools and bits of equipment, such as rope or even a poncho, available so that you can use them in moments of need. 

Step 2: Build a Frame

Image courtesy of Envato

Select sturdy deadwood: Look for dry fallen branches or logs that are dead (but not rotten) for better stability. When possible, conserve calories by harvesting nearby deadwood, which is also typically lighter and easier to work with.

Wood selection by location:

  • Coniferous forests: Spruce, fir, and pine are good options due to their straight growth and relatively lightweight nature.
  • Deciduous forests: Oak, hickory, and birch offer good strength but can be heavier.
  • Tropical regions: If available,  look for sturdy hardwoods like mahogany or teak. A word of warning: they are difficult to cut with basic tools.

Create a lean-to structure: Find a large, sturdy tree trunk or rock face as basic support. Using your survival staff, prop several long branches at an angle against this support, leaning them towards the ground. The ideal angle for stability is between 45 and 50 degrees.

Step 3: Secure the Frame

Lash the branches together: Use vines, strips of bark, or even, as a last resort,  articles of clothing to tie the leaning branches securely to the supporting trunk or rock face. Ensure the structure is stable and can withstand wind or light snowfall.

Step 4: Create a Roof

A waterproof roof is prepared for a wilderness survival shelter (Image courtesy of Envato).

A roof is the most important component of a survival shelter. It not only repels water, snow, and wind but also insulates your shelter, ensuring its heat retention capabilities. 

  • Gather smaller branches and leafy debris: Collect smaller branches, twigs, leaves, pine needles, or any other insulating material that’s easily available.
  • Layer the roof material: Carefully layer the gathered materials over the top of the leaning branches, starting from the bottom and working your way up. The thicker and denser the roof layer, the better the insulation it will provide.

Note: An important note to remember: hot air is lighter than cold air and will always rise. This principle must be an integral component of the shelter’s design so that heat is radiated toward you and conserved. Even a small campfire will keep you warm and dry through the night.

Step 5: Insulate the Floor and Entrance

Placing insulative cover (Image courtesy of Envato).

Conserving energy is of paramount importance, and a well-insulated shelter protects longer and more efficiently. Not only does heat want to go up, but based on the laws of thermodynamics, it also wants to get absorbed into the cold ground upon which you sleep.

This is why it's essential to have some buffer between you and the ground, so your body energy is not wasted by being quickly absorbed into the soil.

Here are the best ways to insulate your body from the cold (and heat):

  • Clear and level the ground: Clear away any rocks, sticks, or debris from the area under your lean-to where you'll be sleeping.
  • Create a bed of insulation: Using leaves, pine needles, grass, or any other readily available soft material, create a thick insulating layer on the cleared ground to provide warmth and comfort.

Important: If you decide to build a fire, create a designated fire pit at a safe distance from your shelter to minimize the risk of sparks igniting the structure.

Off-Grid Living And Wilderness Survival Shelters


A cabin in the wilderness (Image courtesy of Envato).

Another challenge is what to do in the case of a prolonged power grid outage and collapse of social services, and the need to bug out for an extended duration. 

Immediate shelters are short-term solutions to life-endangering realities that must be built quickly. These shelters are usually good for one or two nights.  But what happens when you have multiple people in your group who intend to stay in the wilderness longer than originally planned? In the prepper’s mindset, being ready for what is reasonably possible is important, and many SHTF events could require you to stay out of major cities for long periods.

The Off-grid shelter 

Off-grid shelters are more permanent dwellings designed for long-term comfort and functionality. They are similar to small homes built in the woods. 

Consider this: A wilderness shelter is like a sturdy pop-up tent.  Constructing an off-grid shelter is like building a log cabin–it takes more time and effort upfront, but it provides a more secure and comfortable long-term solution.

Can You Upgrade Your Basic Wilderness Shelter?

Upgrading and reinforcing a wilderness survival shelter (Image courtesy of Envato).

If you are in a survival scenario that might last for weeks, months, or even years,  improvements and upgrades to the shelter using more complex building materials will be necessary. Wood is the most common construction material. Using other elements, such as brick, stone, or even compacted earth for added strength, should also be considered.

Should I Build An Off-Grid Homestead or a Bug-Out Cabin?

Whether to build an off-grid homestead or a bug-out cabin is a question of priorities.

Off-Grid Homestead:

Dreaming of self-reliance and a simpler life, or just interested in having a Plan B in case your other options get compromised during a SHTF event, an off-grid homestead offers the opportunity to build a sustainable haven, live off the land, and generate self-reliant sources of power.


  • Long-Term Off-Grid Living: Designed for a self-sufficient lifestyle, allowing you to live off-the-grid indefinitely.
  • Investment and Appreciation: An off-grid homestead can potentially increase in value over time, similar to a regular home.
  • Community Building: Depending on location, you might connect with other off-grid communities for support and bartering.


  • Time and Resource Commitment: Building and maintaining an off-grid homestead requires significant time, effort, and a substantial financial investment.
  • Less Mobility: Once established, you're less mobile in case of a sudden emergency that requires immediate evacuation.
  • Vulnerability: Homesteads could become targets since they are permanent structures visible in remote, out-of-the-way locations far from law and order and emergency services.

Note: Being a one-man army makes long-term survival difficult. Humans have historically sought to be part of larger communities for a reason. Each person is a force multiplier with unique and helpful skill sets. There is greater safety in numbers when braving all threats.

Remote  Bug-Out Cabin:

Cabin in the woods (Image courtesy of Envato).

A remote bug-out cabin is a hidden sanctuary, a secure escape point that can be ready whenever you need to disappear. The difference between a cabin and a homestead is defined by the planned duration of stay and the amount of supplies that will be stockpiled.


  • Affordability: Generally less expensive to build or purchase when compared to a full-fledged homestead.
  • Flexibility: Provides a quick and secure refuge location if you need to evacuate your primary residence.
  • Lower Maintenance: Requires less ongoing maintenance when compared to a fully functional off-grid homestead.


  • Limited Functionality: Primarily designed for temporary bug-outs and may lack the features for long-term comfort and self-sufficiency.
  • Dependence on Primary Residence: You will still need a primary residence where you will spend most of your time. 
  • Potential Crowding: Bug-out locations might become crowded during emergencies, impacting resource availability and overall security.

Types of Survival Shelters, Bunkers, and Other Purpose-Built Constructions

The entrance to a fortified fallout shelter (Image courtesy of Claire Reilly/CNET)

Storm Shelter 

Storm shelters are the most common shelter, especially for those living in tornado-prone parts of the United States. In many jurisdictions, such shelters are mandatory. 

Most storm shelters are built underground in homes. They are typically the safest place to be when a tornado passes through an area.

Bunkers And Fallout Shelters

There was a time in history when bunkers were quite common in major cities and not reserved solely as a backdrop for a doomsday Hollywood epic. I remember growing up in Eastern Europe, where part of my childhood involved exploring abandoned World War Two and Cold War-era bunkers with my friends.  It's not uncommon to have a large bunker capable of withstanding an indirect nuclear attack next to every kindergarten or hospital. 

What is the Primary  Purpose of a Bunker:

An abandoned military bunker somewhere in Eastern Europe (Image courtesy of Urbextour)

Bunkers are used for different reasons, including the storage of military equipment, sheltering small-scale underground factories, command and control centers, and emergency living quarters for people in case of nuclear armageddon.

The main reasons why this type of survival shelter is the best shelter for  a nuclear event include:

  • Bunkers are built underground and are reinforced by thick walls of layered concrete. 
  • Reinforced concrete is a highly effective material for shielding against nuclear isotopes during a nuclear attack since neutrons and gamma rays get absorbed by the dense atoms in the building material.
  • A certified fallout shelter must be able to be sealed from the outside with an air-tight lock. It must include life support systems, emergency power generators, and food rations.

Note: In the event of a nuclear exchange, there might only be a 10-15 minute warning. To be ready for such a scenario, map out the location of fallout shelters in your area and prepare multiple routes to reach them quickly. 

Bomb Shelter

A bomb shelter is designed to provide maximum protection from the immediate effects of a bomb blast, including shockwaves, flying debris, and the extreme heat caused by explosions and fire storms.

Dresden after the Allied bombing. The bombing created a devastating firestorm, intense heat, and powerful winds, sucking oxygen into the flames and generating a tornado-like effect that exacerbated the destruction. The resulting inferno consumed everything in its path, leaving behind a landscape of charred remains and smoldering ruins.

Bomb Shelter vs. Fallout Shelter?

An underground  military bunker (Image courtesy of the U.S. DoD)

  • No CBRN protection: A bomb shelter might not protect against radioactive fallout or dust contaminated by contaminated particles following a nuclear blast.
  • Limited Location: Bomb shelters are usually found near military bases, government buildings, or other landmarks of vital critical infrastructure.
  • Limited Functionality: Bomb shelters are designed for short-term protection and are not built for long-term habitation. Because of their size and intended purpose, they are also not equipped with the needed supplies and amenities for long-term use.

Bomb shelters are typically built with reinforced concrete and steel to withstand the immense pressure and heat of a blast. It may also incorporate features like blast doors for additional protection.

Bomb shelters are most common in countries such as Israel, where regular threats from incoming missiles, rockets, drones, and mortar strikes require safe areas where civilians can take refuge during an attack.  

Many Israeli homes, especially those near border areas, are built with a Ma’ma’d, the Hebrew acronym for Merhav Mugan Dirati, or Apartment/Dwelling Protected Space. On October 7, 2023, once sirens sounded throughout southern Israel that an attack was underway, many families who lived near the Gaza Strip raced to their Protected Spaces to seek shelter. 

The Protected Spaces were designed to withstand the impact of mortar rounds and rockets but not the sustained assault from small arms, grenades, and anti-tank ordnance (such as the various variants of the RPG that Hamas terrorists used). Still, the Protected Spaces saved countless lives and held their own against a full-scale terrorist invasion.

Quick Recap: 
Think of bomb shelters protecting you from the immediate explosions and fallout shelters protecting you from the lingering after-effects.

Note: In case of a nuclear attack or dirty bomb, one’s distance from the initial blast is key to being able to survive and reduces the intensity of the radiation, even before concrete shielding comes into play.


Important Information on Nuclear Fallout Shelters

While the hope is such shelters will never be needed, having some basic knowledge about them can be a lifesaving advantage.

Finding Public Fallout Shelters:

A public bomb shelter in Israel (Image courtesy of David Cohen/Flash90)

Because the threat of nuclear war has disappeared from the day-to-day fears of many around the world (especially in the United States), public fallout shelters are not as common as they were during the Cold War era. 

In the United States, especially in urban areas such as New York City, where these shelters were located in the basements of apartment buildings, the shelters are nothing more than a throwback to an earlier era (the signs indicating that a structure was designated as a fallout shelter can still be seen).

A fallout shelter sign on an apartment building (Image courtesy of Japs88)

Some government buildings, hospitals, and schools remain designated as fallout shelters.  Here's how to find potential shelters near you:

  • Government Websites: Check your local government's emergency preparedness website. They might have information on designated public shelters in your area.
  • Local Authorities: Contact your city or county emergency management office. They will have information on public shelters or alternative sheltering options in case of a nuclear event.
  • Non-Profit Organizations: Some non-profit organizations focused on preparedness and emergency response might have information on public or community shelters.

What Supplies Do I Need for My Shelter

Knowing what to bring to a fallout shelter is crucial for surviving an extended stay. Here's a basic checklist:

  • Non-perishable food and water: It is advised to prepare a two-week ((minimum!) supply of food and water for each person seeking shelter. Choose items with a long shelf life that don't require cooking or refrigeration.
  • First-aid kit and medications: Pack a comprehensive first-aid kit and any essential medications for everyone in your household.
  • Sanitation and hygiene supplies: The basic staples of toilet paper, soap, hand sanitizer, feminine hygiene products, and garbage bags are an absolute must!
  • Communication tools: A battery-powered radio with extra batteries and a fully charged portable phone will allow you to stay updated and informed. 

At MIRA Safety, we offer a purpose-built Nuclear Survival Kit that contains a full-face respirator, an NBC-77 SOF Filter providing a 20-year shelf life, and potassium iodide tablets to shield your body from the dangers of nuclear threats.

Pre-Built Nuclear Shelters

For some people, the peace of mind of having a pre-built nuclear shelter is very important–especially if your state or city does not have available facilities. 

Please be fiscally prudent if you take out a large loan from your financial institution for your bunker, as it might be hard convincing the bank that you will pay out that $5 million when that rationale dictates that the world banking system will soon be destroyed. 

Surprisingly, a quick search will reveal some ready-made underground bunkers that just need to be buried and stocked with supplies. 

Types of Pre-Built Shelters:

The installation of a pre-built survival shelter (Image courtesy of Atlas Survival Shelters)

Underground Shelters: These are the most common types available. They are typically buried–either completely or partially–underground. These shelters offer the most significant protection from radiation and can be built from concrete, steel, or composite materials.

Above-Ground Shelters: These are less common but are still readily available. These pre-fabricated units are typically made from high-strength materials like steel or concrete and are designed to be installed above ground.

Considerations Before Buying:

  • Cost: The price of pre-built shelters can range in price depending on size, features, and materials. Expect a significant investment.
  • Installation: These shelters often require professional installation, adding to the overall cost.
  • Regulations: Building codes and regulations regarding shelters vary by location. Ensure you have the necessary permits before purchasing and building.
  • Maintenance: Regular maintenance is crucial to ensure the shelter's functionality and will factor in the shelter’s long-term costs. 

Benefits of Pre-Built Shelters:

  • Professional Design and Construction: Pre-built shelters are designed and engineered specifically for their intended purpose, which is a standard that a DIY project cannot guarantee.
  • Faster Installation: Compared to building a shelter from scratch, pre-fabricated options can be installed quickly and efficiently.
  • Warranty and Support: Reputable manufacturers typically stand behind their products. 

Things to Look for in a Pre-Built Shelter:

Size: Consider the number of people who will be using the shelter.

Features: Look for features like ventilation systems, air filtration, water storage capabilities, and space for essential supplies.

Security: Some shelters offer reinforced doors, security features, and blast doors for added protection.

Durability: Look for shelters built with high-quality, radiation-shielding materials.

Best Locations to Consider for Buying a Bunker

Map showing highest risk areas to live during a nuclear exchange in the US (Image courtesy of CBS News)

Choosing the right location for your shelter is as important as the shelter itself. Here are some factors to consider:

Remote Location: Ideally, seek a secluded area away from potential ground zero zones or strategic military targets.

Stable Geography: Avoid areas prone to flooding, landslides, or earthquakes.

Access to Resources: Ensure that the location has access to clean water sources or the ability to collect rainwater. The location should also be close to other natural resources, such as wood, for making fire. 

Climate Considerations: Choosing a location with a climate suitable for long-term habitation is equally important to building or buying a shelter designed to accommodate extreme temperatures.

Existing Infrastructure (Optional): Some people consider locations with existing infrastructure like roads or utilities (with caution), thinking they might become more helpful in the long term. Something to consider, though, is that selecting such a place with existing infrastructure can also make the location a target for others.


This comprehensive survival shelter guide on survival shelters was prepared to help you make informed decisions about how to navigate our current powder keg global environment while sleeping soundly at night.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I Really Need a Shelter?
How Much Does a Survival Shelter Cost?
Why Are Elites Buying Bunkers?
How to Find a Fallout Shelter Near Me?