How to build an inexpensive do-it-yourself underground bunker

How to build an inexpensive do-it-yourself underground bunker

If nuclear war is imminent, you should consider a DIY fallout bunker.
Mirifada/Getty Images

  • Fallout shelters can cost millions of dollars. But this DIY underground bunker costs around $1,000.
  • You wouldn’t want to live in this makeshift underground bunker forever.
  • In a pinch, this DIY fallout shelter would be better than an above-ground building, one expert said.

In the event of nuclear war, the ultra-rich can hide out in their luxurious bunkers costing $35,000 to $14 million. But what about the rest of us?

It turns out that if a nuclear attack is imminent, you can build your own DIY fallout shelter relatively cheaply.

You’d only need a couple of days, some equipment and, ideally, a bunker building partner.

Necessary equipment for a DIY fallout shelter

Photo taken in 1961 of a 77-year-old man who built his own fallout shelter in his backyard. Your DIY shelter probably doesn’t need to be that big.
Archives Michael Ochs / Stringer / Getty Images

One of the simplest shelters for protecting yourself from radioactive fallout is a trench shelter covered with poles, advises the book “Nuclear War Survival Skills.” The book has more DIY fallout shelter options in case you want something a little more challenging.

This shelter, in particular, uses the soil to absorb harmful radiation from the fallout.

Originally published in 1979 and based primarily on research conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Nuclear Survival Skills contains extensive information on building fast and inexpensive fallout shelters.

This book is still one of the most comprehensive guides for building a do-it-yourself fallout shelter.
Copyright 1986 by Cresson H. Kearny / Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The book says you’ll need the following to build this basic fallout shelter:

  • About 20 to 30 cut logs or wooden posts, at least seven feet long and four to six inches in diameter
  • Some waterproof materials, such as plastic sheeting, canvas or tarps
  • A shovel or backhoe for all the digging you do

Working by hand, two people could build this shelter in a backyard or wooded area in two days or less, says “Nuclear War Survival Skills.”

But anyone fit enough could probably complete the project themselves in a day by renting a backhoe and purchasing wood piles from a lumber yard, it would probably cost less than $1,000 depending on how much tools and equipment you need to buy or rent.

How to build a low cost DIY fallout shelter in 6 steps

First, locate a location for your fallout shelter. Ideally, it should be on level ground and at least 50 feet from other buildings or trees in case of a fire, says “Nuclear War Survival Skills.”

Be prepared to dig a lot because ultimately it’s the ground around and above you that could save your life.
urbazon/Getty Images

Step 1: Dig a trench three feet wide and five feet deep. As for length, “Nuclear War Survival Skills” requires 11 feet for four people and another three feet for each additional person. A good shovel for this step should cost between $25 and $50.

Step 2: Next, dig a five-foot-long entrance with steps or a downward slope into the main area. At the other end of the trench, dig a five-foot-long ventilation trench to aid air circulation. Dig this trench just below the ground surface with a surface opening at the end of it. Expected to be about two feet wide and three and a half feet deep, it’s basically a crawl space and can double as an emergency exit for smaller individuals.

Step 3: Once complete place waterproof material on each end of the shelter to form an overhead canopy, this should keep your shelter dry and collect any fallout. A basic 3 x 11 foot tarp should cost you between $20 and $40.

Step 4: Once the trench has been dug, lay the wooden posts on it. The posts should protrude over the edges by at least a foot to help support the soil on top. If you purchase these posts, rather than cutting them yourself, you’re looking at an average cost of about $20 per log or $400 for 20 logs.

If you can’t buy pre-cut logs, you’ll need a saw or ax to cut them yourself, which could add to the overall cost.
Copyright 1986 by Cresson H. Kearny / Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Step 5: Next, fill any open spaces between the logs with cloth, leaves, or other handy material to keep dirt from falling through the gaps between them.

Step 6: Then, using the soil you’ve already dug up, create an 18-inch-high mound in the center on top of the logs or posts and cover the soil with plastic sheeting or other waterproof material (cost about $20-$40). Add another 18 inches of soil on top of that.

You now have a basic fallout shelter that you built for a fraction of the cost of what you could pay someone else to build a bunker for you!

How This DIY Fallout Shelter Would Protect You

The ground is a great shield from radioactive fallout.
Nes/Getty Images

High-energy radiation such as gamma rays and neutrons require thick layers of material such as concrete, lead or even water to absorb. So how much protection from radioactivity does this earth-covered shelter offer?

Zaijing Sun, a nuclear physicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said soil, especially if it contains many heavier elements like iron, will rapidly attenuate or absorb radiation.

“In most cases, 36 inches of soil is enough to reduce gamma radiation dose by more than 95 percent,” Sun said.

What should you stock it with?

To keep the air in your shelter from getting too hot, you’ll want to build what’s called a Kearny air pump to ensure proper ventilation. You can hang hammocks from logs overhead to make the space feel less cramped.

Your DIY fallout shelter probably won’t look like this. Be sure to keep a battery-powered radio with you for news on where to go next, since you won’t want to stay in that DIY bunker for long.
National Archives of the United States

Make sure you have plenty of water on hand, you will want a liter of water per person per day. You can use bottled water or other airtight containers to store it. Just don’t harvest your water from rain or anything else exposed to the elements, as it will almost certainly be contaminated with poisonous radioactive fallout.

You can go for weeks without food, so for a short-term stay you could probably go without it, but if you want to stock up, some long-lasting foods include canned goods, peanut butter, dehydrated meat, and MREs.

For your bathroom needs, the simplest method is to use a five-gallon bucket, lined with a plastic bag and kept tightly closed when not in use. You can use absorbent material such as cat litter or sawdust to cover your litter.

Other items that may come in handy in your underground hideout include: battery-powered lamps and torches, a radio, and a first aid kit.

How long would you need to stay underground?

The length of time you should spend in the fallout shelter “depends on many factors, such as the size of the bomb, the location of the denotation and weather conditions,” Sun said.

A simulation done by NUKEMAP showing how far the radioactive fallout would travel if the “Tsar bomb” nuclear weapon were dropped on New York.
Alex Wellerstein’s NUKEMAP; Map Data Contributors to OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA, Imagery Mapbox

“In general, nuclear fallout will take hours to days to stabilize,” the Sun continued. “The most dangerous period is typically one to three days after the explosion, when radiation levels are very high. of radiation decrease exponentially”.

A simulation of a nuclear bomb estimated that within 48 hours the “dangerous fallout zone” would extend no more than 50 miles from the detonation site. So depending on how close you are to the explosion, your amount of time underground might only last a few days.

What to do if you are not near a fallout shelter

Even if you fail to build a fallout shelter in time, you would still have options to protect yourself after a nuclear attack.

You would “try to get as far away as possible, wash your skin to avoid dust, and use masks for airborne particles,” the Sun said.

Then you’ll want to find shelter in a place with as thick material as possible between you and the outside world: “Basements and concrete buildings are good choices. If an underground option isn’t available, you can try staying under interior stairs,” ‘ said Sun.

If you can’t build your own DIY fallout shelter, then an underground basement is the best option.

But, Sun said, the homemade fallout shelter offers better protection than a basement or concrete building because the earth-covered fallout shelter has the advantage of heavy shielding on top and “the strongest radiation can come from from above in a nuclear explosion, especially the first explosion that could blow away the building structure above you.”

“A do-it-yourself shelter is definitely more effective than most above-ground structures and is about as equal in protection as an underground brick or concrete structure whether the structure has brick or concrete roofing,” Sun said.

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