> TEOTWAWKI Blog: Long Term Survival: Shelter



Long Term Survival: Shelter

If your home or retreat is compromised in a long term collapse scenario, what are your options for shelter? A poncho shelter is only going to work for so long, and a cheap family tent is probably not going to make it through more than a storm or two. If it's a week or so in the summer, no big deal - but what if weeks turn into months and on into years?

The best option is to have friends or family with backup locations of their own, that are equally viable for long term survival. So, say your place gets destroyed in the initial event, but Uncle Bob's farm is a hundred miles away, and has plenty of extra room, water and food, too. Then you just need to get yourself to Uncle Bob's place and you're good to go. 

Even if you don't have a circle of like-minded survivalist type friends/family in the region, it's good to know have an idea of where you could turn for a safe place to sleep and regroup, even if just for a short while. We have friends who lost their home in a tornado a few years back, and they ended up living with some family friends for a few weeks while they located a new place to live and regrouped from the devastation caused by the storm. It never hurts to have these conversations beforehand - and if you're the prepared party, extending an invite to trusted but potentially less prepare parties can be wise.

Post-collapse, you'd see lots of friends and family "holing up" together to share the workload and improve odds of survival. Same reason that families in the old days used to be big and multi-generational in the same household - it made sense for survival.

Now you may have no where to turn to, Uncle Bob's survival cabin may be compromised, and your other options no-good--your friends/family in suburbia may be in the same or worse lot than you will be. So, then what?

Squatting in an abandoned home may be a viable option - if the owners are most likely dead and the home sitting wide open, then why not? There are of course risks involved (what if the owners aren't dead and return to find you've invaded their home), and there are a great many situations where holing up in a seemingly abandoned home/building may not work out so well. 

So, it can pay off to have some variety of durable long-term but still portable shelter as a "go-to" option. Here's a run-down the main options as I see 'em.

Modern Recreational Vehicle
An RV or trailer comes to mind as the modern solution, with the conveniences of home. They'll on conventional fuels like diesel and propane to keep those modern conveniences running. You'll also typically be limited in your mobility, though there are some fairly off-road capable models out there - check out Expedition Portal to get you started. If you can drive to a safe enough hidey hole and set up shop, a modern RV or trailer plus an ample supply of fuel has a lot going for it. One could certainly pre-position buried fuel tanks and other supporting infrastructure at a retreat, and bring the trailer/RV when the balloon goes up - certainly less expensive then building an entire home. Also, compared to the other options we're looking at, you've got a lot more storage capability and can haul along a lot more gear - if you can drive it there.

Downsides: Cost is a big one - you're looking at thousands of dollars, especially when you start looking at off road capable stuff. Some models will fare with bad weather and winters better than others - many are going to have a tough time getting through cold weather. Nearly all are going to be designed around the availability of fuels to keep heating, air conditioning and other conveniences going. Reliance on roads is going to inhibit most models, too.

Beast-Portable Shelter
A poor name for the category, but this includes heavy shelters that are too large and heavy for one person to carry in a pack and will require pack animals or an off-road vehicle to carry. Wall tents, tipis and yurts are example here. These were made for a time before modern luxuries like heaters or indoor plumbing. They will use a wood stove or fire pit for heating in cold weather. People have lived in these long term for years on end and the heavy duty materials are meant to last.

Downsides: Cost - a good wall tent or yurt is going to be a thousand dollars on up, plus a stove. And you're going to need help with transportation - horses, an ATV with trailer, etc.

Man-Portable Shelter
A typical backpacking tent is not made to last through long-term use in rough conditions, but there are some ultralight tipis on the market intended for extended trips in nasty weather. They use titanium stoves to heat the shelter during winter conditions, and the tipis are made from special technical fabrics to maximize the square footage for the given weight. They're certainly packable by one person. Kifaru and Seek Outside are the two brands that I've seen get the most press.

Downsides: Cost - again - though you can get into a tipi and stove for under a thousand without too much trouble. Durability is going to be a concern as well.

Primitive Shelters
Shelters made from natural materials with basic tools - how people lived in the old days. There are a myriad of options here - from a hewn log cabin to a wikiup - and, built right, they can do very well in a long term survival situation. Mankind has lived in shelters of this sort for most its history, so they're certainly viable (if a bit cramped, dark and dirty). Most can be built with only simple hand tools - a knife, saw and axe can do a lot in the right hands. And of course, if you have the natural resources, you only need the tools, calories, time and knowledge to build one. Otherwise free and the tools can go wherever you go.

Downsides: Requires calories, time and knowledge to construct - time and energy that may be wasted if you have to relocate soon after. Will often require more maintenance/upkeep than other options, too.

The best bet would, as usual, to layer one's options - an RV and a packable tipi, plus the knowledge of how to build a handful of primitive shelters, for example. Primitive shelter is the baseline - if you can build a solid primitive shelter from natural materials available in your region, you should be able to keep shelter over your head no matter what happens.

I don't have a ton of expertise/experience living out of any of these shelters, and I'm sure there are some of you have have lived in any/all of them, long term. Interested to hear your thoughts/experiences in the comments!


  1. Another shelter not mentioned but very doable is a soddie, or dugout. Dig a pit appx 4 feet deep, and stack the waste dirt 2 feet up above 3 sides, cover the roof with tree limbs and canvas, and then top that with the remaining fill dirt, or slabs of sod, depending on your climate build a door, and wall to close off the fourth wall and call it good, warmer than a tent in winter, cooler than a tipi in summer.

  2. Depending on situation you also need to consider migration to cooler or warmer region if surviving in your current location without modern commodities is too hard.

    I think my choice of long term shelter is:
    1) Find place where I will build my Primitive Shelter
    2) Install family tent, reinforce it with leaves, sticks, rocks, snow if needed.
    3) Construction of log cabin or dugout.
    4) Improving of primitive shelter to suit modern comfort standards, using solar/water/wind/wood generator.
    5) Live happily and kill zombies =)

  3. Two more options:

    1) Towing junkyard van (body intact, engine and drive train removed) to a fixed location you have access to and pre-position for living there. A van is pretty roomy and stronger than a tent. Manually opening windows and a skylight for heat relief - not too bad.

    2) Cheap yurt idea - above ground swimming pool, inverted over cattle panel sides staked out to form circle. Drape pool upside down over cattle panel and cut out slit for door - low yurt is complete. If can be built on elevated wood deck, better yet - good drainage and get you out of much.

    A carport or other roofed but open sided shelter would be nice to have. Maybe bug panels to create animal free space too - in some seasons, be REALLY nice to have. An elevated cook pit - a lot of comforts of home.

  4. If you don't have the luxury of owning a retreat and live in/near a major city, you're best bet (IMHO) is a durable and discreet camping tent and the basic tools (hatchet, tarp, rope, folding shovel) required to build a decent long-term shelter out of natural sources. Most people don't own a donkey and unless you bug out real early, chances are your vehicle won't get you far. Especially a great big RV ... you might as well paint "murder me and steal my shelter" on the side.

    Then again, all of these options depend greatly on the nature of why you had to bug out in the first place. A helpful post either way!

  5. It depends a lot on what sort of scenario we are talking about. Reality is that the US (and most of the world) is full of shelters. The idea of going off to play Batman in the Boondocks fails the common sense check here (as it does in every other category) because there are not really durable, easy to set up shelters that are realistically man portable. A good tent is fine but will eventually fall apart. They just aren't made for 365 day a year use.

    For whatever value it has (I say not much) we could look at how 'primitive' nomads live in different parts of the world. Some sort of a heavy animal skin or canvas shelter like a Tipi, wall tent or a Yurt is the answer they have. As you noted those are expensive and really only beast/ machine portable.

    RV's are really only good as long as there is gas to drive them and propane to heat/ cool them. For the price of a mediocre RV you could probably get a couple acres of marginal woods someplace. Food for thought.

    I would like to get a Yurt at some point if a deal pops up.

    1. Ryan -

      Nobody suggested donning a cape and tights. :)

      While there's certainly an abundance of buildings in many places, you can't control availability of a home/building to lay low if your primary and backup locations are compromised. And even if you could, circumstances may make existing buildings a poor choice.

      As you note, a few acres of land may be affordable, but what kind of shelter are you going to live in?

    2. I think for the long term if you are staying some sort of permanent shelter is the way to go. Ideally an existing one and if not making one. Scavenged materials such as lumber and metal roofing would be the easiest or baring that a primitive method (log cabin/ adobe/ stone/ sod dug out depending on the AO) depending on the situation.

      If you are mobile or for whatever reason do not want to set deep roots either a series of camps (sort of how some Indian tribes did it) for applicable seasons or a mobile yurt type setup.

  6. I like the term beast-portable shelter. At 13 pounds something like a REI Base Camp 4 Tent would make a good Beast Portable Shelter.

    Well guyed out, something like the Base Camp will stay up just fine in anything short the absolute worst weather. I've slept soundly though nights filled with 35-40 MPH wind gusts in similar tents and have been in downpours on the Washington State coast and stayed nice and dry. With a little care and attention they should last you at least 3 or 4 months in a daily living situation, probably more.

    The downsides: small size, lack of headroom, no heat or cooking inside. Living out of something like this in the middle of the winter for more than a week would suck pretty hard, but with the right gear you wouldn't have to worry about dying from exposure. Late spring through early fall I wouldn't have a problem living in something like this for an extended period of time.


    This is an area where expertise (aka learning through palm blisters) pays in spades. However, to maximize this approach, you need a wheelbarrow full of tools.

    To illustrate, I would use a practical set up and the approach (and this assumes you have already practiced the build)-
    1. Large vehicle such as van or Suburban (great auto btw!)
    2. Essential survival elements satisfied by stowed contents which would get your through a month.
    3. Critical tools (shovel, ax, mattock, measure devices, level, sledge, wood "carving" implements, nails, ropes, basic hardware such as metal screen, framed glass, hinges, 100% cement (2 big bags), a few saws, etc...
    4. A towed trailer can augment this with essential lumber, METAL ROOFING! Carry nothing like sand or stone. Available on site.
    5. Retrofit an improvised tent type enclosure to increase the auto's living space during construction phase.
    6. Use tools to build semi-primitive permanent structure onsite using natural and salvaged materials.
    Also-a boxwood stove and accessories can be had new for about $200
    Another note... Remember that a partially destroyed 2000sq ft buulding can handily be refurbed into a 800 sq ft home. Easy and no materials off site arw generally needed.

  8. I like being mobile and setting up various 'camps'. Tents are okay but have limitations.
    Cant help but notice all those wood pallets lying around, Im not a carpenter but always keep
    an eye out for free material. One guy was using this material from used campaign signs, coralux? which was bendable plastic type stuff to fashion shelters. No easy row to hoe.