Shelter in Place vs. Bugging Out – How to Decide

Shelter In Place

Your shelter is wherever you decide to hunker down and wait out the emergency. It may consist of sheltering in place, at your home or work, or even in your car. Hardcore preppers will have their “survival retreats” in place. Or you might evacuate and find outside shelter at the home of a friend or relative, or at a community mass care facility.

The decision to stay or go might be made for you by local authorities. When a disaster is imminent or has just happened, listen to the TV and radio and check the Internet to find out if instructions are being given.

It may take some time for local authorities to make their initial assessments and decide what they want the public to do, and it will take even more time to get that on the air or online. If you are aware of a large-scale emergency that has the potential to affect you, and you’re unable to find out what’s happening or what to do, your decisions might then be based on your gut instinct.

In any case, you’ll be making your decisions based on the perception of the hazard, then you’ll be choosing on-site sheltering or evacuation and off-site sheltering. The safest places will vary by hazard.

Wherever you decide to shelter, stay there until local authorities say it’s safe to leave. Manage food and water, assign shifts for 24- hour communications and safety watch so no important information or safety issues go unnoticed. Have at hand or take with you your disaster supplies kit. It’s always a good idea to take your personal survival kit with you at all times.

Mass Care Shelters

Make no mistake about it, crowded mass care facilities can be unpleasant, but it beats the alternatives. Mass care shelters will probably have free water, food, first aid supplies, medicine, first aid and medical providers, heating and air-cooling, basic sanitary facilities, blankets and cots.

If you go to a mass care facility, take your disaster kit with you to ensure you have what you need for yourself and for bartering. Do NOT take alcohol or firearms to the shelter unless you are told specifically by the shelter manager and local authorities to do so. Also be aware that smoking probably will not be allowed inside the shelter.

Sheltering in Place

Sheltering in place basically means staying at home or the office, and often means moving into a small interior room with few or no windows. This type of sheltering is likely to be used when hazardous materials, including chemical/ biological/radiological contaminants, are released into the environment.

It could also be the result of weather emergencies, civil unrest, and many other causes. The recommendation to shelter to shelter in place will probably be given over radio, TV, or the internet. Local authorities may pass the word by telephone and loudspeaker.

It’s likely the information will be repeated often on EBS and NOAA. It may happen that local authorities cannot respond and make those decisions before it’s necessary for you to make a sheltering decision. In that case, if there’s a large amount of debris in the air or the probability that the air is badly contaminated, your decision will probably be to shelter in place.

If infrastructure is still in place and you have an adequate food supply, sheltering in place may seem confining but in actuality will be little more than a simple vacation from work and school. Here’s a rather standard list of steps to take for sheltering in place at home.

Before the Event

•    Bolt the walls of the structure securely to the foundation.

•    Attach wall studs to roof rafters with metal hurricane clips.

•    Secure large appliances (especially the water heater) with flexible cable or metal stripping.

During the Event

•    Close and lock all windows and exterior doors. Locking pulls the door tighter for a better seal.

•    If there’s a possibility of explosions, close window shades, blinds, and curtains.

•    Turn off all fans, air conditioning, and heating systems.

•    Close fireplace and stove dampers.

•    Choose an interior room without windows or with as few windows as possible. In many homes this will be an interior bathroom. The room should be above ground level where gases and vapors heavier than air won’t collect. Basements are not recommended for sheltering in place during hazardous materials emergencies because chemicals can seep in even if the windows are closed.

•    Get your disaster supplies kit. Make sure the radio and lights work, and move the kit into the room.

•    Move into the room. Bring the pets, too, and make certain there’s enough food and water for them.

•    If necessary, use the battery operated LED or fluorescent lights in your disaster kit to light the room. One standard LED bulb will run for days on a single fully-charged battery. Do not burn anything for heat or light because of the limited oxygen in your shelter space and the possibility of toxic combustion products (smoke, carbon monoxide). No candles.

•    A POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) line to the room is nice to have, but nowadays very rare. If you have a cell phone, make certain you bring it with you. Call your emergency contact and let them know where you are and what phone or radio you’ll be using. Keep the cell phone turned off, or at least turn off running apps and set settings (e.g. background light, volume, etc.) as low as possible for minimum battery consumption.

•    If your emergency involves an imminent known or suspected airborne hazmat threat, put on your N95 face mask. Use duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal cracks around the door and any vents into the room. Alternatively, use pre-cut N95 air filter strips to fill the bigger cracks under the door and any vents (much safer than sealing the room entirely with tape and plastic).

•    Establish a 24-hour communications/information and safety watch, monitoring radio or television and providing security.

•    Stay there until local authorities give you the all clear, call for an evacuation, or tell you to seek medical help.

Studies indicate that sealing a room with plastic and duct tape will allow enough air for a few hours. Of course, the more folks in the shelter, the less air time you’ll have, and staying in the room too long can lead to death by suffocation. Increased number of occupants, increased carbon dioxide emission rates, or increased activity resulting in oxygen depletion will seriously cut down on your air time.

For the best protection for everyone, occupants should enter the shelter before contamination, and leave the shelter after exposure. Contaminated occupants will bring the contamination in with them and nullify the protection. Contaminated occupants should do a quick “dry-decontamination” (strip down) before entering the shelter.

If you’ve done your disaster supplies right, there should be a set of clothes waiting for you in the shelter. If there’s a heavy chemical exposure, after two or three hours the shelter is likely to be compromised by contaminants leaking slowly into the room.

Authorities by that time will probably recommend evacuation. Keep listening to the radio and follow their instructions completely.

When the emergency is over, ventilate the shelter to remove the contaminated air.

Safe Rooms

A safe room is the modern version of what we used to call a storm cellar. Safe rooms are made using wood and steel or reinforced concrete, welded steel, or other strong materials. Safe rooms are usually built in a basement, on a slab-grade foundation, garage floor, or in an interior room on the lower floor.

The room is anchored securely to resist overturning. When building a safe room make certain the walls, ceiling, doors, and all connections are built to withstand extremely high winds and wind borne debris. If the room is built below ground level, it must be flood-proof. FEMA has detailed plans for safe rooms on their website.

Our friends over at The Prepping Guide have created a very helpful post about available storm shelters that will keep you safe.

Shelter in Place at Work

Your business or workplace should use a means of alerting employees to shelter in place that is distinct from the alert to evacuate. Employees should be trained in SIP (shelter in place) procedures and their roles during an emergency.

When the decision to shelter in place has been made, here are some additional recommended steps:

•    Close the business.

•    Ask customers to stay.

•    Tell employees and customers to call their emergency contacts to tell them where they are and that they are safe.

•    Turn on call forwarding or alternative answering systems. Change the recorded message to say the business is closed and the staff and clients are sheltering there until authorities advise them to leave.

•    Write down the names of everyone in the room.

Shelter in Place in Schools

In addition to basic steps already discussed:

•    Bring students and staff indoors. Ask visitors to stay.

•    Close the school and activate the school’s emergency plan.

•    A phone with the school’s listed number should be available in the shelter room, and a person should be assigned to answer calls.

•    If multiple rooms are used, there should be a way to communicate between rooms (intercom, radio, etc.). Make announcements through the public address system.

•    Change the voicemail recording to say the school is closed and the students are safe.

•    Write down the names of everyone in the shelter and call the school’s emergency contact or local authorities to report who is there.


Lockdown is used to protect people inside a building from external danger. In a partial lockdown, no one goes in or out of the lockdown area. In a full lockdown, those inside the lockdown site are confined to their assigned rooms or spaces.

Community Containment vs. Shelter in Place

Community containment is a group of measures taken to control potential exposure to patients with contagious diseases. These steps include isolation and quarantine. Local, state, and federal health authorities are all empowered with the authority to order and enforce these measures.

These agencies have what are referred to as “police powers” to “detain, medically examine, quarantine persons suspected of carrying communicable diseases” (42 CFR Parts 70 and 71). Isolation and quarantine may be voluntary or enforced. When enforced, failure to comply can result in arrest and criminal prosecution.

Isolation is the separation of person known to have an illness from those who are healthy. The separation may be for focused delivery of health care (TB, for example).

Quarantine is separation or restriction of movement of persons or things that may have been exposed but may or may not become ill. Quarantine can apply to people, vehicles, buildings, cargo, animals, or anything else thought to be exposed. Isolation and quarantine are public health’s best weapons against mass infection.

If you are placed in isolation or quarantined at home, take the following steps to protect your family and others:

•    Stay at home, and when at home stay at least three feet away from other people. If possible, stay in a separate room with the door closed.

•    Do not have visitors. Arrange to have deliveries placed outside your door, then you can bring them into the house.

•    Cover your mouth and nose with a clean tissue when coughing or sneezing. Consider wearing a surgical mask.

•    Everyone in the home should wash their hands frequently. Have some waterless hand sanitizer handy.

•    Wash hard surfaces and anything handled by the isolated patient with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water (1½ cups of bleach to a gallon of water).

•    Do not share dirty eating or drinking utensils.

•    Wash clothes in hot or warm water and detergent.

•    Household members living with an isolated patient should consider themselves on quarantine unless directed otherwise by the enforcing health department.

Emergency Shelters

If you’re forced out of your home and your neighbourhood, and you can’t get to a community shelter or to the safety of an unaffected friend’s or relative’s home, where do you go? It’s not a problem if you have actually done your preparation homework.

The Car

Survival Bug Out Vehicle

Sheltering in a car is not as uncommon as one would think. In areas where storms or hazmat incidents are in progress, the motoring public is often told to stay in the car. In a long-term incident there are lots of reasons you might find yourself sheltering in a car:

•    You may already have plans for the car to be your evacuation vehicle.

•    There are nearly as many cars as there are people in the US and Canada. That’s nearly one potential emergency shelter per person.

•    Living in a car does not expose you to the structural instability of a severely damaged building.

•    Cars provide warmth, passive solar heating, ventilated shade, storage space, a signaling device (horn), and relative privacy.

•    Cars have mirrors, tools, a battery bank, a generator, an air conditioner, a radio, a heater, and even a hotplate (the manifold) until the fuel runs out and the batteries die.

Here are some tips for using a car for shelter:

•    Along with your emergency car kit, stash a car cover and a silver-reflective windshield sunshade.

•    The sunshade will help keep the car cool during the day. The car cover will keep it warm at night and in winter. Be sure to tie the cover to the bumpers and doors or it may blow away).

•    Overnight leave the windows cracked slightly open to improve ventilation and reduce condensation (from breathing) inside the car.

•    Be hygienic. Establish a place to poop and pee well away from the vehicle. Use sanitizer to keep your hands clean, or wash them with soap and water frequently. Store trash away from the vehicle. Take daily spit-showers or wipe down with baby wipes. Keep dirty clothes in a plastic bag in the trunk or outside.

The Bivouac

A bivouac is a temporary encampment, often in a harsh, unsheltered area. Bivouacs will be those places you crash in as the sun goes down and you grow weary of looking for a better place to be. Some bivouacs are more comfortable than others. If you’re unprepared, your bivouac may consist of crawling into a hole and covering yourself with dead vegetation to stay warm.

Or if you are minimally prepared, you might pull your mega-sized garbage bag(s) from your kit and crawl in. A sleeping bag helps, and something underneath to insulate you from the ground makes it even better. The bottom line is everyone should pack some bivouac equipment into their 72-hour kit.

Your decision about what to pack will depend on several things: how comfortable you want to be if you must bivouac, the range of weather conditions in your region, how mobile you wish to be, etc. The more you pack, the more comfortable you’ll be, but the lighter you pack, the faster you can move. A couple of points to help you with this:

•    Don’t plan on getting any shelter from a space tarp or space blanket, unless it’s the heavy-duty kind and you use it as a lean-to or A-frame tent. If you simply pull a blanket over you, it will be worthless as soon as the wind starts blowing. They’ll flap uselessly and dump any heat they’re supposed to retain, and flimsy versions will shred mercilessly. You’re better off with large heavy-duty plastic garbage bags. Pack several in your kit. If you look around you can find “space” bags, or just spend the money and buy a nylon bivouac sack from the camping store. Add a heavy duty fleece liner or light sleeping bag, and a layer of something that will insulate you from the cold ground (camping mattress, closed cell foam pad, or whatever you can improvise), and voila! You’ve got a comfy, relatively water- and wind-proof “bivi.”

•    Two or more individuals snuggling in a bivi are warmer than one!


Survival Shelter

Even today tents are the mainstay of modern armies and of relief agencies providing temporary housing and storage for displaced masses. Tents are a key piece of gear for anyone venturing into the backcountry.

Tents are economical, portable, and generally easy and quick to set up. In a truly massive event, one way or another you will eventually end up in a tent for shelter. Having your own may prevent you having to share shelter space with a crowd of people you don’t know.

Speaking about tents, it’s not a bad idea to improve your essential bushcraft skills.

A small two-man tent is not an unreasonable item to pack in your 72-hour kit. It’s a little bulky, but it beats a bivi bag hands down and provides some cooking space and a dry place for you to use your electronics or keep documents dry.

Two-man tents that will easily survive a week’s thrashing are available in the mega-stores routinely for under $40. If you want something that will last longer, plan on spending a few hundred on a high quality unit.

Tents are made from many materials, but nylon and cotton canvas are the most commonly used. Nylon is the material of choice due to its light weight and its inability to absorb significant moisture.

Nylon materials are often coated with substances like silicon and polyurethane that make them almost completely waterproof. The disadvantage of nylon is its tendency to break down under UV radiation (sunlight).

A tent may last through a season of hard use, but would be very lucky to last a year in the sunlight. If you’re going to store a nylon tent in your two-year kit, store at least two tents.

Cotton canvas is heavy and it absorbs water easily (making it even heavier). When it absorbs water, the threads swell and become so tightly packed that the tent eventually becomes temporarily very water-resistant.

Cotton tents are great in dry environments, but in humid environments they tend to stay wet and will rot or collect mold faster than nylon tents.

Tents come in all shapes and sizes. Most of the popular tents on the market are dome tents that are supported by external pole frames. Stress on the weak points of the tent will be reduced with poles and flies (rain covers) that are shock-corded to the main frame.

Double wall construction increases the weight of the tent but also increases durability, weather resistance, and insulation value. Bug-screened windows and doors are nice. Dual zippered doors and windows are another plus.

Speaking of zippers, be forewarned that zippers on a cheap tent will be the first thing to fail and can only rarely be repaired, leaving you with a tent that has doors and windows that won’t close.

If you’re buying a cheap tent, as soon as you get it home, make certain you check the zippers and trim away any loose threads or material that can get caught in the zipper.

The next thing to fail on your cheap tent will be the stake loops and the fabric channels that attach the tent to the frame. These fail because the material is of poor quality and the sewing is weak.

Consider using a surge sewing machine to double- or triple-stitch any of the seams and channels that will be highly stressed. Stitching a patch to a weak point may help spread the stress over a wider area and prevent it from tearing.

So, what is a “cheap” tent? Let’s just say that if you’re paying less that $1 per square foot of floor space, it’s a cheap tent. In fact, at that price it’s probably a real lemon—a disaster in its own fashion. True, this isn’t always the case, but “you get what you pay for” stands true for tents. Buy brand names you can trust.

When choosing a tent, look for:

•    Comfort

•    Space, including floor space and head space or standing room

•    Ease and simplicity to set up and take down

•    Durability of construction

•    Performance in non-ideal conditions (wind and rain).

Living area. You want plenty of room for yourself, your roommates, and your stuff. Take it from those of us who have been days and weeks imprisoned in tents, space is crucial. For a long-term event, sixty square feet of floor space per person is about the minimum you’ll need to keep from getting claustrophobic.

Add some additional space for a few other amenities (i.e. tables and chairs), and if you want to be able to fit a guest in on occasion, better add another 60. Unless you’re cooking outside or in a separate tent, add another 40 square feet for a kitchen. How are we doing?

Family of three × 60 + 60 + 40 = 280 square feet.

Do they even make tents that size? Glance through the online catalogs of your favorite budget mega-stores, you’ll see tents with 600, even 800 square feet. That’s as big as a small house.

Ceiling height is important if you’re actually going to turn a tent into a home for the long term. It sucks to not be able to stand up at home.


A tent should have hefty, strong poles that will not allow the tent to collapse or lie down in a stiff wind or under a moderate load of snow. Seams should be double-sewn and sealed, and the windows and doors should have heavy-duty zippers. A three-season tent is designed for mild climates or for use in spring, summer, and fall.

They perform well in windy conditions as long as the poles are sturdy and correctly attached, the tent is staked per instructions, all the guy lines are staked, and the fly and guy lines are tensioned correctly.

Three-season tents have fewer poles, lighter material, and less aerodynamic designs than what are called four-season tents or expedition tents.

These tents are more aerodynamic and stoutly constructed, and their frame and guy systems are built to withstand the rigors of severe winter storms and intense monsoon activity. A good four-season tent is worth the extra expense.

Protection from water

Many poorly made or poorly designed tents come without a rain fly, relying solely on waterproof material to keep the rain out. Avoid these. Condensation from breathing and cooking will collect on waterproof ceilings and run onto the floor or rain on the occupants.

On the other hand, some very expensive tents are made from breathable, vapor-barrier materials and manage to shed rain and minimize condensation.

To be on the safe side, get a tent with a rain fly. Tents that incorporate a rain fly are called “double walled tents.” The fly should cover most of the tent and certainly any windows or skylights that cannot be zippered shut.

Look for a tent whose fly has tension adjustments and is shock-corded (the tie-downs or stake loops are elasticized).

A vestibule is a floorless extension of the tent. The sleeping area of the tent can be sealed off completely from the vestibule. This makes vestibules ideal for changing out of dirty clothes and shoes before going into the main tent.

Protection from bugs

All openings, including vents, doors, and windows, should have bug screening. If you’re in an area that has a continuous problem with particularly nasty invaders (like scorpions or centipedes), use duct tape to seal any holes that are not screened (i.e. the utility port).

Go into a serious climbing or outdoor adventure store and almost everything will be very acceptable, highly durable quality. It will also be unavoidably very expensive. Buying a $1,500 tent, just to keep in a closet with your dust-covered 72-hour kit and other forgotten treasures, is a waste of money.

Some very good, durable tents in a moderate price range can be had from companies like Kelty and Eureka. If you’re like average preppers, though, you’ll be heading straight for Costco, Walmart, or Kmart to check out the big tent sales. Let the buyer beware.

From 480 tent models by 23 companies, the highest marks most consistently went to Coleman, with Ozark Trail in second place, and Texsport right behind. I won’t say which companies were at the bottom. Let’s just say a tent from one of these three companies is less likely to be a lemon than from any of the other budget tent makers.

Trailers, Campers, and RV’s

Truck Camper: Any shelter or living unit carried in the bed of a pickup truck (aka slide-in or cab-over). Campers range from a simple single-walled shell with no amenities, to an enormous mini-home with kitchen, bedroom, shower, and dining facilities. At some point, a truck camper unit basically becomes an RV.

RV, or Recreational Vehicle: Also known as a motor home, an RV is an enclosed motorized platform dually used as a vehicle and a dwelling. As an emergency shelter they offer greater mobility, comfort, and protection than a tent. RV’s decked out specifically for emergency travel, evacuation, and mobile shelter are often referred to by survivalists as a “BOV”—a bug-out vehicle.

Again, as with tents, there are some bargains out there, especially for a used camper or RV, but you generally get what you pay for.

At a minimum an RV will contain at least one bed, a table, and food preparation and storage areas. Large, more expensive units will have their own bathroom, plumbing, a refrigerator, and may include a living room and master bedroom.

Onboard appliances run off the 12-volt system of the vehicle but may also have a converter, which changes the AC current from a grid source or generator to the DC power needed to run most of the onboard appliances.

Many RV’s will have what are called two-way or three-way appliances. Two-way appliances can run on either 110V (grid current) or 12V (battery current). Three-way appliances can also run on LP gas. For an emergency shelter or BOV, multi-way appliances are a big plus.

Fancier RV units will have satellite TV, satellite internet, slide-out sections (some slide out on both sides of the unit to make a huge living room), and awnings.

Who wouldn’t want to have one of these in a disaster? Realistically, though, an RV is a big target. If the house and neighborhood has been obliterated, what makes anyone think a huge unprotected RV will fare any better? In addition, the convenience of the vehicle and all its appliances and electronics seems less important when you consider how much fuel it’s going to take to run it all.

Outfitting the RV with solar panels and/or a wind turbine and an adequate battery bank makes this mobile paradise seem more practical, but again it’s likely to be destroyed, and if the disaster hasn’t flattened the RV, chances are the house is also intact enough to provide shelter, and you won’t have needed the RV in the first place. The real advantage of the RV is as an evacuation vehicle.

Trailers: Travel trailers and “5th Wheelers” are towed behind a road vehicle to provide living quarters. A mobile home is a prefabricated home, built in a factory, with a chassis and wheels. It is pulled behind a tractor-trailer to its permanent or semi-permanent site. The general public often refers to all of these as “trailers.”

One way or another, trailers often become shelters during and after large-scale disaster events. In the US, FEMA has a fleet of thousands of travel trailers and small mobile homes for those who qualify to receive them.

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