buried alive!
November 6, 2012 11:46 AM   Subscribe

What would a family of four need to survive for three months in a backyard bunker?

So pretend your four-person family is digging a bunker/shelter in a brush-filled canyon. The danger is unspecified; probably not nuclear. It's a warmish climate, with lows of 40F.

How large would the bunker have to be? What supplies would you need besides the obvious ones (Food, water, lights, batteries, sleeping bags, etc.)? How much food and water? I figure cooking would be a no-go, because of carbon monoxide. Any way around that?

How about toilet tips?

The digging would be secretive and extremely low-budget. How long would it take to dig without heavy machinery? How could you ensure the bunker's sturdiness without using metal or concrete? Wood and rocks are okay. Low-comfort is okay. What about air holes -- how many would you need? How would you block them in case of rain? How do bunkers protect their denizens from fallout while remaining breathable, anyway?

What else? I've done a ton of research myself, but I know you guys will come up with things I haven't even thought of. I would like the science and mechanics to be believable, but not necessarily error-proof. (Though I would like to know about the errors.) There is definitely a dose of insanity involved.

Yep, this is for a story.

Thank you! Don't forget to vote!
posted by changeling to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: p.s. three months is kind of arbitrary; it just needs to seem like an intimidatingly long time. so not two weeks.
posted by changeling at 11:48 AM on November 6, 2012

You need to specify the danger or this is unanswerable. I mean living in a tent with an outhouse makes far more sense than a bunker so there has to be a reason to be in, specifically, an underground shelter. And that drives the design. Is the air outside breathable? Are you hiding from zombies?
posted by fshgrl at 11:51 AM on November 6, 2012

Agree that we need more information. How old are the kids? Where are you going to get/store water and food? Because that's going to take up potentially a lot of room.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:54 AM on November 6, 2012

You could check out the links and the clips at the website for the National Geographic show Doomsday Preppers.That might help with the how much food and water questions anyway.
posted by I_Zimbra at 11:56 AM on November 6, 2012

I don't want to taint your story, and I'm really not answering the question, but Take Shelter very explicitly deals with bunker building (though not the logistics you're asking about).
posted by cnc at 11:56 AM on November 6, 2012

Response by poster: good point. in general, it's more about hiding from the world than protection from fallout or explosions or whatever. the unspecified nature of the danger kind of drives the narrative. there'd be basic precautions for semi-polluted air & so forth, but mostly think in terms of surviving three months during any given non-wartime. The kids are school-aged.

I should add that this is a book for kids. hooray for traumatizing america's youth!

on preview -- argh, I heard about that movie but right now I'm trying to avoid it. (unless it's so close I should watch it to actively steer my book away?) this is the novelization of a story I wrote about 8 years ago, so the scoopage feeling really grates. (not that digging a shelter is totally unique idea)
posted by changeling at 12:00 PM on November 6, 2012

Here's a 3 month Family Pack from eFoodsDirect. They advertise on Alex Jones and even have an Alex Jones special deal, so you know they're legit for survivalists/preppers. I haven't poked around, but I know military MREs have a chemical heating pack you can use, I imagine there's something like that out there for these.

FEMA suggests at least one gallon of water per person per day for disaster situations, but that's for drinking (and disaster situations), not long-term comfort. Of course, if they can venture outside, they may also want to have filters and possibly well-drilling equipment. And if they're having dehydrated food like I linked you, obviously they'll need a lot more water.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:22 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll have to think about waste disposal. In a bunker you can use chemical toilets that get emptied once in a while, or ? I don't think digging anything like a latrine would be an option for smell and sanitation reasons. So portable toilet and a lot of chemicals, plus a way to dump the waste periodically.

You should think about basic meds and first aid. Anything from a bad cut to appendicitis can be dangerous while hiding. Much can be treated in a bunker, much can't. Is there a medically inclined person in the bunker? If not someone may want to take a wilderness first aid course or become a paramedic.

It would be a TON of water to store, and you'd really want spare in case supply got contaminated somehow. It would be far better if you could covertly access a well or spring or lake or even grid connect the bunker, depending on location. Water is needed for bathing, cooking, cleaning, and any medical issue like diarrhea requires lots of water. You'll want bleach and filters to decontaminate surrounding water if necessary.

If you couldn't use concrete to reinforce the bunker, then I'd look long and hard for a cave, or risk a cave in, especially if there's rain. I would not dig a bunker and in many soils it would not be possible without machinery. Look for a cave.

If you're hiding from the world, do you have basic security in place? Is someone keeping watch? Are there booby traps in the woods? Does someone know bird whistles to alert the bunker? Are animals a threat?
posted by tatiana131 at 12:39 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If the only real point is to hide from the world, what about a secret cave with a stream running through it? Potential waste disposal built in, built in water supply, less digging required.

One thought that comes to mind: I have heard an underground military/espionage type bunker was given away because snow melted on the section of road over the tunnel leading to it. The tunnel was warmer than the ground around it. Also, large bunkers built in secret for government/military purposes tend to not be unknown by the locals. (I still regret not photographing the mostly hidden "secret" nuclear power plant where I once lived. All the locals knew and it could be seen from a particular bend in the road in spite of all the plant cover and the like.)

If you do want to do a bunker, another construction or landscape project as "cover" would help. Also, if I just wanted to hide from the world, instead of air holes, I think I would try to incorporate plants for oxygen, possibly doubling as cover.
posted by Michele in California at 1:43 PM on November 6, 2012

@Changeling There are similarities between Take Shelter and the story you're writing, but without knowing the core reason for your story or revealing more about the movie than I should, I can't say for sure. If you want to memail me a one or two sentence synopsis of why the shelter is being built, I may be able to help inform whether or not you should watch the movie before publishing.

The movie's trailer does essentially lay out the plot, so if you watch that you'd probably know enough to determine whether the stories are too similar. Then again, watching the movie will be better without having seen the trailer.
posted by cnc at 4:16 PM on November 6, 2012

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