To Bunker, or Not To Bunker?

By John Greene 22 Min Read

So it's the middle of August and we have only a few months left before the November elections in the USA. I figured when you consider the possible ramifications of the elections it might be a good idea for another article on Prepping and Survival.


Today I want to talk about bunkers. I want to talk specifically about their use, intent, survivability, and the pros and cons of a bunker being the central part of your survival plans in an SHTF event.


Bunkering is an ages-old tactic of defense wherein a person or group of people pluck themselves away in a small shelter capable of providing security against the source of harm that is outside. I am guessing the first cavemen started this idea when large predators would come near them. I don't know that for sure, but it seems like something plausible to me.


Today a bunker is much more than a small crevice where big things can't get you. They range in size and scope from bad weather bunkers meant to support 2-4 people for a few hours to massive underground complexes capable of sustaining life for several years without intervention from outside sources. These bunkers can be homemade or commercially made and can range in cost from $10,000 to well over $1 million dollars. The vast majority of people that are planning to bunker themselves in an SHTF event are utilizing small to mid-size bunkers capable of supporting 4-6 people for roughly 6 months to a year.


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Why Bunkers?


I think many people lean toward bunkers because of natural instinct. Survival is often associated with hiding or remaining unnoticed and being underground in an enclosed container is certainly going to seem like a way to remain out of sight. Another factor is probably the belief that it would be easier to survive any chemical, biological, radiological, or meteorological effects that might be associated with the SHTF event if you can just “batten down the hatches” and ride it out in your bunker. In a nicely appointed bunker, you can control your temperature, air quality, and sanitation through readily available systems that can be purchased for bunkers.


The Intent of a Bunker


In my opinion, bunkers were always intended for the short-term survival of an imminent or ongoing event. It wasn't until the advent of nuclear weapons that bunkers became “long-term” survival solutions. Prior to Fat Man and Little Boy being dropped and the beginning of the Cold War, there was never really a reason for staying in a bunker for more than a few hours or perhaps a day. Once it began, however, there was no turning back.


During the Cold War bunkers were springing up all over the country. Nearly every town or city in the country had some sort of plan that involved bunkering for safety. Many people didn't realize that these bunkers may help them survive the initial blast but they were not appointed with the proper supplies for long-term survival. These bunkers had very little in the way of stored food, no blast doors, inadequate sanitation, and no air filtration systems. Private citizens were even purchasing or building their own bunkering solutions, which although may have been more comfortable, wouldn't have provided any more real safety than the public shelter.


The federal government has bunkers for long-term survival, but most of us won't be in those, so let's concentrate on private bunkers.



This is a tough topic for bunkers. There are SO many different variables that must be taken into account in order to accurately determine the survivability of a bunker scenario. What some people consider strengths, others may consider weaknesses. Thus goes the argument and depending on which side of the fence you stand, the rest of this article may just piss you off. Suffice it to say I am simply trying to provide information in the hopes that people reading the article say “Hey, good point” and become a little better informed. So here we go…


In regards to general survivability, I think bunkers are great for immediate-impact events that will hit and be gone. Again, this is subjective and must be taken with a large dose of common sense, and the term “probability” comes into play. Most people don't purchase or build bunkers in case of an alien attack, it just isn't a high-probability event. Many people do however build bunkers in case of a nuclear attack, asteroid impact, or conventional attack/invasion. Some people build bunkers to live in during periods of social unrest and some people build them fully believing that an SHTF event is coming that will completely destroy the social fabric of this nation and toss all of the survivors into a post-apocalyptic survival scenario that looks like a cross between Mad Max, The Road and The Book of Eli.


I personally don't feel that a bunker (again this is a commercial or private bunker, not a government complex) is a viable long-term survival option for many reasons. I feel that the graph of survivability in a bunker is a negative slope decreasing exponentially over time. Let's talk about the cons of a bunker to get that out of the way.


CONS of Bunker Life

*Note these are in no particular order of importance or degree



First, let's talk about the psychological effects of bunker life. Although many people can eventually get used to living in the confined quarters of a bunker there are also many that will never get used to it. I have heard the argument “sailors do it on subs all the time” but that argument doesn't hold water with me (pun intended) because a sub is absolutely HUGE in comparison to the bunker you are going to plant in your backyard or the woods behind your house. If you have small children then you need to really consider the effects on them as well. One thing you really don't want to do is build your entire survival plan around a bunker just to have your kids spaz out on day three, five, or ten.


One thing that is reported to happen as time progresses in a bunker-type environment is that space seems to shrink in on the person. What is clearly 25 feet of walking space becomes 15, 10, or even 5 feet to your mind. Perhaps this could be countered by having a permanent line the length of the floor labeled with the distance every few feet… who knows.


If you lose your ability to tell time due to clocks losing power or watches not working, then your circadian cycle will get fouled up and time will stretch, according to most psychological experiments. What you perceive as 1 second may actually be as much as 5 seconds. In one experiment the subject had to count to 120 by 1, with each number spaced by 1 second. After just a few weeks in a cave, it took him 5 minutes to count 120 seconds.


Anyone that has ever lived in a small, cramped apartment knows how quickly you can lose your temper when there is nowhere to escape to be alone. I have three small children… yeah, I would lose my mind. On top of that, I have no idea how they would cope considering they can't sit still for more than 30 seconds at a time without damn near exploding.



At first glance, the idea of a bunker puts feelings of security, safety, and survival at the forefront of your thoughts. What could be better than having a hidey hole that you can jump into during an emergency?! Fill it with food and batteries and other goodies to keep you alive and happy and BAMMO! you're a survivor! I have several problems with this line of thought.


A secure bunker has one way in and one way out, typically. First though, what if you are in the bunker and something happens that makes that route impassable? What could happen? Fire, Earthquake, metal fatigue, malfunction, blockage externally… there are more but I'll stop there.


Let's say you don't experience any of those issues, eventually, you will run out of stored foods, water, or other items that you will require. Foraging outside of the bunker will become necessary, which means entering and leaving the bunker. Anyone familiar with security operations knows that this process is dangerous because it can easily give away your hidden position. If Bill the Bad Guy sees you leaving or entering he can go get his friends and sit on that entrance until you return or go out again, thereby potentially gaining entry to your secure bunker by virtue of force or coercion.


Even if you are pretty slick and Bill the Bad Guy never sees you entering or leaving your secret bunker, eventually you will wear down a path leading him right to your door. A good tracker will notice the trail before you do, and even a bad tracker will notice a warning path. You may be safe and secure and take different paths to and from the bunker, but at some point, you have to converge on the entrance and there will be a path. Bill the Bad Guy sees it, sits on it, and BOOM, you're his.


So let's say you have surveillance equipment watching the outside and you see Bill sitting at your bunker entrance waiting to catch you unaware. You still need to go out for supplies. You can wait till he's asleep and hopes to catch him off guard and take him out, but what if he has friends? You're a trapped rat. Maybe he gets tired of waiting and starts searching for fresh air to return to the bunker. Maybe he decides that you have pissed him off and just barricades or disables the door? There's no limit to what can happen and the second someone knows where your bunker is at is the second your bunker becomes a liability.



In reality, there are very few long-term situations in which a bunker will serve as a proper shelter. Short-term situations abound, so don't think I am knocking bunkers as useless, I am not. Over the long term, your bunker becomes a trap if you return to daily. It becomes easily identifiable over time (if used constantly) and the area surrounding it becomes a telltale sign of habitation that can't be missed. Once you run out of stored food you need to start growing food. As this will probably not be possible internally, planting externally will become necessary. If you place your garden near the bunker, well… you can do the math on that. Placing your garden a good distance from your bunker seems wise, but then you have to constantly make the trek to and from, thus creating worn paths, and you also run the risk of increasing your operational area and running into people accidentally.


Basically, the point is that once you have to leave and return to your bunker on a regular basis it's the advantage of being hidden is lost. If you come under any sort of assault or scrutiny you can simply walk away and try to come back another time, but if you are in the bunker when it happens, those options are eliminated.


Before anyone goes Rambo on me and says that a bunker if constructed properly, should include an area for cover and return fire I will simply say this if they know where you are, the battle is easily lost to you. Yes, you could outshoot them and survive but the odds are greatly in their favor if you are bunkered.




PROS of Bunker Life

Bunkers are great for the short-term survival of life-threatening events. If properly built, maintained, and supplied they can be fantastic places to ride out a storm or event in relative comfort knowing you and yours are most likely going to be safe from whatever is happening outside. If you have enough money bunkers can provide enough space for light exercise, privacy for adults, decent sanitation, and even entertainment if you have good sources of electricity and such. If you are going to build a bunker, I would say build it out for a good 30-60 day survival period if you have the money to do it.


The greatest thing about bunkers is that once they are built and stocked, they are relatively easy to maintain if they have only basic services. The more advanced the systems, the more regular maintenance is required to ensure the bunker performs as required when needed.


Bunkers are hidden places to safely ensconce your family when the SHTF. Now, before you jump on me for flip-flopping please let me explain that statement. It is my opinion that bunkers should ONLY be used when a threat is imminent. Once the threat has passed I believe the bunker should be vacated and restored to pre-use status. Let's break that out into two different examples to make it clear:


1) Bill and his family have a bunker behind their house and the entrance is in the rear corner of a medium-sized garage. A tornado warning is issued and Bill grabs the family and runs to the bunker. They weather the storm and once the all-clear is given, which they hear on their emergency radio, they leave the bunker and head back into the house. Great job, Bill.


2) Bill and his family watch in horror as the global economy crashes and the United States is plunged into civil war. The social fabric of this nation is destroyed and on the other side of the event emerges a country devoid of the central government and rife with lawlessness and strife. Bill and his family have prepared for this by building their hidden bunker and stockpiling it. Because they live in the country they continue their lifestyle and become homesteaders. Occasionally when someone comes through the area Bill will send his family into their bunker to hide while he stays behind to make sure the person doesn't locate their goods or damage their property. If the intruder looks as though he is determined to cause harm, Bill may have to defend himself and his family.


Once the threat is removed, either by force or lack of interest, the family can return from the bunker when Bill gives them the sign it's clear.


3) The same global scenario as number 2 above. In this event, a large group of intruders is seen making their way to Bill's house. Bill and his family can either choose to run into their hidden bunker or simply evacuate to a predetermined BOL and wait to see what happens.


a) Bill and the family-run into the bunker and hide. The intruders find the garden and the well-stocked home and decide to stay. If they find the bunker entrance, they will try to get inside. If they cannot get in they will most likely figure there are people inside and try to get them out. Hopefully, the intruders are peaceful and will be fine. Most likely they are not peaceful and Bill and his family are trapped like rats.


b) Bill and the family evacuate the farm and head to a secret BOL that was built two years earlier. From there they can either continue their evacuation to find a new place to live or make plans to retake their farm from the intruders. Either way, they have choices.


Now, some people will say that you can use a story to go any way you want it doesn't mean it's true. Those people would be right. Some people would say that because I prefer homesteads to bunkers, I am biased and this is all opinion. Those people would be mostly right.


The facts are simple if you place yourself into a bunker and something bad happens, you have drastically eliminated the choices you have in regard to where you are going and how you are getting there. If you are homesteading and trouble comes, you have more choices. You can fortify firing positions which get you the advantage, you can build traps and obstacles, you can rely on help from trained dogs, you can move and use fields of fire to combat your enemies… choices.


Once you enter a bunker your choices are extremely limited. If you are unaware of the threat when you enter the bunker you have given your attacker the element of surprise unless you have maintained some form of external surveillance. Even if you know they are out there, you still have to enter and exit from a specific location, thus giving your attacker the tactical advantage.


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