If you’ve ever longed for a bunker or underground shelter, the fallout shelter designs from the Cold War era offer a variety of blueprints to choose from.
I’ve always wished I had one, a hidden, underground room that no ones knows about besides the immediate family. If SHTF, we could just retreat to our stocked, secret room to ride out the mayhem happening above. The dust would settle, and then we would emerge. Survivors.
I have assembled what I believe to be a complete list of fallout shelter designs that exist in the public domain. If you know of designs not listed here, please leave a comment at the end of the article. That will assure the list remains comprehensive and complete.
The whole idea of fallout shelters and bunkers has fascinated me for years. In fact, I’ve made it a point of seeking them out, touring everything from a homemade bunker in Maine to arranging private tours of a Nazi WWII bunker and a multi-million dollar bunker in Las Vegas.
So You Want to Build a Home Fallout Shelter
If you’re like me, you’re interested in these fallout shelter designs because… well, they’re interesting. They’re a look back in American history when the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation was real, when people were taking legitimate steps to protect themselves should a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Not only were people doing this on their own, but the U.S. government was encouraging it! That’s why they published the designs in this article, through the Department of Defense and Civil Defense and FEMA.
If you’re here because you actually want to construct a fallout shelter, and are looking for designs to make it a reality, I’m jealous. Granted, living in an underground shelter designed to survive nuclear fallout wouldn’t be a joyous time, crammed in a small space, waiting in uncertainly, taking turns to use a bucket in the corner as a toilet, but – should you need it – it would be better than the alternative above ground being exposed to radioactive fallout.
What is Radioactive Fallout?
When a nuke explodes at the ground level, dirt and debris are sucked high up into the mushroom cloud where it all picks up radioactivity from the explosion. The bigger particles will eventually drop back to ground near the impact site, but the lighter pieces will be carried by the winds for many miles before falling back to earth spreading a thin layer of radioactive particles (fallout) far and wide.
The fallout would settle all around, on the ground, trees, vehicles, houses – everywhere. It would look like a fine dusting of sand, and wherever it landed, radiation would emanate, wreaking havoc on the bodies of anyone not protected. You would need Geiger counter to measure the exact level of radioactivity. You can buy a digital Geiger counter or you can buy a more affordable NukAlert Radiation Detector. The former will give you the levels. The latter will just alert you that radiation is nearby. Either would make a good addition to your fallout shelter.
Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.
If you have the time, space, and budget to construct one of these shelter, lucky you! Once you’re done with it, you’ll have to resist the urge to show it off to your friends and neighbors. A secret shelter is a safe shelter.
Keeping your shelter secret is critical or, should you actually have to use it, you run the risk of people knocking on your door suddenly looking to become your subterranean roommate. This is the situation faced by suburban family in the old Twilight Zone episode The Shelter (watch the episode).
What You Need in Your Fallout Shelter
You can’t just run into a nuclear fallout shelter and just wait it out. Your shelter has to be prepped! The minimum necessities include:
Water – The widely accepted standard is a gallon of water per person per day, but you may be able to get by with less than that in a shelter where you will be exerting minimal physical effort. You can move up or down from this standard depending on the climate where you live, whether you have freeze-dried foods that need to be rehydrated, etc. Make sure you have the storage needed for the amount of people and the time you anticipate being in it.
Food – All of your fallout shelter food should not require refrigeration and should be stored in the shelter in advance or brought there in airtight cans or containers. Here again you will probably require less food than normal. You will not be moving around much. Still, the long-term foods you store should have high nutritional value and little bulk (i.e. canned meats, fruits, vegetables, hard candies, etc.).
Sanitation – You won’t have to wash up much – unless someone has to leave the shelter and return. They’ll need to be washed down before reentry. Your biggest issue here will be human waste. A 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid can be used as a toilet and you can buy a toilet seat made for the bucket. Keep plenty of plastic bags on hand. When someone needs to poo, poop in the bag, tie it up tight, and toss it in the entryway. Stash toilet papers inside, soap, sanitary items, etc. in advance.
Medical Supplies – Keep a first aid kit inside or have one ready to go with all of the basic plus any personal medications needed. Any easy solution is to have this already stored inside your bug out bag backpack, and WTSHTF, grab your pack and head into the shelter. Invariably, your bug out bag gear will double as bug in gear.
Clothing and Bedding – You’ll need to sleep. It’s one thing to grab your bug out bag on the way to the shelter, another to grab pillows and bedding. Keep it stashed inside. Any easy way to do this at no additional expense is to simply save old bedding and pillows when you would otherwise throw them out with new.
Portable Radio – You’ll want to know what’s going on up above, whether everyone is turning into zombies or whether it was all just a false alarm. Reception will be weak underground, so plan some type of antenna situation.
Government Fallout Shelter Designs
Before you go perusing all of the various fallout shelter designs, it might be worthwhile to watch this short Civil Defense film from 1960. It was used the in the “Home Preparedness Workshops” held in various communities at the time. This video was #2 of 5.
Some of the plans that follow are from the Civil Defense era, some are from Department of Defense, others are FEMA. I have also included a few designs freely available from the University of Maryland.
Aboveground Shelter Designs
Aboveground shelters may seem like the easiest to construct, and depending on the design that might be the case, but whenever you construct above ground you are losing the natural protection earthen walls provide. Thus, you are often in the situation of trying to mimic a subterranean environment above ground.
Earth-Covered Lumber A-Frame Shelter
This design will provide protection for up to 10 persons. While it might fit 10 people, it is small, offering limited standing space. The advantage of this shelter is that it can be constructed without excavation. Being aboveground, it works well where there is poor drainage or where the water table is close to the surface. However, this shelter is not a cheap structure to construct. You will need footings or thrust ties where the earth is too soft to support the load.
This family shelter is intended for people who need or prefer an aboveground shelter. In general, belowground shelters are far superior and – in some instances – can be more economical to build than an aboveground shelters. This shelter, like most others, can also offer protection from the hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. It will offer only limited protection from the blast and fire effects of a nuclear explosion should you be unfortunate enough to live near the point of impact.
Semi-Mounded Plywood Box
This plywood shelter is principally designed to provide low-cost protection from the effects of radioactive fallout. The materials are all readily available and it can be constructed with relative ease and speed compared to other designs. It will offer up to 3 persons adequate protection from fallout radiation, but only limited protection from the blast itself.
Semi-Mounded Steel Igloo
This shelter design is unique in shape. Think of it like an underground yurt. This design also has low-cost protection as its priority. It is easily assembled compared to other designs, requiring only 4 man-hours to assemble not counting excavation. When coated with mastic, it should last around 10 years.
Basement Shelter Designs
Basement areas are an ideal space to provide the best shelter against the fallout because they are already belowground. This gives them a natural earthen shield. If nuclear fallout is heading your way and you don’t have a shelter, head to a basement. You can provide additional shielding for your basement by constructing:
- Permanent shelters – turning part of your basement into a shelter area or by building a permanent shelter which might appear as a normal part of the home that also serve other purposes.
- Preplanned shelters – locating shielding materials so that should disaster strike, you can assemble your improved shelter quickly.
- Improvised shelters – by taking last-minute actions to assemble additional protection if an emergency warrants it.
There was an entire booklet published by the Department of Defense – Office of Civil Defense on this very subject. That too is available for download.
This booklet tells you the amount of protection your basement offers and what you can do to increase this protection to provide for your family’s safety. If you own a home with a decent basement, a fallout shelter inside your basement almost certainly makes the most sense compared to any other designs.
Concrete Block Shelter
This concrete block, compact shelter is an easy way to provide low-cost protection in your basement. A shelter as tall as the one pictured will not serve many additional purposes beyond maybe a kids’ playhouse, so I prefer some of the other designs here. Still, it’s a simple design that offers speedy construction.
Corrugated Asbestos-Cement Lean-To Shelter
Warning: These fallout shelter design plans call for curved, corrugated asbestos-cement sheets assembled in overlapping fashion. You cannot use or purchase asbestos products because the dangers of asbestos are better understood today. You will have to improvise.
This unique shelter also has the principal advantages of low-cost, readily-available materials. It can be sized to fit your basement and needs. It can also be disassembled, perfect for constructing during times of greater nuclear risk and taking back down when the threat passes or it’s time to sell your house.
Sand-Filled Lumber Lean-To Shelter
It’s hard to get any cheaper than this design. On the flip side, it’s also hard to get any smaller. It’s listed as being able to house 3 persons, but that seems tight to me. It can be scaled, however. Here you have ease of construction, low-cost, and easy to disassemble.
Expedient Shelter Designs
If you cannot or do not want to construct a shelter today, but want the option to construct one quickly should the need arise, expedient fallout shelter designs are for you. Every prepper should at least download (and save) these. Print them off and add them as electronic files to your digital bug out bag.
Although these shelters are very austere, they can save your life. What’s more, there are a number of things that can be done to improve the comfort level after they have been built. Some additional changes that can be made include:
- Constructing seats, hammocks, or bunks.
- Covering the floor with boards, pine boughs, or plastic, and and draping sheets over the earth walls.
- Providing safe, dependable light.
- For hot weather, constructing the expedient air ventilation pump (plans below).
- For cooking, constructing the expedient cook stove to use in the entryway (plans below).
- In cold weather, sealing the entrance and using the stove for heating.
- Storing shelter supplies in entryway for more living space.
Note: Regardless of the expedient fallout shelter designs you download below, you will also want to download these accompanying plans on constructing air ventilations, emergency lamps, and bucket stoves.
Car Over Trench
If you used a vehicle the site of a big station wagon, the shelter can provide protection for up to 6 persons. This shelter will not work in areas where groundwater or rock is close to the ground surface. Two persons working a total of about 8 hours each could excavate and construct a shelter of this type. Just make sure the ground is strong enough so that it doesn’t cave around you from the weight of the vehicle. This is probably the least comfortable design here.
This shelter is good for areas where there is an abundance of small trees. Think of it like a bushcraft fallout shelter. The shelter has a capacity of 5 persons and will take approximately 5 persons working a total of 18 hours each to construct.
This shelter is designed for areas where going belowground is impractical or impossible. The materials needed are a few old doors, lumber, and dirt. This shelter can be built by 4 persons working a total of 10 hours each.
Log-Covered Trench Shelter
This shelter is another type of bushcraft fallout shelter, designed for areas where there are plenty of small trees to use and the groundwater level is below the bottom of the trench. The earth must be sufficiently compact and firm enough so that the sidewalls will not cave in. This shelter with a 4-person capacity can be built by 4 people working 12 hours each.
Ridge Pole Shelter
This is the last of the bushcraft-style shelters, again designed for areas where with an abundance of small trees. The upside to this shelter is that you do not have to excavate, but you will have to shovel lots of earth onto the roof and walls. The shelter has a 5-person capacity and can be built by 5 people working 18 hours each.
Tilt-Up Doors and Earth
You need a masonry wall for this design, ideally located where the ground is level or slopes gently down and away from the wall. It is a 3-person shelter that can be constructed by 3 people working 6 hours each. Simple and quick.
Permanent, underground fallout shelter designs are the Cadillac of all designs. Going below ground is the single best way to protect you and your family from nuclear fallout and even – potentially – the nuclear blast itself. There is a reason the best fallout shelters are bunkers deep underground.
Concrete Home Shelter
The concrete home fallout shelter, designed primarily for homes without basements, is a permanent shelter constructed in the yard where the family can retreat to quickly if the need arose. It is designed to have a protection factor equal to the minimum standard of protection for public shelters in the United States. This assures anyone inside will be protected against radioactive fallout and will also have some protection against the blast and fire effects of nuclear explosions.
Corrugated Steel Culvert Shelter
This shelter will provide low-cost protection from the effects of radioactive fallout. Its primary advantage is that most of the structure is generally available as a prefabricated unit. You can order it, excavate, and simply lower the culvert into the hole. The only thing left then is connecting and covering the ends.
New Construction Clay Masonry Shelter
Building a new house and want a fallout shelter to accompany it? This design is for you. This shelter will not only provides protection from radioactive fallout, but it can also protect from limited blast effects. The shelter is located belowground and outside a house but is accessed from the basement. You can shape it to suit your needs and tie it into the construction of a new house. Because of the abundance of space here, you can use it for other purposes, like maybe a gun safe room, cold storage room, etc.
University of Maryland Fallout Shelter Designs
These few fallout shelter designs were drawn in 1963 by the Cooperative Extension in Agriculture and Home Economics at the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Maryland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture participated in the work.
Above and Below Grade Shelter
These plans include 2 pages, one for an above grade design and the other for a below grade designs. Simple yet effective.
Cast Concrete Storage and Fallout Shelter
I like this design. It’s like a root cellar meets fallout shelter. This is great for the prepper homestead where you want both vegetable storage and fallout shelter options. If the shelter is to be used by more than 6 persons you must provide mechanical ventilation.
Fallout Shelter Designs Summary
Some people claim Cold War nuclear fallout shelters were never going to work. There is a strong argument there when you look at the mismanagement of large-scale public shelters, but that’s not what these designs are. These are fallout shelter designs crafted with the homeowner or individual in mind. Most people, of course, did not actually build these, but some people did and you can still find them in existence today, remnants of a bygone era when people lived in fear of nuclear annihilation.
Times have changed, however… or have they? More countries today have nuclear capacity than during the 1950s and 60. Iran and North Korea are racing to get their own nuclear arsenal. Will we see a time when the government begins advising citizens to construct their own fallout shelter again?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section, and again, if you know of plans not listed here, let me know so I can add them.