On my journey to become a self sufficient, I’ve thought a lot about what makes a good but out shelter. Is it whether or not it has camouflage paint? Is it about having a tower with a gun turret mounted on the top? No and no. A good bug out shelter should be located appropriately from your primary residence (the sweet spot of “close enough to be accessible”, and yet far enough to be unaffected by the same regional disasters affecting your primary residence). It should be secure, comfortable, and low cost. It should be simple, and not add stress to your life. And finally, it should be a place that can double as a vacation spot even when the shit’s not hitting the fan.

One option that checks many of these boxes is an ISBU shipping container shelter. Since 2010, I’ve explored this concept extensively–the pros and cons, the frequently asked questions, the challenges. the prices, and much more. I’ve looked at DIY shipping container builds and prefab options. I got a “behind the scenes” tour from the builder of shipping container house as it was being built (video below). I’ve spoken with manufacturers, consultants, and everybody in between. I originally created this guide in February of 2011, and after 5 years, in February of 2016, published an extensive update.

This guide is not about having a trendy little “Dwell-magazine-quadruple-green-architectural-award-winning-tofu-palace-for-hipsters.” It’s about showcasing the most practical, most doable solutions for building a bug out shelter using shipping containers.  Feel free to scroll through the guide in it’s entirety, or just browse by specific topic below.

ISBUs – The Shipping Container Bug Out Shelter

bug out shelterISBU stands for Intermodal Steel Building Unit, which is basically just a fancy name for a steel shipping container. They have been used in all kinds of applications, including emergency shelters for quite a while now. They’re made of Corten Steel, and extremely rugged. They’re also relatively inexpensive (starting as low as $900), and come in standard sizes of 20′ x 8′ x 8′ or 40′ x 8′ x 8′.

Shipping container shelters can be constructed using a single unit, or for added space, several units can be combined in any configuration you want. More space means more expense (and potentially more complications), but it might be nice if you want your bug out shelter to double as a vacation home, or at least an occasional getaway spot. As with anything however, there are trade-offs. Keep this in the back of your mind, while we explore some really exciting options.

Shipping Container Shelter Amenities…?

Although it may seem like all steel boxes are created equal, you have several options to go above and beyond with your bug out shelter customization. Several companies have jumped on the opportunity to construct and sell ready made solutions that come with electrical, lighting, bathrooms, showers, bunk beds, desks, kitchen equipment, solar and even more.

As a bug out shelter, it seems like the less elaborate you can build one of these, the better. Less elaborate means fewer moving parts, fewer things that can fail and go wrong.

Or you can always opt to just buy the plain ol box, and build the rest on your own. Either way you toss the dice though, they make a great survival solution.

prefab bug out shelter

If you want your ISBU with some of the finer amenities, you may be best off going with a pre-built solution. Companies like Global Portable Buildings offer ISBUs varying degrees of bells and whistles. But in exchange for the amenities and the “one stop shopness” of it, you can expect a healthy price tag.

Upon my inquiry, Global Portable Buildings gave me quotes of 17k and 24k respectively for 20′ and 40′ shipping container homes containing:

  • 110V/ 50 Amp Service electrical system
  • breaker panel
  • light fixtures
  • wall receptacles
  • phone hookup
  • windows
  • entrance door
  • two inches of rigid insulated finished walls/ceiling
  • vinyl floor covering
  • utility room
  • bathroom wall with sliding pocket door
  • toilet
  • shower
  • sink
  • cabinet
  • plumbing
  • and more…

Certainly not as expensive as a house, but not exactly cheap either.

On the other hand, if you can spare the amenities, you can save yourself some serious coin, by just purchasing the shipping container and then making a couple upgrades on your own (such as interior insulation).

It’s A Bug Out Shelter, Not a Frickin’ Rembrandt!

Let’s call a spade a spade. Many of the shipping container projects in existence today are built by people primarily concerned with a sleek modern design. Shipping containers are a convenient ingredient in these builds, because of their clean lines, and industrial vibe. But remember, we’re not in this to build a quirky art project. We’re trying to build a simple, realistic bug out shelter.

Regardless of all the cool things that you CAN do, it’s important to remember that to us preppers, the inherent upsides to using shipping containers in the first place are cost and strength. So the more costs you add by customizing, the less you end up really netting from your smart decision to use a steel box. Added costs could come from cutting in more doors and windows, special finishes, flooring, unique load bearing requirements, where and how you position your container, and much more.

Similarly, if you make modifications to your container(s) to the point where their structural integrity is compromised, once again, you are removing what’s good about them.

You don’t need a fancy, award-winning, Dwell magazine, quadruple green certified, architectural masterpiece. For a bug out shelter, what you need is a sturdy, simple shelter, that can be made comfortable enough to live in.

One Trip Containers

In the shipping container space, many people make reference to “one trip containers.” As the name would lead you to believe, these are containers that have only been used once–essentially new. From everything I can gather, these containers represent a pretty ideal sweet spot in the value matrix. Because they have been used they can’t be sold as new, but they are so lightly used that you will often hear of people getting containers without even a scratch.

Will My Shelter Have Pesticides Or Chemicals In It?

Many people have questions about the chemicals used in shipping container construction. And rightly so, because for many years, the wooden flooring in shipping containers has been treated with pesticides (and/or insecticides) to protect them during their service transporting cargo. In addition to that, the paint and coatings used to surface the steel of a shipping container can contain harmful chemicals as well.

This can pose an obvious problem if we’re going to be housing people in them.

People have dealt with this in a few different ways:

  1. Completely remove the flooring, and replace it with marine-grade plywood. You should be able to purchase this at your local hardware store.
  2. You could also cover it with a non-breathable flooring underlayment, and then install your flooring directly over it.

Remember, you can always contact the manufacturer of a shipping container to get specific information about how your container was constructed (or at least attempt to). See your container’s information plate for more details.

With regards to the harmful paint and coatings, some folks recommend that you coat the interior of your container with spray foam insulation, to prevent any vapor contamination.

You can also avoid this issue altogether if you buy new shipping containers from the manufacturer. Simply tell them that you don’t want the floors treated…. although that will crank up the cost considerably, and in that case, maybe it’s not worth using containers for your shelter after all.

Get Your Shelter Designed By An Architect

If you don’t want to As sort of a middle ground between bare bones and fully loaded, a third option is to hire an architect/contractor who can help you flesh out your shipping container to the level of customization and amenities that you want.

best bug out shelter

Be warned though, when it comes to projects like these, all architects are not created equal. This space is a far cry from high rise hotels, multi-story office buildings or custom residential. Don’t expect every architect to be able to give advice on, or even be familiar with shipping container concepts.

My Questions

I am by no means an expert on the subject yet. But my curiosity is definitely peaked. After doing some digging around online and receiving those quotes from Global Portable Homes, several questions came to mind:

  • How are these shelters connected with outside services (telephone, internet, sewage and wastewater)? Since the website boasts that your shelter can have all these amenities, I’m wondering how it happens. The whole idea is to have the shelter out of harm’s way, not right next door to your 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house on your cul-de-sac (I emailed Global Portable Homes another time, but am still yet to hear back).
  • What legal red tape is there to putting one of these on a piece of property (not that I always dot every “I” and cross every “T”, but it doesn’t hurt to know)?
  • Is there a permitting process for these things to be built?
  • Where can these containers be stored?
  • What are the best sites for your shipping container shelter?
  • What is the best way to transport them to your site?

bug out shelter

Shipping Container Shelter Resources

If you’re ready to dive in, the following are some are some resources I’ve found for people interested in building a bug out shelter with shipping containers:

The Greenest Dollar–article all about living in a shipping container, with it’s own little slew of other shipping resources at the end.

Hive Modular–architects of custom shipping container homes. These guys are into high end design. Not quite my end all, be all resource for a good survival shelter, but still very interesting.

Rennaisance Ronin–cool dude who blogs all about shipping container living, has authored a book about it, and has a ton of great advice!

ISBU-info.org–official association of Intermodal Steel Building Units and Container Homes. For a fee of $18, you can download CAD drawings and complete sets of plans for ISBU homes.

Arktist.com–free CAD drawings of a standard 40′ shipping container shell that can be used as a template for further design.

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