February 8, 2010

873 words 5 mins read

Disaster Prep: Shelter

This post is part of a series on disaster preparedness. Each entry will cover one part of the preparations I’m making for a “disaster kit”, along with why I’m including the items, how important they are, and how much it cost. See the initial posting for more details.

Directly after there is a disaster that has destroyed your home, having decent shelter may seem like a fairly unimportant detail, but it isn’t. Think about when you go camping, what is one the first things you pack? A tent and a sleeping bag, which translates to… yup, “shelter”. If you live anywhere there is a chance of precipitation, you are going to want someway to stay reasonably dry. If you are going to be on your own for longer than 72 hours, having decent shelter is that much more critical.

Tarp/Plastic Sheeting (Importance — High — 4/5)

This is one of the easiest and cheapest ways of having shelter. You can run a length of rope between two trees, lay your plastic sheeting over the rope, then pull out the corners with more rope. Within a few minutes you’ve got yourself a basic tent. Should you have a wall or fence to use, you can attach the tarp to it (via rope or rocks or duct tape) and put weights on the other end (a few feet from the wall) and you’ve got a lean to. My personal preference is to go to the painting department at Home Depot and get some 1mil plastic drop cloth. It is small (a few inches when packaged), cheap and sizable. Now the down side is that the plastic drop clothes aren’t exactly the toughest material; they can easily be punctured or torn. You can get one of those heavier duty ‘all purpose’ tarps that have grommets built in but you’ve got to be careful with those because they seem to degrade and fall apart.

Sleeping bag (Importance — Handy — 2/5)

If you’ve got an extra old sleeping bag and the space, I highly recommend including a sleeping bag in your supplies. Surviving after a disaster is hard work and a decent night sleep will make life so much better. Especially since exhaustion can lead to poor decisions and an increased incidence of getting sick. Outdoors stores like REI sell sleeping bags that compact down to very small sizes, and will keep you warm in the very coldest of temperatures, but they’ve got a few downsides. First off, they can be very expensive, not something you want to put into a disaster kit (hopefully never to be seen again) unless you’ve got plenty of money to burn. Secondarily, those compactable sleeping bags work best if you store them in their uncompacted state.

Solar Blanket (Importance — Critical — 5/5)

Don’t want to pack an entire sleeping bag? Put in a solar (thermal) blanket. You find them in almost every serious emergency kit (especially ones for cars) for a reason. They a small, lightweight and keep your warm. You can even buy them in quantity online. One of the great things about solar blankets is that they have multiple uses. For example you can use them as a giant signal mirror, you can also use one as a mini-tent or anywhere else you might need some sort of small tarp.

Poncho (Importance — High — 4/5)

Tarps and such are great, if you don’t need to move around in the rain, but if you live somewhere that gets a lot of rain (like the Pacific Northwest), you will have to exit your impromptu shelter and go out into the rain. It is just as important to stay dry when you are working hard, as when you are trying to sleep. During these excursions, use a poncho. You can get the cheap plastic ones at Target for less than $2 each. As with the plastic drop clothes they are small, light, prepackaged and cheap. Of course they are also not designed to stand up to the rigors of sharp things.


With the exception of the sleeping bag, these items are very small and very cheap. There is really no reason not to include them or similar substitute. Look around your house and see what you might have; for example you could use the rain fly off of an old tent instead of plastic tarps. Should you have extra plastic sheeting/tarping, you could simply use that and a knife (You did pack a knife, right?) to make an impromptu poncho. Thermal blankets are sold everywhere and shouldn’t be skipped.

There are two more things I think are important to mention. I did not list a price for sleeping bags because I, myself, will not be packing one, I simply don’t have the space (or a spare). Secondarily, I made no mention of any “serious business” shelter like a proper tent. That is because tents tend to be expensive, and take up valuable space. Personally, I’d take rope, a plastic tarp and an extra weeks worth of food over having a “real tent”, in case of emergency.