Choosing a Bug Out Shelter – Part One

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One of the most important factors to consider when building a bug out bag is shelter.  Fortunately, there are several options of varying weight, price and purpose that are available.  Depending on your local climate, need for mobility and expectations surrounding things like comfort, your bug out shelter could take on a variety of looks.  Assembling a bug out shelter to suit your needs can also run you anywhere from a few dollars (or less, if you have the materials already) to several thousand (although, in my opinion, these high-end shelters are the exception to the rule).  Please note that I’d suggest using a sleeping bag or blankets in conjunction with all of these systems, which calls for a different set of decisions which won’t be covered here.  Let’s start off at some low-end shelter options and work our way up.

Natural Shelter Building

Don’t do it.  Just don’t.  You’re here, reading this, which means you have a mindset of ‘preparedness’.  In a bug out scenario, your main concern shouldn’t be plying your skills as an expert in bushcraft.  You should have the materials ready, as there’s a good chance the most important resource you’ll need to manage is time!

Tarp Shelter

Two kinds of tarp shelters that I personally recommend – an A-frame layout (set-up shown below compliments of survivalcommonsense.com), or a classic lean-to.  I prefer the A-frame, for the simple reason that it provides more coverage.  A change in wind direction or an unexpected rain could be all that separates you from a reasonable sleep.  A criticism of the A-frame layout is that it limits your proximity to fire vs. a lean-to , but I don’t feel it’s enough of a disadvantage.  Make sure you account for water run-off, nothing better than waking up with a stream running through your site!

What you’ll need:

Pros

Odds are you have most of these materials kicking around the house anyway, so it’s merely a matter of scrounging them up. If not, this is easily the most inexpensive bug out shelter option, short of coming across a prefabricated shelter.  In addition, this is one of the lightest available options, so if keeping mobile and light is an absolute priority, this is the way to go.  I should note that there is a wide range of tarps in terms of quality/price, but it’s all about personal preference.

Cons

Sleep in a Tarp Shelter and you’ll realize what the cons are.  While inexpensive, a tarp shelter provides minimal comfort, and my experiences sleeping in them usually have me laying awake more than I’m asleep.  If you have slept in many a tarp shelter, and think I’m being to soft, feel free to let me know in the comments below!  I’ve got thick skin, but not thick enough to embrace the tarp shelter yet!  The tarp shelter also offers less protection from the elements than other alternatives.  And bugs.  Sweet lord there will be bugs.

Bivy Bag(Bivouac Sack, Bivvy Bag)
Adventure Medical Kits SOL Emergency Bivvy
Adventure Medical Kits SOL Emergency Bivvy

If you aren’t familiar with the bivouac sack (which I’ll refer to as a bivy bag), it is used primarily by hikers and climbers in order to save space and weight in their packs.  Simply put, a bivy bag is a shell that you would throw over your sleeping bag at night – the shell is not only waterproof, but several models actually reflect body heat, making sleeping in the cold a little more tolerable.  These options can zip right up, with the obvious disadvantage being that either your face stays exposed or you cover it and sleep very uncomfortably.  An issue with bivy bags is that they are very susceptible to condensation, created by temperature differences and the moisture from your breath.  Prices on these bad-boys range quite a bit – Adventure Medical has some emergency bivy bags for one and two people, both under $20 (note, I haven’t tried the 2-person).  They both come with a handy stuff-sack for future use, and weigh next to nothing.  There are also much more affordable options, I grabbed the Coghlan’s Emergency Bag for five bucks, as a back-up.

The biggest issue with bivy bags is the breathability – however it sounds like Adventure Medical has come up with a near solution to the problem:

The SOL Escape Bivy allows moisture to escape through small pores  – making sure you don’t wake up damp.  The value of this cannot be overstated, as one of the primary functions of these devices is to keep you dry, no matter what.  I haven’t personally sprung for the Escape yet, but if you have I’d love to here how it performs in the comments below!  Using a bivy bag as a bug out shelter will do more to protect you from the elements, and won’t break the bank.  I’ve also used a tarp in conjunction with a bivy – it’s hard to stuff your backpack somewhere dry, and a tarp will give you a little more coverage.

There are higher end options for bivy bag shelters, by names like Chinook and Sierra Designs, but if you’re going to jump up in price point, I’m looking at bivy shelters (a different thing) as an alternative as well.

Bivy Shelter

Popping up with more and more frequency is a hybrid between a bivy bag and single-person tent – you’ll often hear it referred to as a hooped bivy or bivy shelter.  Weighing a little more, the advantage of these bug out shelters is that they offer the protection of a bivy bag, while providing the room of a tent.  About 6 months ago at the time of this writing I picked up “The Guide” Tarp and Single Pole Bivy Combo from Aqua Quest.  By getting them together I got a nice break in the price, and thrown in was a strap set I have made partial use of.  I used it a few times through the summer, specifically when canoeing over a few days.  What drew me to this combination was that it was lightweight (1.5 kg for the whole shelter).  I also had read into rain protection – while the bivy itself provided a great level of water resistance, the tarp was the kicker – if I knew we were getting dumped on, I could throw that puppy over and sleep well.  As far as breath-ability, I had minor issues – there is a back panel near the head that allows for average airflow, and a fly-screen overhead gives you the option to sleep with a view of the stars and without fear of condensation.  To boot, it took mere moments to set-up and tear down, which would make it a bug-out favorite of mine.

So, I was happy with my purchase.  There was ample room for my Therma-Rest and I, and even my gear.  Last weekend, however, I had a rude awakening.  Temperatures got lower through the night then I had experienced through the summer, and the result was, well, wet.

It might be hard to make out, but the inside of my bivy was sopping wet on the inside.  Seemingly my breath coupled with the cooler temperatures outside and created a perfect storm of moisture.  I had thought about opening the top up and just using the fly, but then I’d be losing out on keeping the temperature regulated to where I wanted it.  Six to one, half-a-dozen to the other, right?

I don’t want to sound like I’m not happy with my purchase.  I’m just a little limited by it.  A bivy shelter is certainly a nice upgrade over a straight bivy sack, but things you need to be mindful of before you spring for one are:

  • Size – how tall are you?  Are you going to need room for you and your bag in this bug out shelter?
  • Climate – is this type of shelter appropriate for the conditions you might be in?  Is there a temperature this shelter is rated for?
  • Material – what’s this bivy shelter made of?  Is it a material that will be prone to excessive condensation?
Snugpak 92860 Stratosphere One Person Bivvi Shelter
Snugpak 92860 Stratosphere One Person Bivvi Shelter

All of these things considered, there are a few names that stuck out, and that I feel comfortable recommending.  Off the top is SnugPak, specifically the SnugPak Stratosphere Shelter.

So here we have a quick run-down on some bug out shelters that you might consider for your bug out bag.  Next time, I’ll be covering a few more alternatives, and then looking at a couple of pipe-dream options.  Everyone’s gotta have a dream, right?

EDIT: Choosing a Bug Out Shelter – Part Two

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Guys, I enjoy your format and your writing style. I’m looking forward to the next installment on this subject a lot! I appreciate the work you’re doing to help people get prepped up!
    Be vigilant, be safe, stay free.

    • Tinkicker,
      Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m ramped up that you enjoy what we’ve been putting up here – I’ll do my best to keep it up!
      Mike

    • Thanks Susan! I’ve been talking to Jake (site partner in crime) about how a ‘to go bag’ or ‘get home bag’ would/does look different than a Bug Out Bag. If you read this, I’d love to hear what you’ve considered!

  2. I thought I’d expand upon my earlier comment, even though this won’t really be relevant to the mission of choosing a shelter that you’ve broached here. Something needs to be said though.
    Guys, I subscribe to feeds from several disaster preparedness sites. Some focus on this or that, and some kind of try to cover every base. There are a million different personalities out there, and usually someone’s attitude in their writing, good or bad, doesn’t make or break whether or not I keep going back to their site. I’m usually all about the knowledge, because that’s actually what’s going to matter on the great day that rivers of S burst forth to HTF. BUT…
    I appreciate the “tone” of your blogosphere. You grab a subject, do the testing and experimentation that’s necessary, and you seem to live a lot of this too with your canoeing and such. That’s what I like to see…that’s where credibility is born…and yes, I could say that EVERY author on every site I regularly peruse most likely does the same thing. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t waste time with them.
    But the difference is in the delivery. You guys describe items and methods and your ideas on the subjects that you cover in the same way that I think about things. It clicks with me. It validates my ideals and my priorities so that I feel confident in doing things the way I do.
    Mission accomplished, gentlemen. You have made my prepping better.

  3. Just one suggestion…any prospects on adding a female tester to the staff? Hearing all of this from a female perspective would be cool, and a good thing for all the lady preppers out there.

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