How to Dig an Underground Shelter

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A storm is on the horizon and you want your family to be safe. If you have planned ahead, you can escape into your own underground shelter. This is one of the safest places to go to in the event of a catastrophic event such as a tornado. Done properly, your shelter will provide you and your family with a secure refuge in times of great need. As you plan your underground shelter, take into account the various factors which may affect where and how you dig it.

Underground shelter entrance
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Things You'll Need

  • Site map for your property
  • Backhoe
  • Shovel
Step 1

Determine the size of the shelter to be dug. Decide how many people will use the shelter, and for how long. If this is strictly to be a storm shelter it can be fairly small. Allow about six square feet of floor space per person. However, if you might need shelter for more than a few hours at a time, consider making the shelter larger. Add space for sleeping, eating, food and water storage, and a toilet area. You will need a minimum of fourteen square feet of space per person.

Man puts final touches to storm safe room door in Neosho, Missouri
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Step 2

Decide how you will enter your shelter and how deep you want it to be. An underground shelter can either be attached to your home and entered through an underground tunnel from your basement, or the shelter can be separate from the house and have a separate entrance. Your shelter needs to have at least one foot of earth as a ceiling, but two to three feet is even better. How you want to enter your shelter may affect how deep you end up digging, so consider both options. A shelter entered through a basement is most likely going to be deeper than one entered from the surface.

Young girl plays in newly constructed tornado shelter in Joplin, Missouri
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Step 3

Locate the best spot in which to dig your shelter. Take into account the local terrain, avoiding the obvious hazards such as trees, waterways, driveways and roads. Consider the impact of livestock, vehicles and other possible above-ground hazards on your shelter. Place the shelter in an area where it will be safe from heavy overhead traffic of any sort.

A storm shelter among tornado damage in Piedmont, OK
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Step 4

Identify where all utilities are that might affect your shelter. Be sure you avoid water and power lines, septic systems and sewer pipes, telephone lines and any other utilities which might be in the area. Check with your local planning department to find the location of many of these. Contact each utility company involved for specific information on where the lines run on your property. Some properties will have a sign posted with a number to call before digging. If you have such a sign at your place, call the number to get complete information on the location of your underground utilities.

Backhoe in residential backyard
Elena Elisseeva/iStock/Getty Images
Step 5

Dig your shelter in the way that works best for you. A small shelter can be dug by hand, but it will be a lot of hard work and will not be accomplished quickly. If you want to have a shelter which does not require roofing to be added, this will be the only way you can do it. However, if you do not want to dig your shelter out one shovel-full at a time, the use of a backhoe is essential. Small ones can be rented by the hour from local equipment yards, allowing you to do the digging yourself. Larger backhoes, complete with operator, can be rented through local excavation companies. These can quickly do the digging for your underground shelter. Once dug, your shelter is ready for you to cover, brace and stock with supplies.

Men anchor a safe room below a car garage
Julie Denesha/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Tips & Warnings

  • Even if you do not expect to need your shelter for long periods of time, it is a good idea to stock it with some emergency supplies and equipment. Flashlights, a radio, extra batteries, blankets, a camping toilet (especially if you have children) and a three-day supply of nonperishable food and water for each family member will help make you more comfortable should you happen to need your shelter for longer than anticipated.
  • Any kind of an underground construction has the potential for danger. Be careful to make sure the structure is sound and safe from collapse. Also be sure it has adequate airflow. Do not use any kind of fire in the shelter for heating or cooking unless special provisions are made for ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

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