On my journey to become a self sufficient, I’ve thought a lot about what makes a good bug 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.
Why ISBU Shipping Containers For A Bug Out Shelter?
ISBU 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 Strength
One of the biggest advantages in using shipping containers for a bug out shelter is their inherent strength. Having a strong metal box is a great thing for a bug out shelter. Think about it–when you use a shipping container, you have a structure that is:
- fire resistant
- storm resistant
- can stand up to earthquakes
- has some ballistic protection (though certainly not bulletproof)
- and is quite literally, “seaworthy”
Shipping containers are made to withstand the abuse that comes with making trans-oceanic trips carrying cargo. They’re constructed of “Corten” steel, which is an exceptionally tough alloy that is corrosion resistant, and made to weather well. As many people will tell you, their real strength of it’s shipping container is in its frame, which is strong enough to support the weight of several other shipping containers being stacked on it during transit.
How Much Will A Shipping Container Shelter Cost?
The other major advantage of using a shipping container as a bug out shelter is its cost. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to make a shipping container shelter expensive, but if you play your cards right, it’s possible to land of these puppies really affordably.
On the used market, you can snag shipping containers for $2,000 – $5,000, and if you opt to buy a new, ready-to-go, “prefab” container bug out shelter, you can find units that are insulated, plumbed out, fitted with electrical, lights, floors, toilet, shower, doors, windows and rooms starting at around $20,000. Obviously this is a significant price difference, but that difference in price also represents an equally substantial gap in the amount of work, time, hassle and headaches that are involved in creating your bug out shelter.
And either way you look at it–that’s a cheap house! The question of whether to buy a prefab shipping container home, or build your own DIY unit is a significant one. The good news is that no matter which route you end up going, there are some really great options for you to take advantage of. And while there are certainly cheaper bug out shelters out there, ISBU bug out shelters truly can be a “moneywise” investment.
Off Grid or Grid Tied?
How about their potential for being off grid? Yep, this is another area where these units check the box as great options as great bug out shelters. Why? Well, plain and simple, because they’re small. So much of the overall wattage equation is determined by size alone, so this is another area where shipping containers fit the bill.
The other really big component of being able to make your container shelter grid independent is insulation. Heating and cooling applications account for so much of the energy we use in our homes, so if you can minimize the need for them through robust insulation, then you can significantly increase your chances of being able to be fully off grid (This is a big reason why I am in love with insulated concrete homes as well).
Even though shipping containers start off as an insulation nightmare, there are some fairly simple things that can be done to quickly improve them. Apart from size and insulation, here’s a handful of things that will help you in your quest to make your shipping container cabin free of the grid:
- Location-appropriate energy source: While solar panels are becoming a more affordable and reliable option every day, they’re not the only technology to consider. If your bug out cabin will be in an area of high biomass, wood gasification is a really smart technology. By superheating wood, a combustible gas is produced that can be used in cooking, heating, and electrical generators. Propane is another inexpensive and versatile fuel that can be used to power your container shelter. Think about it, people have been using propane to power RV appliances for years (and more recently tiny homes). Micro-hydro is a little bit more complicated to set up, but If you’ll be next to a source of consistently flowing water, micro-hydro is an option. The point is, take a good look at your context, and figure out which alternative energy option(s) makes the most sense.
- Low-wattage appliances and fixtures: As was already mentioned, the most electrically-demanding applications are those that deal with heating and cooling. And this is true of appliances. The biggies are the fridge, and your cooking source. If you can figure out a good energy plan for those two, you have won. Cooking with propane is a smart and easy option, and you can actually get a propane fridge as well. In the colder months, maybe you cook with a wood stove.
- Heating with a wood stove: In the colder months, this is a no-brainer. You will not find a more affordable way to heat your bug out shelter. Wood is frequently free, or very low cost. Likewise wood stoves are really inexpensive (look for deals in your local classifieds). A wood stove can double has a cooking source, and if you get the right stove, can heat water for showers and baths as well. One of the least-celebrated but most-important aspects of heating your home with a wood stove is the fact that it has very few fail points. It’s low tech!
- Passive solar design: In most major cities of today, people don’t give a hoot about designing a structure for efficient use of passive solar, but it plays a big part in the off grid equation. What is “passive solar?” Put simply, it means designing for maximum heat gain during the colder months, and minimum during the hot. Think about how you can you place your shipping container shelter on the land that you have to make use of shade trees. Think about where the sun rises and sets in the hot and cold months. Can you position your shelter so that the windows are getting full sunlight in the winter, and only part in the summer? Can you shade your house with inexpensive overhangs? How about a roof shading system? The principle of passive heat exchange is: lessen your need to rely on heating or cooling systems, by first designing your home to be less hot or cold to begin with.
- Solar hot water: If you are serious about going off grid, hot water may very well be something that you just have to go without, because of the logistics and costs associated with it. Hot water heating units are a big electrical draw, and many can’t even be run on a generator. However, if you can rig up some solar hot water heating panels, you can have free hot water for days. If you’re not familiar with how this works… it gets HOT. Literally, the water that comes out of hot water panels can be boiling on a sunny day. If you are planning to spend a fair amount of time in your shipping container shelter, I would look into this. If not, then save yourself the hassle and expense, and decide to go without.
Getting Your Shipping Container Delivered
Whether you purchase a prefab shipping container home, or decide to make it a DIY project, the transportation and delivery of your home is pretty straightforward. Your container will come on an 18-wheel truck. This means the location where you’re planning to have your shelter needs to be accessible by truck.
Have this aspect well thought out ahead of time. If you have questions about this, it’s usually a good idea to touch base with the freight company and let them know what you have in mind. Trucks are able to access some pretty crazy places, but just make sure it’s possible. Sometimes you can even forward them photos or a quick video clip.
Lock It Up Tight
One final benefit to using a shipping container for a bug out shelter is that they have the potential to be really secure while you’re not in them. This depends largely on how you build them, but if you keep the container mostly true to its original form, then it’s a steel box remember? Many people build their shipping container cabins to make use of the original doors on the ends. When it comes time to leave, they shut the doors up tight, just like they would be if the container was making a trip across an ocean. Pretty cool right?
Obviously the windows and other places that you make modifications by cutting into the walls of your shelter are potential weak points. And if you watched the movie “Safe House”, then you know that no structure is impenetrable. Even so, your shipping container will likely present itself as a tougher target than many. And at the very least, you can rest assured that your bug out shelter will be inaccessible to wild animals, insects, rodents, and other pests.
Amenities of Prefab Shipping Container Shelters
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. The prefab option makes a lot of sense to me, because well, it’s already done.
It’s true that if you basically just want a steel box, you can probably handle a couple small modifications on your own. And if you’re a serious DIYer, then by all means, then handle that Corten canvas! But for many of us, even if we do have the know-how and tools to handle some construction, sometimes it just boils down to a matter of time. If you have a full-time job, a family, or other obligations, building shipping container shelter could take months or even years to put together. Prefab shipping container home builders have the advantages of experience, and connections. This can work in your favor, if it means that you’ll end up with a better product.
At the end of the day, going with a prefab shipping container will save you a ton of time. It could very well end up being close to the same price as well. As a bug out shelter, it seems like the less elaborate you can build one of these, the better.
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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, these containers can make a great survival solution.
If you want your ISBU with some of the finer amenities, you may be best off going with a pre-built solution. Several companies offer cargo container homes containing:
- 110V/ 50 Amp Service electrical system
- breaker panel
- light fixtures
- wall receptacles
- phone hookup
- entrance door
- two inches of rigid insulated finished walls/ceiling
- vinyl floor covering
- utility room
- bathroom wall with sliding pocket door
- 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).
Advice: 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.
Like I said in the beginning, 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.
Advice: Look For One Trip Containers
If you are deciding to DIY your shipping container bug out cabin, then you will have a myriad of options along the way (many of which are addressed at the top of this guide). One piece of advice in acquiring your containers is to look for “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 price/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 Bug Out Cabin Have Pesticides Or Chemicals In It?
Some 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 t his in a couple different ways:
- Completely remove the flooring, and replace it with marine-grade plywood. You should be able to purchase this at your local hardware store.
- 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 purchase a prebuilt shipping container shelter, but you also don’t want to DIY it completely on your own, a third “middle-ground” 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.
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 Shipping Container Tour
In April of 2013, I was able to tour a shipping container home being built in Salt Lake City. If interested, check out the video here: