Shelter is one of the primary needs of all people, secondary only to water and food. Shelter is needed to keep you safe from wind and weather, and also to provide a warm, dry place to rest and recuperate. During an emergency without electricity, many modern homes will still keep the weather at bay but may prove insufficient against the onslaught of frigid temperatures.
Even during short power outages, many people have died when snow and ice disabled the electricity their furnaces needed to keep their homes warm. For example, in 2012 a woman in Chicago died when a snowstorm knocked out the power and turned her home into an icy tomb, and she was but one of 5 deaths during that winter season! Furthermore, emergencies can leave your home in shambles: Hurricanes and tornadoes frequently tear roofs off of homes, and earthquakes can bring whole rooms down.
Thankfully, there are ways to keep warm when your home’s walls are insufficient to keep the proper temperature or even destroyed outright. Common household materials can allow you to create an additional shelter inside the one you already have, protecting you from the chill.
Many designs with certain essential elements
The build suggested here is but one design of many that could be attempted. Depending on your needs, you could modify or expand on this concept to fit what you and your family would require. Indeed, you could even add additional improvements to create a shelter suitable for rougher use outside if the need arose. Just keep in mind these essential design elements when crafting your own homemade shelter.
- Repel wind and drafts at all costs. If you’ve ever been outside in cold weather, you know that sharp, chilling winds can make even 40-50 degree temperatures unbearable within a few hours. Wind chill is deadly, and can greatly speed the onset of both hypothermia and frostbite.
- Keep water at bay. Water can actually be more difficult to deal with than wind in some cases, particularly if the disaster requires that your shelter be exposed to rain.
- Contain your body heat. Although a fire or other heat source definitely can help, the chief goal is to ensure that you don’t cause your body temperature to drop. Not only can hypothermia and frostbite result, but the additional energy required to constantly maintain proper inner heat against the cold also burns off extra calories you may need.
- Layers are your friend. It can be tempting to trust in a few thick layers of material, but in many cases having many thinner layers can be much more effective at keeping you warm and dry.
- Be careful with open flames and other heat sources. Many of the common materials you will be using will be quite flammable. Be intelligent and careful when using any heat sources, but particular care should be taken with candles, oil lamps, and campfires that have an open flame.
Now that you’ve got some essential ground rules, let’s look at our materials. There are three key layers to the shelter, and each will need different design considerations and materials.
- The Outer Layer. This can help somewhat to contain heat, but is mainly designed to protect you from the world outside. Primarily, you’ll want to look at cardboard (the thicker and more durable the better) or Styrofoam (if not common around your house, many building sites and craft and hobby store dumpsters would be a good Styrofoam scavenging source during an emergency) and coat it in several layers of plastic wrap. The wrap not only helps cover up corners and reduce drafts, but can also protect vulnerable cardboard from rain and melting snow. Naturally, you’ll also need a fair amount of duct tape to keep everything together.Crumpled paper is a great insulator and pretty easy to find.
- The Middle Layer. Technically should be multiple smaller layers, and they can all be made of the same material. With the rain and wind taken care of, the middle layer is intended to create dead airspace between you and the outside world. Foam, crumpled newspaper and magazines, and any other loose packing material does a great job here. The key here is insulation, so any material that is designed to insulate in your home can work here as well.
- The Inner Layer. This is the layer you’ll be touching directly on the inside, and as such it needs a few special considerations. Besides adding additional insulators, you need a comfortable resting place and the ability to clean it out periodically. Pillows, blankets, and big thick couch cushions all make for a comfortable shelter, and keep you off of the heat-leeching floor. Additionally, you can remove them when needed to air them out and wash your sweat out of them. If you happen to have a futon or even a small foam mattress, these can work great as well.
Optionally, fix up the “Home Layer”
There are three layers to your shelter, but the room you choose to build it in may require some reinforcement as well. Plastic wrap and crumpled newspaper on all the windows in that room act as additional insulation, making your shelter all the more snug. A few rags stuffed under the doorways leading to the room can also help prevent heat from escaping. I call this optional because depending on how snug your shelter becomes you may wish to allow a small amount of cold in if it becomes stifling.
How to build a simple A-Frame shelter
A-Frames are a common way of constructing a shelter when building structures out of natural materials like leaves and sticks out in the wild, and they’ll serve you well here. The triangular shape is strong, and with cardboard or foam sheets it’s extremely easy to make.
- Determine how many people need to fit in the shelter. Obviously a little A-frame designed to keep one person warm is going to need less material than one designed for a family of four. A single older TV or refrigerator box will usually hold one person, but you will have to tape several boxes together to accommodate a family in a single shelter.
- Fold your boxes into a rough triangular shape. If you’re using flat sheets of cardboard or Styrofoam you’ll need to tape them into the proper shape,while reused boxes will need to have a single side cut free to fold in and make the triangle.
- Cut a triangular “back door” and cover it in insulating material.Attach by taping it to the back of your shelter. This “door” doesn’t have to be removable if you don’t need it to open, but it does need some newspaper or triangular piece of foam attached to the inside to insulate it thoroughly. If you would like it to open, make sure you only tape one side to form a “hinge”, and make a handle out of cord or rope for easy opening/closing.
- Cover the outside in plastic wrap, trash bags, or other water resistant material. I recommend this even if you don’t plan on exposing the shelter to the outside. The plastic can help maintain heat somewhat, and protects the cardboard from incidental spills. It also acts as a very slight buffer between flammable cardboard and any other heat sources.
- Attach your middle layer insulating materials to the inside walls. Large pieces of foam can be stapled or taped directly. For smaller insulators like newspaper, it can be easier to tape some trash bags to the inside walls, leaving the openings to be filled with the smaller pieces before sealing them shut with tape as well.
- Cover the floor in a layer of insulating material from your Inner Layer pile. Time to break out the cushions or blankets and cover the floor of your shelter. Remember, you can lose a great deal of heat via the floor when you’re sleeping, so protect yourself thoroughly.
- Cut a front door to your new shelter. In this case, do not add extra insulation to the door. You need a place for moisture from your breath to escape, so you want a few small cracks and drafts by the front door to cycle some fresh air inside. Again, use some tough cord or rope for a handle on the inside and outside of the door so you don’t keep bending the cardboard to open and close it.
- Reinforce all joints with tape for durability.
- Enjoy your toasty new home! On average, your body temperature alone can increase the heat of a smaller shelter by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, potentially more the more people you have with you.
Some helpful tips when deciding how to build your structure.
- You can always build multiple smaller shelters next to one another, if you are having trouble keeping the cardboard stiff enough to to support a larger shared shelter.
- I would recommend building at least two other small one-man A frames to be used for people who are sick or suffering from injuries, since they won’t be able to share the community shelter until they’re better.
- If you do wish to have a shelter that can survive the outdoors, you should add several layers of cardboard and tape them together, with plenty of plastic wrapped in between each layer to keep the rain from creeping in. The middle and inner layers are largely unchanged regardless unless temperatures are truly horrific (think below 10 degrees consistently) in which case you should pile on as much insulation as you can.
It’s always good to have some redundancies available, particularly where shelter is concerned. Make sure you are ready to cobble together a homemade shelter so you can be safe and warm even in the toughest conditions.
Then once you’ve mastered the cardboard shelter, you can just up and build your whole house out of the stuff!
Add your ideas!
Shelters like these can be built in a dozen different ways. Do you have an idea on how to make these better? Let us know and share your ideas in the comments below.
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