How to build an above ground safe room?

Jake Buckland Do-It-Yourself Emergency Kit

How to build an above ground safe room?


One of the common themes within the pepping movement is that of building bunkers. For some, this is almost like a holy grail; the ultimate in preparedness. But I’m not so sure they’re right in the assumptions behind their thinking.

The idea of bunkers began with artillery. I’m not talking about modern field artillery, with cannons, but the trebuchets and catapults of the Middle Ages. When a castle was under siege, women, children, the elderly and the infirmed went to the storage rooms under the great keep, which was typically the safest place from the barrage.

As time went on and military technology advanced, the idea of artillery never went away. Instead, artillery become more powerful and was augmented by something even more dangerous, bombs dropped from airplanes. The need for bunkers continued.

But bunkers aren’t used this way for prepping. Rather, preppers build them to protect themselves from social unrest and mob violence. There’s just one problem with this idea; bunkers aren’t good for that. They all have the same weakness, the air inlet. All that a mob would have to do is back up a pickup truck to the air intake and run a hose from the truck’s exhaust to the air inlet. Within a few minutes the occupants would come boiling out of their bunker or they would die.

For this reason, it’s better to have an above-ground safe room, rather than a bunker. But what’s a safe room? Basically, it’s a small, bullet-proof room, where the family can retreat in the case of a home invasion or if the home is under attack. Typically only built into wealthy homes, it’s possible to build your own safe room, as long as you have the necessary space in your home.

Building a Safe Room

A safe room really only has to protect your family for a limited period of time. If we’re thinking worst-case scenarios, a few days. By then, police or rescue workers should be able to get there, even in the worst circumstances.

Typically, safe rooms are built using fiberglass or Spectra-shield panels. Both come in a variety of thicknesses, designed to withstand different calibers of bullets. Either material is fairly easy to cut, with standard construction tools and can be attached to wall studs and ceiling joists, just like drywall. It can then be covered with either drywall or paneling to hide it.

A room built like this, with a cement floor, only has one weak point, that’s the door. But it’s common to put in a bullet-resistant door as well, which has a core made of the same bullet-resistant materials and a steel frame, so that it can’t be broken out easily.

There’s just one problem with all this… it’s extremely expensive to buy the panels necessary to build such a room. I suppose that’s why it is normally found only in mansions.

But what if there was a cheaper way to make a bullet-resistant wall? Would it be worth it? Of course it would. That would allow you and I to build a safe room for our families, without having to spend a fortune. And the good news is, according to my tests, there is.

I had to do a considerable amount of ballistic testing a couple of years ago, testing various ballistic materials to see how bullet-resistant they were. Amongst the various things I discovered, was that 3 ½” of packed sand will stop a high-velocity 9mm bullet. Of all the standard bullet calibers (with the exception of the FN 5.7) this is the bullet with the best penetration. Even a .44 magnum won’t penetrate farther than a 9mm bullet will.

Since a standard wall is made with 3 ½” of space in it, all we would have to do is fill that space with sand, in order to have a fairly good bullet-resistant wall; and it would be a whole lot cheaper than the Spectrashield or fiberglass panels.

Now, here’s the problem. The studs in the wall don’t offer the same level of protection. Should anyone shoot at the stud with a 9mm pistol, their round would go through the wall. So, the secret to overcoming this problem is to build a thicker wall, with staggered studs, so that there is no place where the same stud touches both sides of the wall. That way, there will always be sand to stop the bullet.

There are a few other important construction details to consider. If we were to take a standard drywall clad wall and fill it with sand, we would bust out the drywall. So instead of making the wall with drywall, we’d need to skin it over with plywood and the plywood would have to be attached to the walls with screws, rather than nails.

So we’d want to build the entire wall, leaving a gap at the top that could be used to fill the wall with sand. Then the wall would need to be vibrated, so as to pack the sand down, so more sand could be added at the top. Once that was done, the wall could be closed up and skinned over with drywall or paneling to finish it. The only vulnerable point will be that gap at the top, but the bad guys won’t know about that.

Stocking Your Safe Room

Just building a safe room isn’t enough. You have to prepare it for use. Basically, you need enough inside that room to take care of your family for a few days. This means:

  • Some means of communication to call for help
  • Water
  • Food
  • Chemical toilet
  • A means of keeping warm (blankets, coats)
  • Firearms and ammo (for when you come out)

An emergency kit from Practical Emergency Kits is an ideal starting point for this. you would probably want to add some extra water, and don’t forget about the other items on that list.



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