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Fire is the great equalizer, reducing everything it touches to ashes. When devastation hits, scorching your neighborhood to blackened ruins, other accommodations must be made—and made quickly.

All your belongings are packed into a vehicle that’s running on fumes. Hotels, hostels, shelters and FEMA trailers are out of reach, and hoards of pillagers can be seen sifting through the debris. They would kill to get their hands on your supplies, so you’ve got to find a safe place to hole up—and there’s little time to waste in making it secure.

You can use many different items in an urban or rural environment to aid you in shelter-building, but obviously, abandoned houses and other structures provide great shelter. However, finding safe shelter is another story entirely.

Here’s how to do it on a shoestring budget.

Security Concerns

While in the woods, the biggest concern to your safety is the local wildlife, and, yes, it can be a concern. For the most part, wildlife will leave you alone. Building fires and hanging your food high in a tree are some good ways to deter animals from entering your camp.

However, in both urban and rural environments, people are the security threat … and they aren’t so easily deterred. In fact, building a fire is a good way to alert them to your existence and position—two things that are best to avoid in this current situation. For the most part, being invisible is the key to survival on the streets.

Finding abandoned homes or other structures may be among the best shelter you can get, but they can also be among the most dangerous. Keep in mind that even potentially more dangerous is the possibility that other people in your same predicament might also seek refuge in the same structure. That has the potential for being okay, but the reality of it is, most people unused to being in a survival situation can become desperate and willing to steal whatever meager possessions you may have and are probably willing to use violence to achieve that goal, if necessary. Consequently, it’s best to take a few extra steps to ensure your invisibility and safety.

Picking The Right Room

When you find the right house or structure to use for shelter, it is important to slowly and quietly walk through and make sure it isn’t already inhabited; be very careful not to spook somebody; you don’t know what they are capable of or what kind of weapon they have. Once you have cleared the house, you need to start thinking about the safest room in the house for you to sleep in. You don’t want to just walk in the front door, lie down and start sleeping. Even if you are so tired you don’t think you can go on any longer, you can—and you need to.

Ideally, you want a room that is farthest from any entrances into the house/structure, so that you have time to wake up and prepare for trouble when you hear your alert system triggered. It is also a good idea to find a room that, if possible, has only one window—you don’t want too many access points into the room, but you also want to be sure you have an immediate exit point out of the house/structure.

Avoid basements and second-story rooms. While you should make sure to check them during your initial sweep of the house, don’t ever stay in them. Basement rooms generally only have small windows that are high on the wall, so they offer no real means of escape in an emergency; and second-story rooms will require a long jump if you need to evacuate quickly.

Sleep Specifics—Minimal Visibility

The decision of where to actually lie down and sleep in the room you’ve selected is as important as the selection of the room, itself. As with everything else in this article, the main objective is minimal visibility. The key details to pay attention to are: which way the door opens (if possible, you want to stay on the opposite side of the opening); look for the darkest corners of the room; stay on the same wall as the window (so that when/if somebody looks in, they will not be able to see you); and pick an area of the room farthest from any/all opening(s). This will give you a little more time to realize when someone has entered your inner sanctum and to react appropriately.

Setting Up Early-Alert Systems

The whole point of this article is about security and setting up some form of early-alert system when you have nothing—no money, no gadgets and limited supplies (if any). Even if you have supplies, I recommend saving them, because you can find everything you need to build these early-alert systems for free.

This is the part that will take a little legwork, although you can be doing this throughout the day as you traverse the city while trying to find an appropriate shelter. I would recommend finding some kind of small bag for carrying everything. You can find bags near almost any grocery store, even if you have to look in the dumpster in the back (which will probably yield most of your supplies). Just make sure to find one that is clean and dry; you don’t want to be carrying around a nasty, smelly bag.

You also want to find as much string as you can. It can be any kind: old shoestring, dental floss, twine; anything will do. You can’t have too much of it. Even if you don’t use it in your early-alert systems, cordage is a valuable commodity during any survival situation.

Finally, collect as much noisy stuff as you can find—beverage or food cans or anything that will make a good racket if you drop it on the ground. You will want quite a few of these items, as well, because you don’t know how many doors and windows you will need to secure.

The only thing left to gather will be sticks. You can find them laying around the structure (after all, they’re sticks; they’re everywhere).

Setting Up A Trip Line

Despite its name, a trip line isn’t intended to actually trip an intruder (it may trip them up for a second, but it will be negligible). Rather, it is intended for use in a room that has no door— it’s entirely possible that the home or structure you found is missing all its interior doors, so this might be your best (or only) option.

The most effective way to set this up is on the inside of the door for less visibility. If that is not possible, don’t worry: Intruders will probably think it is just some innocuous trash if they can’t see the string, itself.

Attach a string to a box about a foot off the ground (dental floss will work best, because it will be less visible). One easy way to do this is to tie a knot on the end and wedge it into the cardboard at a corner where the lid meets the box; this will hold it firmly in place.

Next, make sure you have enough string to go across the doorway with about a foot and a half extending past the other side. Tie your cans to the end of the string.

Finally, take a stick with a “Y” shape at one end that is approximately the same height as the box, and lay the string through the Y with the cans hanging freely. Then, lean the stick against the doorframe and wall to hold it in place.

When someone walks through the trip line, it will bring the whole operation down, making enough racket to startle the intruder and wake you up.

Trip Line 101 Key Points: Small animals may set off the trip line, and it will be hard to get back to sleep afterward when your heart is pounding. When you get up in the middle of the night to take care of business, don’t forget to step over the trip line. If you don’t, you will startle yourself— making it hard to go back to sleep and causing a noise that could attract undue attention, as well (not to mention the frustration of having to reset it in the dark).

Setting Up A Door Alert

Setting up a door alert is one of the easiest and quickest setups, but it is vital, because it is the main entryway into the home and/or room you are staying in. This setup will also work for windows, but here is a different setup for windows to show another option that will work for either:

Find a small twig that is very thin so it can be wedged into a tight spot. Simply tie your cans to the string, and tie the string to the twig.

Then, open the door just a crack, wedge the twig into the top of the door, and shut the door.

When the door is opened, the twig will dislodge, and the cans will come crashing down— causing enough commotion to startle a would-be intruder and wake you up.

The same setup will work in a window: Open the window a crack, place the twig under the window, and close the window down onto it. If you use a small enough twig, you should still be able to lock the window if it has a working lock.

Door Alert Fundamentals: If the door has a lock but you can’t activate it with the door alert in place, using the lock is the better and safer option. If you are using the lock but cannot also utilize the door alert, you can still create an alert system; it just won’t be quite as loud and definable. Most doors open to the inside, so you can simply stack your cans in front of the door or hang them from the doorknob for a minimalized alert system. Ideally, placing the cans on top of the door will cause far more noise when they fall (especially if the room is carpeted).

Setting Up A Window Alert

For most windows, you can use the same alert system as you used for the doors, but, in the event you run out of string, there is another way. This one is a little harder, because there is a balancing act involved. Nevertheless, it is just as effective and will also work for a door.

Find two small twigs. Try to make them small enough for you to close the window as far as you can, hopefully enabling you to engage the lock (if there is a working one installed) and one longer stick.

Open the window just a crack, place the two small twigs into the window frame and close the window down onto them. Then, weave the larger stick in between the two twigs parallel to the wall alongside the window.

Balance your cans on the stick, leaning them against the wall for support. (Note that for the photo, I used larger twigs so they are more visible. But you will need to use very small twigs for the actual setup.

When the window is opened, it will disengage the larger stick, causing the cans to fall to the floor.

Window Alert Basics: As with the door alert, locks are always preferable. If the window has a lock and it is in good working condition, opt for it over the alert system. However, if the locks are old, they can be picked fairly quietly or broken fairly easily. In this case, stack your cans on the top of the bottom windowpane for your makeshift alert system. Make sure you place the stick along the wall and far enough away from it so your cans are leaning inward. Sometimes, it looks as if your can is balanced, but it might fall in the middle of the night if it is not, giving you a false alarm.

Plan For Everything

Ideally, you will never have to use any of these early-alert systems, but life has a tendency to move us in directions we never expect. We spend a lot of our time preparing for emergencies, disasters and “end of the world as we know it” scenarios, but sometimes, it is also important to prepare for the sudden possibility of losing it all. We never know what could come along and strip us of our worldly possessions and leave us with nothing but our minds to see us to another day.

However, the good news is that as long as we have knowledge, we have enough to get by. And remember: While you are spending your time and money gathering supplies to keep you and your family alive when things fall apart, make sure you are spending an equal or greater amount of time gathering the knowledge to live without those supplies.

Safe Room Checklist
  • Select a room that is farthest from any entrances.
  • Ideally, sleep in a room that has only one window.
  • Avoid basements and second-story rooms.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.