Cheap, Light Shelter Ideas for Your Bug Out Bag

Photo By: Mark

by Mike

I have the same mindset as M.D. – bugging out is your absolute last resort. You’ll never be able to carry as much as you can store in your house, and your house is (or very well should be) water tight.

That being said, there are going to be situations where you have to get out. If your city is under water. If Ebola is going around (stay away from people with blood coming out of all of their orifices, eh?), if martial law is called, if the power is out and you live in a big city – all these things are good cues for you to leave.

Everyone should have a bug out bag. Everyone. Disasters and situations can come very quickly where you need to leave and NOW – you won’t have time to pack a bag in all cases, so you must have one ready to go.  But if you’re like me, you don’t have all sorts of excess money to throw at high end products for something you may (and hopefully never)  have to use.  Also if you’re like me, you’re healthy and in not too bad shape, but you’re also no Olympic athlete. There’s a saying when it comes to bags for camping, hiking, and especially bug out bags where you have to be mobile – “Ounces mean pounds, and pounds mean pain”.

Your bug out bag should overall be small, light and portable. But that’s a whole topic for an entire other article of a type that’s already saturating the internet.  I’m here today to talk about cheap, light ideas for shelter to bring with you on your bug out.

What Is Shelter?

Shelter is the idea of keeping the elements at bay so you can stay warm and dry.  This is why you live in a house or apartment, and not out in the open. Humans, with our slow crappy metabolisms and our hairless skin, are probably one of the most susceptible creatures on the planet to the elements.  We need to stay out of the wind, we need to keep our temperatures at a decent level, and an excess of water tends to make our skin shrivel, then get infected, then rot and fall off.

No one wants their skin to fall off, I’m almost 100% sure of that.

Seeing that we can die of exposure almost as fast as we can die of thirst, shelter is an absolute must in your bug out bag. I’m sure you’d all like to bring a 3,000 square foot holiday house with granite counter tops, but that’s not going to fit in your 45 liter bug out bag.  Your shelter will not be comfortable, but it will keep you alive, that’s the idea. It will not be heavy, and it will not be expensive, and here are some ideas for you.


Contractor Grade Garbage Bags.

They are thick, they are big, they are cheap, they are durable, they are light, they can fold up in to a teeny space, and they have a million uses.

I have one in my bug out bag specifically to use as a ground sheet.  The ground can conduct cold and wet very quickly.  Using a big garbage bag will stop moisture from getting through the ground to you.  If you are in an area with some dry vegetation, stuff the garbage bag full of dry leaves, or soft pine branches or grass or straw or whatever is around. This will give you both some insulation from the grounds cold, as well as some padding for comfort.

You can also use a garbage bag as a make shift bivvy sack (see below) or a make shift rain poncho or tarp. Put a few in your bug out bag, you won’t regret it.

Bivvy Sacks

A bivvy sack, or bivouac sack, is a small, light and 100% waterproof sack that’s designed to slip over a sleeping bag. It’s an alternative to a tent and basically wraps you in a cocoon of waterproofing.  It’s incredibly small and light and very, very portable.  You can pick one up online very cheaply and store it in your bug out bag.  I have a bivvy in my bug out bag made by a company called SOL. They are thermal bivvy’s made from a mylar material that reflects your body heat back to you and they are completely water proof. You can get the original product for less than $20, and it’s actually about the same price for a two person version if you’re bugging out with someone you don’t mind spooning with in a giant plastic bag.  I actually have the SOL product with the breathable fabric that is still 100% waterproof but will not build up any condensation in. It’s a bit more expensive but at $40 it’s totally worth it to not be damp, in my opinion.


Again, a small tarp is cheap, light and waterproof. It can be folded up to take no space in your bug out bag. If you have some rope, you can tie a tarp in such a way that it will keep most of the rain off of you. Even if your bivvy sack is waterproof, I’d still like not to get rained on if at all possible.  Tarps can also be used to help conceal you if you decide to buy say a green or brown tarp and not one of those bright orange ones.

Single Man Tent

I have a single man tent I purchased a couple of years ago. I absolutely hate it. Sure, it was cheap, and light, and small (rolled up its smaller around and shorter than my forearm). Sure it’s waterproof.  But the top of the stupid thing is inches away from my face and if it’s warm and even a bit humid out you get some serious condensation in the thing.  That’s why the bivvy is in my bug out bag and not the single man tent. That being said, to each their own, and I would a million times rather be claustrophobic and slightly damp than soaked and exposed.

Multi Man Tent

Multi Person Tents are larger, harder to set up and heavy.  However, if you know for sure that you’re bugging out with several people and you don’t think you’ll get separated, having the stronger person carry this on their pack might work.  You’ll certainly get more space in your shelter but for the reasons I listed above, I don’t like or recommend this.

A Folding Shovel

You heard that right. A folding shovel. This can absolutely help with shelter.  If you live in a cold climate, and if you’re in the horrible situation of having to bug out in the winter, that totally completely sucks and should only be done if you have absolutely no other choice, a shovel makes sense.  That’s because if there’s snow on the ground, snow can be used as a shelter material. Take your shovel and make the snow into a wind block. If you’re really good, you can build an underground snow shelter, because snow actually is a good insulator. Only do this if you know what you’re doing though. No one wants a snow collapse to deal with.

Putting it all together

So, in my bug out bag I have a tarp, a couple of contractor garbage bags, and a water tight, heat reflective bivvy sack.  I find some high ground in between a couple of trees. I tie my tarp up on an angle to form a sort of tarp lean-to.  I stuff my contractor garbage back full of dry grass and leaves, and put it under the tarp lean-to. I put my bivvy sack out on top of the stuffed garbage bag. All these items together weigh less than two pounds, cost a little over $40 ($20 if you get the cheaper bivvy) and if put together right, form a weather resistant, dry and (relatively) comfortable place to sleep.

There it is. If I’m very lucky, I’ll never have to use it…


  1. WYO Ryder says:

    Thanks Mike for the SOL bivvy idea. I have been looking for this type of thing to swap for my ‘still too heavy-light weight sleeping bag”. Do you know how they hold up usage wise?

    • Hi WYO Ryder

      I’ve never actually used mine, but I’ve had it unfolded and out. It seems pretty sturdy and it seems like it will last a good while. That being said, it’s for sure not a permanent solution, it’s more of a “SHTF” and I need something now. It’ll keep you warm and dry though if you’re just weathering out a few weeks or you’re trying to look for something more permanent.

  2. patientmomma says:

    Thanks Mike! I especially appreciate your idea to stuff the garbage bag with leaves/pine needles for insulation!

    • Yea it kind of came to me as I was re-evaluating and repacking my bug out bag. I had some contractor grade garbage bags sitting on my drier and I was staring at them….then some went into the bug out bag!

  3. Some great tips and ideas here…Good job!!

  4. Yes, contractor bags and tarps are great. Just remember a few big binder clips, which are nice for clipping bottom to sides of tarp as tent. Good for clipping things (i.e. airing out wool socks) to your BOB.

  5. My old Scoutmaster turned me on to the tarp idea. He had a bunch of kids whose folks didn’t have a lot of money to spend on equipment, and the recycling drives always came up short. His solution for tents was 10X8 blue plastic tarps and a handful of large nails (I forget the size, they were the biggest ones I ever seen before). Lay half on the ground over a pile of brush and leaves, nail down that half. Using sticks or in our case, old rifle cleaning rods, prop up the other half, leaving an open place for getting in/out and to keep condensation buildup to a minimum. They kept the wind off us, were okay in the rain and snow, and the best part was that each one (tarp, nails, and paracord) cost around five bucks! I still keep the fixings for one in my car, and its come in handy more than once. Great article, Mike!

    • Thomas T. Tinker says:

      Rick… My Dad showed me this kind of cover …. a long long time ago. Are you thinking of ‘Timber’ spikes? My W and I both keep a 9×12 tarp / 8 spikes and a roll of cheap para-cord in a cloth shopping bag… in each car trunk… along with our GHBs. ? ever find yourself in the woods or the park thinking about how you would rig your tarp to the trees at hand?

      • Rick H. says:

        I would imagine they were timber spikes. And I’ve been ‘accidentally camping’ enough times to get creative with a tarp and paracord. If there aren’t enough grommets, or they’re in the wrong place for where I have to rig to, a rock and a loop around a hank of tarp serves well. When I was still able to ride motorcycles, the machine would serve as one wall of my tarp tent. I mainly used them as windbreaks and ground cloths. More than once, I simply laid the tarp down, threw my bag/blankets on one side, and just slept like that. If it rained or the wind picked up, I’d loosely toss the other half over me. I may or may not drive a spike/tent stake in one of the grommets so the wind wouldn’t take it away if I was out of it.

  6. I agree on having several contractor trash bags as standard equipment; however, there are some inexpensive and more versatile components the carry along with them. A small hammock is lightweight and portable. Mine fits in about a 2 inch cube. I always carry several Space Emergency blankets (, in my EDC, so these are available as well. A couple of these more robust space blankets with grommets and hood can be used to construct shelter, ground cloth, or Bivy ( A few 50 or 100 foot hanks of 550 cord, some zip ties of various lengths and 4-6 rubber bungee cords can help construct the shelter without the wind tearing anything apart. And finally, depending on where you may end up camping, you might need some mosquito netting or headgear. I’m not endorsing the above links, just using them as product references with photos and descriptions.

  7. j.r. guerra in s. tx. says:

    If your area is particularly windy, the inexpensive tarps are noiser than a potato chip factory. They not only keep you awake, they can be heard from some distance. But if your location is sheltered and has a low population, it could work. Definitely much less weight than a canvas or PVC type of more permanent tarp.

    Anyone else seen the ‘alpha tent’ shown by the Alpha Rubicon group ? Pretty slick, but it is geared towards smaller statured / children. Still – an option and pretty compact.

    One more thought – the hammock. Very lightweight and versatile, it can be hung in areas where ground is too sloped / rocky / wet that sleeping on ground isn’t an option. Sleeping in cold regions in a hammock does require more care though.

    Thanks for the above article and comments, camping out in these conditions is definitely more challenging. Researching ‘spike camping’ and how the homeless live is worthwhile here as well.

  8. Curley Bull says:

    Good article! I use the GI poncho instead of tarp w/grippers and 550 cord. Stayed dry in rain and warm in cold (with a little ingenuity of course).

  9. tommy2rs says:

    Watched this vid the other day, it’s a slick way to set up a tarp tent. First half of the vid is about the single tarp then he goes off into using two tarps.

  10. Very good article and gives information that can be used without breaking the bank. One issue however…..most people use the English system of measurement, inches, feet, pounds, etc. You shouldn’t mix up your units of measurement when writing. A “45 liter” bag and “sq. feet” in one paragraph and then referring to ounces and pounds in another can be a bit confusing for some. So how big is a 45 L…11gal. bag? lol I have tried to figure that out and not succeeded.

    • nick flandrey says:

      Hey Gary, liters are the unit of measure for back pack capacity now. It used to be cubic inches, but sometime in the last few years it seems that all the man’fs have changed to liters. It’s actually easier for me to picture bag capacity in L if I think of how many gallon or half gallon milk jugs I can fit. 10 milk jugs is a pretty big bag 🙂


      • lol Well thanks, Nick. As an old Marine and old man, (63 y/o) I still learn something new all the time.

        • nick flandrey says:

          Yeah, it’s funny how things change. I only know about this because I scored a couple of nice backpacks at a yardsale. I went online to find out what they sold for originally, and their details, and that’s when I discovered that the world had moved on since the last time I bought a backpack. I guess it’s inevitable. First it was in my school science classes, then car engines, now backpacks.

          I also think it’s funny that even the Brits still mix metric and english for some things. At least from watching the shows on tv, they still use 4×2 (2×4) for lumber and oddly, on the car shows they use K/Hr, but talk about how many total miles a used car has on it.

          I can’t help but think of the metric system as a French thing, and I’m a little suspicious of it 😉


    • Hi Gary

      Yea, I”m 36 years old. The problem was that while the metric system was in place in Canada well before I started school, my parents were all about the old measurement. I tend to mix them up a bit, kind of like a kid who grew up in a two language household.

  11. Tactical G-Ma says:

    Thanks for a good read. As you pointed out, no one size fits all, BOB’s should vary with the weather, the terrain, and the creepy crawlies otherwise you wake up with gowannas licking your hands and funnel webs in your shoes. Besides all these other concerns I worry about someone slitting my throat while sleeping in my fancy accommodations. Sometimes less is more. But then I’m no pro but have had to hide in the woods before. Tree cleats and paracord to tie into the tops of trees, field apparel, hand and foot warmers with a ghillie suit might be advantageous.

  12. nick flandrey says:

    I’ll second the contractor trash bags. I’ve had some in my car kit for ages. So versatile.

    They can be used as rain gear.
    They can be spread on the ground to make a solar still and catch water.
    They can be used to catch rain water for drinking.
    They can be used to hang your food away from bears 🙂
    They can be used to cache supplies short term.
    They can be used with an empty pack to transport water.
    They can be used as a latrine (if you aren’t out in the woods, and don’t want to befoul your nest.)
    They can be used to transport game.

    Just be sure to get the thick strong true contractor grade ones.


  13. riverrider says:

    good post. i have cgb’s everywhere. i like the silnylon tarps from sportsmans guide coupled with a surplus army bivy . string the tarp so that there are a few inches of clearance form the ground all around so you can see out 360 degrees. nothing makes you more vulnerable than being zipped up in a tent, blind. one thing i never leave home without…army sleeping mat. cut down to shoulder width and my height. weighs nothing but insulates from the ground, provides a dry place to lie down or sit, and best of all…floats. imagine falling in the water or having to cross a river with a heavy bob and no floatation….

  14. D in MN says:

    Paracord may be hard to find but I use venetian blind cord instead in my bob. If you use a plastic tarp for a tent, limbs with leaves/needles laid against it will quiet the noise. About the leaves stuffed in a plastic bag, good idea but it will be noisey to the ears with crunchy leaves. I have this problem with crunchy pillows! I’d muffel the noise with a jacket or sweater.

  15. Great article. I need to purchase some contractor grade bags.

    My tarps are all bright blue like the ones put on roofs after a tornado. Where do y’all find green or brown ones?

    This is an area I need to work on. And the inexpensive ideas are much appreciated!

  16. Back in the 80’s when I was stationed in the UK I was a member of the Harley Davidson Riders of Great Britain. Seems once a month they held a weekend camping rally somewhere and I sure attended my share and had a ball. Since it was camping and we were on motorcycles space was a premium. I used a g.i.issue mummy bag and a small one man pup tent. The tent went in a saddle bag and the mummy bag was bungied to the handle bars. I learned to kick off my boots and get out of the leather pants (and back into them in the morning) while laying on my back. Since I always had thermals on under the leather I normally stayed warm and dry sleeping on top of the bag.
    A friend just used a blanket and tarp. He laid out the tarp, laid his blanket on top, laid down fully dressed and simply pulled half over the top of his self.

  17. Thanks Mike! Like names, great minds think alike ☺

    I agree 200-proof that bugging out should be your very last resort, and mobility equates to light weight… the less you carry the greater your ability to move quickly.

    For shelter, I use 2 10×10 tarps; both are silicon-impregnated nylon with one being gray to blend in with rocks and one is camouflage for blending in with woodland areas. Both have been customized with added nylon loops in multiple locations for versatility and because grommets tend to get ripped out. I also bring a military grade poncho that serves multiple purposes of covering me with my pack, as well as an additional shelter component if needed.

    I also have my MSS camo bivy combined with my SOL bivy; and I carry an Eno hammock with 2 15-foot pieces of 1” nylon straps that allows one to pitch a camp on all kinds of terrain and it keeps you off the ground. I also carry a couple of 3-mil black contractor bags and 1 Hi-Vis orange like the kind you see on the side of the road, in case I want to be found. I use one of them as a pack liner to keep the contents waterproofed.

    I carry 100 feet of 550 7-strand Para cord in 25-foot shanks that allows for multiple tarp configurations and lashing poles for added structure.

    Being able to treat water is very important, so I also carry a 40 ounce stainless Kleen Kanteen bottle that I can boil water in, and a 900 ML Snow Peak titanium pot with a Bush Buddy (aka solo stove) inside the pot, with 3 ways to start fire; a Ferro-rod, a magnifying glass, and a Bic-lighter.

    I also carry extra socks, wool blend and nylon liner socks, a wool watch cap, a change of underwear and silk long-underwear for added warmth in a dry sack. You can use the socks as mittens too.

    When it comes to the items you carry, everyone should actually test your gear under different conditions; and every time you return from testing your gear you should evaluate what you did and did not use, then see if you can do without something the next time you go out for a few days of testing.

    As a scout leader of 15 years with a troop that goes out every month regardless the weather conditions, I have been able to test and refine my BOB many times to ensure everything I carry will serve multiple purposes. I am in the mindset that everything you carry should serve at least 2 purposes.

  18. Cdn Army has a gore-tex bivy bag that you can pick up surplus for around $100. It’s a full-bag with open head and acts like a ground sheet/water proof cover in one. Air pad in the bottom to get you off the ground, sleeping bag inside to keep warm and you can survive anything. Good thing about gore-tex is it lets the sweat evaporate through form the inside but blocks all water coming in from the outside – unlike lots of waterproof material that quickly becomes a damp swamp from sweating inside.

    I’ll second the tarp and noise comment – pick up some surplus military ground sheets or 1/2 shelters. They’re water proof, have the grommets for connecting with bungies/cords and are designed to be silent.

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