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The Dangers of Burying a Shipping Container for Shelter

Last Updated: August 25, 2022
A buried shipping container where the side caved in from the sheer weight of dirt

Shipping containers are an important part of our global economy. It’s estimated that there are over 17 million shipping containers worldwide at any given moment. At a cost of just under $3,000 for a small container to as much as $6000 for a large container, it’s become popular for people to buy shipping containers for other uses. Due to their shape and size people have been repurposing them for building homes and even burying them to use as root cellars or bunkers.

Despite their popularity, burying a shipping container to use an underground bunker can be very dangerous and we highly recommend finding an alternative. Below, we highlight some of the many risks associated with burying a shipping container. If you still decide you want to give it a shot, we offer some recommendations.

Weak Structural Integrity Along the Walls

Containers are meant to stack, not support weight with its sides, floor, and roof. The weight of any stacked container is displaced by the beams that make up the sides and edges of a container. Under the sheer weight of covering dirt, any unreinforced shipping container will collapse.

Meant to stack, shipping container strength is at the corners and frames.

This is why many underground bunkers and tunnels have reinforced walls.

Hazardous Materials

Toxic chemicals are pumped into cargo containers on purpose as fumigants. Before shipping containers are sent out many dock workers treat the container with pesticides. The most common chemicals used are methyl bromide, ethylene oxide, and phosphine which can cause a range of symptoms including nausea, skin irritation, and even death. In addition, sometimes the previous cargo contained toxic chemicals. Formaldehyde, a preservative and carcinogen, was found in 81 percent of shipping containers coming out of Rotterdam.

People have tried to mitigate this risk by cleaning then painting over the walls as well as putting in thick flooring. However, this can end up being a costly process and may not completely remove the toxic chemicals. Some more challenges are addressed in the following video:


We recommend going with an alternative setup depending on your goal. If your goal is to store food long term we recommend building out a root cellar. If your goal is to find a way to get to safety from either a man-made or natural catastrophe, we recommend building a bunker.

If you are absolutely sure you want to build a shipping container, please be careful and follow some of our recommendations to ensure you don’t put your life at risk.

Air Circulation

You will need both an intake vent and an exhaust vent as well an active pump circulating air. Both vents should have screens and filters to keep out rodents/bugs and to filter the air of contaminates. If you plan on using this as a bunker you will want a method to close both vents if you suspect the air quality is compromised.

In the case you are living in the container with both air vents closed then you will need a method to produce oxygen(electrolysis) and/or scrub carbon dioxide from the air which is doable.


Routine servicing of critical water systems for drinking and sanitation will be frequent. Your water system has to recycle your urine and dirty shower water back into clean water — The water you’re going to drink again.   Solid waste should be emptied into a septic tank.

Reinforcing the Walls

As mentioned above, the side walls of the container are the weak link. The corrugated steel on the sides and ceiling must be reinforced to withstand the pressure and weight of the dirt surrounding it. You will want to weld steel beams along the walls and ceiling approximately 16 – 24 inches apart.

Toxic Cleanup

  1. Begin by removing the wood on the floor of the container.
  2. Completely clean the interior of the shipping container with a power washer.
  3. After it dries, go over every surface with a paint sprayer and encapsulate it with a good quality interior paint with primer.
  4. Put in wood flooring

With this setup you can minimize the risk of toxic chemical exposure to you and your loved ones.

Using our recommendations should help minimize the risks associated with burying a shipping container, however, we highly recommend hiring an engineer before proceeding.

“Always Be Ready” Max

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