Building a backyard root cellar is not a new trick. In fact, it’s an ancient one. It’s one of the oldest survival tricks in the book. But is utilizing the earth for refrigeration still necessary? In America, there’s an appliance called a refrigerator, duh!? Our $3,000 stainless refrigerators and chest freezers take care of all our food preservation needs. Plus, we have an overabundance of reliable power to run those things forever, everyone knows that. No one needs to (or cares to) store their food underground anymore, right? WRONG.
I care and you should too.
So today we’re going to cover the following “How To Build A Root Cellar” topics in detail:
- Why Root Cellar Technology Still Matters
- How Underground Food Storage Works
- 5 Dangerous Root Cellar Enemies
- Two Main Types Of Root Cellars
- How To Build A Root Cellar / Root Cellar Plans
- What You Should Store In Your Root Cellar
- Designing The Interior Storage Of Your Root Cellar
- Root Cellar Food Organization
- How To Camouflage Your Food Supply
- Maintaining Your Root Cellar Food Supply
Why Root Cellar Technology Still Matters
When humans discovered they could increase the shelf life of their food by storing it underground; society was revolutionized.
All of a sudden, humans had the ability to preserve grain, nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables for longer periods of time.
Now immediate food consumption was no longer necessary; having to gorge on it all before it went bad.
Instead, we could now stockpile and preserve our harvests in root cellars to prepare for the lean winter months.
It’s the technology that frontier families used to maintain a healthy diet and avoid starvation during harsh cold winters.
But due to modern technology, we as a society have all but lost this old technology, knowledge, and know-how.
Which is a damn shame because there are so many reasons why a backup supply of healthy food is extremely useful – even, dare I say, life-saving.
Be it a massive wildfire, contagious disease, worldwide financial collapse, or an EMP strike.
If any of these horrible events are bad enough, and last long enough, having a backup food preservation system may evolve from a fun hobby to a survival necessity.
And while having a backyard root cellar is not a guarantee of survival success, not have one may lead to your starvation.
So this ancient survival technique may separate those who thrive from those who perish in a “shit-hits-the-fan” scenario.
If you really want to prepare for anything, you need to add underground food storage systems to your survival skill set.
But building your own root cellar is not a quick project and one you shouldn’t rush.
You need to take your time for proper planning. Because if you don’t, chances are good that you’ll make mistakes. And food storage mistakes can jeopardize all of your food stockpiling efforts.
How Underground Food Storage Works
Underground food storage utilizes the consistently cool soil temperatures provided by mother earth.
In fact, most U.S. regions, at just 10 feet under the surface, you’ll find constantly cool 50-60 degree soil temps.
And we all know that cool temperatures extend our perishable food’s shelf life.
For proof of this, just leave your milk out on the counter all afternoon in the summer. Near instant spoilage, while that same milk will last weeks in a cool refrigerator.
A root cellar is a natures refrigerator. Without the need for chemical refrigerants or electricity.
And that’s the simple beauty of underground food storage, it extends your foods shelf life without depending on modern technologies.
But, there’s a bit more to it than that.
Using the earth’s lower temperatures is smart, but there are unique challenges you’ll need to overcome to do so successfully.
5 Dangerous Root Cellar Enemies
Every survival project has its own unique obstacles. And when it comes to storing food underground in root cellars there are 5 such challenges.
You must prepare to deal with these obstacles before putting your root cellar food storage system to the ultimate test.
1 – Bacteria
Actually, some bacteria is good for you, like the stuff found in probiotic yogurts. But when storing your food underground bacteria is always the bad sort.
If you allow any bacteria to fester in your root cellar stockpile it will introduce food rot.
However, you can mitigate bacteria by keeping your food stored in clean containers and removing any food showing the first signs of decay.
2 – Fungi
Many mushrooms are delicious, while others are used for a “good” time. Still, others are poisonous (and potentially deadly).
But all varieties are bad if they spontaneously sprout on survival food.
You need to keep a careful watch on you’re food for any fungal growth.
3 – Insects
Food with insect infestation can be a horrible and even traumatic experience.
Not only is it totally gross, but it may require you to throw everything out.
Once ants, beetles, maggots, flies, moths, or any other creepy crawly gets in, they will quickly infest everything they can. So keep these insects away at all costs.
We’ll get into insect repellant and eradication methods later…
4 – Vermin
Rats, mice, raccoons, squirrels, or any animal with a nose and appetite for garbage; loves free food.
So use traps and hard-sided containers with tight seals for your underground food storage site. Otherwise, a significant portion of it may get snatched by uninvited pests.
5 – People
Perhaps the most frustrating challenge of all is other humans. People love food and they love buried treasure.
It is a combination that puts your underground stash of food in severe danger.
How awful would it be to visit your root cellar to find it’s been completely raided? Talk about brutal.
So later on, we’ll discuss in detail a few camouflaging techniques to prevent this from happening. But it’s also important to keep the location of any survival cache (be it full of food, or equipment, or relevant documents) a secret.
2 Main Types Of Root Cellars
Depending on your time, energy, and funds, there are two main types of root cellars to choose from: small and large.
Small underground food storage systems primarily consist of buried containers, while larger setups typically include a separate building.
So let’s start with the quick, down, and dirty option first; the small buried root cellar container.
The Small Buried Root Cellar Container
This option is similar to burying a survival cache.
But instead of storing gear and equipment, with this option, your focusing on storing food.
Remember, anything stored underground at a depth of several feet will stay at a consistently cool temperature between 50-55-degrees F (regionally dependent).
The best containers for this method are the ones not susceptible to water damage or degradation.
Naturally, that eliminates wood crates or cardboard boxes because, over the course of time, natural processes will eat away at these containers and eventually devour whatever’s inside.
Instead, use metal garbage cans, plastic drums or plastic storage totes are the best options.
Just make sure the container is made out of strong materials to prevent collapse and won’t degrade when in contact with moisture for extended periods of time.
This straightforward method of underground food storage is the easiest on a tight budget. It’s also the quickest to achieve, and acquiring materials is not difficult.
It’s also the closest method to the original root cellar!
When Indians and native Australians buried their foods, they did so in clay pots but they surely would have used waterproof plastic containers if available. But for them, plastic was still centuries away.
Note: if you live in freezing climates, expect your buried food container to be inaccessible during the cold months. When the ground freezes, it becomes difficult or nearly impossible to dig it back up.
Also, extremely low temperatures present a liability for sealed containers; anything stored in a jar, can, or bottle will likely freeze and burst its container. Food for thought!
Here are 2 small root cellar container videos. The first is utilizing large plastic drum barrels while the second one repurposes a broken refrigerator.
The limitations to these smaller containers become obvious once you want to expand your underground food storage supply.
Plus, digging them back up on a regular basis to check on your food and rotate your foods are (more details later) it’s going to be a royal pain.
So if you want a single large root cellar as opposed to lots of smaller ones, you need a larger walk-in backyard root cellar.
One you can fill to the brim with food and wait for the worst.
The Backyard Root Cellar
A walk in style root cellar is a step up from buried caches. But they do require a bit more of time and money.
Here’s a quick overview of what a backyard root cellar takes to build and how it should function.
The good news is constructing a root cellar is the kind of project that supports your survival for a prolonged large-scale disaster.
How To Build A Root Cellar / Root Cellar Plans
In order to successfully build a root cellar you must start with the end in mind. You can’t just grab a shovel and start digging.
Well..actually you can but you’ll soon regret that approach.
Instead, you’ll meet all your goals and get what you want with planning!
Here are the following root cellar issues you need to think long and hard about before breaking ground.
Consider Your Budget
Obviously, the size of your wallet is going to play a significant factor in determining the size and quality of your food storage cellar.
If you have the means to go “all out” on this project, then go for it. Purchase the best materials, build it on your own land, and make it as big as possible.
What better way to spend your money, than on important survival projects?
But, if you are like me and severely confined by your bank account, then you’ll have to make compromises.
So I’ll do my best to suggest some cheaper alternatives. Some corners are cut-able, while others are not. Keep this in mind as we move forward.
Digging The Hole
Underground storage is, by definition, buried in the ground.
So the first step to building your big survival pantry is digging a hole for it. This hole can be underneath your house, in your backyard, out in the woods, or even in a secret spot in the middle of the desert.
But wherever it ultimately ends up, follow this advice: the deeper the better.
Not only are deeply dug root cellars easier to conceal, but they provide cooler food storage temperatures.
So decide how large an area you want and start digging!
Use a shovel if you must, but ideally, an excavating machine will do the heavy lifting, but again, your budget will determine what’s possible.
Laying The Foundation
If you have the money to pour a concrete floor, DO IT! Otherwise, use the flattest stones you can find in the surrounding area.
One rock at a time and you’ll eventually have a rustic looking floor.
Wooden boards can also be used to achieve the same effect.
The reason why you want a solid floor is twofold: first, having solid floor helps prevent rodents from burrowing through the floor, and second, makes a smooth surface to setup racking or shelving systems.
Building The Walls
Once again, if you can afford bricks or masonry blocks for walls then you should use them.
Otherwise, similar to the foundation of your cellar, look for the materials for your walls in free resources in the surrounding area.
Stacking stones is a straightforward task (although it often requires some heavy lifting).
You can use mud or clay as natural mortar to hold each stone in place.
Having strong stone walls prevents unwanted pests from gaining entry to your food storage facility, and it also helps keep the place as cool as possible.
Adding A Ventilation Pipe
All root cellars require ventilation, no exceptions.
You must turn over the air within the room to keep ethylene gas buildup in check. The good news is this is relatively straightforward.
Just add a vertical PVC pipe to somewhere within the structure that will stick out above the roof. Then add a second pipe near the floor that will draw fresh outside air into the storage space.
Capping The Ceiling/Roof
The best way to cap your root cellar is to pour a concrete slab over the top. You’ll need to support the roof fully from underneath before you pour.
However, pouring concrete will set you back some dollars. An alternative option is to lay treated 2×4’s across the top of your cellar, and then bury them under the dirt you dug out of the hole in step 1.
Of course, using materials that won’t degrade as fast as wood is preferable, but will undoubtedly cost more. If you go with the 2×4’s make sure you used treated lumber as it will hold up to rot much longer.
Just know it’s definitely a shortcut, but it’s simple, cheap, and effective at camouflaging your underground food structure.
Sealing Up Your Root Cellar
Make sure you fill and seal all doors jams and ceiling gaps. Gaps allow bugs, insects, and vermin into your food storage space. Not good.
Installing Doors and Locks
The reasons for these are obvious. You need to be able to close and lock the place up when you’re not around.
So invest in a quality Rustoleum hanging lock to keep your food stockpile yours.
What You Should Store In Your Root Cellar
What you store in your cellar depends on your goals.
If your goal is to stash long-term survival foods, then build a cellar large enough to handle what you have today and what you may want to add to it over the years.
But what about fresh produce and vegetables from the garden? You should also make certain to design enough room for these seasonal items as well.
Non-perishables Are Your Friend
Whether it is canned, jarred, dehydrated, dried, or tubed, you’re good to go. The further away from the expiration date, the better.
You should learn how to making pemmican for long-term protein needs and how to make hardtack for your long-term carbs needs.
The more foods that are non-perishable that you can afford to store in your cellar, the better off you will be for any future emergencies (big or small).
Add Some Fresh Stuff Too
You can store fresh produce if you’re willing to regularly maintain them. You’ll need to understand the humidity and temperature level and you’ll need to consume the produce each year before the next crop gets stored.
There’s a particular technique for storing these kinds of foods, because of the chemical byproducts they release.
Here’s a helpful chart that provides ideal root cellar storage temperature and humidity levels for various varieties of produce.
Survival Food vs. Fresh Garden Produce?
I think it’s safe to assume if you’re interested in underground food storage, then you’re interested in self-reliance. Preserving your food harvests all winter long without electricity is about as self-reliant as it gets.
But there’s a conflict of interest between long-term survival food and fresh fruits and veggies. Any guess on what the conflict is?
It’s humidity. Moisture in the air.
With long-term dry survival foods, the last thing you want is humidity in the air. You should do everything possible to avoid moisture touching your dry survival food. Even going so far as to add a high-quality dehumidifier to your food storage area.
But with harvested fruits and vegetables you’re trying to keep fresh through a single winter season, you want the opposite. You want a relatively high humidity (as much as 80%).
This high humidity keeps your produce from drying out. Helping to keep your stashed harvest both fresh and nutritious.
As we discussed in the previous section, all foods last longer in cooler temps. So the cool air of underground food storage is ideal for both survival food and garden produce. So what’s a self-reliant person to do?
The way I see it you have a couple of options.
Option 1 – Don’t Store Your Dry Survival Food’s In Your Root Cellar
Don’t store your survival foods in your underground food storage system. Just store your annually harvested produce there.
That way you can crank up your humidity levels without fear of affecting your survival foods. But you’ll have to find a separate location for your long-term survival foods like your basement.
Option 2 – Create Separate Areas Within Your Root Cellar
Create separate containers or areas within your root cellars specifically designed for high or low humidity environments.
This eliminates having two separate storage locations but complicates the constructing and storing process. Especially, for a single large underground food storage building.
Option 3 – Use Mylar Bags For Your Survival Food
Put your survival food in sealed Mylar bags with desiccants and then put these bags into food grade sealed buckets.
This double seal setup should keep the rooms high humidity environment from ever touching your long-term survival foods.
I think Option 3 is the best, but ultimately it’s up to you.
How To Control The Humidity
The underground soil temps in your area are; what they are. So there’s no way to control that. But you can control the humidity levels. How? Using ventilation.
If you have good ventilation and lots of air flow then you can keep the humidity of a room relatively low. Ventilation controls the flow of air and thereby the humidity of the room.
Now regardless of whether you want high humidity (for produce) or low humidity (for long-term dried foods and meats) your storage system must have ventilation.
Without ventilation, a room with fresh produce will fill up with a gas called Ethylene. Ethylene is released naturally from stored produce and without ventilation, it will build up and accelerate the spoilage process.
So the best way to control humidity in a root cellar is by installing ventilation, and then adding moisture as needed.
One way to add moisture is to plan the root cellar floor with gravel instead of a full concrete pad. This allows you to take a hose or buckets of water and dump them on the floor.
The water will soak into the soil and then slowly evaporate up into the air. This evaporation process adds humidity.
So there you go. You install a simple PVC vent pipe to create ventilation and then bring in water for adding humidity.
The PVC vent system consists of two PVC pipes. One installed close to the floor and goes through the wall to the outside while the other one is installed near the top of the cellar and exits through the roof.
The natural chimney effect will pull air out of the room from the roof pipe and the floor pipe will bring fresh air in. Simple ventilation without electricity.
You should also invest in a temperature and humidity monitor for your food cellar. These are essential tools that will help you to keep tabs and control of your underground food storage space.
So now that you have a basic understanding of the concepts of a root cellar, and hopefully have an idea of how you want to utilize yours, it’s time to start thinking about construction.
Designing The Interior Storage Of Your Root Cellar
An efficient and usable space requires a fair amount of forethought.
You can’t just toss your food supplies in a haphazard heap and expect good outcomes. Believe it or not, there is actually a science to packing your underground food storage.
First up is deciding how to keep everything organized. Are you going to use boxes, plastic tubs or shelves?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re using separation to organize your underground food supply. Let’s discuss each option further.
Food Shelving Racks
These are easy to build and fully maximize your available space. You can get premade shelving kits online. Just buy and assemble.
Or you can buy the raw materials and build them yourself. The biggest benefit to building them yourself is being able to customize them to fit your space perfectly.
Food Boxes and Tubs
Storing your food on the shelf is a good first step, but organizing them get’s a lot easier when you use boxes or tubs.
I like to use clear plastic bins so I can see the food and produce that’s in them without having to empty it.
Under no circumstance use cardboard due to humidity breaking down the paper.
Note: make sure you don’t seal up your fresh produce bins. You can put the produce in boxes, bins or tubs, just don’t put a lid on it.
Otherwise, the ethylene gas will get trapped.
Root Cellar Food Organization
This step is one that is often overlooked but is paramount to extending the life of your underground food storage cellar. Keeping everything elevated (on shelves or supports or pallets) to prevent any unwanted water damage.
But beyond this, it’s really important to keep the fruits and veggies stored in specific places.
Fresh fruits and vegetables (especially tomatoes, apples, and pears) produce that ripening agent we talked about called ethylene.
This chemical byproduct speeds up the decomposition of other produce. Basically, it makes everything fresh start to rot faster, and it’s a major problem that can result in a lot of food waste.
The easiest way to mitigate this issue (besides avoiding storing fresh produce to start with) is to:
- Keep the foods that produce ethylene at the very top of the cellar. The higher the better. This will help prevent the chemical agent from infecting your other foods.
- Have a good ventilation system as we discussed earlier.
Also, some produce stores better when it is cured at 80-90-degree F temperatures for around 10 days before being placed in storage.
A few examples of these foods are garlic, winter squash, onions, and potatoes. If you plan to store these consider taking the time to cure it before adding it to your underground root cellar.
Food items require colder temperatures should be stored at the bottom of your cellar.
Amazingly, there will be a significant temperature difference between the top of your cellar and the bottom. Often a big enough difference to keep food cold when it is stored flat on the ground.
Any canned items or jars with metal lids are in danger of rusting. Even if you monitor the temp/humidity very carefully, rusted cans are bad news.
Rust can compromise the seal on lids and thereby compromise the food inside. To prevent this, store all metal containers in sealed plastic mylar bags (vacuum seals are ideal).
How To Camouflage Your Food Supply
This is an essential step!
Just dropping off a bunch of food in the middle of the woods is not enough to protect it from motivated intruders.
Camouflaging helps keep your food hidden from people and animals alike, so it’s a vital step to protecting your survival goods.
Depending on which method of food storage you decided to go with, there will be different levels of work involved in hiding your food.
If you just buried a big plastic drum, then it might be as easy as laying dirt, grass, twigs, pinecones, and whatever else looks natural over the top.
But if you have a full-fledged root cellar that needs disguising, you may need to get more creative.
For bigger structures, you should plant trees shrubs and other plants that grow in the area around your structure.
On top of this, make sure you bury it well, and the surrounding areas look natural. Bigger storage facilities are harder to camouflage, but as I said at the beginning of this section: this step is essential!
So do not skimp out.
If your food supply is out of sight of potential thieves, it is certainly out of mind too.
Maintaining Your Root Cellar Food Supply
Depending on how much of your food is non-perishable, and how large your supply of food is, will determine how much maintenance is required.
If you have lots of fresh foods stored or foods that expire rather quickly, then you’ll need to make regular supply/maintenance trips to ensure timely use and rotation.
That’s the biggest regular task of owning a food supply. Making sure you trade out expiring food for new food.
Keep an eagle eye on your expiration dates is important because contracting a severe case of food poisoning in a survival situation, your chances of survival sink like a ship.
A case of food poisoning makes it difficult to ingest the essential nutrients and vitamins and can lead to severe dehydration and even death by starvation.
To help prevent any spoilage, you should build a spreadsheet and label everything. Then keep the spreadsheet handy inside your food container/cellar and invest in a good labeler.
Regular maintenance also includes:
- Checking seals on doors and walls to ensure that they have not been broken or chewed.
- Monitoring temperature and humidity, restocking food that has been used or thrown out, checking the locks for rust and degradation, cleaning out triggered mouse/rat traps and fly paper.
- Also, make sure after multiple maintenance trips to your food storage site, you are not carving out a trail.
However, this regular maintenance can compromise all your camouflage efforts. Since now there’s basically a line that leads straight to your food stash.
So always take unique routes to your underground food storage location and consciously work to cover up your own tracks around the burial site.
The Final Word
Burying food in an underground container or facility is a survival method that human beings have been employing for thousands of years.
This way of preserving food has saved countless lives from starvation since its inception. And it’s still entirely applicable today.
Building your own survival food cache is both useful in times of calm and essential in times of chaos.
There is no telling what situation might force you to need your buried stash of food, but no matter what it is, having a backup supply of food essential in today’s fragile and uncertain times.