JWR’s View: Storage Space Planning for Your Stuff

As a survivalist since age 14–and now 58–I’ve reached the stage of life where I’ve accumulated a deep larder and a lot of stuff. Just writing can’t help but remind me of the classic George Carlin stand-up comedy routine on “A Place For Your Stuff.” (Be forewarned of Carlin’s foul language.) But seriously, every well-prepared family has mountains of stuff. Storage space planning presents three major challenges:

1.) Where to fit it all.

2.) How to keep it safe from deterioration.

3.) Keeping it organized, so you can quickly find, retrieve, and replenish it.

I will attempt to address all three of those, from my perspective.

Mouse & Rat Proof

One crucial design feature of storage containers is that they be mouse and rat proof. This is particularly important for clothes and for any items that have event the slightest hint of a food smell. A typical Sterilite transluscent bin with a white HDPE lid is NOT rodent proof, and they are surprisingly fragile when handled roughly. I’ve bought a few of those, to my regret. In contrast, heavy duty mil-spec transit chests, Pelican cases, and comparable cases from Plano) will keep out all but the most determined rodents. And most tool boxes, tool cabinets, tool carts, and steel freestanding cabinets with tight-fitting doors are also usually rodent proof.

Because of their relatively high cost (per cubic foot), it has taken me nearly three decades to gradually accumulate my current assortment of Pelican cases. These range from micro boxes all the way up to some of their big rolling chests. Our other mil-spec transit chests (mostly Mil-Tope and Hardigg brands) were also gathered gradually, but only when bargains were found. Most of these were purchased used, at gun shows or via eBay and Craigslist. When buying used mil-spec containers, inspect them closely for any broken or missing latch hardware. That seems to be their common weak point.

Tote Boxes

We often store some clothing items, canning lids, and magazines in heavy duty totes with hinged lids. These are made by Akro-Mils (in Akron Ohio), and sold under the trade name KeepBox. These old reliable KeepBoxes have steel full-lenth hinge pins. These are much superior to the more recent knock-off totes from other companies that use all-plastic hinges. I’ve had most of my KeepBoxes since the late 1980s, and albeit scratched up, they are all still intact and still fully functional.  I’ve dragged some of these to more than 100 gun shows. Just keep in mind that these totes are not waterproof. So they are strictly for indoor use. And never, ever step on top of one of these. They will not support your weight and the lids will form a bear trap for a human foot. (Don’t ask me how I know that factoid.)

More recently, I’ve supplemented my KeepBoxes with some similarly sturdy but much more water resistant Homz brand heavy duty brand black plastic totes with removable yellow lids.  These stack particularly well, and are fairly vermin proof. They are classed as water resistant, but not waterproof.  The only improvement would be if they made them in all flat olive drab.

Ammo Storage space planning

Nearly all of our ammo is stored in USGI mil-surp ammo cans that range from the classic “.30 Caliber” size, all the way up to the whoppin’ big 20mm Vulcan ammo can size. We use the latter mostly for storing shotgun shells and 26.5mm flares. Our current favorite ammo can is what is commonly called a “Tall .50“. I’ve found that this is one of the most versatile sizes for rifle and pistol ammunition. Most of our ammo shelves in JASBORR are adjusted to accommodate that height.  On the shelves where we have a mix of Standard .50s and Tall .50s, We fill in the gaps above the shorter cans with .30 caliber cans, laying on their sides. No wasted space!  For those of you living in the northern portion of the American Redoubt, I noticed that a SurvivalBlog reader currently has some used USGI ammo cans of various sizes listed in our Classifieds section.

Tall, But Earthquake Resistant

For the sake of efficient use of your available floor space, you should use tall shelves in your storage room(s). The price of wire rack shelves has dropped appreciably in the past few years. But there is one key safety note: Your shelves should be strapped to walls, for earthquake protection. For additional protection in earthquake country, you can use long bungee cords to keep bins in place, on your shelves. It would be the ultimate irony for a survivalist to be crushed to death by his own stored gear and supplies.

Here is the earthquake strapping method that I recommend: Use loops of galvanized pipe hanger tape and large-head 4″ TORX power screws that make a solid connection to wall studs.  Similarly, you can use pairs of self-tapping power screws directly through the upper backs of steel wall cabinets, to firmly attach them to studs. (You do own a stud finder, right?)

If you have a fully free-standing set of shelves, you can make it at least partially earthquake proof by using 2×2 or 2×4 boards, to cross-brace them at the top, to other nearby shelves, and/or to cleats firmly attached to walls. These cross-bracing boards can be attached to metal shelves with either heavy gauge wire, or with the newly-available stainless steel zip ties.

The lightest and most heat-invulnerable items should be placed on the uppermost shelves. But note that storage foods–even the lightweight freeze-dried and dehydrated variety–need to be stored “low and cool.” Ditto for candles and your canning wax.

Shoehorning It All

Shoehorning all of your stuff into a house can be a challenge.  Take a close a look at each room: Look for any wasted space. Underneath beds is an obvious void. There, I like to use under-bed footlockers for items like extra bed linens, off-season clothes, and towels. And if there is room for a second row of footlockers out of reach, then fill those with more valuable items, such as your overflow of full capacity magazines. I’d expect that Mr. Burglar Inahurry will likely give up on searching under your bed after only finding linens. Like the late Mr. Carlin said of burglars: “They only want the good stuff.”

Other useful spaces in a house can include:

  • Under or behind desks and tables,
  • Behind book on bookshelves,
  • The full depth of kitchen cabinets,
  • Inside hassocks,
  • Underneath or even inside couches and upholstered chairs
  • Stacks of canned food boxes in place of a coffee table (with a cloth cover),
  • Crawlspaces (but beware of moisture & vermin),
  • Attic spaces (but beware of heat & vermin),
  • Beneath the bottom drawers of dressers,
  • Adding shelves above clothes rods in closets and armoires
  • Behind clothes in closets,
  • Beneath workbenches,
  • And overhead in a garage or shop. (You may need to add extra joists and 3/4″ plywood decking)

 

For Food, FIFO

Here at the Rawles Ranch, we use the first-in-first out (FIFO) storage method for foods and other perishables. It just a takes a few extra minutes to mark the purchase month and year on the top of cans. I typically use a medium point Sharpie pen, for that. Some folks use dedicated FIFO racks for canned foods. But if you use standard shelving, then just remember to stock the newest cans in the back.

food-storage-organization

We also use FIFO for all of our assorted animal feed. Storing it in 80-pound feed sacks is a mistake. Those are just for transport. Much of our grain is stored in standard galvaniized trash cans with tight-fitting galvanized lids. Lids can be marked to prevent guessing games on which ones hold chicken feed, and with ones hold Corn–Oats-Barley. Those barrels are all stored in a secured room that cannot be accessed by the livestock. It would be tragic to have a horse or cow gorge itself on grain and then founder and perish. One other safety note: With grain stored in barrels it is important to always completely use the contents of each barrel, and brush it out before you refill it. If you only partially empty a barrel and keep adding to it, then eventually you will end up with moldy grain.

Storage space planning: Labels

Keeping track of what you have in storage and where you have it, is very important. Distinct, easy-to-read jigh contrast labels are a key part of that. I just recently (and belatedly) discovered Brother brand electronic label makers. These are a far cry from the Dymo “analog” rotary labeler that I bought back in the 1970s.  The Brother machine can print in dozens of fonts, on half a dozen background color tapes, and even print in reverse, for labeling the back side of glass cabinet doors. The Brother labeler itself sells for under $20. It comes supplied with just one short “teaser” label strip. The extra cartridges of blank label tape made by Brother are expensive, but I’ve found that the generic knockoff brand cartridges work just fine.

If you look through the SurvivalBlog archives, you will find lots of suggestions on what items you need to store, how to package them (especially storage foods), and how to keep inventory. So I won’t attempt to repeat all that here.  Just suffice it to say that it all takes planning, budgeting, prioritizing, family cooperation, a bit of OPSEC, and of course space. Sometimes I wish I had TARDIS closet that could defy geometry and provide unlimited space.

No matter what method you use for organizing: Be consistent, be tidy, make prominent labels (except for valuables), and keep lists. The rest of your family will appreciate that, perhaps even after you are dead and buried. – JWR




31 Comments

  1. On a solid flat floor, many used steel file cabinets from Goodwill/Salvation Army, vertical/horizontal, are vermin proof. Should have some sort of latch or raccoons etc can open them. Even without a latch, a bit of duct tape or a nail thru some drilled holes holding a drawer shut may work.

  2. We just use a black sharpie on our 5 gal food buckets with item , date packed and lbs per bucket. The lbs per bucket comes in handy when going to purchase items to refill. When Buckets are empty we simply line through it. We use a post-it note on buckets that are in use with a simple “open ” on the post-it note.

  3. Fire resistance is another important consideration. Clothing, bulk foods, toilet paper, etc. are all easily burned. Keeping light items in metal footlockers and heavy items in metal 5 gallon buckets will keep a candle-lit error from turning into an inferno.

  4. Large METAL food containers like Keebler export cracker and similar offer a good small rodent proof food container. The lids limit the odor which attracts them in the 1st place, and their shape makes them easy to store in corners. Writing a list of contents on a Post-It, then covering with tape on lid gives you an easy way to know contents without opening it. If you want more privacy, put the list on the bottom of container, where few people bother to check.

    1. Reused CHRISTmas pop-corn tins make excellent food storage (but will rust if kept directly on a cement floor). I buy them used at thrift stores for around .50 +- year round and of course during the holidays. If the corn gets too stale, feed it to the chickens but I cant recall ever having pop-corn get stale in our house…

  5. Shelf toppling – requires space, and 3 shelf assemblies, but works. Shelves 2&3 are adjacent to and perpendicular to shelf 1, forming a rough square. Wire rack support tubes are 1″ so 1″ U-clamps securing a horizontal support (angle iron, steel flat stick, even 1X3s work) across top, middle and bottom (20% from top, middle, and 20% from bottom – even with top and bottom shelves keeps it out of the way) makes it a rigid assembly. Same size units (ex: 48WX18DX72H – Home Depot, Amazon, etc. wire rack shelving units) forms a 66″ square with 12″ gap between #s 2&3, useful for hanging clothes or other stuff. It’ll move during an earthquake but not fall over. As always , heavy stuff on the bottom. JWR’s suggestion or wrapping shelves in bungee cords (or ratchet tie-downs) is good, especially for higher shelves.

    Inventory your stuff; it’s a PITA to do but a good and up-to-date spreadsheet tells you: 1) what you’ve got; 2) how many of ’em; 3) where they are (means devising some sort of reliable physical location methodology for that); 4) a recovery path in case of theft or destruction – insurance claims will require being detailed to get reimbursed, or if no insurance, at least you’ll know what’s missing. This, BTW, is important – you may have a valid insurance claim, the materials damaged/stolen may be covered by your policy (guns, jewelry, ammunition usually are not or have low, defined limits) but if someone steals a dozen 5 gallon buckets of vac-packed rice, or 20 cases of Mountain House, how will you prove you had it and what the value is? Take inventory pictures as backup, store securely. Expensive items (guns, jewelry, electronics) should also be photographed close-up enough to show ID info (model, serial) and with your ID (driver license, etc.) in the picture and readable. Electronic copies are fine IF there’s an easy way for them to be transmitted and viewed, but it’s best to also PRINT AND STORE THESE PHOTOS VERY SECURELY – a shoebox on a closet shelf ain’t it. Extra copies in a very secure remote location are a plus. CDs or DVDs are more secure than thumb drives but require destroying and re-burning if changes are made. Always identify what version the CD is AND the spreadsheet date on the spreadsheet. Including a purchase date field for each entry (will require multiple line entries for same type of goods) allows a quick sort by that column so you can track what’s reaching end-of-useful-life and needs replacement/replenishment.

    Keep the spreadsheet up to date as you add/use stuff, then review it quarterly and add/delete/correct content as necessary.

    Bins are great, small/medium are better – too much in a bin is almost as bad as no bins at all. Plastic bins work on secure shelves, but are fragile otherwise and not airtight/watertight. Label bins clearly USING CLEAR STANDARD DESCRIPTIONS. You may know what “SARBCA/2X” means (“Spare AR Rifle Bolt Carrier Assembly, qty 2) but no one else will.

  6. I can attest to the ruggedness of the KeepBox totes. Been using them for years for my construction company. They hold up to the abuses of commercial jobsites. Handy for all kinds of uses (other than a stepstool). They stack good too when empty or lightly loaded. My carpenters find ways to break all kinds of equipment, but not these totes. Being located in Ohio, I can find them for less than $10 at most Home Depots.

  7. I have two additional suggestions:
    – You should create and maintain a detailed inventory of where everything is and when it needs to be tested/rotated/replaced. I use multiple spreadsheets (one for each storage area) that I print off after each update.

    – I have installed AFO ‘Fire Ball’ fire extinguishers (https://www.amazon.com/Extinguisher-Suppression-Device-Safety-Product/dp/B01JVXFQ6E) in each storage area to reduce the chance of fire damage.

  8. Old [non-working] refrigerators make excellent storage containers. Dust free with doors closed. They are cheap (often free), built in shelves and drawers/compartments, easy to move around.

  9. also for those of us who forget that not everyone has a cookbook, when filling large containers with smaller packaged dry foods like pasta rice beans etc I cut the cooking instructions and caloric content section from the original container and either tape it to the outside of the new container or baggie it and store it inside the new container. It doesn’t help when some clueless husband decides to make a bowl of beans but ends up with a gallon because he didn’t know that beans SWELL UP.

  10. Speaking of storage- just took delivery of my 20’ connex box this morning. Scored it for free as it was abandoned on a jobsite of which the owner offered it to me. Only had to pay $400 for a flatbed to transport it. Talk about right place right time! Anyone have suggestions/ ideas on shelving/organization for a connex box?

    1. The 4-shelf heavy-duty wire-shelf warehouse racks from Home Depot are ideal for a CONNEX. You can line both sides and still have a walkway. Or do one side with the 30″ and the other side with 24″ for lighter items.

  11. Costco, and now Home Depot, carry the 27 gallon yellow and black Homz totes (or their lookalikes) for $8.00. (I have seen smaller ones at Lowe’s, but I don’t know if Lowe’s carries the larger ones.) These totes are very sturdy and stack very well. The lids do not provide a waterproof seal, but as long as they are stored upright and are not actually in water, they will work just fine. If the lids did provide a waterproof seal, it would likely be a problem opening them very easily, just as it is with a 5-gallon bucket.

    Harbor Freight has .50 cal. ammo cans for $12.99 currently. They are regularly $15.99, but I cannot go through a week without getting a 20% off coupon to reduce that price. A YouTube video demonstrates that these cans are identical in every respect to GI ammo cans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVpvF_s-wCg If they aren’t identical, I surely can’t tell the difference.

    If you want the best ammo storage, I would stay away from the plastic ammo cans. I saw a YouTube vide a few years ago where a fellow put several boxes of ammo in a plastic ammo can and several boxes in a military ammo can. He tied a rope to each and then threw them in a pond. A year later, he retrieved them and opened the cans. The plastic can’s contents were ruined. The military can’s contents were in pristine condition. (Geez, I had to wonder after I saw the video why this fellow put so much ammo in each can in order to test the cans’ waterproof integrity. One box in each would have seemed to work.)

  12. Though they don’t stack well, I found that galvanized steel trash cans are the best big inexpensive rodent-proof containers for grains, sugar, etc. They also are pretty innocuous if OPSEC is a concern, unless you have twenty of them lined up in your garage.

  13. You can purchase 5-packs of aftermarket label tape on Amazon. I prefer the 3/4″ yellow with black lettering. You can stick this to magnet tape to make labels which can be moved around when you reorganize things.

  14. I’m using disposable water bottles now for quick storage of various sizes of used brass. I don’t reload, so I can give to friends who do. We buy fresh cases of water (about 10 cents per 12 oz container) at WINCO just to make sure we keep current rotation, and share them with friends or use for travel after a couple months.

    If you have sturdy tubs missing lids, I urge you all to use them as Secondary Containment for any fluid containers: water, oils, paints, etc. It will save you some grief when something starts leaking while in storage (bitter experience here).

    I freeze all big sacks of beans, lentils, rice, and grains for 10 days to 2 weeks as cold as I can. It kills most biologically destructive mites and other pests that can ruin your food (another surprise when I checked poorly stored pasta after a year), before or after vacuum-packing. Some times I just place the frozen bags into black tub/yellow lid after bugs get froze..

    For anything stored on concrete at all, I urge you to get leftover chunks of sheet vinyl flooring, lay them down directly on the cement as a moisture barrier (e.g..” How did that chest freezer start rusting so badly???”). Another lesson learned…cement slab is actually a water sponge.

    God Bless

  15. I find these comments and admonitions on keeping foodstuffs rodent and insect free sort of region specific. Here in SE Wisconsin in my basement I never have either a rodent problem nor any insect infestations. I keep all sealed in 5 gal buckets, or totes that seal up well. Never have any issues. Of course my house has 3 cats that might dampen the rodent population somewhat. But no insect issues ever. I suspect the humid south/southeast has those issues. But not us here. Of course I keep my area dry and free from moisture.

  16. I will never forget this oddly comforting and special moment of my life… I was a single mother who had recently moved to Montana. My dream was to have a substantial supply of food for my farm critters. (I had already secured food for my children and myself.) Hay storage took place first. That was a large chunk of my budget. Then, after a while, I obtained 6 large galvanized trash cans, which I slowly (over the course of a few paychecks) filled to the brim with animal feed. I had managed to fill a can of dog food for the dogs, cat food for the barn cats, and a can of layer feed for the chickens, along with cans of Omalene (sweet feed), corn, and oats – all of which I used to stretch the chicken feed or make my own supplemental winter grain mixes for my horses and newly acquired cows, if needed (based on the animal’s age, activity, and other nutritional needs). I also had splurged for a dolly for each trash can, enabling me to move the filled cans with relatively ease inside the feed-bunk portion of my barn. (May I highly recommend making any “splurge” that will save your back from injury and enable you to move items you would otherwise be unable to move?) When I was finally done with this project/goal, it was such a peaceful feeling, standing in the barn that very cold evening, looking at the purchases of stacked hay and carefully selected grains. It represented much hard work on my part and as I was to later learn, it was really just an humble start… but it was a good start! I remember opening the lid on the Omalene can, smelling the scent of sweet molasses, and suddenly being overwhelmed with gratitude and feeling ridiculously happy over such a simple thing. Life is good! Keep prepping and stay optimistic! God’s got this. Little by little, you’ll get there.

  17. I use CONEX for almost all non-temperature sensitive and other supplies. I block the top vents with new screen and add a cover external. These containers are nice and secure, particularly with a modified locking system, rodent proof and weather proof. Sugar, salt, honey and the like are not particular temperature sensitive and store well in 5 or 6 gallon buckets. Several nested together covered with a roofing tin top and sides separated from the containers by a foot or so provides a nice breeze and keeps the sun from direct impingement.
    PR

  18. I use the Homz black plastic totes with yellow lids from Cosco to store a variety of soft and durable items (no food). I have used these in the back of my pickup bed camping in snow and rain with no leakage. I have also used them in my shop, garage and in an enclosed utility trailer with no evidence of rodent breach.

    I use the Wise Outdoor Utility Dry Boxes to store magazines. The boxes have straight walls, are durable, stack well and have a good interior capacity and shape for magazines. They stack well within a vault or safe. Magazines fit below the removable top tray, allowing for placement of small items or desiccant packages. Never had a problem with flexing under weight or damage to contents.

    I use the Rigid (eq brand) Steel Job Site Security Safe Boxes with recessed shackles and inset lock wells to store my cutting tools, drills, bits, hack saws, pry bars and other breaching equipment. This prevents progressive open board guests from using my own tools to gain access to other items on my property.

    1. While the Wise Outdoor UtilityDry Boxes are made of hard plastic, they don’t mar or damage other contents in the safe or vault when moving them around. Unlike the steel ammo boxes (which I also use, as they have a useful place in storage), which more easily scratch firearm stocks and metal surfaces. The Wise boxes also weigh less than the metal ammo boxes, making them useful and prevent damage to other contents in the safe.

  19. Costco has the cheapest ammo cans I’ve seen. Two pack of NEW 30 and 50 cal for sub $20, $16 IIRC. Don’t visit the hardware/auto aisles regularly, but was there last time I checked.

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