Camping & Survival

Why Everyone Needs a Gas Mask

With the popularity of shows like Doomsday Preppers, and of course, the impending apocalypse, we thought it would be a good idea to give our readers some basic information on CBRN survival. In case you were wondering what CBRN is, it stands for Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear. People in the industry use it to refer to situations in which any of these four hazards have presented themselves. I spent seven years as a CBRN specialist in the military, and part of my job was to train military personnel how to not die in a CBRN environment. I will also be the first to say, that merely owning the right equipment is only a start, you have to practice with it. If you’ve never tried doing simple tasks while wearing a gas mask, give it a go, it is harder than it looks.

So why should we concern ourselves with CBRN? The fact of the matter is that a terrorist attack on the United States is most likely a matter of when, not if. There is a good chance that in the event of an attack, the bad guys would attempt to deploy some form of CBRN weapon. These types of non-conventional agents would be an effective way to cause mayhem over a wide area, causing panic or death to a large portion of the population. What are some of these potential threats?


Terrorist use of chemical weapons has happened in recent history. Remember the subway attacks in Japan? The terrorist group released Sarin in an attempt to kill thousands of people who were in close proximity and in a poorly ventilated environment. Other chemical agents that would be effective are Cyanide, Mustard, Ricin, and of course VX, the most potent nerve agent known to man.


Bioterrorism is particularly frightening. Both Japan and the United States have suffered biological attacks on multiple occasions. Typically, terrorists use Anthrax or Salmonella as their bio weapon of choice. Anthrax is comparably easy to obtain, and since it doesn’t spread from person to person, there is little risk of infecting those outside of the target population. Thankfully, terrorists haven’t had the opportunity to use smallpox. This is a particularly deadly and contagious virus. The mortality rate with smallpox ranges from about 20-40%. Smallpox occurs only in humans, and has no external hosts or carriers. A smallpox outbreak would potentially wipe out a very large portion of the world’s population. We would see governments and other organizations using extreme measures to contain the effected portions of the population.


Realize that a radiological attack isn’t the same as a nuclear bomb. A radiological attack would most likely be nothing more than radioactive material being deployed alongside a conventional explosive. This “dirty bomb” would do little physical damage, but the spread of radioactive material would potentially be devastating. There is a good chance that a population would not even be aware that an attack took place until the victims began showing symptoms. This could take hours or even days. The victims would spread the contaminated material everywhere, including their homes, and could contaminate their loved ones.


A terrorist use of a nuclear bomb is less likely due to the cost and expertise required in creating an improvised nuclear device. However, rogue states are quickly becoming nuclear capable and the risk of a strike on western countries is increasing daily.

What You Can Do

One of the best ways to defend yourself in a CBRN situation is to own a serviceable gas mask. The best masks are capable of filtering out nasty particles in the air that can make you sick, or kill you. When you breathe in while wearing a gas mask, air comes in through the filter where activated charcoal absorbs dangerous particles. Clean air then comes inside the mask, where you can breathe it in. When exhaling, air typically escapes through an outlet valve, and back out into the environment.

A mask that has a 40mm NATO attachment for the canister will do fine and they are widely available on the surplus market. The canisters themselves do have an expiration date, so use expired canisters at your own risk. It is also important to note that depending on the agent used, your filter won’t protect you indefinitely. A gas mask will help you get out of the area, not protect you forever. If you have to use your mask, change out the filter after each use. Remember that the used canister is now contaminated hazardous material, so don’t go throwing it back into your go-bag.

In a situation such as a chemical attack, where the contaminants can be absorbed through your skin, specialized protective clothing will help you survive much longer. If you don’t have a military-grade charcoal impregnated suit lying around, however, try to stay indoors and seal up cracks and potential leaks in whatever shelter you are in. Decontamination kits are available in both the surplus and medical markets; they can be useful in an emergency for decontaminating people and equipment.

An important decision to make during a CBRN attack is whether or not to shelter-in-place. If you are in an easily defendable, well-supplied location, it may be a better idea to stay there. Venturing out into the open would only increase your exposure time and endanger your health. If you choose to shelter-in-place, remember to close and lock all doors and windows, and shut off the air conditioner. You do not want contaminants blowing into your vents.

Always be prepared for the unexpected. The most successful terrorist attacks happen when the target population is unprepared. Having the proper supplies and training will help ensure that whatever the bad guys have in store, you can be one of the survivors.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. Hi, I need to spend some time learning much more about
    topics like this. Thanks for excellent information I was looking for this info for one of my
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  3. For kids, the best way to teach them is play… wear your mask while playing a game… a board game like “Sorry” or “Snakes and Ladders” would be great…

    Let THEM decide if they want to don a mask… don’t make a big deal of it… just having it lying there ready for their use.

    Do thise often enough that they get used to donning the mask and sitting for a half hour playing.

    BIG THOUGHT: One minute of FEAR can undo weeks of effort… so don’t rush them unless the bombs are already falling.

  4. A mask protects against radioactive beta particles, which do no good when inhaled (think cancers)
    A mask may be of limited protection to very small viral particles.
    Bio suit, think rain gear, appropriate gloves and duct tape, Level B protection splash suit. Level A (SCBA/supplied air)is too resource intensive to be practical for the survival scenario. (evacuation uphill upwind more practical)

    Any protective gear requires training in its use strengths and weaknesses.

    Dont forget about decon, soap water scrub brushes. designate decon areas away from safe areas.

    And if nothing else, it will be useful during occupy protests to filter tear gas.
    Who knows, perhaps we will all be carrying masks in the future.

  5. First of all this whole article is nothing but fear mongering and if the author, who claimed to be a CBRN ex-military trainer well I would like to know which country because as a NBC NCO from 9th ID (Nuclear biological and Chemical) the chance of you “needing” this and properly using it and coming out alive are slim to none.
    First Chemical weapons- very unstable and highly degradable by UV light and humidity and most attackers lack a proper delivery system to get the right size micron disbursement in the air over US soil would be next to impossible. Subway, maybe, but who is carrying a mask through the city on a subway…..NO ONE !!!!! Dark and condensed as a subway goes yes… area would be minimal damage.

    Biological- the spread of infectious disease through contact with skin or lungs- example, mosquito borne illness,contaminated water, skin reaction to contaminate. No help from a mask here, if your neighbor has the Ebola virus a mask wont stop the size of the virus from permeating the filter (if your still works) There hasn’t been bio warfare in decades, very hard to control and all can be cured through antibiotics

    Nuclear and Radiological- any exposure to either will lead to radiation sickness, the mask may help filter fallout particles but only for a few hours then the filter becomes radioactive and when you change it, when you remove the filter you contaminate the inside of the mask.

    listen, the correct military mask and filter will protect you against chemical weapons(see above) but if you don’t have a charcoal lined chemical suit or plastic bio suit your mask could be useless. If it will make you feel safer get one, just dont expect too much out of it

  6. Talking about masks are great but you have to go over the filters needed to work with particulate filtration and the type of filter used for chemical and Nuclear contamination. No mask or filter will help with radiation. only contamination.

  7. I know adults that are freaked out by them. In England during WWII they used have all the students practice donning their masks, and when everyone had them on they would read them a story. It is sort of paints a surreal image.

  8. Great article. Do you have any thoughts on how to introduce the use of a gas mask to a 9 year old without freaking them out? We have some kid-sized ones but I have hesitated practicing it with her and really need to do so. Any advice would be appreciated.

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