Choosing the Right Respirator for the Right Survival Situation

I think one of the most overlooked items in a prepper’s supplies is a face mask. They are handy to have around even for non-SHTF situations. But, when it comes to respirators for survival, one size does not fit all.

Just like anything else, choose the right tool for the job.

You know you need to filter your water in an SHTF situation, so should you filter your air. Some perform better in certain situations from wildfire smoke to other airborne contaminants.

Let’s look at the different options in face masks and which ones work best in different situations.

What is a Face Mask Respirator?

A respirator is a device to protect you from inhaling dangerous elements, such as chemicals and infectious particulates. There are several different types of respirators, but they only work when used correctly.

Emergency Essentials
  • Choose the right respirator for the situation.
  • Have it available when you need it.
  • Know how to use it and how to apply and remove it when the time comes.
  • Do a check at least yearly to make sure your mask is in working condition.
  • Read all manufactures instructions and practice, practice, practice.

Why do I Need a Face Mask/Respirator?

Air ranks more important than water in a survival situation. Without air, you are going to have issues within a couple minutes. As with water, the standard is three days before you will start having issues.

Polluted air, whatever the reason, can harm your lungs and severely damage your passageways or kill you. To further add to the problem (if you’re not dead), the damage doesn’t always show up immediately. Sometimes, you don’t even know you are breathing in something that is potentially harmful.

It is always advisable to have a least a N95 mask in your bug out bag. I will discuss the N95 particulate respirator a little later in the article.

What Kind of Things are We Trying to Filter?

N95 masks can block particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or smaller this is usually represented as PM.25. PM.25 is the most dangerous to our respiratory health. Particulates this small can make their way to the deepest parts of our lungs.

Large concentrations of PM.2.5 particulates can cause acute symptoms such as irritation, shortness of breath, coughing, and sinus issues. It is particularly dangerous for asthma sufferers.

What are the Different Types of Face Masks and Respirators?

Particulate Respirators

Particulate N95 Respirator with Valve
Particulate N95 Respirator with Valve

The N95 respirator is one of many forms of disposable particulate respirators that are popular among preppers. They’re easily carried in a bug out bag (BOB) or a get home bag. Unfortunately, the particulate respirators protect only against particles and not gases or vapors.

This means that they are not suited well for protecting against airborne biological contaminants, gas fumes or chemicals.

Among the prepper community, the effectiveness of N95 masks is controversial, and evidence on both sides of the issue is inconclusive. So, figure out what your most likely to face and keep in mind that they do not eliminate the risk of illness, disease, or death when using an N95.

N95 Masks WILL Filter:
Particulate Respirator
Particulate Respirator
  • Dust
  • Pollution
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Allergens

N95 masks come in vented and non-vented models. I prefer the vented model because it is easier to breathe, and you don’t get the humidity build up from your breath.

Further, those of us with beards may find the seal around the edge hard to get right on these particulate masks. Just remember that the main source of leakage is usually around the edge of the mask so make that a priority when practicing for an SHTF situation.

One upside to the N95 style masks is, they clog with dust and wear out very slowly, so even if they are dark and grubby the filter will still work.

Dust masks are NOT particulate respirators. I would not suggest anything less than a particulate respirator such as the N95 with a vent. They are effective at filtering most hazardous substances you will encounter in an emergency. They are affordable and usually come in a box of ten. Be sure to purchase particulate respirator that have The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved labels.

Gas and Vapor or Cartridge Respirators

Full Facepiece Reusable Respirator
Full Facepiece Reusable Respirator

Unlike the N95 mask, chemical cartridge gas mask respirators will protect you against toxic gasses and dangerous vapors.

A full-faced gas mask has two features that can prevent us from inhaling potentially toxic contaminants in the air.

  1. A physical particulate barrier filter which removes any bacteria in the air.
  2. The chemical process of adsorption that removes toxic molecules such as the nerve gases.

They’re not designed for long-term use and should only be used for a few hours. After that, the filter should be replaced to prevent clogging and failure. It is imperative that you practice with your gas mask to avoid issues during stressful situations.

Things to Consider Before Purchase a Gas Mask

  1. Avoid buying surplus gas masks, I wouldn’t want to trust my life to them.
  2. Remember to purchase spare filters.
  3. Check the size of the gas mask because many are not suitable for children.
  4. Mask marked with NBC are usually of better quality. They protect against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. And hey, the U.S. Military uses NBC masks, so they must be good right?
  5. Most gas masks do not play nice with facial hair so you may want to consider a hooded version or shave.

What Type of Cartridge Should I Buy?

There are different cartridges for different types of hazards. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) uses color codes to identify what a cartridge can catch.

Here is a simple chart you can reference when purchasing your cartridge:

Color Filters
Black Organic vapors
White Acid gases
Yellow Organic vapors/acid gasses
Green Ammonia/Methylamine
Olive and Black Formaldehyde/organic vapor
Olive Multi-gas/vapor
Orange Mercury vapor/chlorine gas

Things to Consider Before Purchasing a Cartridge

  • Cartridges have a shelf life and should be changed every 3 to 5 years.
  • Cartridges can get expensive so plan carefully.
  • Not all cartridges protect against all possible situations so choose them wisely and according to what you may face in your area.
  • Unlike particulate masks, cartridges will not remove particulates. Purchase a gas mask with a pre-filter or combination cartridge for best protection.

Another thing to keep in mind regarding gas masks, is that unless it is securely applied before the attack, it may be too late. So, if you are going to invest in a gas mask, you always need to find a way to carry it with you and at the ready.


No matter what you ultimately choose, you need to practice with your mask. The armed forces train extensively applying their gas mask in stressful situations and so should you. There is nothing like hands-on experience to make you more comfortable in and SHTF situation.