How to Dig a Tunnel by Hand

Digging a tunnel by hand takes planning and patience.

Tunneling without the use of power equipment can present challenges, but you can overcome these challenges with a little planning. The basics of tunneling have been known and practiced for thousands of years, and you can benefit from the pool of knowledge that has built up about tunneling by hand. Prepare yourself by reviewing a few guidelines that can help you dig a tunnel that will withstand weight from the ground above it and frequent use.

Select your location. The side of a hill or an embankment offers the advantage of starting your tunnel well below the surface level. If you don't have a hill or embankment, you should choose a spot where passersby are least likely to stumble into the hole you will make.

Dig a shaft. You must establish either a vertical shaft or a horizontal shaft into the side of a hill. Dig it so that you have approximately twice as much earth above the tunnel as the height of the tunnel itself. Example: a 3-foot high tunnel will need 6 feet of earth above it. This will help avoid collapse.

Load buckets full of soil. As you dig, place the dug-up soil in buckets. These must be hauled out through the shaft. It helps if you have a partner to haul the buckets, so you can continue digging while the soil is hauled out.

Create a turn in the tunnel. If you dug a vertical shaft, you will need to make a turn at some point to begin digging sideways. For tunnels in the sides of hills, you may wish to make a turn to create rooms or other passageways. The turns may not allow you to use a shovel. Use a hammer and chisel to dig out the earth at the turn, until you can fit a shovel in the space.

Shore up tunnel sections by cutting 2x4 boards into lengths to make joists that will reach from the floor of the tunnel to the ceiling. Cut plywood into sections to fit into the ceiling, and support your plywood ceiling with your 2x4 joists. Use nails hammered at an angle into the joists and up into the plywood to secure your shoring.

Add cross beams by cutting 2x4 boards into lengths that will fit between your support joists. Nail these into place by driving nails at an angle through the cross beam and into the support joist.

Illuminate your tunneling work by wearing a helmet with a built-in flashlight. This will only shine the light where you are looking, but it will help you, particularly when your tunnel becomes long or has enough turns that light from the outside no longer reaches you.

Kevin Johnston writes for Ameriprise Financial, the Rutgers University MBA Program and Evan Carmichael. He has written about business, marketing, finance, sales and investing for publications such as "The New York Daily News," "Business Age" and "Nation's Business." He is an instructional designer with credits for companies such as ADP, Standard and Poor's and Bank of America.