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When in the wilderness, you must know how to build a survival shelter. Aside from food and water, shelter should be a main goal when you’re trying to survive. It’s arguably one of the most important skills you can have as a survivalist. A properly-built shelter can provide you with a safe place to rest, as well as a sense of “home” when in the wilderness.
If you’re lost and alone, it’s one of the biggest psychological boosts you can experience. But if you’re a beginner, they can be tricky to build. That’s why I wrote this article- to teach newbies the basics of how to build a survival shelter.
BTW: All these (with the exception of snow caves) are pretty much spelled out in the classic 1914 book, "Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties: And How to Make Them" by D. C. Beard.
Things to Consider
First and foremost, you need to determine where your shelter is going to go. A good location can make all the difference between a good shelter and a bad one. As a general rule of thumb, a good location should A) Provide you with quick/easy access to building materials (leaves, sticks, grass, etc.), and B) Sit far away from major hazards (falling branches, insect nests, etc.). Your location needs to be large enough so that you can comfortably lie down and sleep.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when learning how to build a survival shelter? They make them too large. There are a variety of drawbacks associated with this. First, building large shelters require more resources and more time. Secondly, all that extra space makes it difficult to insulate yourself inside. This tip is especially important when you’re building a shelter in a cold environment where thermal insulation is very important. Remember, build your shelter just large enough to fit your body.
With regards to protection, you need to make sure that you’re insulated from outside elements. When I say “insulated”, I’m not just talking about the cold. If you’re in a wet forest, then you should insulate yourself from moisture. Sticks, ferns, grass, leaves, and pine needles can all be used to create a layer of separation between you and the environment. If you don’t know how to build a survival shelter with insulation, then you drastically reduce your chances of survival.
The Structure Itself
When building your shelter, make sure it’s safe. Otherwise, your defeat the purpose of building one in the first place. For your initial framework, use larger branches. These branches should be large enough so that they can easily support your weight. Without proper structure, your shelter will eventually crumble. With debris hut and lean-to shelters (I’ll teach you how to build these below), this tip is especially important.
(You might find Anthonio Akkermans' book, "The Complete Survival Shelters Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Life-Saving Structures for Every Climate and Wilderness Situation" to be a good addition to your prepping and bushcraft library.
SHELTER #1: ROUND LODGE
When learning how to build a survival shelter, you should definitely know how to construct a round lodge. The reason I like this type of shelter is because it can block the sun, cold, rain, and wind.
Structurally, it’s very similar to a tipi, but there’s also a solid doorway included in the design. Most round lodges will have smoke holes built into the ceiling, which is perfect for accommodating a small fire. You can thatch the shelter with mats or grass, or bury it with a thick coat of leaf litter. I would highly recommend learning how to build one of these.
We added a great video by a YouTuber "Survival Lilly" who takes us through the building of one of these:
SHELTER #2: SNOW CAVE
As its name implies, a snow cave is a shelter that you build within the snow. It can only works in areas where deep snow is present. If you don’t learn how to build a survival shelter like this one properly, it can be dangerous. Why? Because poorly-built snow caves can collapse and bury the people inside alive.
When building a snow cave, snow selection is critical. Specifically, you need to choose snow that’s solid. Then, dig into the side of it and form a tunnel. This will become known as your “cold well”, where the cold air will collect. From here, you need to dug upwards and create a shelf where you’ll be sleeping. As you can see from the video below, they a little tricky as far as design is concerned. Make sure you include a 6-inch hole somewhere in the roof of your sleeping area for ventilation. Then, block the entrance of your snow cave with your backpack.
NOTE: There are other ways to build snow caves, depending on where you are. As we add this update (May 2019), one of our friends recalls building a snow shelter in Antarctica, where the class a group was taking piled up their backpacks, and then cut snow blocks on top of the gear - the snow is very dry, and the blocks felt a lot like Styrofoam, so it was an easy matter to cut and place the blocks around the packs.
After that, they dug out a door, and when they reached their packs, pulled them out, and then went into the cave to finish out the interior. Due to the nature of the class (called "Survival School" back in the late 1990's - we're unsure what it is called these days), it was part "party," so the image we are adding here shows the results of that particular outing - required at the time for individuals who would be wintering over.
In areas where the snow is powdery, you can build a quinzee snow shelter.
Watch "The Wooded Beardsman" and his little boy make one - notice that you still need shovels.
SHELTER #3: WEDGE TARP
For windy conditions, learn how to build a survival shelter like a wedge tarp. Due to its aerodynamic shape, it will be able to resist driving wind and rain quite well. Keep in mind that you’ll need a minimum of five tie-down points when constructing this shelter.
To construct this shelter, stake down the two corners of the tarp that are facing into the wind. The opposite corners should be tie upwards (for ventilation). This is one of my favorite designs for a few reasons. For one, it’s relatively simple to build (all you need is a tarp and some rope). Secondly, it does a good job at protecting you from the elements. Practice building the wedge tarp on your next camping trip so that you can feel comfortable making it during a real survival situation.
Watch as Ranger Mike explains how to do it:
SHELTER #4: LEAN-TO
The lean-to is one of the simplest (and possibly the oldest) types of shelters you can build. I recommend learning how to build a survival shelter like this one for a few reasons. For one, it can be setup in less than an hour. This means that you can have your shelter built without expending too many resources (time, energy, building materials, etc.).
Secondly, they do a good job at protecting you from the environment. As you can see from the image below you can build it by leaning larger sticks against something solid, like a tree or rock. Then, you can fill in the gaps between the sticks using some kind of “filler”, like grass, leaves, pine needles, and even mud. This shelter isn’t particularly useful at protecting you from the cold, so don’t even think about using it during a blizzard. But for most survival situations, learning how to build a survival shelter like a lean-to is good enough.
SHELTER #5: LEAF HUT
You should know how to build a survival shelter like a leaf hut (also known as a debris hut). It has pretty good insulating and weatherproofing qualities that can save your life during a crisis. This wedge-shaped, two-sided lean-to should be approximately 10 feet in length.
You basically line up thick sticks on two sides of a stump or rock, and then like a lean-to, fill in the gaps between the sticks with mud, grass, pine needles, or leaves. It’s important that you place the sticks close together so that your “filler” doesn’t leak through into your sleeping area. If you’re in an area that’s experiencing high wind, then add a layer of twigs or sticks over the entire structure to prevent the vegetation from being stripped away.
Let's join "Survival Lilly" again as she demonstrates how to create this shelter.
No guide on how to build a survival shelter would be complete without mentioning the poncho tent or tarp tent. This tent will help protect you from the elements on two sides. The only downside is that these tend to have less space than lean-to shelters.
To build this shelter, you’ll need about 2 meters of rope, six sticks (sharpened, 6 cm each), and two trees (about 3 meters apart). For the most part, this shelter can be built relatively quickly, although it will take a little longer than some of the shelters on this list.
How to Build a Survival Shelter – Bottom Line
As you can see, when learning how to build a survival shelter, you’ll have many different options. I don’t consider any of these the “best”. They’re all suitable for different environments. The one you decide to build in the wild will depend on your energy levels, and what building materials you have on you. You should also decide whether you’ll be using the shelter for a long or short period of time. If you’re planning on staying put and waiting for help to arrive, then building a sturdier, longer-term shelter is the better choice.
This feature originally written and posted on March 3, 2016. Updates added May 2019.