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Ask any survival instructor and they’ll tell you two things you have to do every day (when out in the wilderness) before the sun goes down. They are: to start a fire and to build a shelter. Granted, those aren’t the only survival needs that you have; but if you’re going to make it through the night, especially when it is cold, you’re going to need shelter and a fire to keep you from succumbing to hypothermia.
But the wintertime isn’t the only time you need a shelter; you really need one all year round. People die of hypothermia in the summertime too, just like they do in the wintertime. When the sun goes down, temperatures in the wild can drop suddenly. As long as it is below 98.6°F (37 C) your body is potentially losing heat. Add some wind and rain in there, and you could find yourself in a very dangerous situation, where you are losing body heat faster than your body can generate it – especially if you’re also in a situation where you don’t have enough food.
If you think of your body like a machine, the only thing keeping the machine working is the energy source, and our energy source is food. In the wild, if you’re in a disaster scenario or stranded in the wilderness, getting your hands on enough calories might be a challenge, which is why it’s all the more important that you preserve whatever warmth you have. (If you’re wondering about what to do about food in a disaster, check out our articles on the best survival foods or how to find food in the wild)
To perform its function, any shelter must protect from the ambient conditions. Specifically, you want a roof to protect you from the rain (or snow, sleet, hail, etc) and however many walls are necessary to protect you from the wind (and rain). If it is cold, you’ll ideally want all four walls, each with some form insulation, so that they can help to hold in heat and keep the cold at bay. Even if there’s not a fire, your body generates heat, and having insulation in your shelter will still help if it’s cold outside.
How you actually build that shelter will depend on what you have to work with. You’ll need to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is nature providing for you in the way of pre-existing shelter?
- What materials are readily available?
- What do you have in your pack?
- How much time do you have before the sun goes down or the storm arrives?
How to Find Shelter in the Wild
Your starting point is always to see what existing shelter might be available. Many times you can find some element in nature which works as a shelter automatically. Even if it is not complete shelter, a partial shelter can save you time and effort, limiting your own work to nothing more than filling in the parts that are missing.
As you gain experience in the wild, one of the things you should do is train yourself to look for shelter. You want to get to the point where you are seeing what shelter is available, without really concentrating on looking for it. This means building up some level of wilderness survival instincts (which comes with practice and experience). Along with that, you’ll want to note where the shelter is, in case you have to go back and find it.
So, what sorts of things are you looking for?
- Caves – Of all the possibilities you might find in the wild, caves make the best possible shelters. However, caves can be dangerous; they can have holes or uneven places in the floor, where you can fall and get hurt, and caves are dark, making this possibility all the more likely. Falls are the most common way that people die in the wild, so make sure you either have a flashlight with you or make a primitive torch before you start poking your head around the darker parts of any cave. Caves can also have occupants. Many animals use caves for their dens, so proceed with caution.
- Undercut embankment – Rather than a full cave, you may find places where passing water has made an undercut area in an embankment. Some of these can be huge. Mesa Verde, which is in an area of many canyons, has entire villages built into such areas. Just be careful that you aren’t going into someplace which may flood.
- Uprooted tree – While an uprooted tree isn’t an entire shelter, it can serve as a great start to one. The mass of the roots can function as a wall and the trunk of the tree can act as a ridge pole (the highest horizontal beam of a shelter) for making a shelter or tent. Depending on what branches it has on it and how many you have to cut off (you could use a survival hatchet for this), you could have at least one additional wall already built.
- Thicket – A thicket of trees can provide considerable shelter, especially with some modification. You may have to clean out some brush or saplings, then weave additional branches into the remaining trees; but the overhead branches will often make a good roof.
- Rock Outcropping – Large rocks can take on many forms, providing partial shelters. You might even find some places where a fallen rock encounters another, forming a roof for a shelter. Just make sure that all the rocks are extremely stable and you aren’t making shelter under a death trap.
- Large Pine Tree – Pine trees grow differently than other trees, in that the branches grow straight out from the trunk. As the tree ages, the weight of the branches causes them to sag, with the lower branches touching the ground. There will often be a few feet of space near the trunk, underneath those lower branches, even though the tips brush the ground. You can also clear some of the lower branches to give yourself a bit more space while retaining the bulk of the sheltering properties.
Regardless of what you find available in nature, chances are that you will need to complete it in some way. That’s why you should be carrying some rudimentary tools and survival gear with you (like a survival knife, a hatchet, a survival multi-tool, a folding saw, etc), as well as paracord, a tarp and emergency rescue blankets. While it is possible to finish out your shelter without these items, it will be easier if you have them.
Related: Make sure you know what the top survival tools for the wilderness are, and check out our gear guides to the best survival hatchets, the best survival multi-tools, and the best survival bracelets
You’ll want to stop and work on your shelter at least two hours before sundown, so as to give yourself enough time to build it, gather fuel and start a fire. If you don’t have a watch available or don’t know what time sundown is, you can measure the sun’s distance above the horizon using the fingers of your hand with the fingers extended horizontally (but held together). The width of each finger is roughly 15 minutes, so the sun should be the width of all eight fingers (without thumbs) above the horizon, when you stop traveling and start working on your shelter. (This is a survival “rule of thumb” – or “rule of no-thumbs”, as it were).
How to Build a Primitive Shelter in the Wilderness
Regardless of whether you find one of the places listed above to work with or not, your shelter building needs remain the same. All those natural elements are going to do is to change how much work you’ll have to do in order to have a workable shelter. In either case, you need the same protection, and unless you stumble into an empty cabin in the middle of the wilderness with a fireplace, there’ll be work to do.
Before starting, you should have a good idea of what they weather is doing. How warm is it and how much is it likely to dip overnight? Does it look like it’s likely to rain? What direction is the prevailing wind coming from? You can at least get an idea about these things from what’s happening during the day and how the sky looks when you start building.
Never assume that it won’t rain, no matter where you are or what the weather looks like. Storm clouds can always move in under the cover of darkness, drenching you. That’s something you have to avoid, as your body will lose its core heat much faster when you are wet.
You want to make sure that you build your shelter in such a way as to block the wind. This means that you’re going to need to have the back of the shelter facing the prevailing wind. If the shelter has a sloping roof, it should slope down towards the direction of the wind. This will leave the opening or entryway downwind, where it is protected.
Most shelters will consist of a framework made of wood poles, covered with leafy branches. Any non-natural materials you use, like an emergency survival blanket or a tarp (which you should always have as part of your gear), will only serve to reduce the amount of natural materials you need to scavenge or cut; most likely you’ll still need at least some materials out of nature.
When You Don’t Have Enough Wood
We tend to think of survival in terms of being lost in the woods, where you will have access to fallen tree limbs and trees that you can cut live limbs off. However, you might not find yourself in this ideal situation. If that happens, you’re going to have to use whatever materials you have at hand. This is part of the reason why carrying a tarp, paracord (usually in the form of survival bracelets) and emergency survival blankets is so important.
However, it is possible to build a shelter even if you don’t have those basic materials in your pack. Mankind has been building shelters out of whatever materials are available for centuries. Primitive home-building styles from around the world reflect mankind’s ingenuity in adapting whatever nature provides and turning it into shelter, as well as a host of other things we need.
A few naturally-occurring materials you may find useful in building your shelter:
- Stone – While piled stones (without mortar) may not be an efficient way of building, it is effective. You can fill in the space between the stones with mud to the best of your ability, making it windproof. The mud won’t be a permanent fix, but this was a commonly used method during the pioneering days to windproof log cabins.
- Turf – The Midwest United States is known as the “Breadbasket.” While the soil is great for growing food, there’s a distinct lack of trees. This caused many of the settlers to build “soddies,” homes built out of cut layers of sod, for their homesteads. As long as you have at least a survival knife to work with, you could cut squares of sod out of the grass and stack them up to make walls, covering it all with a tarp for a roof.
- Snow – Everyone knows how Eskimos make their igloos out of blocks of snow. Just make sure that you make the entrance in such a way that the sleeping level inside is above the top of the entryway if at all possible.
- Palm Fronds – Palm trees are actually plants, not trees, so they don’t provide any wood; but they do provide large leaves. Those leaves have been used to make the walls and roofs of huts, tying them together.
This list is by no means conclusive; I’m merely trying to show you some examples of what you can do. You’ll need to be ready to use your imagination a bit, working with whatever you have at hand. When you don’t have gear on you, the ability to improvise in a high stress survival scenario is what separates those with true survival skills from the average person, and the ability to improvise comes from a combination of survival knowledge and practical experience.
Even if all you see at first is dirt, you can pile dirt up to make a windbreak, providing at least some shelter. From there, you can look at what you have available to make some sort of roof.
Types of Wilderness Shelters
The variety of wilderness shelters you can build is limited only by your imagination and the materials you have available to you. As I discussed in the previous section, people have been making shelters out of a wide variety of materials and in a wide variety of styles for centuries (more like millennia actually).
When building shelters out of tree branches, you’re want to be tying tree limbs together to make a framework, then covering that framework with smaller branches that still contain live leaves. Several layers of these are tied to the framework, working from ground level up, so that the higher branches overlap the lower ones. The larger branches provide the structure, and the smaller branches and leaves provide the cover. This helps the shelter to block rain, directing the rain to drip off outside the shelter.
There are certain styles of common survival shelters which have weathered the passage of time, mostly because they are highly efficient. Let’s look at a few of these.
How to Build a Lean To Shelter
The lean-to is probably the most commonly known type of survival shelter, to the point where it has been mentioned or built in a number of movies and television shows. The only problem with it is that it is an open-sided shelter. It works fine if you need protection from the wind and rain (which will be coming from above and from a specific direction); but if it is cold and you need something that will help hold the heat in, the lean-to isn’t going to be much help.
- Start by finding two trees which are about eight feet apart. It’s helpful if they both have a branch sticking out about four feet off the ground.
- Then find a downed limb, sapling or a straight limb from a tree and cut it off to lash between the forks in those two trees, making the ridge pole.
- This is the foundation for the entire shelter, so make it strong and secure it well.
- The rest of the structure consists of smaller branches or sticks tied to the ridge pole and resting on the ground at a 45 degree angle, on the upwind side.
- Add another layer of horizontal poles, tying them to the angled ones. This provides enough of a framework for the leafy covering branches to be tied to.
While the lean-to doesn’t provide a lot of insulation to keep you warm, you can do a couple of things to help mitigate that a bit:
- Close in the ends, so that the wind can’t sneak in that way
- Cover the structure with an emergency rescue blanket, to act as a heat reflector
- Build your fire close to the entrance, with a heat reflecting material behind it
How to Build an Emergency Shelter – the Debris Hut
One of the more popular emergency shelters is the debris hut. Part of its popularity is that it is extremely easy to build, which is nice if you don’t have much time. It basically consists of a framework covered by leaves and other debris off the forest floor, hence the name.
- To start with, you’ll need a ridge pole that’s at least eight feet long.
- Tie this to a tree trunk about 2 ½ to 3 feet off the ground.
- Then collect a bunch of sticks of various lengths.
- Lean these sticks on both sides of the ridge pole, creating a space underneath them that forms a triangle.
- Your sticks need to be close together, so that the leaves you’re going to pile on top of them won’t fall through.
- These sticks don’t absolutely have to be tied in place, but if you have cordage (e.g from a survival bracelet) available, it’s a good idea to help keep them in place as you pile leaves on top.
- You’ll want t thick layer of leaves, essentially making a huge leaf pile, with a triangular space underneath it.
- A layer of leaves inside can act as a mattress. Just be sure not to cover the doorway on the inside.
The leaves make for surprisingly good insulation, allowing your body heat to keep the shelter warm. A pile of leaves can also be used to cover the outside of the doorway, adding additional insulation. You shouldn’t have to worry too much about airflow, as the space between the leaves will allow you to breathe.
The debris hut style shelter is only intended to be used as an emergency shelter. It’s not sturdy enough to last for several days. If you have to use it for more than one day, you’ll want to add more leaves to replace those which have blown away.
How to Build a Shelter in the Woods – The Sapling Hut
The sapling hut (very similar to a wigwam, except less permanent) is more work than the other two I just mentioned; but it has the advantage of providing more room, making it ideal for a party of three or four people, rather than just being a shelter for one.
- You have to find the right place to make a sapling hut. This is mainly a shelter you’d build in the woods, where there are a lot of saplings and sapling branches available. If you’re stranded in the desert, you’re not going to be able to build a sapling hut.
- Specifically, you need someplace where there are a lot of saplings available to work with. You’ll need a ring of saplings, that make a six to eight foot diameter circle. You’ll want a minimum of eight saplings, although the more the merrier.
- Clear out any saplings and brush (with a machete or survival hatchet) that are within the circle of saplings you’re going to use, creating relatively flat floor for your hut.
- To make the structure of the hut, bring the tops of the saplings together and tie them, creating a dome.
- If you don’t have anything to tie with, try to find a vine or something similar to use as improvised cordage (we can’t stress enough how important it is to have some kind of cordage with you when out in the wild).
- While you might be tempted to make a high dome, with a pointy roof, you’re actually better off with a low dome, with a top that’s 4 to 4 ½ feet off the ground.
- Hopefully, you’ve had to cut down other saplings to clear the area for your hut. Take those and tie them to the saplings you used to make the basic dome structure horizontally (around).
- They will help keep your saplings in place, and provide you with something to tie your leafy branches to.
- Ideally, you’ll want more than one of these horizontal rows, putting them two feet apart.
- Don’t forget to leave an opening on the downwind side to use as a doorway.
- Finally, cover the entire thing with branches, layering them as discussed above.
- If you’re going to be staying there a while, you might want to fashion a door out of branches, covering it with leafy branches.
- Tie it to the framework of your hut on one side (but not the other), to act as improvised hinges.
This shelter is big enough that you can build a small fire out of stones pit in the middle. If you do, make sure you have a thin spot (or a small hole) in your leafy branches, right at the peak, to act as a smoke hole.
Building Winter Shelters vs Summer Shelters
All of the shelters mentioned above can be used for both summer and winter survival. However, they will not all work equally well. The lean-to doesn’t provide much to hold the heat in, so it is the worst of these options. However, with a good fire and reflector, lean-tos have been used as winter survival shelters before, and they are certainly better than nothing.
To use the debris shelter in the wintertime, you’ll want to make sure that you pile on a lot of leaves, making a thick layer of insulation. Likewise, for the sapling hut, you’ll want a lot of leafy branches. This may mean using pine branches, as they will probably be the only branches available which still have enough leaves on them. Obviously, if you have survival supplies or materials available like tarps, survival blankets, and so forth, then you can use those also.
If you’re wondering how to build a winter shelter in the woods, perhaps the best survival shelter to use in the wintertime is the old pine tree trick I mentioned in the first section, where I talked about natural shelters. With a big enough pine tree, you’ll find that the lowest living branches will connect to the trunk about four feet off the ground, even though the tips are touching the ground as well. Breaking or cutting off dead branches under this provides a considerable amount of space. The tree itself is an excellent roof and provides fairly good walls. You’ll have a mattress of pine needles to sleep on.
Even so, that shelter can be improved upon, either by cutting additional branches from neighboring trees and layering them over the branches of the tree you’re using as s shelter, or by piling up snow around the tree, overlapping the ends of the branches. A small fire can be built inside, but you want to use the utmost of care not to have it spread. You’ll also need to fashion some kind of smoke hole, particularly if the conditions are wet as wet wood creates much more smoke than dry wood.
How to Build a Permanent Shelter in the Woods
All these shelters are mere temporary dwellings, meant to protect you for a short period of time in an emergency survival situation. But none of them would really work as a permanent solution in a long-term survival situation, unless you really did find the perfect cave that you could use.
But what do you do if you’re caught in the woods in a drawn out disaster situation? Are you going to build a new shelter every few nights? That won’t do. You’ll need something which will last longer and allow for improvements, so that you can make your life better as time goes on. If the world has reverted to a more primitive way of living, then knowing how to build a permanent shelter could mean the difference between living reasonably comfortably and constantly struggling for survival.
A permanent shelter usually means building a log cabin. The good news is that people all through history have built log cabins alone before. But the bad news is that you’ll need better tools than you have in your bug out bag or get home bag. There’s no way you can cut all those logs with a wire saw, or even one of the hand chain saws that have replaced them. At the very least you’ll need a folding saw or a survival hatchet or axe.
In order to build that log cabin, you’ll need to cut and notch a large number of logs as well (or it’ll all just fall apart). So, you’ll need at least some of the following tools at a minimum:
- Shovel or e-tool
- Axe, hatchet or saw for felling trees
- Bucking saw for cutting logs to length and notching poles
- Framing chisel and mallet to break out the wood in the notches
- Drawknife to peel off bark
- Adze for making rough surfaces even
- Bit and brace to make holes for pegging logs together (rather than nailing)
- Some means of hauling the logs; this could be nothing more than a harness, with you as the source of moving power
While there are many ways of building a log cabin, the simplest is to find a place where you can build up against a hillside or cliff. This allows you to use the side of the hill/cliff as at least one wall and if you select the right place, potentially two walls.
You’ll probably have to dig out the location a bit, to make the wall that you’re borrowing from nature more vertical rather than slanted. After that, the basic construction can be similar to a lean-to, with the logs resting on the front wall and the hillside. Everything will need to be tied or pegged into place, to keep it from shifting and causing gaps between the logs.
If you’ve ever played with Lincoln Logs, you’ll have an idea of how the walls are built. Essentially, logs are notched at both ends and then set one on top of each other, interlocking at the notches. You’ll also remember that you have to have something to interlock with at both ends, even if it is nothing more than a short log. Otherwise, your wall will fall down. You can’t just pile logs up, unless they are pegged together, as is done with doorways and windows.
Doorways and windows are made by setting vertical pieces in place for the door or window frame and then pegging the logs to them. Planks or smaller logs are then used to make the door itself or the window shutters.
The hardest part of making any log cabin is the roof. Usually logs are laid close together, then covered with other materials. A steeply pitched roof will shed water better, meaning that the covering doesn’t have to be quite as waterproof to be effective. That’s important, as it’s difficult to find truly waterproof materials to use for roofing out in the wild.
One of the best roofing materials you can use on that steeply slanted roof is sod. Covering the roof with a layer of sod will allow the grass to either absorb the rainfall or direct it over the edges of the roof. The intertwined roots of the grass will hold the soil together, so that the sod doesn’t fall apart. However, you will need a roof where the poles are extremely close together, so that the dirt doesn’t fall down upon you.
Another great material is thatch. This can be made of whatever material is at hand. Generally, thatch is made of long grass, cut and tied into bundles. But in Mexico, they build “palapas” which have a thatch made of palm fronds. Those roofs are about a foot thick, not counting the underlying structure.
If you do ever have to make a long-term shelter like a log cabin, just remember that it’s not a quick project. Those who have done so by themselves, have spent months of long work days to accomplish the task. But in the end, they had a shelter that might last them the rest of their lives. This isn’t the kind of thing you can throw up in a day’s worth of work.