What is a Lean-To Shelter?
The lean-to is one of the easiest and most minimalist types of improvised shelter that a person can make, and as such it is also one of the most useful across many different scenarios… and therefore the most important to know.
At its core, the lean-to shelter is a bunch of sticks and leaves that are going to keep you safe from the elements when there is no other space to take shelter in. It’s like a poor man’s tent. The idea is that you build a frame using some sturdy trees and a piece of wood lodged between them, then you lead a bunch of sticks against it, creating a makeshift roof. If you have tarp, you can use that. If you happen to have a raincoat or poncho, you can use that. Essentially a lean to is just a reasonably waterproof “roof” leaning against something at an angle.
Having the knowledge to be able to improvise a shelter in virtually any situation with only materials found in the wilderness means you will never be forced to go without a shelter. This checks off the the highest priority from the survival rule of threes. In short, knowing how to put together an improvised lean-to shelter is an essential wilderness survival skill.
We shouldn’t have to tell you how important shelter is in the wild. If you find yourself stranded and lost, maybe separated from your camping group or stranded after a kayaking or rafting mishap, you need a way to stay warm, dry, and safe. There is nothing worse (or more dangerous) than sitting unprotected in the middle of the forest during a rainstorm. It doesn’t need to be particularly cold for hypothermia to set in when you’re wet. A shelter helps you to stay dry, which in turn helps keep you alive.
Not only will a lean to keep you safe and dry, but it can also give you a feeling of security that you simply can’t get from sitting or sleeping out in the open. If you find yourself stranded or lost for an extended period of time, building an improvised lean-to shelter is the first step in setting up a camp.
Also, In the event of something cataclysmic, if you’ve been forced out of the city and into the woods without any supplies or gear, a lean to will be your first line of defense from the elements. We can’t stress enough how important a skill this is.
Where to Build a Lean-To Shelter?
You don’t often get to choose where a survival scenario might take place. But still, if you’re lost in the wild, there will be certain places that are better for setting up your shelter. First of all, you want to look for a safe environment away from possible danger. You don’t want to build your lean-to right at the edge of a river, for example, in case of flooding. If you’ve seen evidence of dangerous animals near by (bears for example), you probably want to steer clear of that. You might consider looking for a place with decent tree coverage, so that you get an additional layer of protection from the trees/leaves overhead if it rains or storms.
You also want the location of your lean-to shelter to be relatively discreet. This is especially true if you’re in the wilderness because you’re hiding or trying to escape from some other danger (e.g martial law). If you’re on the run from some kind of disaster, a well-positioned lean-to shelter can be practically invisible. You should also have close access to food and water, meaning you want to place your lean to relatively close to a river or lake. Animals are attracted to water, and water is going to be your life source, both for water itself, and as a proxy for where there might be food nearby.
Finally, your shelter should be set up in such a way that you can build a fire in front of it without fear of starting a wildfire or drawing attention to yourself. You should also be close enough to other kinds of resources that you can procure the necessary supplies for survival such as extra wood, tinder and kindling, vines (for cordage) if necessary. Make sure there are leaves, sticks, and branches nearby as well so you can improve or add to your shelter if you need to.
Building a Lean-To Shelter: Step 1
The first step to building your shelter is to create a strong foundation. Your only supplies are going to be what’s available around you, especially if you’re lost and you didn’t come with a blanket or extra clothing. Think of your foundation like the structural beams for your house. The “walls” are going to be leaning on your foundation, so you want to have an extremely strong support log to keep your structure from collapsing.
If you’re in quite a hurry, simply find a sturdy and very long tree that has fallen down and drag it between two other trees. You can typically get a sturdy log jammed between two other trees without too much difficulty. You want your main foundation log to be about chest height. You can wedge this single log between the lowest branches of two parallel trees. The weight of your walls will keep it fixed in place.
Building a Lean-To Shelter: Step 2
Once you have the location of your shelter set in stone and your foundation log wedged firmly between two trees, it’s time to collect your supplies and build your walls. You always want to use what’s handy, but for the sake of survival we’re going to assume you don’t have anything handy. No blankets, no survival shovel, no axe, and no paracord. All you’re going to have is what’s available to you in nature.
A simple lean to doesn’t require a lot of material. It shouldn’t take you more than thirty minutes to drag all the dead wood you need to your shelter. For building the walls of your structure, you simply need long sticks, logs, and branches that will reach at an angle from the ground to about a foot past your foundation log. Try to make sure you have ample room to sit up straight beneath the leaning ceiling.
Depending on how large you want the shelter to be, you will need more or less sticks. We suggest starting with just enough to cover yourself when lying down from feet to the top of your head. If you want to make the shelter larger later on, you can gather more sticks. Always remember that you want to have a solid shelter before night comes. So the priority is more of speed rather than size of the structure.
Now that you have enough sticks and dead wood to make the wall/roof of your shelter, it’s time to start stacking. Place the largest pieces of wood first as tight as you can in a straight line leaning on your main foundation stick that is stretched between the two trees. You can use thinner sticks to fill in the small gaps between, and if your foundation stick is sturdy enough you might even consider making a second layer of thick branches and dead wood to give you extra shielding from rain and wind.
Keep in mind that the heavier the weight of the leaning sticks, the less likely the entire structure is to be destroyed by wind, rain, or other environmental factors. You want them to be tightly packed next to each other. Also, the straighter the better when it comes to logs and sticks. To keep your sticks from slipping, jam them into the ground or use rocks along the border of your shelter.
Building a Lean-To Shelter: Step 3
You want to make some walls on the sides as well. This is going to be a little trickier because you will need a larger variety of sticks. Start from the top corners of your lean to and use the same method that you used for making the main wall/roof. Technically, this step isn’t “strictly” necessary – the main function of a shelter is to ensure there’s a roof over your head. Adding walls allows for better protection and temperature control, but if it’s a race against the clock until nightfall, it might make sense to move to the next step and add walls the next day.
For the side walls, you can even consider jamming the sticks into the ground like spears so that they don’t topple over. You will need to snap sticks in half when necessary to get the proper length as you slowly descend to the forest floor if you care about aesthetics. Your lean-to will have side walls jutting three feet into the air if not, but that’s OK. Make sure the side walls are tight against the main leaning wall. The point of the side walls is to “trap” heat from a fire, and a tight structure allows for less heat loss.
When you’re finished, you will be left with a sort of alcove that you can take shelter in. It’s like living inside the mouth of a cave. The front area is going to be open so that you can see anything coming, and the three walls around you are going to be totally solid to keep out wind and rain. Plus, there should be enough room inside your shelter so that you can have a fire just outside without smoking yourself out or catching your walls on fire. You should also have enough room to lay down. There’s really nothing worse than a cramped shelter.
As a side note, when first determining where to place your shelter, if you can find a pair of trees with thick trunks that are close enough to suspend your main foundation between, these can help act as your walls. There’s nothing sturdier than a tree trunk to keep out the wind and the rain. You’ll only need to stack up a bit of wood between the gaps to make everything airtight.
Building a Lean-To Shelter: Step 4
The final step is to cover your lean to. This is not as difficult as it might seem, but it will take a while. The forest is full of materials that will insulate and strengthen your shelter so that you’re not burdened by rain, snow, or wind.
You are going to want layers. The first layer should be leaves. This might actually take you longer than it did to build the structure in the first place. You want your leaning shelter to look like a giant pile of leaves. Mass them up on all sides as much as you can, even building a thick base along the edges of your shelter.
Then you’re going to want a layer of branches with pine needles. Get as many fallen branches as you can, and even rip some off trees if you need to, and put an entire layer of thin and leafy branches over the spread of leaves. This is going to help reinforce the structure and keep you dry. It’s also going to help keep the main layer of leaves in place.
And finally, get more leaves and make a final layer until the structure is completely camouflaged and decently thick. You need the thickness – it’s what prevents the rain from getting through. A pile of leaves and branches isn’t exactly waterproof, so the way to keep yourself dry is to stack them so thick that the water can’t get through. This is honestly going to take a significant amount of time. You’re going to need to scoop the leaves off the ground and pile them over your lean to while packing them tight.
At the end of the day, you should feel safe and secure inside the shelter.
Extra Step: Improvising a “Wilderness Bed”
Now you need to make sure you can get to sleep (reasonably comfortably). Unless you plan on staying awake all night, or you’re used to sleeping on the dirt, you should probably make an improvised bed. It’s actually quite hard for a lot of people to sleep on dirt or grass, especially for longer periods of time. Luckily, improvising a bed isn’t all that difficult.
To do this, start by finding two thick logs that will fit nicely inside your lean to. Set them about three feet apart and fill the void between them with boughs – lots of boughs! As well as leaves, dead grass, and anything else that might be comfortable. You want to make your natural mattress so thick that you ideally remain about six inches off the ground. This will keep the chill from the cold floor out of your bones while you’re sleeping.
The best boughs for making your bed are going to be fir boughs, as they make the absolute softest bedding material. However, cedar, pine, and evergreens are also fine. While you might be able to get away with a soft bed of boughs that isn’t elevated in the summer, you definitely want a raised bed in the winter – this will help significantly to help keep yourself from freezing (think of a bed as an additional “wall” protecting you from the cold emanating from the ground).
Remember that a lean-to shelter does not retain any heat. Because it only has three walls, it’s not great at keeping heat inside. In the winter, its going to be very cold, especially if your fire goes out. On the other hand, so long as you can keep a fire going right outside, the heat should circulate relatively well inside the shelter, and it will keep you relatively safe from the wind and the rain.
Lean-To Shelter Alternatives
The method just described is a solid way to build a survival shelter in the forest without any materials other than what’s around. But you can use the same principles to make a shelter with anything. If you have a tarp, you can stretch it between two trees and use that as a shelter. If you have a warm thermal blanket, you can weave it in with the sticks and leaves to create an even stronger roof. this kind of structure is super versatile and extremely simple to build in any kind of situation.
You can also make a much more complicated structure if you have the time and tools. You can create a raised bed platform by stacking up logs and using grass and leaves as a mattress. You can make a structure large enough to stand in if you have an axe to make notches – or even straight walls between a pair of trunks. But as far as basic, improvisable survival shelters go, there’s nothing more efficient and quicker to put together than the classic lean-to.