How to Make a Survival Shelter: Ultimate Guide
The wilderness is a truly wonderful thing. Inspiring artists, musicians and writers since the dawn of civilization; being in the backcountry can be liberating, exhilarating and energizing. Of course, you're not truly “one with nature” until you can live comfortably in it. Food and water are essential, of course, but nothing beats a good nights sleep. And what's the best way to ensure that? Having somewhere warm, comfy and safe to sleep.
As simple as pitching a tent or as complicated as building a walled enclosure, fire reflector and raised bed your shelter has one primary function: to protect you from the elements. In this article, I'll run through a variety of shelter types, when to use them and I'll provide links to videos that will show you how to build them yourself.
And remember, reading isn't the same as doing. Go on a training course, self-teach and practice, practice practice. Things do go wrong. If you get into an emergency you don't want to have to get your notes out and slowly and laboriously tick off each point. Being able to quickly and efficiently build a shelter could make the difference between life or death.
Table of Contents
- Types of shelter
- Modern Shelters
- How to make a survival shelter
- How to make a Debris Shelter
- Using Natural Shelters
- Making Snow Shelters
- How to make a sand shelter
- Would you be able to survive?
- The Rule of 3
- Your home away from home
- The 5 W's of shelter building
Types of shelter
The simplest way to divide the various shelters is by type, as separating them by environment would be a task in the impossible. I've broken them down into five distinct categories, with a “bonus” chucked in at the end (it didn't fit in the other categories and I thought it should be included).
• (bonus) Shell-scrape or scout pit
An umbrella term for any shelter (emergency or not) comprised of man-made materials. It could be a tarp, poncho, bivouac/“bivvy” bag, emergency blanket, group shelter, tent or even a trash bag. Each item has their pros and cons; you should understand the nuances of them before you make a decision on what to carry:
Tarp & Poncho
• Small & lightweight.
• Easy to make.
• Some set-ups are very quick and easy to build.
• Can cook underneath it.
• Poncho's can also be worn.
• Requires buying & carrying extra equipment (walking pole, paracord & pegs)
• Sometimes reliant on other factors (nearby trees)
• Requires a good knowledge of the environment (prevailing winds & rain).
• More exposed to the elements.
• Some complicated set-ups.
• More comfortable when used with a bivvy bag.
• Small & lightweight.
• Covers a wide range of budgets. From super cheap, bulky (but incredibly hard wearing) ex-military bags to ultra light, ultra expensive ones.
• Low-impact – can make you feel like you're a part of nature.
• When used by itself it can leave you exposed to the elements.
• Best combined with a “roof”.
• Incredibly small & lightweight
• Can be used as signalling device by reflecting the sun's rays.
• Provides very little protection
• Always feel a little too small – and I'm short at 5' 7”!
• Will require additional shelter to be comfortable.
• Comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. From small 2-man shelters to 10+.
• Completely weatherproof
• Generally small and lightweight.
• You're in a large, unstructured bag. It will feel claustrophobic.
• Uncomfortable for long periods of time.
• Weatherproof – high quality tents are able to resist huge storms.
• Good for spending long periods of time in.
• Covers a wide-range of budgets.
• Can be lightweight.
• Can cook in the porch.
• Space to stash gear inside.
• Higher-end tents are expensive.
• Pegs can be lost, poles can be broken.
• Can be heavy and bulky.
• Removes you from nature.
• A 50-pack can be bought for a few dollars.
• Small and lightweight.
• You can do your bit for the planet and remove any rubbish you find.
• It's a trash bag.
• Tear easily.
• They don't breath. Condensation will build-up inside it.
Here's a video on how to build a trash bag shelter.
How to make a survival shelter
Deciding which shelter to take is tricky. Going into woodland and want to be in touch with nature? Take a tarp and bivvy. Going on an expedition? Bring a tent and possibly a group shelter, depending on the activity. Want to have a “just in case”. The emergency blanket is made for that very reason.
For anything other than an unplanned bivvy (read: the sh*t has hit the fan), you'll also want to supplement your shelter with a sleeping bag and pad. How hot or cold you run, the environment and the time of year will decide the weight of the sleeping bag and the thickness of the pad.
Your tent comes with instructions, the group shelter and emergency blanket are self-explanatory and you just climb into a bivvy bag or trash bag. The tarp, though, will require a bit of research. When properly set-up and combined with a bivvy bag, it can provide the perfect cocoon against the elements. Weathering a bad storm in one is exciting, lying there on a cloudless night in one is beautiful and each and every time is memorable. Have you guessed that it's my favorite option?
The most common ways of setting up a tarp are:
• The A-Frame
• The Lean-to
• The Wedge
It may look like origami on a grand scale, but with a bit of practice in your backyard you should be able to get one set-up in a few minutes – which is a handy skill to have if you want some cover whilst you cook. You may have also noticed that the set-ups all require additional items such as paracord, pegs or a walking-pole. It's simple enough to fashion walking-pole and peg replacements out of wood; however it's worth carrying some cord with you, as creating it from natural materials is an unnecessary faff.
If you get caught-out without a sleeping bag and roll-mat, don't be tempted to just lie directly on the floor. I'm not sure if you remember conduction and convection, back in the days of high school physics? Either way, you'll get to fully experience them as you slowly shiver your way through the night. Place some branches in a bed-shape on the ground, lay a stack of pine boughs/leaves/grass/whatever-you-can-find on top of them, put every scrap of clothing you have on, pile more dry material on top and inside your bivvy bag or emergency blanket and you'll be good to go. You may find it prickly, itchy and uncomfortable but it beats freezing to death.
When going with any of these options, you'll find it handy to carry around a survival knife to navigate nature to get all the things you need to make your survival shelter. Fortunately, we have already done most of the heavy lifting research for you and boiled down our favorite knives in our guide best survival knife.
How to make a Debris Shelter
A couple of sticks, a few boughs, a scattering of leaves and ta-dah. Something you can weather the apocalypse in. Well, almost.
The debris shelter is a beautiful thing. Easily and quickly built, a well made one can keep you warm, dry and feeling immensely smug with yourself. Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to be able to build one. My ones are:
• I wanted to lighten my pack.
• I want to be more self-sufficient.
• I like their aesthetic.
• Bragging rights.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you agree with at least one or two of the points on that list. If you're just getting started the two most useful shelters are the:
• A-frame or double lean-to
Here's a video that starts with a lean-to how-to and transitions into an A-frame.
Considering that the A-frame is quite literally two lean-to's built against each other, you can learn something incredibly simple that has a huge amount of impact; both in your routine excursions into the outdoors and (far more importantly) if you ever get into an emergency situation and have to build one “for real”. Whenever you decide to build a debris shelter, I thoroughly recommend getting started as early as possible. The better it is, the happier you'll be.
The fire reflector
A useful addition to either your tarp shelter or your debris shelter the fire reflector contains that "lost heat" from the other side of the fire and throws it back at you. A semi-circular wall built out of wood, stone or mud that encircles the opposite side of the fire; it may take a bit of time, effort and extra-resources to make, but it saves you from collecting even more firewood, makes your shelter warmer and is particularly useful when starting a fire as it helps block wind.
Here's a video on how to build a fire heat reflector.
Using Natural Shelters
Caves, overhangs and rocky formations have been used as shelter by homo sapiens for tens of millennia. Providing protection from the elements, dangerous animals and each other, our ancestors realized the importance of working with nature rather than against it. Whilst out hunting for the perfect camping spot, make note of any natural formations and features that you think could be useful, whilst still being aware of the 5 W's. Rocky overhangs, fallen trees and natural dips and depressions all make excellent starting points for your shelter.
With the exception of caves, you'll almost certainly want to build a structure against whichever tree, overhang or cliff you've found. I've found that the most efficient is the modified lean-to. With it's “back” to the prevailing wind, the other side built parallel to the shelter and using the natural feature as a fire reflector, you'll have yourself an incredibly snug shelter. If you're using a fallen tree as the “base” to your camp, you must keep the fire small and controlled. Bear in mind that you're inside a giant tinderbox and it's just desperate to go up in flames. Unless you're a wannabe arsonist, you should also ensure that fire is fully out when you leave your camp. The test: Can you scatter the ashes with your bare hands? Yes? You're good to go. No? Keep smothering the fire with water, sand, earth or whatever else you have to hand until you can.
Please note that if you're in a cave, or enclosed area, you should make an effort to clear out the various flora and fauna – unless you like the idea of sharing a small space with them, of course. A small fire in the entrance should do the trick; smoking out any unwanted critters. Also, please be aware that snakes and scorpions are mostly nocturnal. As day breaks they will try and find shelter and warmth; whether that's you, your bag or your shoes. Top tip: hang your bag up, leave your boots upside down on a couple of poles overnight and give them a good shake out in the morning.
Making Snow Shelters
In winter you'll sometimes find that a tarp or debris shelter just isn't enough. Whether it's because you can't find enough dry material under the snow, you're too cold or there's a storm coming in and you want to completely remove yourself from it, a snow shelter is your best bet. Your two best options are either the quinzhee – a close relative of the igloo – and the snow cave. Which one you build depends on your situation. On a hill or mountain side and can find deep enough snow drifts? Build a snow cave. They're less time consuming and simpler. In woodland, grassland or can't find deep enough drifts? Better start mounding up some snow, you're building a quinzhee.
You may wonder why I haven't bothered mentioning the igloo as a survival shelter; they've kept the Inuits alive for millenia, after all. The problem is is that they require incredibly specific conditions, which you're unlikely to find outside of the Arctic Circle. "Normal", loose, powdery snow isn't enough. The snow required to build an igloo is so compact it's like styrofoam.
Snow, surprisingly, is great at keeping you warm. You can expect the inside of your shelter to hover around 0°C (32°F) even if it's down to -17.7°C (0°F) outside. By adding a cold well/trench, pine boughs to sit on and a small candle, you can make the shelter even more comfortable. I really must re-iterate the importance of having a couple of small airholes poked into the roof of your shelter. If you don't do make them – under the assumption that they make you colder – you will end up suffocating.
How to make a sand shelter
Building a shelter in the desert or beach brings it's own unique set of challenges. It has to keep you cool in the day, warm at night and I'm sure you've built enough sand-castles in your life to realize how terrible sand is to build with.
Unfortunately that does mean you're reliant on having brought a shelter with you. Whether it's a tarp, some canvas or a sheet woven from goats hair (the material Bedouin's use to make their tents), you can use a few poles and create a double-layered roof. If you don't have any poles and can't find any sticks, you'll be stuck with the sand pit.
How to make a Shellscrape Shelter (A.K.A The Scout Pit)
A perennial favorite of the Armed Forces, the shellscrape is a hole dug into the ground which is then covered with either branches and earth or a tarp. A desperate solution, and only one I can recommend if you have a chance of taking enemy fire, they apparently they keep you warmer in winter and cooler in summer. However I've only ever experienced abject misery in them, as they always seem to fill up with rain water.
Here's a video on how to build a basic scout pit.
A few useful tips:
• Orientate yourself. If you discover, in the middle of the night, that there's a disparity between how much wood you've collected and how much you're going to need, you'll have to leave your shelter and collect some more. You DO NOT want to get lost, tangled or hurt. Before it gets dark take note of your surroundings, remove any easily-removed hazards and be aware of the rest.
• Be efficient. Carry as much as you can, don't do things in dribs and drabs and don't get distracted.
• Set a timer. Related to the previous point; in a real-life situation time is valuable. Don't spend six hours building a shelter, one should be fine for something basic. Got a few fishing hooks or traps? Set them out immediately. Anything you can do to make your time go further should be done.
• Be flexible. Just because you learnt something in X-way doesn't mean it will suit Y-situation. Make best use of your environment, it won't change for you.
• Practice makes perfect. You heard it here first, folks. It's ok to discover that your new super-shelter leaks like a sieve in your backyard. Discovering that in the middle of a storm in the backcountry? Pass.
• Never stop learning. Does what it says on the tin. If Les Hiddins, Mors Kochanski and Ray Mears are still discovering new (or very, very old in some cases) things, so should you be.
• Layer your clothing. Plan, experiment and understand what the best clothing system is for you. What you wear will change with the season (sorry for being patronizing), even so it's always good to be prepared and have a few emergency items with you. I nearly always carry a woolly hat, some gloves, a lightweight down jacket and a shell jacket.
• Carry a notebook. They're just darned useful. Write down a few essential notes (the “Rule of 3” and the “5W's” springs to mind”), have your route-plan in it, sketch a bit. You get the idea.
• Tell friends or family where you're going. It's good to know that if something bad happens and you miss your return date, your friends and family will notify the appropriate authorities and send people out to look for you.
Would you be able to survive?
The majesty of nature is undeniable, but you mustn’t get complacent. As soon as you do you'll be bitten in the bum. Always be aware of yourself, take note of your surroundings and – most importantly – be prepared.
The Rule of 3
Before we get started you may want to (re)familiarize yourself with the “Rule of 3”. A useful generalization, it helps you prioritize your time and resources in a survival situation. It states that you won't last:
• 3 seconds without the right attitude
• 3 minutes without oxygen
• 3 hours without shelter (maintaining your core body temperature)
• 3 days without water
• 3 weeks without food
Morbid, I know. Yet it really drives home how important shelter is – it's second only to breathing! It may be tough to push water and food (in that order) to the back of the queue, but without some form of shelter, hypothermia (being too cold) or hyperthermia (being too hot) will be very real dangers.
Your home away from home
The perfect shelter should:
• Suit the environment and the materials you have available.
• Be (reasonably) simple to build.
• Be weatherproof.
• Be tough.
It may sound easy, and it is, but building the perfect shelter requires a certain amount of nuance and skill. Your first few will most likely resemble a cross between a crows nest and a compost heap.
First things first; where to start building:
The 5 W's of shelter building
Like all real-estate, it's all “location, location, location”. Choosing the site of your shelter is as important – if not more so – as the actual building of it. Choose well and you'll plenty of materials close to hand, you'll be protected from the elements and you'll be comfortable. Choose poorly and at best you'll have a lot of walking to do. At worst you could be killed by falling debris or caught out by a flash flood.
The 5W's” is an easy way to remember what to look for:
1. Wood – An all encompassing term that covers wood, leaves, pine boughs and other natural materials. Necessary if you don't have a modern shelter and useful even if you do. Wood can be used to build the foundations and structure of your shelter, and the other natural materials can used as insulation and bedding.
2. Water – More important than food (remember the Rule of Three?), you need to stay hydrated. Build your shelter close to running water, not next to it, as you don't want to be drained dry by mozzies or find a herd of moose wandering through your camp. Even if you think the water is clean, sterilize it anyway. Boil it, use chlorine/iodine or have a filter. My personal favorite is the Life Straw. Light, cheap and easy to use, there's no reason not to have one stuffed into your bag.
3. Weather – Be aware of prevailing winds, the altitude and the chance of rising water or flash flooding.
4. Wigglies – If I had a cent for every time I've been woken up in the middle of the night, thinking I'm about to be dragged to Hell by a 37-headed giraffe and discovering it's a badger… Well I'd almost be able to buy a single Slim Jim. In all seriousness, if you have an inkling you'll disturb any sort of insect, mammal or reptile avoid building your shelter there. Remember that herd of moose looking to get to their beloved drinking spot? They won't stop for your pile of sticks and leaves to get there and mommy-moose will be very angry if she thinks you're a threat to her baby.
5. Widowmakers – Make sure you don't build your shelter under or near anything that could fall and crush you (rock fall, tree branches, etc). Some trees can be dead standing – likely to fall at the merest hint of a gale. Generally, dead trees will have mushrooms and other fungi on them, making them easy to identify. If you still aren't sure, give it a tap with the back of your axe or with a hefty stick; the difference in sound between a live tree and dead one is quite noticeable. Also be aware that certain trees will still shed their very large, very heavy branches even when healthy (e.g. beech trees).
Ultimately there will be some compromises. It's better to choose an OK area earlier on in the day, and get settled, than it is to search for the perfect campsite well into the evening. You'll end up building a ramshackle shelter, you're more likely to hurt yourself and you'll end-up stressed and in the wrong mindset.
Do you have any items you don't leave the house without? Got any questions about any themes covered in this article? Where's your favorite place to get away from it all? Let us know in the comments below.