Essential Tips to Build A Survival Shelter

When in a survival situation, shelter is one of the most important points of focus.  In the wrong conditions, a person can die from exposure in just a few hours.  Shelters serve many purposes.  They protect you from rain, shield you from wind, insulate you from the cold, block the harmful rays of the sun, and keep out dangerous predators.  Shelters also give you an added sense of security that goes a long way with morale.

The real question is, how do you build your shelter?  This largely depends on the weather and the resources you have available.  There are dozens of ways to make shelters that will protect you from the elements.  The key is knowing how to best use your environment to shelter you from itself.  In this article I will cover the most effective shelter types you may want to consider when SHTF.


There are a few elements that you should consider for any shelter.  These are the factors that will make the difference between surviving and succumbing to the elements.

Ground Insulation – I am placing this priority first because it is often overlooked.  In many cases, insulation between your body and the cold ground is more important than walls or a roof.  The ground will suck all the heat out of your body, so think about materials to get you off the ground.  Ideals beds can be framed, piled, or suspended from trees.  You need a bare minimum of four inches compacted insulation between you and the ground, but six to ten inches is ideal.

Wind Protection – Wind can easily make it feel 20 degrees colder than it actually is.  Blocking this wind is absolutely vital.   This can be done with existing structures or with the structure you build.

Waterproofing – Being wet makes your body temperature drop 20 times faster than when you are dry.  If rain is coming, protecting yourself is vital.  You want to think about the thickness of your roof, the permeability of the material, the pitch of the roof, and if it will protect you from windblown rain.  When the skies get dark, this will be your top priority.

General Cold Insulation – Thick walls and a thick roof will best keep out the cold.  However, the biggest priority is the size of your shelter.  The smaller the space inside the shelter, the better it will keep you warm.  Keep it small.  Also, most people do not realize that the open night sky can draw heat out of your body.  In most cases, your waterproofing will protect you from this type of heat loss.

Blocking the Sun – This is typically accomplished when you complete your waterproofing.

Protection from Predators – Predator attacks are fairly low on the list of concerns, but even loosely built walls will keep out most animals if you have no food in your shelter.

Survival Shelter


When building a shelter, it is all about risk versus reward.  Every hour you spend building a shelter is an hour you could spend getting food, purifying water, or building a fire.  It is also a great deal of calories expended.  Your best bet is to find as many shortcuts as possible. Use the landscape to help with your construction.  Use the materials you have to their maximum.

There are lots of elaborate shelter designs such as teepees, dome shelters, and platform shelters.  For this article I am only going to cover simple shelter designs that anybody can assemble in a short period of time.  Too many people attempt these fancier shelters and either do not finish in time, burn too many calories, or end up with a shelter that is too large to keep them warm. Here are some shelter types to consider.

Caves – If you are in a hurry and need shelter from the wind or rain, caves are a quick solution.  You would likely be sleeping on cold rock, so insulation from the ground is absolutely vital.  For more protection from the wind and cold, you may want to block the entrance with debris or build a small wall inside.

There are three precautions to take with caves.  The first is animals.  If you see tracks going in and out of the cave or find hair or bones inside, stay away.  This cave is already home for some furry friends.  Next, be cautious of the air quality.  Many caves have low spots where gases collect.  If you are concerned, light a match and throw it into the lowest spot.  If it stays lit, you are fine.  Finally, never build a fire inside a cave.  The heat can cause the rocks to shift, and the roof of the cave may collapse.

Evergreen Trees – If you are dealing with deep snow, evergreens like spruce trees can be a lifesaver.  The branches block the falling snow leaving a dry pocket underneath the tree.  The deep snow blocks the wind, while the branches above protect you from the sky.  Also, fallen needles give you a dry and insulated bed below.  The only real downside to this quickie shelter is that you are not protected from rain.  If the snow turns to rain, you would need to start breaking off branches and build a steep roof as quickly as possible.

Lean-To – This is one of the quickest and most simple designs for a shelter with natural resources.  While only blocking wind from one side, it works great if you build it facing a natural wind block like an evergreen tree, a rock wall, or a steep hillside.  If rain is coming, it is one of your best options.

Simply find two trees about eight feet apart.  Tie a pole between the two trees about chest high, or find two branches that will support your ridge pole.  Next lean poles about six to seven feet long at a 45 degree angle against the ridge pole.  Depending on your roofing material, you may have to place these poles right next to each other or you may be able to space them out.

Lastly, use materials to shingle the roof.  This means starting with a layer at the bottom and working your way to the top with each layer overlapping the one below.  Sheets of bark work great for this, or spruce boughs can do the job.  The more permeable the material, the thicker the roof should be.  Spruce boughs need to be at least two feet thick.  You can also pile dry leaves on top but they need to be at least four feet thick.

Debris Hut – This is another quick solution using natural materials, but the debris hut is all about insulation from the cold.  Find two poles about four feet in length and make a bipod using cordage.  Then find a ridge pole about 10 feet long.  Rest it in the crook of the bipod and secure it. Lean poles all along the ridge pole at a 45 degree angle.  Finally, pile leaves and other debris on top at least four feet thick.  When you are finished, the shelter should only be large enough for you to crawl inside feet first and roll over.  You can use spruce branches to block the entrance if you do not have a fire.  This shelter is essentially a natural sleeping bag.

Snow Cave – If you are dealing with deep snow, a snow cave can keep you out of the wind and hold in some body heat.  Snow is actually a good insulator.  Ten inches of fluffy snow insulates heat at about the same rate as a six inch sheet of fiberglass insulation. Either find a drift at least four feet deep, or mound up snow greater than four feet.  Start by inserting six inch sticks all over the top and sides of the mound.

Start digging an entrance at the base and scooping out the snow behind you.  As you start hollowing out your chamber, stop when you reach the ends of the sticks.  This will ensure that your roof does not collapse.  Give yourself enough room inside the chamber to turn around.  Then form a raised platform at least six inches above the floor.  You will sleep on this platform since the cold air will gather closer to the floor. If you have a pack with you, use it to block the entrance and hold in the heat.

Tarp/Emergency Blanket Shelter – The fastest way to build an effective and waterproof shelter is with a tarp or emergency blanket.  There are roughly a dozen different designs for this type of shelter, but the easiest ones would be a lean-to or an A-frame.  With either shelter you want to tie cordage to all four corners.  If the corners do not have grommets, place a small stone in the material. Wrap the material around the stone and then tie the cordage around the stone.

For a lean-to, find two trees at an appropriate width apart.  Tie two corners to the trees and then stake the other two corners to the ground.  The shelter should be at a 45 degree angle.  For an A-frame, first tie cordage between two trees.  Make sure it is pulled as tightly as possible.  Drape the tarp or emergency blanket over the cordage with equal amounts of material on each side.  Then stake down all four corners.

When you are wandering through the woods and night is closing in, you have to take action.  With a little practice, most of these shelters can be built in about an hour or less.  Some can be built in five minutes.  This gives you time to build a raised bed and square away your other priorities. I have been in survival situations that involved a shelter and ones that did not.  Let me assure you that I was much more confident about my ability to survive while inside a shelter.  I was also much more comfortable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *