How to Build a Shelter

Shelter is one of the most underrated and important aspects of survival.  A shelter provides you with three things: protection from the elements, a place to hide from predators, and a place that provides psychological and physical comfort.  Face it, you’re going to need to sleep some time and which sounds more appealing: a tent and bed of pine needles or laying under the stars on miscellaneous twigs and branches?  If you’ve never slept on the ground with no padding, let me tell you – it sucks!  You get poked in the back all night by twigs and rocks, you get cold and shiver yourself awake, and you wake up as tired as (if not more tired than) when you went to bed.  Building a shelter, however paltry, will improve your condition phenominally.

Shelter Site

More than the materials you use, the site you build on is important.  Nature can be a bitch and ruin the best established shelters. 

It’s pivotal that you stay dry overnight so you want to avoid being too close to water sources or potential water sources (like dry river beds).  It could rain and the water source could flood and get you wet or you could drown if its bad enough.  Insects tend to reside near water also, so you could have a big problem with them if you’re too close to the water.  You also don’t want to be too far away from water sources either.  The further from water you are, the further you have to travel to get water and food (indirectly).

Look for a place with a lot of fallen, dry wood if you can.  You can use this wood to build your shelter or for firewood.  Dead trees could potentially fall at any time so be wary of setting up to close to them.  However, a fallen tree can make a superb backbone for a shelter.

Avoid ravines and valleys.  Low ground like this can collect moisture and become incredibly damp and soggy at night.  Cold air sinks too, meaning that you’re going to be sitting in all the accumulated cold air while you’re trying to sleep.  You also need to be mindful of wind and how to avoid it.  Large logs, boulders, and dirt berms are all good ways to block wind.  Your shelter will only do so much against the wind and the more you can block it outside your shelter, the better.

You’re basically looking for a dry, well drained area that is either flat or on top of a hill.

Basic Guidelines

No matter what type of shelter you build, there are some basic guidelines and suggestions to follow when building.  First of all, make your shelter no bigger than necessary.  The larger the shelter, the harder time you’ll have holding in the heat.  Fir tree branches make excellent insulation so use them as the roofing of your shelter if feasible.  If you are building a shelter in sub-freezing temperatures, pour water over the roof of your shelter if it’s thatched.  The water will freeze and create an insulative layer.  You may be tempted to use scrap metal you found to build a shelter.  This is not a good idea.  Metal is reflective, which means it will reflect most of the heat from the sun when you want it to be absorbed.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, snow is one of nature great insulators.  The more you use it, the greater the amount of body heat you’ll retain.  Why do you think the eskimos built shelters out of snow (igloos)?  It wasn’t because of it’s pretty white color!

If you plan to have a fire inside your shelter, make sure you have some sort of ventilation in the roof of your shelter.  Smoke inhalation isn’t fun when you’re out in the woods.  If you don’t plan on having a fire inside your shelter, you can always heat some stones up on a fire outside and then bring them into the shelter with you for warmth.  You won’t have to deal with smoke or potentially burning your shelter down, but they won’t stay warm as long as a fire will.

Don’t leave the opening of your shelter wide open after you enter it.  Have some way of closing yourself off from the outside world.  Be it a large boulder, a snow plate, or just a few tree branches every little bit counts.


As I said before, sleeping on the ground saps the heat right out of you.  80% of your body heat is lost to the ground while at rest.  Grass and pine needles make an excellent mattress and insulate against the cold ground very well.

If it’s dry, you can simply dig a hole in the ground and cover it with large sticks, followed by smaller, dense boughs.  If it’s raining or wet, avoid burrowing in a hole and get off the ground. If this isn’t possible at the time, make cover on flat or sloped land so rainwater can drain.

You can build a cot to keep you off the ground if you have the time, energy, and resources.  Find two long, sturdy branches and roll them into whatever you are using to lay on (a poncho, tarp, blanket, etc.) like a long scroll leaving about a foot of wood exposed at each end.  If you don’t have any material to do this, you can lash branches perpendicular to the long branches (this will look similar to a ladder when finished), and use grass, pine needles, and any other plant material as a sort of bedding on the cot.  Then simply lash the cot to trees a few feet off the ground.  If there are no trees to accomadate, you can use branches stuck firmly into the ground.  This is particularly useful in a swamp or other damp environment.

Debris Hut

A debris hut is a very basic shelter that is great if you are in an area with lots of dead wood available.  The basic design mirrors how animals build their dens or nests in the wild.  To build a debris hut:

  1. Find a long sturdy branch to use as the central pole of your hut.  This is called the ridgepole.  Place one end on the ground and the other against a tree, stump, boulder, etc.  If there is a fallen tree that makes the same angled shape, you can use it as your ridgepole.
  2. Create a ribbed frame by leaning branches against, and lashing them to, your ridgepole all along its length.  Make sure to leave enough space between two of the ribs so that you can fit through (this will be your entrance).
  3. You will eventually be placing insulating materials over your frame, but before you do that you need to create a lattice that will hold your material.  Place smaller sticks crossways over the ribs of your hut.
  4. Now, when you start putting leaves and pine needles on your frame, it won’t fall through.  Pile this stuff on top of your frame so that it’s at least 2 feet thick – the thicker, the better.  This is where the name of the shelter comes from, because you can use whatever debris is laying on the ground.
  5. Find something to cover the entrance to your shelter: a rock, a pile of debris, etc.

A one man shelter is very similar to a debris hut, the only difference is that a one man shelter uses a poncho, tarp, or some other similar material to cover the frame instead of debris.  You could very easily combine the two concepts to create an even better shelter.

Tree Pit

If you find yourself in a deep snow environment, a tree pit may be the best possible shelter you can use.  By deep snow, I mean snow deep enough that it reaches the bottom branches of a tree.  To build a tree pit:

  1. Find an evergreen tree that has low hanging branches that reach out far enough to cover you.  The snow needs to be deep enough that the branches are essentially touching the snow.
  2. Break away one or two of the branches so that you have access to the underlying snow.
  3. Dig away the snow under the tree to a depth and diameter that is comfortable for you.  Just remember the smaller the space, the more easily you’ll retain body heat.  One thing to keep in mind is that cold are sinks, so it might be wise to build a platform to sleep on that is at least a foot higher than the floor of the pit.
  4. Pack the snow on the walls of your shelter as tightly as possible to avoid a collapse.
  5. Use the branches you broke off earlier and any other found branches to cover your entrance.

Beach Shade Shelter

A beach shade shelter is exactly what it sounds like: a shelter to provide shade on the beach.  Obviously, this shelter is ideal for the beach, but is also useful in any hot, sandy region.  To build a beach shade shelter:

  1. Dig a trench in the sand running in a North-South direction.  The direction is important because it minimizes the amount of sun exposure inside the shelter.  Make sure that the trench is big enough for you to lay down in comfortably.
  2. Mound the sand you dig out of the interior of your shelter on three of the four sides of the shelter (the fourth side will be your entrance).
  3. Lay wood or other materials across the trench to make a framework for the roof of your shelter.
  4. Lay a blanket, tarp, poncho, or grass over top of the trench to make shade inside.

Further Reading