Estimated reading time: 18 minutes
Whether it’s a Wilderness Survival Situation or an Unplanned Night in the Woods, You Need a Survival Shelter.
We’re all familiar with various configurations of tents that make sleeping outdoors comfortable. But there are occasions where we may find we don’t have a tent and still have to spend a night in the wild.
It could be as simple as halting our hike a few miles short of camp because of darkness. It could also be as serious as a wilderness survival situation where our location and eventual arrival at our destination are both unknown.
Either way, it’s good to be aware of some basic survival shelters and how to construct them. We’re going to look at some constructions from the simplest and most obvious to some that are a bit more ambitious and one that’s a bit of a cheat.
Then again, when you’re trying to stay warm and dry on a cold and rainy night, there’s no such thing as cheating.
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Table of contents
Do You Really Need a Shelter?
That depends on the weather. If you’re just spending an unplanned night in the woods in mid-summer, a campfire and a tree to sit against will probably get you through the night. If the weather is cold, rainy, or you’re in it for more than one night, you’ll probably need to improvise a shelter.
Nature’s Hardware Store
In most instances, you’ll be building a shelter out of foraged, natural materials. Some are obvious while others you may not have considered.
Here are some things to remember:
- Support struts for a lean-to or roof of any kind should be sturdy hardwood branches.
You’ll probably be scrounging dead branches so test them to see if they’ll support weight. If you can lean one end against a stump or log and can’t get it to break by hitting it with your boot, you’re good.
- Large slabs of bark from any dead tree make excellent shingles on any shelter.
Overlap them so the rain can drain from one to the next. If layering them on an incline, start your shingles in a row at the bottom and work your way up while overlapping bark pieces as you go.
The bigger the bark, the better. Hold them down with smaller branches or tie vines over to keep them from blowing off in high winds.
- Branches with a natural v-notch are worth looking for. They make natural holding points for construction.
- Branches with leaves can make an effective roofing material as well. Deciduous leaves can work if you have enough of them.
Just keep piling them on. They’ll provide some protection from the wind, but a heavy rain will no doubt drip through.
- Large, broad leaves are the best.
If there’s an abundance of Burdock or other broad, leafy plants you’re in luck. In a jungle, the leaves of palms and bamboo are ideal. You might need to weave or hold down any leaves with small branches or they could blow away.
- Vines can make great, improvised cordage for tying together joints or crossed branches. If you see vines growing up a tree, you may have found a good supply of natural rope. Don’t use them to tie up heavy timber that could fall. Vines can break and you never seem to get a tight knot. If you have leather laces in your boots, they’ll make a far better option for tying critical joints.
- Pine boughs from white pines or scotch pines make excellent bedding. It can help to keep you warm and off the cold, wet ground. They make a fairly good roof but are a real disappointment in a heavy rain.
- Grasses can be used to both build a shelter or as roofing material.
Bind the grasses together in bundles tied with vines or other grasses. To this day, homes across Europe are roofed with thatched grasses bundled and layered over each other.
- Rocks can be used to build walls around a shelter. Don’t get cocky and stack them precariously.
They also make fairly effective reflectors around a fire when stacked in a semi-circle facing your shelter.
- Snow can make an effective building material for a shelter as well. The best way to make a roof is to lay branches across the tops of short snow walls you’ve built so the snow roof doesn’t collapse on you in the night.
If you’ve ever spent a night in a snow shelter, you know how miserable it can be. It’s best used when the wind chills are life-threatening and you have no other options. Forget about a fire with a snow shelter. Anyone who says it can be done has most likely never done it.
Location, Location, Location
Regardless of the type of shelter you might build, even the world’s best tent will fail if it’s located in an area subject to high winds, flooding or unexpected events like rock slides. It can be difficult to take the time to assess a location when confronting the stress of an unexpected time in the wild, but it’s worth a quick look at least.
Location Points to Ponder
If you decide to set up your overnight survival camp next to a river due to easy access to water, that’s a good decision. But remember that some rivers can quickly flood during a heavy rain or rise without notice if it’s the tail water downstream from a dam. Better to look for a location uphill from the riverbank that’s an easy walk to the river but out of any sudden flood plains.
Most people look for natural shade in a desert, and that can be a challenge if there’s little in the way of trees to make a shelter. Common sense can help you find most of the materials you need to improvise a shelter including stacked rocks, but there’s one place to avoid.
Any deep swale or broad, dry ditch may be the path of past flash floods. Rivers don’t lie, and you can easily tell where a low bank next to a river might give way to flood water, but a dry swale in a desert will appear bone dry and an easy place to find shade on its banks—until a heavy rain miles away sends the flash flood your way. Stay on the level ground above any depressions or long winding, dry channels.
Finding a good spot to set up in the mountains is never easy but eventually, we find fairly level ground. The trick is to think twice about setting up a shelter against a cliff face or steep wall.
It may seem easier to lean branches against the cliff face to make a shelter and it’s a natural shield from wind, but it could surprise you. Rockslides are the worst-case scenario but even a single, large rock tumbling down can do some serious damage if it lands on you while you sleep.
Just stop and look around and think about what could come from above. If you’re not sure, that’s a good reason to find somewhere else to set up for the night, even if it requires a bit more work to make the shelter.
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in the jungle, but there are many places that create similar conditions. Think of places that are always wet, hot, and infested with bugs. In a true jungle, you may find bamboo growing. Both the stalks and the leaves make short work of any shelter type.
What’s critical is to get yourself into a spot that’s relatively dry. Maybe that’s why hammocks are the choice of jungle explorers, but without a hammock, you’ll need to find a location that’s as dry as possible. Making a raised bed of branches spread across two tree trunks with a shelter overhead is one possibility.
Any location can be miserable in winter, especially at night. The cold and snow are the biggest threat, but the wind can drive even moderately cold temperatures well below freezing.
A shelter designed to work with an open fire is the best idea so look for a location where firewood is easy to find and the snow is relatively shallow in depth. If you’re just trying to stay alive in frigid wind chill conditions, you could always build a shelter out of snow, but plan on a miserable night.
Stands of pine trees are a good place to start for a shelter location in winter like a Lean-to or A-frame. We’ll get into the details of construction on those later. The carpet of pine needles keeps brush and weed trees from growing, and there’s generally a smaller accumulation of snow.
Watch out for large banks of snow trapped in the pine boughs above. And keep an eye on your fire. A fire on an acre of dry pine needles is typically a bad idea, but if there’s snow on the ground, the fire threat is minimized. Brush them away from the fire location with your boot if you want to be sure.
Simple Survival Shelters
All of the shelters we’re going to cover can be constructed in minutes to an hour. That’s important because the decision to spend a night in the wild often occurs late in the day and time is short before sunset.
We’ll start with the most basic, move onto one requiring simple construction, and finish with the simplest.
Getting Back to Basics
Animals and ancient people didn’t fuss over temporary shelters. They found them in nature and you see them everywhere.
Here are some thoughts on how to find shelter without building it yourself:
- Caves are an easy shelter solution.
Just make sure some wild animals haven’t come to the same conclusion.
- A hollow tree trunk may seem odd, but they occur more frequently than you’d suspect.
If you’re worried about bugs inhabiting the hollow space, you’re probably right. Take a look and give the inside a quick brush with a branch. If you see too many bugs, move on, but in a pinch, it will keep you out of the wind and rain.
- The roots of a large uprooted tree can give you shelter.
You may have to do a little housekeeping with some branches that have leaves or pine needles above and below, but an uprooted tree can make short work of an instant shelter.
- Natural structures in the wild can give you an instant framework for a shelter.
Leaning some sticks and branches against a low hanging tree trunk is another instant shelter opportunity.
3 Survival Shelters
1. The Lean-to
This is the most basic survival shelter design. It’s easy to make and is perfect for a fire in front, allowing the lean of the roof to capture heat from the fire.
The basic design begins with a larger branch extended across two trees or supports with branches leaned against it at an angle. You can add more branches, leaves, dry grasses, and bark in any combination to make it more wind-proof or waterproof, but the more you do, the longer it takes.
A lean-to is a great shelter for Spring, Summer, and Fall. It can be a bit of a problem in heavy rains or wind because one side is wide open to the elements.
High winds in winter are a particular problem even with a fire. Even without a fire, a lean-to can still give you a fair amount of protection from the elements, but in extreme weather, the open side can be a problem.
On the plus side, it’s easy to make in a relatively short period of time and can easily accommodate more than one person. With a fire in front, it can be downright cozy.
2. The A-Frame
The A-frame is essentially a roof on the ground using the same ridge pole you would use for a lean-to. The only difference is that you lean things against the ridge pole on both sides to create the “A” as a shelter. This is an open-ended A-frame design.
A smart variation is an A-frame on a slant or a closed-end A-frame.
The supporting ridge pole is supported on one end by a stump or v-notched branch with the other end on the ground. The sides are built up, leading to an opening on one end of the “A.” Various materials can be used to finish the roof from bark to grasses to leaves or a combination. This provides more protection from the wind and rain, and a fire can be built in front.
The closed-end A-frame is the simplest to build and requires the least amount of materials. It’s an excellent design for cold, windy, and rainy weather and perhaps the best option in winter with a fire for heat.
3. The Big Cheat
So far we’ve covered shelters made from nature. The only cheat here is the use of a Mylar emergency blanket for the basic structure of the shelter. These are sometimes referred to as “space” blankets because the material was originally designed by NASA in their early days.
Emergency blankets are cheap, light, and fold up to about the size of a wallet, and are easy to carry in a pocket or pack. The hard part is remembering to carry one. That’s why it’s important to be aware of some of the improvised, natural options we’ve covered.
The good news is that you can recreate the basic designs of the lean-to or A-frame that we’ve already covered and make short work of it with an emergency blanket. Some of us may be tempted to just wrap ourselves up next to a fire under a tree and that’s actually not a bad idea, assuming the weather is nice.
The better news is that with a little extra effort, you can quickly construct an effective shelter that will protect you from unexpected rain or wind in the middle of the night.
They can also enhance the warmth of a lean-to because the silver lining of the Mylar blankets reflects the heat from any fire quite effectively.
In actual fact, if you have a length of Mylar on both the floor and roof of the lean-to, you’ve recreated the fundamental design of a reflector oven.
Once you have a supporting ridge pole in place, you simply drape the emergency blanket over it to create your lean-to or A-frame. And because the Mylar material is so light, you could skip finding a branch for a support and use a vine or length of rope to suspend your shelter.
Placing some stones on the Mylar could weigh the sides to the ground, or you could jam a stick through the Mylar into the ground to hold it in place. You’ll tear up your emergency blanket in the process, but did we mention they’re cheap.
Practice Makes Perfect
It helps to practice any bushcraft skills you may think you’ll need in the wilderness, and an easy way to do it with shelters is to build some of them with sticks.
We did that for some of the photos and if you’re ever looking for a way to do something fun with kids, try building some little survival shelters with twigs, bark, and branches. It’ll give them a head start on basic survival skills and who knows—maybe we’ll all learn a thing or two.
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