Safety in the Wild: The Ultimate Survival Shelter Guide

One of the three essentials in any survival situation is the construction of a shelter. Most of us have never been much further than a few hours away from a building and while most know the basics of finding food and water the knowledge of how to build a shelter while you’re out in the woods isn’t so common. A survival shelter can be a lifesaver however, and it’s not as complicated as you might think.

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Why You Should Learn to Build a Survival Shelter

Shelter isn’t just a matter of comfort, exposure can be just as dangerous as dehydration if you’re lost away from civilization. In extreme climates, your life expectancy can become hours to minutes, even if things were going fine before a sudden turn in the weather.

Of course, there’s less serious reasons to learn to build a decent shelter as well. Even if you’re just on a day hike it might be convenient to hunker down for a couple of hours if a storm blows in, or if you’re hunting in the desert you might just need some shade to rest for a while.

Either way, you’ll be using the same basic principles in order to make sure that you can stay safe. You’ll need to understand some basic concepts in order to make sure that your shelter is as efficient as possible, of course.

Understanding the how’s and why’s of your shelter working properly is extremely important when it comes to troubleshooting things during your stay in the woods.

Understanding Heat Transfer

Your body will automatically lose heat to the atmosphere around you when it gets super cold out. Essentially, anytime there is a temperature differential in different items or materials, there’s going to be quite a bit of heat lost as the thermal system seeks to reach equilibrium.

For instance, if you touch something cold it will heat up. This is because both you and the item you’re in contact with are of differing temperatures and the kinetic energy contained in both will change in both in order to reach a state where both are equal.

Put simply: when you touch something cold, you’re heating it up and it’s cooling you down. Without your metabolism operating it would eventually reach a point somewhere in the middle.

There are a variety of different ways that this can play out.

  • Conduction
  • Convection
  • Radiation
  • Evaporation

If you don’t have a degree in physics, it might seem confusing so let’s break it down a bit further for the laymen.

Conduction will cause you to lose heat by contact with solid objects. This means that you’ll want to lay something down over the cold ground you’ll be lying on if you need to sleep, for instance. It can also happen during contact with sources of water or other liquids, but if you construct your shelter properly it’s unlikely to be a concern.

Convection occurs during contact with air. Cold air will cause you to lose body temperature just by being present and that can result in some pretty serious exposure in sub-zero temperatures. Layered, insulating clothing is your best defense here as well as using layers and insulated materials when constructing a shelter.

Radiation will cause you to lose thermal energy to the sky at night, especially when it’s clear. It explains why a desert can be blazing hot during the day and super cold at night. The best way to make sure that you avoid losing heat to radiation is using a roof over your shelter, and we can also utilize it to keep warm with a fire.

Evaporation is often one of the biggest threats. Your body regulates its temperature via sweat, for instance.This works because as a liquid evaporates it cools the surface that it’s on. This means you’ll need to stay dry while you’re in your shelter, and this means learning some basic techniques for waterproofing.


Putting it All Together

You need to put all of this knowledge together as well as possible to have a viable, comfortable shelter. Depending on the gear you have in your pack, the materials available in the area around you, and your own skills you can maximize your shelter’s effectiveness by extorting the above qualities.

Whether it’s twigs and leaves, having to make do with a natural outcropping in the rocks, or actually having the right gear to make a shelter in your bag you’re still just taking advantage of these properties. Even dressing warm and layering properly is just a form of managing heat transfer at the end of the day.

Knowing the basics of thermal effects, or how heat moves, is the cornerstone of building a shelter after all.If you can master these you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with.

The Skills You’ll Need to Build a Shelter

You’ll need to pick up a few skills in order to make sure that you’re able to build a shelter in a pinch, and like most things it’s always a good idea to practice before your neck is on the line.

Ropework Part I- Knots

Working with rope is a skill which pretty much any outdoorsman will find comes in handy more often than you’d think, and it should be developed to a decent level in order to have the best shots at building a shelter that will stand up to winds and other inclement conditions while you’re out there.

There are two primary forms of ropework you’ll need to get down: knotting and lashing.

Knotting is exactly what it sounds like, while lashing is used to join pieces through specific winding patterns. Everything starts and ends with a knot, however, to keep things in place.

Some of the most important knots you’ll need to know are the following, but don’t stop there… pretty much every knot can come in handy once in awhile.

Clove Hitch

The clove hitch is one of the most important knots you’ll ever learn, especially when it comes to building shelters. It’s the fundamental start of almost every variety of lashing, which means that you’ll need to be able to use it anytime you’re planning on building a frame for a shelter.

Since it’s so important, this is one knot that you should practice constantly until you pretty much have it down. While it might seem complicated if you’re not familiar with ropework in the first place, most people will be able to get it down pretty quickly.

It isn’t the most secure of the various hitches, but it’s basic and most people will be able to remember how to perform it even under stress. It’s the basic of any more advanced hitch as well, so learn it and learn it well.

Taut Line Hitch

The taut line hitch is another indispensable knot when you’re building your shelter. In this case it will allow you an adjustable loop which can help to maintain tension on whatever you happen to be tying off on.

This can be used to pull a tarp or other immediate shelter extremely tight but also allow you to relax the tension if desired. Think of it as something of a more advanced slip knot and you’re on the right track.

Even with something fairly slippery like paracord it has a tendency to give you a good enough bite to withstand inclement conditions, making it the ideal knot for anchoring things no matter what the weather or terrain may look like.

Sheet Bend

While not quite as essential as the other knots on this list, the sheet bend does have a very specific use when your resources are limited: it allows you to pair up two ropes or cords of differing diameters.

Do not use a square knot for tying ropes together. Even with the same diameter it’s not super secure and with differing diameters the thinner one is going to slip out of the grasp of the larger one and cause problems, particularly if you’re working on making sure that things stay together under tension.

It’s a little bit more complex, but you’ll be thankful you’ve learned it.

Other Knots

There are a ton of different knots out there. Try tying each of them a few times in the morning or evening until you can do it automatically and make sure you know the uses and you’re off to a good start.

Once you’ve mastered the above you can work with other knots if you so choose, but as long as you know the four above knots by heart you’re qualified for the basics of building a shelter in an emergency situation.


Ropework Part II-Lashing

Lashing is the second major part of being able to work with ropes, and it’s pretty much the essential part of being able to build a frame. For the most part, you can start learning how to do it as soon as you can tie a decent clove hitch to get started with.

Lashing is actually extremely simple, especially if you stick with the basics, but you’ll need to know when to use each type of lashing. Just grab a couple of sticks and tie each one a few times and you’ll see what we mean. This is more of an art, as opposed to the science of knotting, but a bit of practice and you’ll be at it like a professional.

There are several different types of lashing that you can learn, but we’ll cover the quickest to learn and the most essential for building a frame here.

Square Lashing

Your basic square lashing will allow you to join two pieces of wood, or whatever material you’re using, at a ninety degree angle. Basically, if you need to make a cross shape, particularly one that will bear a load, then this is a solid choice.

It’s one of the most secure, and easiest, ways to attach your supports or other structure at a 90° angle. You can also use it at the ends of timbers and tie all of them off in order to make a roughly square frame which can come in handly.

Diagonal Lashing

Diagonal lashings usually aren’t quite as secure as a square lashing but they work very well for things which need to be placed at a 45° angle. While it starts with a “timber hitch” don’t worry too much if it wasn’t in your knotting practice, a timber hitch is just an overhand knot with a bunch of wraps before you finally tighten the knot.

This is best used when the load wants to push the pieces of structure away from each other.

Shear Lashing

Shear lashing is used primarily in A-frame style constructions and a couple of them can give you a pretty impressive amount of support for your cover. You can “fix” the angles that you want the sticks to be held at and if you keep everything tight you won’t have to worry about them migrating.

You can also use this technique to tie poles end to end by keeping everything in line and keeping them parallel but it’s not quite essential for building a shelter and if you have some practice you’ll find that improvising this technique isn’t an issue.

Tripod Lashing

Tripods will have two main uses when it comes down to making your shelter more comfortable. They can be used to suspend a cooking pot or other vessel over a fire, but for your structure itself they can also be used as a solid support for a beam when framing.

This lashing looks complex, but you’ll find it’s actually quite easy one you’ve done it a few times, just remember to practice when the chips aren’t on the line yet and you’ll be fine.

Practicing Lashing

Lashing is quite a bit simpler than learning knots for most people, as long as your clove hitch is solid you’re in good hands. To get a good looking, solid lashing takes a little bit of practice and like all of these skills we recommend that you get in some practice. Try out each once a day or so for a week and you’ll be good to go.

Even if you don’t have spare staves lying around you can learn the basics with a couple of pencils or pens and some twine, paracord is a bit thick for this application but it’ll work if it’s all you have.

Framing

Building a frame for a survival shelter is, by its very nature, an improvised affair. This means that a lot of the times you’ll have to figure out what works with what you have on hand.

Knowing a few basic concepts can mean the difference between a shoddy shelter that collapses on your head during a gust of wind and something solid that can stand up to anything short of a hurricane however.

A-Frames

A-Frames are an integral part of shelters in many situations, but they’ll have to be combined with solid lashing in order to truly be effective for maintaining a structure under any kind of wind or rain.

A shear lashing combined with square lashing for the cross beam is a pretty good way to replicate a structure similar to a pup tent and using longer bars on the bottom and square lashing them to the base of the “A” shapes a few inches above the ground will render it structurally sound for the most part.

Tripods

Tripods can be used to make solid structures as well, however they are harder to move in and out of if you use them as the exits for your temporary structure. They should mostly be used if you’re having trouble getting something to stick.

For instance, if you’re having trouble finding sticks which can support a weighty lean-to made of brush which will hold steady, you can use tripods to increase the stability around the corner since they’ll inherently be more stable.

Support, Support, Support

As long as your lashing technique is solid and you have enough cording or rope, you can always add more structure to a frame as long as the weight doesn’t crash the supports. This is a good idea if you’re stranded and need to make a shelter in an area for more than just a few hours or a single night.

Since you shouldn’t plan on moving around too much if you’re lost, it’s a good idea to make sure your structure is well thought out if you don’t know how long it’ll be until someone finds you.

You might even want to try out any shelters you’re planning on building once or twice on an outing just to make sure your ideas hold up. If time is of the essence, then you may not get a second and third shot at making sure everything stands up well.


The Tools You Should Have

Shelters aren’t always something that you’re planning on having to use, but if you keep a few small items in your bag whenever you go camping or hiking you should be able to handle most situations with ease.

A Knife

A fixed bladed, sturdy knife is something no one outdoors should be without. They’re useful no matter what the situation is. Really, the best knife is one you’re familiar with but if you don’t yet have a favorite blade most people will suggest a Morakniv Companion.

Smaller folders are also useful, but they have a tendency to break easily when a lot of force is needed due to their moving parts and lighter construction.

Your survival knife needs to be sturdy, not necessarily large. A four inch blade you can hammer on is a lot more useful than a sixteen inch blade which will bend or break when the chips are down.

Serrations are something else to look for, since they make sawing wood a whole lot easier while you’re out there. If you can’t find a knife that completely fits the bill for what you’re looking for, a small folding saw is also a good addition to your bag.

See also:

Best Deer Hunting Knife​

Cordage

Even if you’ve mastered the art of turning yucca or dogwood into viable, awesome cording having some cord in your bag is a pretty good idea.

Most people favor paracord, it’s cheap, strong and versatile. There’s no need to go digging around for the really expensive stuff with a whole lot of extras, although it’s certainly viable if you care for it, but cheap 550 line can be had for a couple of dollars for thirty feet.

Some people weave it into bracelets or braids, others find it much easier to just stick a roll in their pack. Many survival minded people keep a ten to fifteen foot length just rolled up in their pocket.

There are two basic types of cordage that you’ll need to be aware of:

  • Rope consists of thicker, stronger strands. They’re usually braided or have a weave covering an inner core.
  • Twine or string is thinner and more useful for detailed work, although not necessarily for the structural points of a shelter.

This is why paracord is a natural for those in the wilderness. The complete strands can act effectively as rope while still being thin enough to keep in even a small pack, while the inner strands can be pulled out and used as twine or string.

If you’re trying to pack a bit more primitively, then you’d also be well served with jute twine. Keep in mind that the lighter weights may need to be braided in order to be effective for lashing or other heavier uses however.

Survival Tarp or Blanket

Via: Amazon.com

While it’s definitely possible to make quick shelters using leaves and branches, most people will find themselves far more comfortable using something they know is waterproof right from the outset.

Survival tarps and blankets are a good idea, and they won’t take up much room in your pack. Even if you’re competent at constructing an impenetrable overhead shelter using one to keep yourself warm definitely isn’t a bad idea.

For emergencies, you might want something brightly colored while for general use camouflage works quite well. It’s really up to you, but don’t discount the utility exchanged for the small amount of space taken up by one of these.

You might never need it, but they’re something you should definitely have around.

It’s an even better idea to carry a good tarp in your bag if you can make room for it. A good tarp will have a lot of solid grommets around the edges which makes tying things off a whole lot easier.

They’ll also stand up better to water and the heavier weight will help a little bit if you choose to use one as a shelter instead of just something to lie on inside a more complex shelter.

Other Tools

The above are enough to get you through most situations as long as your survival skills are up to par, but if you’re planning on building a shelter the following may be of use to you:

  • Multitool-Multitools have a variety of devices in them which can help out quite a bit. Those built for the outdoors, as opposed to a job site, will usually have at least a saw and you’d be surprised at how inventive you can get when the chips are down.
  • Folding Saw-A good folding saw takes up a decent amount of room in your bag but it can be invaluable for cutting larger limbs when the knife just won’t cut it.
  • Lighter-Apart from starting fires, lighters are useful for being able to seal the ends of synthetic cords, like 550 paracord. Keeping a fresh Bic in your bag isn’t a bad idea and it’s unlikely that one will run out during most situations.
  • Hatchet-You’re sure to find an amazing amount of uses for a hatchet when you’re setting up a shelter. At the very least you should take some time to learn how to build a crude stone one but it’s pretty much an essential if you’re already planning on spending sometime out of doors.
  • E-Tool-These small, folding shovels are standard issue in most militaries for a good reason. A shovel can save you a lot of trouble, but a good folding one will fit in your pack quite easily.

If you have all of the above, then you’ll definitely be able to make a good shelter as long as you have a little bit of forethought and practice. Don’t panic if it’s a bad situation, however, the first three items are definitely the most important and the rest can be improvised pretty easily.

Some Considerations When Setting Up Your Shelter

There’s more to think of than just what kind of shelter you’re going to set up. Thanks to the improvised nature of a shelter these considerations can often be more important than the actual type of shelter you build.

Find a Safe Area

Before you begin building your shelter, it’s important to make sure that you’re in the right area to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the shelter. You should keep an eye out for the following hazards when you’re setting things up.

General Tips

Where you settle in for the night will depend a lot on the area you’re in. For the most part you need to find an area that is dry, reasonably flat, and not infested with all kinds of bugs. You’ll also want to stay away from poisonous plants if they happen to be in the area you’re in.

In forests there are some major hazards which are overlooked by some people. The biggest of these is deadfalls. Don’t settle anywhere near a dead tree or a tree with dead branches,even if the weather is fairly still. They’re called widowmakers for a reason.

Areas which are too low can result in you sleeping in water if rain suddenly comes in, even if you’re not expecting it at the time you should try to make sure you’re not in an area where sudden rains will be a problem.

Depending on how the weather is, you’ll want to carefully place the facing on your shelter. Placing it in the sun when the weather is cold is a great idea, since the thermal transfer from the sun’s energy can help to keep you warm. Place it in the shade in areas where it’s hot to make sure you don’t overheat, hyperthermia can be just as deadly as the opposite in extreme conditions.

Desert areas add some different hazards in addition to the temperature. In most areas venomous critters aren’t generally sitting around in woodlands, but deserts host a variety of creepy crawlies you don’t want an encounter with.

Check under any rocks that are near the shelter for scorpions and snakes. While a scorpion sting in most areas will merely prove painful, a snake bite can turn a bad situation into a fatal one when you’re far from medical help.

In general it’s a good idea to stay away from standing water in most climates as well, in addition to the flooding risk they also harbor mosquitos and other biting pests.

Overall, you’ll just want to be careful when deciding on a place to set up. There are some factors that aren’t exactly common sense however and you need to be aware of them as well.

Exposure

Even if it seems safe, there are certain areas where it’s just a bad idea to build a shelter. Don’t build on exposed ridges or outcroppings. You’ll lose a ton of heat to any breeze that happens by and this can be disastrous.

Even in a desert region the cold nights will make you extremely uncomfortable, but in wet areas you can be looking at serious problems.

Likewise, you don’t want to settle into the bottom of a valley either, since the cold winds can channel through and heat radiation from the sun won’t build up to any appreciable quantity if there’s a ton of growth in it.

Mold

Keep an eye out for large amounts of mold as well. Mildew and mold can ruin gear and possibly harm you if you’re out for more than a few days. It’s also an indicator that the area may be to damp to be ideal for preventing heat loss at night.

If there are large clumps of white in the upper parts of the foliage where you’re at then it’s a good sign you should find somewhere a bit drier.

Bug Infested Trees

Trees can still look fairly healthy and drop a branch unexpectedly. If you choose to settle under a tree, then take a look at the leaves before you make a final decision. If there’re a ton of holes in them then the tree may be infested.

In addition to falls, some insects can cause a lot of problems if they get in the shelter so try to actively avoid infestations while you’re planning a shelter.

If it seems to be the only reasonable option, then grab some branches and pull on them, hard. If nothing breaks off you’re probably safe from a fall, but plan on moving in the morning to avoid getting a bunch of crawlies in your sleeping bag or shelter.

Animal Trails and Dens

While animal trails can allow for a good spot of progress when you’re not on a regular trail, you might want to avoid setting up your shelter too close to them. Most fauna is fairly harmless, but some can be provoked fairly easily.

In most US areas the only animal to really worry about are pigs, but in some areas wolves, cougar, and bears can be a concern. You definitely want to avoid an unplanned encounter with anything that weighs more than you do.

Another thing to watch for are rat nests and animal dens. Rats will get into your food and some burrowing animals aren’t going to be happy with your intrusion on their space. Try not to set up too close to any large holes which look they can be inhabited or piles of branches which might host smaller pests.

Remember to hang up your food regardless. It’s not necessarily foolproof, a lot of backwoods hikers have stories about particularly crafty raccoon or squirrels, but it’ll keep a bear from surprising you when you wake up in the morning.


Other Considerations

You don’t just need to make sure that an area is safe in order to have the ideal way to set up your shelter. You’ll also want to take some of the basics into account in order to make sure that you’re in good hands.

Keep all of the following in mind:

  • Larger shelters will generally be cooler due to more room for air to move through them.
  • Facing a shelter’s entrance to the East is a favorable way to do things, since it allows the sun to come in as soon as it comes up.
  • If you’re just practicing or setting up a shelter as a hobby activity, then check on the regulations in the area you’re in.
  • Except for in survival situations it’s a good practice to dismantle and scatter your shelter when you’re done with it to make sure you’re in line with Leave No Trace protocols.

Some Example Shelters

Of course, even with all the skills and planning in the world it’s good to have some idea of effective shelters that other people have built. Keep in mind that often you’ll want to improvise as suits your situation and equipment, but we’ve outlined a number of effective shelters in depth to give you an idea of what’s possible while you’re out there.

Forest Survival Shelters

These shelters are well suited for forested areas and flat terrain where you can access a considerable amount of wood. Your placement will depend largely on the weather, but each of these will offer you a fairly comfortable place to lay your head when the day is done.

Tarp Shelters

A simple, three sided tarp shelter can be constructed without having to use much, if any, wood. It’s amazingly simple and will work quite well in a temperate woodland environment. Pretty much any tarp shelter is going to be the same layout, but this is a particularly easy way to set one up.

  • 1. Find a flat area in which you can lay out your tarp or survival blanket entirely. Keep in mind the location issues we discussed above.
  • 2. Stake three of the corners, with the corner which you’re going to raise for an entrance left untouched for the time being. If you don’t have stakes, sharpen some small sticks and affix them with a very short taut line hitch.
  • 3. Find a small, round object which won’t penetrate the tarp and place it under the center point of the tarp. The easiest way to figure this out is to fold the tarp back after staking three corners, the center of the bottom of the triangle formed will let you know where to put it.
  • 4. Tie off the tarp around the rock to hold it in place. A taut line hitch is pretty much ideal for this usage, then affix the line to the rear stake.
  • 5. Tie a taut line hitch around the ring in the front of the tarp, or around a small bundled area and affix it to a tree in front of your tarp at whatever height you think will work best with a clove hitch. Your tarp should be fairly taut and the nose should be raised.
  • 6. Remove the stakes on the wings of the tarp and stretch them out to form a fairly ridged structure. You can add more stakes to keep things air tight if you need to.

Pros

  • Simple and light on materials.
  • Easy to take down and put up.
  • Airtight and allows room for a small fire.
  • Water tight thanks to the tarp.

Cons

  • Lack of heat insulation without a fire.
  • Tarp may come undone in high winds.

Tarp Shelter Variations

Stealth Variations

The variations in the above video are designed to keep you hidden from view while you’re using the shelter. This has some obvious advantages in certain situations, but in a survival situation where you’re hoping for a rescue they’re probably not the best idea.

Tarp Wing

If it’s rainy, but not particularly cold then suspending your tarp higher up in this manner can be super useful. It will provide you with shade as well in hotter climates, but finding a way to use this particular configuration in a desert might be a bit hard without trees to tie off on.

Tarp Burrito

By rolling your tarp over so that the seams are contained within it, in a similar manner to making a burrito, and sliding a sleeping bag inside you can actually keep yourself fairly safe for a single night when conditions aren’t too bad. You’re definitely going to have to deal with soaked clothing and sleeping bag in the morning.

Only utilize this shelter if you really don’t have time for anything else.

Tarp Tipi

A tarp tipi can be made by using tripod lashing over more than three poles then spreading them out and wrapping the tarp around them. Tie the tarp off in whichever manner you can manage, and try to size the poles so the tarp goes down to the ground and can be weighted with debris or staked for a windproof shelter.

It’ll take a little bit more time than many other tarp shelters, but with some manipulations it might be your best bet for a long term shelter without having to gather a lot of extra materials.

Tarp Conclusions

As you can see, there’s a lot you can do with a tarp but they all suffer in high winds and actually building a shelter might be a better option if you’re going to be out for more than a single night. They can definitely be a life saver if you just have to utilize one overnight, however, so don’t discount keeping one in your bag.

Debris Shelter

A debris shelter is a handy way to stay warm and dry even in the most inclement conditions, but it’ll require more work than just using a tarp. Since it requires a large amount of work they’re best if you’re planning on staying outdoors for more than just a night and they can form a good medium-term shelter.

This design can actually be made with minimal tools and if you get the right materials together you can even get away with not having to lash anything together although it might be wise to dish out some lashing if you’re planning on using it for more than a single night.

If your skills are up to par you can do a lot with one, but to cover the basics you’ll want to do the following:

  • 1. Begin by gathering debris and straight sticks to get things started. Using your shirt or jacket is a great way to get started and you’ll be able to carry more this way. For now just start loading up a bunch of material.
  • 2. Once you have the materials in place, it’s time to begin building the frame. You’ll need to find your ridge pole to do this, find a stick that’s 2-3” inches across and about two feet longer than you are tall.
  • 3. Find two forked sticks about four feet in length and place the ridge pole in them. You should be able to lay down and not stick out beyond the end of the rough tripod you’ve made.
  • 4. Now, lay the sticks and branches you’ve gathered along the sides of the shelter at the same angle as the forked sticks. This will form the basis of the frame. These sticks don’t have to be thick, but you don’t want them to come up too high above the center support.
  • 5. Using long, thin pieces you’re now going to interlace them with the vertical part of the frame. Use the longer, thinner branches from the materials you’ve gathered and weave them in and out through the length of the shelter’s frame.
  • 6. About 24” in front of your shelter, lay down two more forked sticks place sticks attaching to the frame. Then place sticks horizontally along the length of this forward support, then across these at a 90° angle. After this is in place, put sticks vertically leaning against these forward supports.
  • 7. Now pile debris over the frame, carefully enough to make sure that you’re not going to move the frame. How much you’ll pile will depend on the area and climate you’re in, but in a temperate climate simply piling on the leaves until you’re not able to see daylight when you look inside should be enough to make things going.

This design is very nice, but it does take a long time to get it together. It’s best suited for colder climates and with several feet of debris over it you can even make things comfortable in particularly cold climates.

Your body heat will warm the relatively small area quickly and it can keep you warm. Remember that the thicker the debris is the warmer you’ll end up being, but you can overdo it in some situations.

Pros

  • Can be made with no tools or cordage.
  • Will keep you very warm.
  • The basic idea can be expanded for more complicated shelters.
  • Easy to make in forested areas.

Cons

  • Time consuming to create.
  • Offers little protection from insects.

Spider Shelter

A spider shelter is quite similar to a debris shelter but allows for a more spacious interior at the cost of some insulation. This allows you to easily bring in all your tools out of the cold as well as giving you some room to cook or do whatever else you might need to do so long as you’re careful.

It takes a good amount of time to set one up, but no longer than a standard debris shelter and might be a better choice in more temperate climates since you it will protect you from the wind and rain while allowing you room to move and preventing claustrophobia.

  • 1. The framework is the most intensive part of building this kind of shelter. You’ll need a lot of sticks with many of them being forked. Create a domed, interlocking structure, focusing on making sure the sticks are large enough to form a solid support.
  • 2. Keep stacking the sticks up until you have a fairly solid structure, this will hold things in place and keep the debris from falling through the holes. It will take a lot of sticks to make sure that everything is tight enough to hold together.
  • 3. Once you have the teepee shaped structure in place, collect debris and place it over and around the shelter like you would with a debris shelter.

Since this shelter has room to move around in, you can improve it quite a bit once everything is in place. Some quick ideas for those who are using one for a medium or long term shelter would include the following:

  • A sleeping mat made up of debris to insulate you.
  • A woven grass mat door to provide more insulation
  • Make a small, rock covered fire pit in order to warm the shelter.
  • A small over hang to allow you to get out of the shelter but still remain largely out of the elements.

As with any shelter, the only limits are your needs, skills, and imagination. The spider shelter in particular is well suited to allow you to make modifications to improve your comfort levels however.

Pros

  • No tools or cords needed
  • Well insulated from rain and wind
  • Large amount of room to move around in
  • Lends itself to easy improvement

Cons

  • Time consuming to build
  • Needs some work to offer a lot of insulation in colder climates

Wickiup

The wickiup is a traditional shelter which is larger and will require quite a bit of time to put together. This one is better if you’re planning on spend an extended amount of time in the woods and perhaps not quite as useful as most of the others on this list when it comes to an emergency shelter.

If you’re willing to put in the time, however, it’s a solid choice and remarkably easy to build and improve in order to have a comfortable, self-built living space for a trip that’s bound to last a couple of weeks.

The wickiup makes for a true example of just how comfortable you can get with bushcraft, but it’s not something most people will be able to pull off alone in one afternoon.

  • 1. Begin by clearing the area. You’ll want to make sure you’re allowed to do so in the area you’re staying in, otherwise find an area. You’ll need about twelve feet squared flat and clear to begin.
  • 2. Get ahold of three straight logs which are roughly twelve to fourteen feet high and about as thick as your wrist. You’ll want to tripod lash them together and be a little bit loose with the frapping to get a wide base when you stand it up.
  • 3. Stack sticks of similar dimensions to the ones you used for the tripod in a circle around the frame until you have good coverage.
  • 4. After you’ve reached good coverage, you’ll want to weave some thinner sticks through the supports to provide a better basis for the material you’ll be covering the shelter with.
  • 5. You’ll also want to lash a shorter support crossways between two of the poles in order to allow yourself an entrance. Wikiups aren’t foolproof when it comes to the weather, so leaving a second entrance to build a debris shelter is a good practice.
  • 6. Afterwards, you’ll want to stack boughs over the entire shelter and build the debris shelter on the side if you’d implemented that into your initial design.

A wikiup provides a lot of space, and with that space comes a huge amount of customizability. Since the roof is much higher than many shelters and the base so large, you’ll be able to conduct a lot of activities within it which you wouldn’t want to try with other shelters.

They do take a lot of time to set up, however, and they aren’t always the best choice for truly inclement weather. If you’re willing to put in the work to make something which will stand for a couple of weeks or more, you’re in good hands with this design however.

Pros

  • Enormous ground space.
  • Easily customizable.
  • Super solid construction when done correctly.

Cons

  • Not the best for really bad weather.
  • Less insulation due to increased room.

Lean-To

Lean-To are one of the easiest to construct shelters around and they’re perfect to utilize in temperate climates if you already have a sleeping bag. The construction of one of these is quite easy, and pretty much anyone should be able to pull it off with some cordage.

  • 1. Locate a couple of poles of the desired height and a sturdy branch to use as the main support.
  • 2. Square lash the supports together, upright them, and force them into the ground. You may want to sharpen the bottoms of the poles to get this done.
  • 3. Create a frame over the back, the easiest way to do this is to use square lashings and create a square or rectangular framing with regular intervals.
  • 4. Place boughs over the back until it’s relatively air and water tight.

As you can see, this is one of the simplest structures you can conduct. There’s also a lot of customizability available. For instance, if you know for a fact that you’re going to be able to get through the night without rain, you can raise the back at a steeper angle and use the lean-to itself as an additional reflecting wall for your fire.

Pros

  • Quick and easy to set up
  • Fairly versatile
  • Ideal for temperate environments in mild weather

Cons

  • Doesn’t protect from weather well
  • Very open structure

Snow Shelters

Snowy climates can limit the amount of materials you’ll be able to gather for your shelters. The weather is also inclined to be colder, of course, which means that you absolutely must be able to create a warm structure. Snow can result in frost burn and hypothermia if you’re not careful.

Fortunately, people have been living in the snow since time immemorial, which means that you’re going to be able to figure something out. Read on and we’ll show you some of the most common structures which can aid in survival in even the coldest of climes.

Igloo

The Igloo is associated with the indigineous people of North America and it’s definitely one of the best structures you can use to make sure you don’t freeze to death. They’re actually fairly simple to create, the problem is that it can also use up a lot of time which you may not have if you weren’t adequately prepared in the first place.

Creating one can give you a fighting chance, though, as the temperature begins to creep lower.

  • 1. Mark off a circle around the area which you’re planning on creating the shelter in. A string tied to an upright branch should be a good idea, 7’ or so in diameter is usually enough.
  • 2. Next you’ll want to remove all of the loose snow in the area, cutting down to the crust of hardened snow beneath with a shovel or whatever is on hand
  • 3. After this, using a knife or saw cut blocks out of the hardened snow in the center of your circle and set them around the edges to use.
  • 4. Mark the center of the floor, then pack down the snow around the edges of your pit.
  • 5. Begin placing the blocks, use your tool to make sure that they fit well together. Once this ring is completely in place, cut the tops in order to angle them at the floor around you. Leave one block taller than the rest to serve as an anchor for the next row.
  • 6. Continue to make the rings, angling the blocks as you go. Eventually you will run out of blocks from the center, and you’ll want to dig your way out which will both form an entrance and allow you to get to some other crusted snow and cut more blocks.
  • 7. Pack snow into the cracks in however much you’ve completed thus far and begin a small “quarry” somewhere nearby to cut the remainder of the blocks. As things get higher you may need to use branches or something similar to prop up the blocks while beginning a ring. If angled properly, they’ll hold together with gravity once the row is complete.
  • 8. Place the cap through the center once you’ve stacked enough rings of blocks to almost have things closed. Cut it to fit, then cut wedges to hold it and seal the rest of it with loose snow.
  • 9. Finish the entrance by stacking blocks two high for the length you think is desirable then tilting blocks into each other to form the roof. Pack with snow and you’re done.

Constructing an Igloo shouldn’t be done for the first time while you’re out in the wilds, but if you’re proficient it can make a very good shelter. Keep in mind that this is a very time consuming process and you should really only bother if you know you’ll be in the area for awhile.

Otherwise a snow cave is generally a better option for short stays.

Pros

  • Very well insulated
  • Quite sturdy
  • Easy to move in

Cons

  • Skilled building process
  • Consumes a lot of time to build

Quinzhee Snow Cave

A quinzhee functions much the same way as an igloo with the bonus effect of it being much easier to construct and a lot quicker. For someone without a lot of practice in building shelters they can be quite easily put together in a couple of hours.

Of course, you should always practice before you need it, but following some simple steps will get you a nicely insulated shelter.

  • 1. Begin by compacting the snow in the area where you’re planning on building with your feet. You definitely don’t want to be building on powder.
  • 2. Pile loose snow over the area you’ve just tamped down until it reaches a desirable height. Three to four feet is usually good for a small shelter.
  • 3. Dig the entrance. It’s important that you dig a small chamber which is lower than the platform you’ll be using in order to take advantage of warm air rising. If the snow cover is light dig down to the earth before going up, otherwise try to make the drop at least eighteen inches.
  • 4. Dig out the center of the cave, leaving enough snow around the edges to make sure that nothing collapses on you while you’re sleeping. Four to six inches, at least, is recommended.
  • 5. Cover the bottom of the shelter in boughs to keep yourself from resting directly on the snow or lash together a small platform standing six inches high to sleep on.

This is a quick and easy way to get a fairly effective shelter. It’s not quite as sturdy as an igloo, but it will definitely last at least a few days.

It’s very important to dig the initial chamber downwards, being directly in front of the entrance can mean that you’ve just wasted your valuable time without much warmth being able to be gained.

Pros

  • Quick to build
  • Provides a surprising amount of insulation.
  • Fairly low skilled to produce.

Cons

  • Build one improperly and it won’t help much.
  • Still need wooden materials for good end result.
  • Consumes a lot of time to build

Desert Shelters

In the desert, it’s generally the heat and exposure to the sun which is an issue instead of having to worry about rains and the cold. You’ll also need some insulation at night since the radiation part of thermal transfer can lead to very cold nights and hot days.

This means that you’ll generally be using differing tactics when you’re in the desert, so here’s some good examples which can help make sure you walk out of there alive.

Juniper Tree Shelter

In many places in America, even the most desolate deserts will still allow you to find juniper trees. These trees can be used similarly to the pines found in boreal and temperate forests in order to make sure that you have the shelter you need to survive.

Look for fallen trees to save yourself time in the sun and keep from expending too many calories. This is a serious risk in the desert, since food and water tend to be scarcer in this environment than in many others. Don’t spend too much time looking, however, and use a live tree for materials if you have to.

  • 1. Begin by breaking off sturdy branches without a lot of forking or leaf structure on them and leaning them against the trunk of the tree you’ve chosen. Lash them together or intertwine them as well as possible.
  • 2. Using this basic framework, break off boughs with plenty of leaves and cover things as well as possible except for the entrance.
  • 3. Pile stuff on as well as possible in order to make sure you have a fairly wind tight shelter, and you’re finished.

This is an improvised shelter which can really help out if you’re in a pinch. It’s not the best, but it’s enough to get out of the sun or allow you to spend a warm night if you use a reflective wall and a fire.

Pros

  • Fast to set up
  • Easily improvised in a pinch

Cons

  • Not the best insulation for the night
  • Not possible to construct in all places.

Dug Out Shelter

While somewhat time consuming to construct, a dug out shelter can be a great option if you find yourself in the desert. By lowering where your shelter is constructed you can take advantage of the insulating qualities of the soil.

This can help to nullify the extreme temperatures you’re likely to run into in a desert survival situation. They make a great medium to long term shelter in these situations and can be built in a wide variety of ways. A simple one can be built as follows:

  • 1. Begin by digging a hole roughly six feet long and three feet wide. You’ll want to get down to a depth of about thirty inches to really take advantage of the earth’s qualities.
  • 2. Cover the bottom in some kind of vegetation to form a pad. In a desert you may be limited in what you can find, just make sure not to get anything that will jab you or stick in your clothing.
  • 3. Break off branches and line the top of the hole to form a frame. Line the entire top.
  • 4. Cover the frame with vegation to keep things waterproof, a couple of inches is usually sufficient to keep the cold off and provide you with some much needed shade.
  • 5. Dig an entrance at one side of the hole so that you can get in and out.

As you can see it’s a simple process but it will definitely take a considerable amount of time to get things done properly. It can also expend a lot of energy, especially if you don’t have a shovel, which is a large concern when food and water is scarce.

If you have access to a tarp or poncho, you can use this instead of the branch and foliage frame. This poncho shelter can be anchored around the edges with a good amount of sand and offers pretty much the same protection while making the second part of the set up much quicker.

Pros

  • Good insulation against heat and cold.
  • Extremely simple to construct.
  • Doesn’t require much in the way of materials.

Cons

  • Expends a lot of energy to make.
  • Takes a considerable amount of time to build.

Desert TARP Shelter

Using a tarp you can create a simple shade shelter to get you out of direct sunlight during the day. It’s most likely not suitable for an overnight stay in most desert areas, unless the weather is overcast and will prevent a cold night, but it’s quick and easy.

You may even want to consider throwing one up if you’re building a more involved shelter type, to allow you to rest and keep your body’s loss of moisture down without having to sit in the blistering sun.

  • 1. String a tarp up between two bushes or trees. In the winter you’ll want this to be south facing and during the summer north facing in order to maximize your temperature protection.
  • 2. To string up the tarp tie off a clove hitch on a stick and press it through the grommet then allow it to turn sideways. Use as many of the available grommets as you can to protect from the wind.
  • 3. Spike down the ends using whatever is available to keep the tarp taut. You can do this with tent spikes or sharpened sticks, or whatever else you can think to use.
  • 4. Form a bed of vegetation under the tarp. This will help to keep you off the ground and avoid overheating or cooling off too quickly depending on the time of day.

This is a very field-expedient method of setting up an effective shelter. Most people will be able to set one of these up in less time than it will take them to find an area where it can be done, and this can make all the difference if you’re beginning to suffer from hyperthermia of any sort.

Pros

  • Very simple to set up.
  • Extremely quick construction.
  • Offers great protection from the sun and possibly the wind as long as the facing is correct.

Cons

  • Not suitable for extremely cold nights.

Natural Shelters

Since time is always of the essence when it comes time to set up a survival shelter, sometimes it can be a much better idea to find somewhere which is naturally occurring and offers protection.

There are a few different places that you should keep an eye out for, especially if you frequent an area for hiking or hunting on a regular basis:

  • Caves
  • Rock outcroppings
  • Fallen trees
  • Rock formations

All of the above can either help you build a faster improvised shelter, or even act as a complete shelter on their own.

Caves are pretty much ideal, but you do need to keep an eye out for inhabitants which might already be in the shelter. Depending on the area this can range from bears to bats to just assorted spiders and arthropods which can make your night unpleasant.

Fallen trees, likewise, tend to host a lot of insects or arachnids. If you’ve been spending some time practicing, then you’re less likely to be bothered by an errant beetle or harmless spider but you should definitely know what is and isn’t venomous in the area you’ve chosen.

For the most part, however, you’ll find that many of these natural formations are merely aids rather than complete shelters in and of themselves. Use outcroppings and formations as supports in order to speed up a shelter building process and you’re on the right track. It’s really a skill that can only be learned through practice.


Expert Advice

Skilledsurvival.com

This article provides a quick overview of some of the common types of shelter, some of which we neglected to cover. It’s always a good idea to spread out where you’re getting your information from in order to have a complete picture before you start building your shelter.

Boyslife.org

This article from the Boy Scouts of America’s magazine Boy’s Life goes into some detail on how to choose a place to take shelter as well as giving some very basic instructions on the different types of shelter that can be built. It assumes some level of skill on the part of the reader already, however.

While the focus of this article is a little bit different than many of the others, including presupposing some equipment many hikers and hunters simply won’t have on hand, the in-depth information about different shelter types will help most newbies determine what type of shelter is best for their situation.

Artofmanliness.com

Covered in this article is a surprisingly useful shelter including basic instructions for building a bough bed using a “herringbone” pattern to give you something of a rough mattress while you’re resting. The method utilized is surprisingly effective and unique. It even uses some methods, like the “wilderness clip” which are pretty innovative and don’t require much in the way of materials.

Wilderness-Survival.net

Wilderness survival covers a surprising amount of shelters in a basic way, including the basic formation required if you want to build an actual teepee instead of something more improvised. Take a look, there’s a lot of information here.


Conclusion

Once you’ve mastered the art of being able to build a shelter in the woods, you’ll quickly find that you’re able to make a solid home pretty much anywhere. The basics are right in front of you, but it’s only with time and real fieldwork that you’ll be able to master this vital skill.

Have fun doing it, in addition to being a great skill for survival building shelters can be a great test of both physical skill and mental creativity and it’s definitely one of the most fun things you’ll ever do in the wild.

Kevin Steffey
 

I am Kevin who is a founder of deerhuntingfield.com; Here at Deer Hunting Field, we want to teach and educate. Hunting is a passion which has existed in mankind since almost the beginning, and with the advent of the internet, we can now share information, tips, and more with each other faster than ever before. This is a crucial part of our philosophy.

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