Building or setting up a survival shelter is always a top priority in the wild, be it to protect you from the sun, wind, rain, or snow.
In this chapter, we will learn why building a shelter is so important and the different options – both human-made and natural – that you have at your disposal.
Why build a shelter?
Seeking shelter is one of your biggest priorities, after remaining calm and providing necessary first aid. Remember that shelter means refuge from all of the elements. Extreme cold increases the risk of hypothermia. Extreme heat exposes you to dehydration and heatstroke.
In the desert, you’ll need a shelter that protects you from both the heat of the day and the cold of the night. You also build a shelter to keep your affairs dry, from your clothes and shoes to your bags and sleeping equipment. You can avoid flash floods by planning and building your shelter on high ground.
In the cold, avoid low areas that often suffer from cold-air pockets and higher winds. A well-located and well-insulated shelter can prevent succumbing to snowdrifts or a chill during the night.
If in a hot location, you might choose to make the most of the breeze to remain cool. Take care that the breeze doesn’t bring in sand or dust. Sand and dust can be frustrating and even painful or cause damage.
Another reason to build a shelter is to protect yourself from wildlife. Insects are certainly a frustration, but larger creatures such as snakes have been known to seek the warmth of a sleeping bag and curl up around the owner’s genitals! Ever needed a better reason?
Regardless of the type of shelter you opt for, you should always follow a few general principles. Firstly, avoid damp ground when building a shelter for the obvious reason that you will also get wetter and colder.
Be aware of the direction of the wind, and make sure you don’t build your shelter downwind from your campfire. It’s a huge fire risk, especially in dry areas where you use dried leaves and branches to make your shelters.
Avoid high and low ground due to the wind and cold associated with both. Nobody wants to get blown away after all that hard work.
Ensure there are natural resources around that will help you build it and that there aren’t any slopes or rocks in the ground. This way, you can limit your efforts when preparing the area for construction.
As always, try not to panic; let calm and practicality prevail. The location of your shelter is one of the most defining elements of its success. Look for two or three different options before making a final decision.
A quality shelter is 90% insulation. Most novice survivors think that the most crucial function of a shelter is to block the wind. Although this is important, they fail to realize that we lose more heat into the ground than we do into the air.
For this reason, never plan to sleep on the floor. Find a way to raise yourself to avoid extreme cold. It will also reduce the number of small animals and insects you’ll encounter.
At the very least, try to create layers between yourself and the ground, even if this involves piles of leaves or similar vegetation.
Take a look at how Survivallilly uses what’s around her to make her shelter both comfortable and insulated. She even creates her own simple ‘floor heating system’ below her lean-to shelter to generate heat from a nearby fire.
Related to the issue of insulation is that of the size of the shelter. In all of these cases, you will see that the shelters are designed to be not much bigger than body size. In this way, you reduce the loss of body heat and keep ourselves warmer and better protected from wind and rain.
Another factor related to size is the time and energy we dedicate to collecting the raw materials. There is no point in investing time in finding and preparing branches or insulation for something much bigger than what you need. It requires more energy output, and let’s face it: energy is a precious commodity.
Different types of shelter
If you have a tent, congratulations – you have a shelter! Below we will look at some other types of shelter, each with their pros and cons as ever, that you can take with you or construct yourself if you need to.
Below we are going to look at some basic yet dependable options. That said, if you want to see some alternatives (and some more extravagant options!), check these out.
Shelters you can buy
Here you can see three different types of shelters for those who came pre-prepared for an adventure.
The Shade Shelter
The shade shelter requires you to have a poncho, parachute, or any similar plastic sheeting. You will mimic a tent shape by opening up the material and getting underneath. You might even create a canopy by using string, rope, or similar to attach it to nearby trees.
As the name suggests, this type of shelter is best for use in warmer climates where the aim of the shelter is to stay cool. Therefore, it makes sense to consider investing in one which comes with UV protection.
There are many different types of shade shelters on the market, categorized into a few main groups.
- The “basic” shade shelter: a piece of plastic and rope to attach to trees.
- The “self pop-up”: an auto-erecting tent that pops open in seconds.
- The “complete”: this final type involves poles, string, and plastic sheets. These are perhaps the least practical and time-efficient option, depending on the terrain and type of trip you are embarking on.
The Wedge Tarp
Like the shade-shelter in that it also requires plastic sheeting, the wedge tarp is ideal for windy, wet environments.
- The first step in setting it up is to take your tarpaulin and pin two corners down to the ground. These corners must face into the wind.
- After securing one end of the tarp, the next step is to attach a rope through the middle of the opposite end and secure this to a tree. At this point, the two remaining corners can also be staked into the ground, making a kind of triangle-shaped opening.
This shelter is handy if you need to collect rainwater (read more about this later).
The hammock/cocoon shelter
The last of the human-made shelters is the hammock or cocoon shelter. It’s designed to be suspended off the ground for comfort and protection from animals, insects, and dampness. The cocoon aspect refers to protection around or above the hammock to prevent rain from entering.
It is generally lightweight compared to a tent due to the absence of tent poles. However, one downside is that you have significantly less space than in a tent.
To choose the location for your hammock setup, you need roughly a 15-foot distance between trees. In terms of your webbing height, you’ll want a 30º angle to the ground and roughly 18 inches below the hammock. That’s about the standard height of a chair.
When it comes to setting up your hammock shelter, you need tarpaulin (again), webbing, metal rings, and this time two trees. There is the option of using other equipment to secure your ropes, too, as we will see later.
- Pull one corner through one of the rings. Take about two feet of material.
- After doubling this corner over and through the ring on one side, and repeating this process on the other side, grab the webbing.
- The webbing’s middle point should be placed over the tail that you have just passed over and through the ring twice.
- The ends of the webbing go under and through the loop. This friction will secure the hammock to the ring, and in turn, to the tree.
- You can then take the webbing and wrap both straps twice around the tree in one direction and then twice in the other.
- You can create a loop and pass the straps through it to tie off, creating a self-tightening knot that can be undone with just a pull.
Another option is to use rope instead of webbing. To secure the rope for your hammock, use a carabiner, which can be clipped back on the rope itself, or use a loop alien.
At the top end of the market, hammocks can get very snazzy, offering built-in storage and mosquito nets.
Of course, the big downside with sleeping comfortably in a hammock is the lack of protection from the elements.
But, fear not, as there is a simple solution: Combine your hammock with an A-frame tarp set up. In this handy video, a marine explains the storm mode and the adaptable porch mode (with a creative use for hiking poles).
Shelters you can build
The following section will examine some of the best options for those who found themselves unexpectedly stranded with no shelter provisions. It may also be useful for those readers looking to rough it through a real wilderness experience.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Always look for natural shelters before building one. Make use of overhanging rocks or sloped land. Building on or around trees will always help to save you time.
If no naturally occurring shelters are available, you’ll have to get on with constructing one of the options below.
The lean-to shelter
The lean-to is a classic shelter, which is relatively quick and easy to construct.
- Find two trees around 2 meters apart without anything between them. Here you’ll attach the first long tree branch. If you don’t have a rope, use spruce roots – long, strong roots that can be found in areas of spruce and birch trees or areas of moss or rotting tree bark. Use it to lash your branch to your trees.
- Build a raised bed using more long branches as the base. Create the top and bottom of the bed using a lattice structure of branches laid on top of each other north to south and east to west. Use long branches to create a “mattress” for the bed. Cover it with more leaves or boughs to make it more comfortable.
- Next, position all of the vertical branches up against the original long tree branch you secured initially. Make sure this roof is steep enough for water to run off easily and quickly.
- Finally, insulate it by covering the roof and sides in branches. Small leafy branches stacked one atop the other are far more waterproof than most other available insulators. To save time and energy, you can use moss from ground level to body height. This level doesn’t need to be waterproof. The key is to use dry materials if available. If not, use broad leaves or conifers.
- Optionally, build yourself a fire on the open side of the lean-to to stay warm.
Warning: you will need a lot of wood available nearby and an ax, or at least some other kind of cutting tool.
This shelter is a more refined version of the lean-to shelter. It’s one of my favorites – it’s easy to build as it requires only branches and leaves.
- The first step is to find a long straight branch for your beam. Make sure this is strong and not rotten as you won’t want it to collapse under the weight of the other branches and leaves.
- Next, try to find a tree with a fork in it to slot one end of the beam into. Take into account the height of this fork: if you lie on the ground under the beam, there should be about 6-8 inches between it and your shoulder. If a convenient tree is not available, make a tripod out of interlocking branches, again considering their height and strength.
Now create the roof. You want to add sticks at a 45º angle one at a time, alternating between one side and the other. It will create a kind of rib cage effect.
- Next, add the leaves to the outside. Don’t be afraid to pile them on. You always need more than you think. When you think you’re done, add more for good measure.
- Once the outside is covered in leaves, add some lightweight branches with twigs still attached to keep all the leaves in place.
- Lastly, add 6-8 inches of leaves to the inside and wiggle in.
This shelter requires more gathering of materials and is more time-consuming. It does offer the best chance of a good night’s sleep, though, as well as protection from the elements.
The wickiup is a kind of hybrid version of a teepee. It is an excellent longer-term shelter. You can even light small fires inside them as long as you remember to leave a hole at the top for the smoke to escape from.
- The first step in making a wickiup is to clear your area and eliminate any excess debris or rocks. Make sure there are no dead trees nearby that could fall and cause the structure to collapse. You should make sure the area you clear is big enough to lie down in comfortably.
- The next step is to create a tripod. Allow some slack in the knots that you tie to connect the three branches to allow them to slot together once in place.
- The next step is to add extra long branches to complete the teepee like structure.
- Once these are in place, the next stage is to thatch the roof. To do this, you need to fill in as many of the spaces as possible with smaller boughs and leafy branches.
Building a survival shelter can be fun; practice building them until you can do it with ease. In times of need, it will provide you with much-needed protection.
In the next chapter, we’ll learn about different water sources and how to purify them to drink.