Basic Shelter Options


In any survival scenario, it is vital that you prioritize your tasks. Every person has a limited amount of energy that they can expend, so you cannot spend that energy on tasks that are not vital. The four pillars of survival are food, water, fire, and shelter. You can make it roughly three weeks without food and three days without water. However, you can only make it three hours in many situations without warmth from fire or shelter. Starting a fire can be unpredictable. You can spend hours collecting wood and trying to start a fire with no results. Building a shelter is a sure way to get out of the elements and prevent hypothermia and dehydration. 

In this article, we will cover the basic elements of any good shelter along with a few of the most basic and effective designs you can build.

Important Shelter Elements

When building a shelter for survival, there are several points of focus that need to be considered. These are aspects that should be found in any good shelter. Here are your priorities when building a survival shelter:

  • 1
    Overhead Cover – In any shelter, overhead cover is vital to preventing both hypothermia and dehydration from sun exposure. Your main focus in most environments is to be protected from rain. Wet skin will drop in temperature 20 times faster than dry skin, so you must stay dry. If you are using leaves, grasses, or spruce boughs, you will need to pile the debris up four feet or higher. The only exception would be if you have large flat materials to make shingles such as banana leaves or sheets of stripped bark. Also, the steeper the pitch of your roof the better it will shed rain. Any roof that will hold off the rain will likely also protect you from exposure to the sun. This will prevent sun stroke and dehydration. Finally, having a layer of insulation between the night sky and yourself is a good idea. Most people do not realize that direct exposure to the night sky can draw heat out of your body faster than in you have a roof over your head
  • 2
    Wind Protection – Wind can lower your body temperature very quickly if you are exposed over time. This means that solid walls are needed to block the wind. You will notice that many of our designs incorporate a slanted roof that reaches the ground, so the roof actually doubles as a wall. No matter how you build your shelter, be sure you are out of the wind
  • 3
    Protection from the Ground – Sleeping on the ground should be an absolute last resort. At night the earth will suck the heat right out of your body, so you are much more likely to become hypothermic. A bed of some kind should always be built to keep you at least four inches off of the ground. When piling leaves or spruce boughs for a bed, you need four inches of compacted insulation. This means that you may need 10 to 12 inches of insulation before you actually lay on it
  • 4
    Small Size – Often people get too ambitious when building a survival shelter. They start out planning a large shelter with plenty of free space inside. However, that extra size means more air volume that must be kept warm and more time, energy, and resources to build the shelter. Make your shelter just large enough to get inside and move around, and keep it simple

The Lean-To

One of the most simple and effective shelters you can build is a lean-to. This shelter consists of a diagonal roof/wall that blocks wind and rain along with a bed to keep you off of the ground. Start by finding two trees about 10 feet apart. You then need a ridge pole about 12 feet long. If the trees have low branches you can set the ridge pole on the branches. Otherwise, secure it with cordage. It needs to be about four to five feet off of the ground. Next, you will need to gather lots of poles around five to seven feet long. These will rest against the ridge pole at roughly a 45 degree angle. Place them side by side until the entire ridge pole is covered. This is the basic frame for your lean-to.

As it is, this frame will help block the wind and reflect heat from a fire. For added insulation and rain protection, pile debris on the leaning poles. Start at the bottom and work your way up to the top. You can use leaves, grasses, or spruce boughs. For true rain protection, your debris should be about four feet thick. Finally, pile debris inside the lean-to for a bed. You can use the same debris you used on top. It needs to be about one foot thick if you want four inches of compacted insulation. Most people can build a simple lean-to in less than an hour.

The Debris Hut

While a lean-to is ideal for mild weather or to use in combination with a fire, a debris hut works like a natural sleeping bag. It is intended to use your own body heat to keep you warm. Start with another 10 to 12 foot ridge pole, and two frame poles that are four to five feet long. If you can find them with a fork in the end, that is even better. Lean your two frame poles against each other to form a triangle entrance, and then lean the ridge pole on top perpendicular to your entrance. You should secure the joint where the three poles meet with cordage if possible. Otherwise it may fall in the wind.

In this design you will want to build your bed next. Again, lay debris down inside the shelter so it is about one foot deep. Next, you will want to find poles of varying lengths to lean against the ridge pole at a 45 degree angle on both sides. The lengths of the poles will start at five feet long and drop all the way down to only about one foot long as you approach the end of the ridge pole. Once the ridge pole is completely covered, pile debris on top about four feet deep. If you want complete protection from the wind, you can lash three poles together to make a door for the shelter. Then attach spruce boughs to block the wind.

The Snow Cave

This design is absolutely vital for artic areas with no materials for building. The deep snow will allow you to create a shelter to keep you out of the wind. Start by digging down as deep as you can, and then dig a door in the snow in front of you. It should be just large enough for you to crawl inside. Next, you will need to find some sticks about six inches long. Shove them into the snow mound that you intend to use for your shelter along the roof. Start digging out your cave starting at the door and continue until you have just enough room to crawl in and lay down. If you see the end of one of your sticks while digging, stop digging in that area. This is intended to keep the shelter from caving in.

Be sure to mound some snow in your bed area to get you a few inches above the entrance. This will ensure that wind does not affect you as much. In addition, your body heat will rise keeping you warmer as you are not at the lowest point. You can even light a candle in a snow cave to slowly heat your shelter.

In Conclusion

As you can see, these simple designs can be quickly and easily assembled for survival. With a little knowledge, you can get out of the wind, rain, sun, or cold and survive for another day. However, I suggest you get some practice with these shelter designs. The next time you go camping, use natural materials to practice building a survival shelter. If you have been through the process before, it will be simple to repeat the process in a survival scenario.

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