Gimme Shelter

How to build three crucial survival shelters.

No matter the season or what the landscape looks like, one of the most important factors for survival is a good shelter that provides protection from the elements and also a measure of psychological security at a time when keeping your wits about you is absolutely critical. Along with the physical protection provided by a shelter, having a structure around you is psychologically calming, giving a sense of being in camp rather than being lost and alone in a dark and empty world.

If you, for whatever reason, find yourself without a traditional shelter--like a tent--you'll need to find or erect a suitable substitute by using the natural resources at hand. Materials will vary, depending on whether you're fishing for salmon in Alaska or hunting elk in Arizona. So let's explore the general characteristics of a proper shelter, and leave it to you to be creative about utilizing whatever materials you have at your disposal.

Ideally, a shelter should offer protection from wind, precipitation and other hazards, such as runoff from storms (flashflood), predators and biting and stinging insects. Position the shelter to take maximum advantage of either shade or sunshine (depending on what you need more of), and to avoid overhead dangers such as rockfalls, avalanches and widowmakers (branches or even entire trees that could potentially fall on you). Look for naturally level ground, or work on the sleeping area until it is level enough that you can rest without fighting gravity. You want a shelter base that is dry and free of rocks, roots or other lumps. Make sure there are no anthills, bee or wasp nests or burrows that might be occupied by badgers, snakes, spiders or scorpions.

A shallow cave or rock overhang can be a potentially good lazy man's shelter because it provides a dry floor, solid protection overhead and sturdy walls. But before taking up residence, inspect the ground for evidence of rocks that have fallen from the ceiling or broken loose from walls. If a cave or overhang is not available, consider one of the following shelter options.

Tree Well Shelter
In deep-snow conditions, you can fashion a quick shelter by utilizing the pit, or well, that naturally forms around the trunk of a tree and is protected from snow by overhanging limbs. Cut a ramp in the snow that leads into bottom of the well. Carve the walls to enlarge the pit, but not to the point that it exceeds the coverage of the overhanging limbs. It's okay to enlarge the pit all the way around the trunk of the tree, but if you keep it relatively small, you can use branches broken from nearby trees or bark slabs lifted from the trunks of dead trees to create a roof over your shelter. When the roof structure is strong and impenetrable, heap snow over the top to add insulation. Carve a sleeping shelf into the wall to allow you to rest up off of the floor of the well, because the coldest air will sink to the bottom. This shelter is faster and easier to build than a snow cave, and provides similar protection.

In the absence of a cave or overhang, use components of brush and trees to build a lean-to or a simple debris shelter. A lean-to is constructed by erecting one horizontal beam about four feet off the ground and then building a roof by leaning limbs at an angle like rafters that span the space from the beam to the ground. Cover the rafters with a thick layer of lush boughs, small branches and dead leaves to create a sloping roof/wall that turns away the wind and protects against precipitation. Always build a lean-to with the wall toward the prevailing wind.

To erect the horizontal beam, cut a small sapling, remove its limbs and then lay it in the crotches of low branches on two trees that are several feet apart. If low branches aren't available, lash the beam between two trees that are six to eight feet apart. If you can't find the right trees, use stumps or boulders or anything else that can serve to support the beam a few feet off the ground. You don't need to be able to stand up inside the shelter. By keeping the beam (and subsequently the roof) relatively low to the ground, the space is easier to heat with your body warmth, and it'll be less of a wind-catcher should the wind's direction shift. All you need is a place to get out of the weather.

If possible, lash the angled rafters to the beam for greater strength. You can get away with not lashing the rafters if you leave the stubs of small branches at the stump end of the rafters to act as hooks that latch over the beam. To increase the integrity of the shelter, weave lightweight limbs through the rafters, so they won't settle or be blown off by the wind. Likewise, weave lush boughs through the roof structure until a fairly tight roof has been created. For additional insulation, pile on bark slabs, leaves, pine needles or other small stuff you can find around the area.

Debris Shelter
A debris shelter is even simpler to construct than a lean-to, if the right natural materials are at hand. The easiest way to make this shelter is to use a downed tree whose trunk is suspended off the ground by its limbs. The trunk acts as the ridgepole and the limbs serve as structural elements for sidewalls. If you can't find this type of situation, but you can find a stump or a boulder and a deadfall tree or limb that will serve as a ridgepole, you're still in good shape. Lean the butt end of the ridgepole on the stump or boulder, and then place bark slabs, limbs, lush boughs and anything else you can find against both sides of the ridgepole at an angle so you end up with a natural pup tent. Then pile on forest debris to totally cover the structure (except for the opening). Use leaves, mounds of needles, sticks, and anything else that will help seal and insulate the walls until the shelter is under a large heap.

If you have a poncho or an emergency blanket, decide whether you're better off wrapping yourself in it or using it as part of the roof structure or your shelter to shed rain and wind. To make that decision, consider the ambient temperature--if it's comfortable, and your greatest concern is staying dry (say, in a tropical monsoon), use the poncho or emergency blanket as part of the shelter. If, on the other hand, you're facing a cold night, do the best you can to seal the roof with natural materials and wrap yourself in the poncho or blanket to retain your body warmth and stay dry. These two items are absolute lifesavers, and every outdoorsman should pack each. I carry a Heatsheets Survival Blanket, made by Adventure Medical Kits ( My pocket poncho is an inexpensive vinyl model made by Coghlan's, available for a couple bucks at sporting goods stores everywhere.

With all of these shelters, pile dry leaves or soft boughs on the floor to insulate your body from the hard, possibly damp and certainly cold ground. You lose an enormous amount of body heat by contact with the ground, so anything you can do to insulate yourself from direct contact will help prevent hypothermia. To help keep warm, rake some of the soft debris over yourself to serve as an insulating layer. Sleep tight!