When stuck in the wild the last thing you’ll ever want to do is make a survival shelter. As scary and exhausting as it may be a survival shelter may save your life by shielding you from the elements, as any shelter should. However, when made improperly many shelters will end up causing just as much harm as good.

Without the basic understanding and concepts of shelter building, you may end up having a shelter collapse on you during a snowy night or allow rain water to pour into your shelter. Knowing the materials, concepts, and locations are vital to be properly sheltered.

In today’s market, there are many options for a transportable shelter. Outside of tents, which usually weigh a significant amount, there are emergency Mylar blankets, bevies, ponchos, and tarps.

Most survivalists will recommend someone always carry a tarp on them when going into the woods for a long trek while others may wear rain gear that can double as a shelter.

In this article, we have split the shelters into two categories: manmade survival shelters and natural survival shelters. Manmade consists of anything carried into the wild that may have an intended use as a survival shelter.

Natural consists of using materials readily available to constructs a shelter of sticks, rocks, leaves, and other various, natural materials

Manmade Shelters:

Tarps

Personally, I am a fan of tarps and have been taught that I should always carry one in new, unexplored, or dangerous forests. The purpose of a tarp isn’t to completely shield you from the elements, but to offer a roof that can be set up very quickly.

Tarps should have a very steep slant during snow season, to allow the snow to slide off and not pile on the fragile fabric. While it limits the amount of usable space in the shelter it does offer basic protection. During the dry or rainy season, a tarp should still be set up with an angle, but it isn’t necessary to be quite so steep as rain, sand, and dust aren’t as heavy as wet snow.

There are many options for tarps from low quality to meticulously designed and manufactured tarps. Some are heat resistant, which adds a lot of weight, while others are made of lightweight materials for east packability. Companies like Etowah Outdoors offer great products at a decent price and are passionate about their manufacturing standards.

In addition to being used as a stand-alone shelter, tarps can also be added to natural shelters for added protection. This will give your tarp a longer lifespan, help retain heat inside your shelter (air easily passes through gaps between leaves) and won’t degrade as quickly when exposed to direct UV light.

Positives:

  • Lightweight
  • Water Resistant
  • Easy Set-up
  • Useful in all climates

Negatives:

  • Degrades When Exposed to UV Light
  • Can Melt/Burn From Fire Embers
  • High-Quality Tarps are Expensive

Packable Shelters

Hessen Antique packable shelters

The military has used packable shelters for hundreds of years, but in recent years it has picked up popularity, especially in the Bushcraft community. Military shelters are generally multifaceted and multi-purpose. They are designed to use as little as possible in as many ways as possible or use as much as possible with little effort. Generally, for foot-troops the former is more common; heavy gear with a lot of uses.

Polish Lavvus is a great example of this. While there are many similarities between the lavvus and other military shelters the lavvu is designed in such a way that makes it easy and enjoyable to use. The lavvus were designed to be raincoats first. Two soldiers would remove their raincoats, button them together, and make a small tipi style shelter. The design is ingenious, in my opinion, and I picked one up from Hessen Antique several months ago to put to good use.

Other packable shelters, excluding tents, are generally larger, heavier, and more durable, but are easy to set up and take down. In a survival situation, those are rarely found. The benefit to using multi-purpose shelters is the ability to have it with you at all times because it is necessary for other tasks or environments.

Positives:

  • Multiple uses
  • Easy setup
  • Always on hand

Negatives

  • Usually military surplus
  • Not always available

Natural Shelter:

Caves

One of the least advised shelter options is caves. While it may be a necessity in certain environments it may not be recommended because of natural fauna and flora that may inhabit a cave or surrounding areas.

Caves are great places to find venomous snakes, sleeping bears, spiders, and a plethora of unknown creatures. In addition to animals, making a fire at the mouth of a cave can create or expand fissures that can collapse the cave. Being inside a cave and having it fall on top of you is not the best way to survive.

Despite the dangers, it’s often necessary to find a cave for shelter. During the day in Arizona, temperatures can easily rise over 100F. Finding a cave for shelter from the hot sun is one of the only ways to survive their dangerous, desert climate.

Positives:

  • No Set-up
  • Generally Strong

Negatives:

  • Home For Many Dangerous Animals
  • Some Are Very Unstable

Build Shelter

building a shelter in the woods

What tends to come into most people’s minds when they think of a survival shelter is one designed and made with natural materials. Cordage may be needed, but generally speaking, a survival shelter will be made from sticks and leaves found around a wooded area. There are many types of shelters that can be built from an overnight makeshift shelter to a shelter that can be used for several days, to a shelter that can be found years later and reused with little to no modifications.

A-Frame Stick Shelter

An A-frame stick shelter is usually made from many small sticks that are leaning up against a fallen tree that is partially suspended in the air. While it may not offer a lot of resistance to rain it will absolutely keep the wind from hitting your body at full speed. Covering the top of the fallen tree with leaves will help to retain heat and keep the moisture away. The opening should be curved, to prevent air from blowing directly into the shelter.

The main benefit to an A-frame stick shelter is it can be set up without the need of cordage.

A-Frame Stick Shelter

Round Stick Shelter

A round stick shelter is almost the same as the a-frame, except the sticks are arranged like a tipi, as opposed to leaning against a fallen tree or suspended branch. These types of shelters cannot be set up as easily and have been known to fall over in high winds.

Leanto

This is my personal favorite type of shelter for easy of assembly and can be made with a wide range of materials. The trick to the leanto is keeping the heat inside the shelter. A well-made leanto can conformable be used year round, if well made.

The main part of a leanto is a crossbeam that can extend between two trees, two poles rammed into the ground, or a tripod (a tripod are 3 equal length sticks lashed together with cordage or a retaining item to keep it from falling apart). After the crossbeam is there someone can over one side with sticks, or a tarp, to create a wedge shape. Covering the sides will add extra safety and security from wind, rain, and animals.

leanto survival shelter

The reason I prefer a leanto is because I can use sticks or even a tarp to quickly make a leanto when necessary, or to setup a familiar camping/hunting ground without leaving my supplies set up. Keep an eye out for our article on how to make a quality Leanto

The trick to a well-made leanto or stick shelter, is to keep your body elevated off of the ground.

Positives:

  • Easy To Find and Source Materials
  • No Cost

Negatives:

  • Not Always Water Tight
  • Necessary Materials are Not Always Available Year Round

Heat

starting a fire near my wood shelter for heat

The last section of this article is reserved to talk about how to heat your shelters. Generally, a fire would be added to the entrance or opening of a shelter to provide heat during cold nights or winter months. While heat is not always necessary, fire usually is for cooking, scaring animals away, or signaling for help.

A fire should never be too close to your shelter. A stick shelter will easily go up in flames during a dry month and a man-made shelter may be fire resistant, but never fire-proof. If you need heat inside your shelter it is best to set up a reflector.

A reflector is a stack of wood, stone, or other various materials that act as a wall and bounce the heat the opposite direction. These reflectors allow a survivor to keep the fire at a safe distance to protect their shelter from burning down while they sleep. Keeping the reflector pointed at the direction of the wind is also important. This will allow the wood to burn slower because the wind is not adding additional oxygen to a fire and it will block the survivor from the wind entering the shelter.

Manmade shelters tend to hold heat better because the air cannot permeate the manmade materials like it can natural materials. This is one of the reasons I prefer a leanto with a manmade tarp or Mylar blanket on the inside of the shelter.

Conclusion

In reality, any shelter is better than no shelter. Even if you don’t feel you have an immediate need for a shelter you should still probably try to build a small shelter if you find yourself in a survival situation. There is no telling how often or how quickly the weather will change at any given time. It is better to prepare yourself and to stay busy than it is to remain idle.

With practice, anyone can produce a decent shelter. We all hope we never need to make one but a skill no one ever wants to use and can save your life is often a necessary one. Think of a survival shelter as survival CPR.

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Jonathan Kilburn is a Martial Arts Instructor, Special Needs educator and businessman. Jonathan has focused on self-reliance and survival in some of the most difficult areas, urban areas. Natural disasters have pushed Jonathan to teach about urban farming, homesteading, and survival. As a Special Needs Educator, Mr. Kilburn has developed a neurological approach to executive function, meaning: pushing the boundaries of human needs vs human wants. This mindset and philosophy assists in training himself, and others, in self-reliance and survival. Mr. Kilburn has also studied martial arts for a number of years which include Aikido, Sambo, Judo, TaeKwon-Do, Haidon Gumdo, and various other sword arts.

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