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Wilderness Survival Shelter

Most survival manuals will explain the importance of shelter. Protecting yourself from exposure is very important. It's crucial that we understand how important your mental state is during a survival is your mental state. It is often found, that the mental attitude of a person during a survival conflict can make all the difference. Endure the situation or perish can be set in the mind. Shelter not only protects you from adverse weather, but also gives you a mental boost. Much like fire, shelter can give us hope and a sense of accomplishment. Your shelter becomes sanctuary.

Furthermore, a properly built shelter will help us stay our of the elements and allow us to rest. In the wilderness a shelter will increase your chances of survival. It's simple, if your hobbies take you to the outdoors, then this is an indispensable skill.

People underestimate how quickly a seventy degree day can turn into a dangerous situation. Keep in mind that forty degrees with wind and rain can cause hypothermia. That short hike through the woods could turn into a life threatening situation in a wrong turn of events. Under certain temperatures, having the proper shelter can make the difference between life and death. Any time we face a potential survival situation, a decision process is initialized. We must evaluate how soon you want to build your shelter. If we are dealing with precipitation and wind minutes can count. Increased body heat loss can lead to impaired motor movement. When our clothing becomes moistened, it looses insulating properties. Imagine trying to start a fire while shaking, fumbling around. Immediate shelter could be found under a spruce tree, or some form of natural cover. Blocking the wind and moisture to help us start a fire.

We should consider an often used survival acronym (S.T.O.P.) Stop and Think about the situation. Observe the area and then Plan your actions. We should ask ourselves things such as: Are we in immediate danger? Are there enough building and fire materials in the area? Are we somewhere where we can hopefully be seen? The last thing we want to do is allow fear to cause us to act irrationally. If we think we are lost, STOP! Walking further will not only increase the distance from the last known position but it can reduce the chances of being found by rescue.

Throughout our articles we emphasize proper preparation through practice. Just as a soldier is trained to react under fire, we must prepare for possible survival circumstances. Read up on shelter building. Understand the basic principles of insulation. Get familiar with different shelter designs for different conditions.

One night during a training session in Nebraska I was faced with the decision of either starting a fire or building a shelter before the sun went down. After some thought, I decided I would start a fire using the bow drill method. Feeling confident I thought, I can start a fire and then use the light from the fire to build the shelter. This is where STOP would have helped. I did not Observe how close I was to a frozen river. Although the wood and tinder looked dry in the sun, the humidity would quickly make me realize I made the wrong decision. After several hours, I had to quickly build a double lean-to shelter and crawl inside. I can tell you this, that was one cold night. Lesson learned? Assess your situation, ask yourself how much time do I have left before the sun goes down. Is it likely to rain or snow, etc. This was a practice session during survival training. In a life or death situation, every choice we make can be crucial. We get experience through repetition. I chose to test my skills by only using the bow drill. Naturally, you would want to carry a reliable fire starting kit in your bag. Make sure it is readily accessible but most of all, MAKE SURE YOU PRACTICE using it! Start fires in different weather conditions. Will your life depend on a fire when it is summer and the temperature is in the 80s ? No, you will want to practice starting a fire when it is cold and damp. If your kit cannot reliably start a fire in those conditions, review the kit and your knowledge of proper fire building technique.

A decision made during desert survival, can vary from one made in Arctic weather. Make no mistake about it, the nights can be extremely cold in the desert. But the type of fuel available to you will be different. We will usually deal with a much lower level of humidity in the fuel. However, will that lean-to keep us warm when the temperatures drop and the wind picks up at night? Do you have enough fuel to last through the night?

Proper shelter can keep you dry and warm enough to survive the night without a fire. If fuel is not readily available, or there is not enough time to gather enough wood, build a shelter that will keep you out of the wind and rain. A debris shelter or snow cave can help provide protection without a fire. We must stay out of the snow and rain if at all possible. If your clothing becomes damp by either rain or perspiration, the insulating properties can drop as much as 80%. That takes us to heat loss or heat transfer.

Heat Transfer - "Heat transfer is the transition of thermal energy from a hotter mass to a cooler mass. When an object is at a different temperature than its surroundings or another object, transfer of thermal energy, also known as heat flow, or heat exchange, occurs in such a way that the body and the surroundings reach thermal equilibrium; this means that they are at the same temperature. Heat transfer always occurs from a higher-temperature object to a cooler-temperature one as described by the second law of thermodynamics or the Clausius statement. Where there is a temperature difference between objects in proximity, heat transfer between them can never be stopped; it can only be slowed."


Heat transfer between neighbouring molecules. Proper clothing should be your initial protection from the elements. It is important to add layers between the ground and our body. Pay attention to what your body is coming in contact with. Pine boughs, grass, bark, saplings can be used to build a platform off the ground.


Protect the body from heat loss from air currents. Use insulating clothing and shelter materials to trap air and minimize heat loss.


At night the sky turns into a giant heat sink. The absorption of infrared radiation trying to escape from the Earth back to space causes a cooling effect. A clear sky will allow the earth's heat to escape back into the atmosphere. This is one of the reasons why a desert can be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and near freezing at night.

Simply putting a roof over our head would help reduce heat loss through radiation. We use radiation to warm us while inside the shelter.


We have to remember heat loss through breathing and the negative effects caused by the moisture our body exhales.

With this in mind, our goal is to use the available materials to protect us from the wind, the rain, and the radiative heat loss. Vegetation such as leaves and grasses used as insulating material. Grasses can be thatched to build insulated walls. Snow flakes will trap air and can be used as insulating walls in snow cave.

How would you prepare for a day hike at the mountains in fall? Imagine this, you end up lost on a trail and you are forced to spend the night out. Unprepared, your clothing is not very warm. Without shelter, you could get hypothermia. If your clothes were to become wet and the wind increased, you have the perfect recipe for a miserable and possibly dangerous night. It is simple, a shelter could save your life. Of course, proper planning and letting someone know where you are going are just as important.

Shelter location

Pay attention to the location of your shelter. Creeks can rise in the middle of the night. The altitude of the shelter can make a big difference in temperature. Do not take a chance by building your shelter close to water. Tides and rainstorms can cause the water level to rise unexpectedly. Be aware of the surrounding and always look above your shelter location for limbs (widow makers) and rocks. Be weary of dead branches/trees but remember, a healthy tree can drop branches under strong wind.

Location and position of the shelter

* Choosing the proper position for the shelter is very important. If you are on a mountain, one side of the mountain might not get much sunlight. Some things to keep in mind are:

* Make sure to ask yourself questions like, if a sudden rainstorm was to move in, would I be standing in water, can rocks or debris fall on my shelter.

* If possible position your shelter entrance to the opposite side of the prevailing wind. This is especially important for a lean-to since it is open on one side.

* What types of animals and insects are in this area. Is it wiser to build a bed off the ground to keep myself away from most insects and reptiles.

Windbreak / Reflector Fire Wall

Whether you call it a reflector fire, fire wall, windbreak or simply a reflector. It is good practice to build a wall to protect your fire and minimize wind. Windbreaks can be built using rocks, snow, ice, or wood. It can help block the wind from the shelter and fire. It can also serve as a place to dry the wood using the fire's radiative heat. Replace it with new wood as you take pieces out. Sometimes a natural object can be used to block the other side of the lean-to such as a rock or fallen tree. Perhaps warming the rock face with a fire will help keep the shelter warmer at night.

Other Tips:

If possible always use what is already there to save you time. For instance, if you need two branches to hold up the backbone of your shelter, use a smaller tree with a branch as one anchor point. (Make sure the wind will not cause the tree to shift around in the middle of the night)

You have to make a decision according to the situation. If it is cold, you want to make sure your shelter gets sun, it is away from the wind as much as possible and burning materials are available.

If in a desert like situation, we would need to watch out for animals that like to hide under rocks such as scorpions and snakes. If water can be found, building your shelter within a short walking distance of the water will help minimize energy spent. Avoid areas where if it did rain you could be washed out. We need to adapt according to our surroundings and conditions.

If possible try to think of long term comfort. For instance we would not want to build a shelter near a mosquito filled swamp. You are better off walking a longer distance for water and hopefully avoiding the insects. * Learn to use natural insecticides to keep insects away.

Shelter Materials

We will use any material available for shelters. We should avoid poisonous plants. Carrying a tarpaulin or poncho can be extremely useful.

The materials used are contingent of the situation faced. Are we stranded in the woods, or did we survive a plane crash? If there are any materials near by from a wreckage, then we can use them. Otherwise nature usually provides excellent resources. Vegetation: leaves, moss, grass, bark and saplings. We can also use snow, soil, rocks.


Any time you are building a shelter, it is a good idea to wear gloves. It may seem absurd but I have made it a point to keep a set of gloves in my backpack. Keep in mind that you will be reaching into rocks, leaves and picking up wood. Gloves can protect your hands from thorns, sharp edges, and some insects. Taking the proper precautions before moving objects is a must. Always think what could be laying under an object before moving it.

Types of shelter:

1) Natural shelters

    a) Rock formations (overhangs)
    b) Trees (tree den, tree shelter)
    c) Caves

2) Debris shelters

    a) Lean-to shelter
    b) Double Lean-to A-frame
    c) Wickiup
    d) Wigwam
    e) Half Tepee

3) Poncho / Tarpaulin or sheeting shelters

Materials that can be used are: (canvas , plastic, ponchos, mylar emergency blanket,trash bag )
    a) Lean-to
    b) Double lean-to (a-frame)
    c) Jungle A-Frame

4) Snow Shelters

    a) Snow caves
    b) Snow trench
    c) Quinzhee / Quinzee hut

5) Scout pit

    a) Sand Pit

A scout pit is essentially a pit or hole dug into the earth. Branches are laid across the top of the pit which are covered with dirt. This camouflaged shelter remains warmer in winter and cooler in the warmer months.

Natural Shelters

Learning to work with nature to our advantage is a skill that is learned through practice. As with any aspect of Bushcraft and Survival, we must try to adapt to a situation. While we are out hiking, take the time to look at different natural structures and ask yourself how you could use them to build a shelter. A fallen tree, or a rock overhang. Walk up to it and study the structure. We always recommend building shelters and practicing emergency scenarios when our life does not depend on it. Experience and knowledge of the available materials in your area will help us have confidence and the needed skills in event of an emergency. The option to carry less equipment while backpacking can make the trip more enjoyable. During our trips to the colder climates, we have used the base of a large spruce tree to help build shelter quickly. The dying branches at the base of the tree make perfect tinder, and there is less snow to dig in order to reach the ground. If the snow on the ground is not the proper texture to build a snow cave, simply digging out around a fallen tree can help get us out of the wind. Add some branches with pine boughs and make a modified lean to shelter. Adding a layer of snow after the shelter is built will help make it wind proof.

Rock Formations and overhangs

Rock formations and overhangs can help us find immediate refuge from the elements during an emergency. Using rocks to help stay warm is a technique used since the beginning of time.

You can use rocks to create a fire bed, to reflect the heat and sometimes to protect you from precipitation. Rocks will become a heat sink capturing the sun's heat during the day and re-radiating it back at night. Warning: Quickly heating a stone in a cold region could cause cracks on the rocks. The same technique can be used to warm rocks around our shelter or smaller stones that can be brought into the shelter.

In an emergency a rock overhang can be used as a shelter. Again consider the possibility of a rock slide. Look at the terrain carefully. Is possible we use a fire outside of the cave to 'smoke' the cave out before entering. The smoke should help remove rodents and other unwanted animals.

During a backpacking trip we found this small cave. We used a small fire to smoke the cave before entering. When it rained, some water would work its way down the walls, but it kept us dry.

** Look out for creepy crawlies that already live there or want to snuggle next to you at night. Snakes and scorpions. A lot of these creatures are nocturnal. They will try to find a place to keep warm or hide from the sun as the day breaks. **


Standing and fallen trees could save your life. Some standing trees have dense enough leaves that can help to keep you away from the rain or snow (Spruce and Oak trees are good examples). Having a layer above you, can help you retain some of the heat lost by radiative cooling. Take a look at the base of a different trees after a rain storm. Some trees will have a completely dry base.

Next time you are out hiking in the snow, take a look at the base of a spruce tree. The lower branches make wonderful tinder and the base of the tree will often be dry. Whether you are simply hiking for the day, or lost in the woods, a tree shelter can really be helpful.

We can use a fallen tree as a strong base for a shelter. Leaning branches against a tree can speed up build time for a modified lean to shelter.

If you will notice the image below, here I was able to actually use the tree as a shelter and find dry tinder. With some branches and debris such as dried leaves, we would be able to make a lean-to or double lean-to. I kept the fire very small, but it was enough to keep me warm and dry for a night. Note: I did have to build a layer of mud between the tree and the fire. Again, always use common sense. The fire would only be temporary as to avoid catching the tree on fire but could save your life in an emergency. Please ensure all fires are put out properly before walking away. This is a technique we would only use during an emergency.

Debris Shelters

The beauty of a debris shelter. It can be erected quickly, and if built properly it will help keep us dry and warm. The leaves act as insulation by trapping the air and the shingled pattern they take helps shed water away. Pine or spruce boughs can be used but it may take more work. If it is snowing, lay a layer of snow on top of the leaves for the ultimate insulation.
Debris shelters can be built without the use of a knife in some areas and natural cordage (vines, roots, bark) can be used to tie the structure together.

Please take a look at the following Debris shelter articles for a step-by-step guide.

Lean-to shelter

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The lean-to is a good shelter if you want to quickly get out of the sun or precipitation. However in a winter survival situation, we prefer other types of shelter. We would recommend you build a better shelter if time and materials permit. I know a lot of people will argue with me on this one. I prefer to have walls to keep the heat in and water out. Another way to look at it is, a lean-to is a quick shelter that can be put up with minimal material and time.

A lean-to is a fairly simple shelter to build. You can start with a lean-to if you are in a hurry or materials are limited. If you have a tarp, poncho, trash bag or sheet of plastic, build time is minimal.

We build a lean-to in the following articles:

How to build a Lean-to shelter using a poncho.

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Poncho Lean-to Shelter

We build a double lean-to or "a-frame shelter" in the following article:

Double Lean-to

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The double lean-to can be built moderately fast. If built properly, it can keep you warm and dry under severe conditions. There are different versions of the double leanto shelter. In some instances the two lean two shelters can be built with a gap in between the roof spines (rigid foundation pole). The space between the shelter roof allows the smoke from the fire to raise.

Tarp shelters

Tarps can be configured in numerous ways. A larger tarpaullin can be set up as a tepee and smaller tarps can be set up as a-frame and lean-to shelters. Some of the higher quality Mylar blankets (emergency blanket, space blanket) can be used to simplify shelter building and heat reflectors.

Note: In an emergency scenario a trash bag can be used as both a rain poncho and shelter. By using leaves in between trash bag layers we can add to the insulation value and make a sleeping bag.

Poncho Shelters

A poncho is a multipurpose item in a survival situation. Not only can it keep us dry but a poncho can also be used to build a shelter in an emergency. Ponchos can be snapped together to build an a-frame shelter or several other configurations.

Poncho A-Frame Shelter

Desert Shelter

Desert shelters can bring a different challenge. In a desert survival situation staying out of the sun is crucial. The shelter should help protect us from the high temperatures during the daytime hours and keep us warm during the night. Once again a poncho or tarp would help us build an expedient shelter with minimal effort.

Radiative heat will increase chances of dehydration and at night the desert temperatures can drop drastically. We can sometimes lower the temperature by either making a shelter roof with two layers (this allows any wind current to cool the air in between the layers) or by digging into the ground. A pit shelter is one example of this shelter.

Poncho Sand Pit Shelter

Proper shelter building can be useful during backpacking trips. Often times we will find ourselves camping somewhere where we want to be off the ground. We can backpack with a hammock or we can build a shelter using two ponchos. The poncho jungle a-frame shelter serves this purpose nicely. Adding mosquito nettings would add to the comfort level.

Poncho Jungle A-frame Shelter

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Jungle A-frame Poncho Shelter

Snow Shelters

Snow as a shelter? Absolutely, northern wildlife such as the grouse, snow shoe hare and red polls will burrow into the snow to help protect them from the wind. Snow can be used as an insulator due to the trapped air in between the flakes. The insulation value of snow is related to its density. Loose snow has more dead air spaces to retain heat adding to its insulating value. There are several snow cave / quinzhee hut designs. It is a good idea to take the time to build different shelters in a non-emergency scenario. This allows us to learn from our mistakes in a relaxed environment and gives us confidence in our knowledge if an emergency situation emerges.

A properly built snow shelter should immediately block a lot of the wind. If the wind chill factor is around -17.7 °C (0 °F), the inside of a snow shelter can be kept around 0 °C (32 °F). By simply getting out of the wind we can have a temperature difference of thirty two degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine all the difference that could make. The snow shelter could also protect us from freezing rain. Add a cold well or trench to let the colder air drop and we can keep the shelter temperature at a much more tolerable level.

We insulate ourselves from the snow by using pine/spruce boughs. Placing the spruce boughs with the stem or butt side down seems to help with comfort and trapping of air. Remember we want to reduce heat loss by conduction and convection. The spruce bough 'mattress' should be several inches thick after being compacted down by laying down on it.

The following article covers a snow cave build.

Snow Cave

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