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How to Build a Survival Shelter

Being a “survivor” has captured the imagination of millions of TV watchers. But a survivor is much more than a TV fantasy. A survivor is someone prepared to live—and live as healthfully as possible—when life far from home doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Being prepared to survive in the outdoors starts with knowing what to be prepared for. You can live days without water and weeks without food. People who don’t survive in the outdoors most often die from losing their body heat, not necessarily from starvation or dehydration. You need to be able to start a fire. And perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to build a shelter to stave off wind, rain and snow, and to keep your body heat trapped where it belongs: near your body.

Here are the keys to taking shelter in the wilderness:


Your first line of defense against the elements is the “shelter” you choose to wear. If you wear layers of synthetic material or wool, and carry a shell of windproof, waterproof material, you are ready for anything. You’ll trap your body heat instead of expending it on the outside world.


Choosing the best place to build a survival shelter is important. It should be in the driest spot you can find. Nothing sucks out body heat faster than wetness. If it isn’t too cold, build a shelter on high ground. Breezes will help keep the bugs away, and you’ll be easier to see if a search party passes nearby. If a cold wind is blowing, choose a spot sheltered by trees. But don’t build in the bottom of deep valleys or ravines where cold air settles at night.


If it’s almost dark and you can hurriedly collect dry debris (leaves, pine needles, bark) from the forest floor, make a pile two or three feet high and longer than you are tall. When you burrow into the pile, you are in a natural sleeping bag that protects against heat loss.


The simplest shelter is a fallen tree that has enough room under it for you to crawl in. Lean branches against the windward side of the tree (so the wind is blowing into it and not against it) to make a wall. Make the wall thick enough to keep out wind. If you can build a fire on the open side of your shelter, the heat will help keep you warm.


If you find a fallen tree without enough room under it, or a rock or a small overhang, you can build a simple lean-to. Start by leaning fallen limbs against the object, such as the top edge of an overhang, to create a wall. Lean the limbs at an angle to help shield rain. Cover the leaning limbs with leaves, boughs, pine needles, bark or whatever the forest offers. When you have built a thick wall, you can crawl underneath into your shelter. Remember to make your shelter no bigger than you need to fit you and anybody else with you. The bigger the space, the harder it is to keep warm.

You can also build a lean-to by placing one end of a long stick across a low limb of a tree and propping up the other end of the stick with two more sticks. Tie the ends of the sticks together with your boot laces or belt. Lean more sticks against the horizontal stick. Then pile leaves and other forest debris against the leaning sticks until you have a wall. Once again, a fire on the open side of the lean-to will add much heat to your “room.”


If you can’t make a lean-to, you can make an A-frame shelter. You’ll need two sticks four or five feet long and one stick 10 to 12 feet long. Prop the two shorter sticks up in the shape of the letter A. Prop the longer stick up at the top of the A. Tie the three sticks together where they meet. The three sticks will be in the shape of an A-frame tent with one end collapsed against the ground. Now prop up more sticks against the longer stick, and pile forest debris against the sticks until you have an insulated shelter open at the high end.


When you have a tarp, sheet of plastic or Space Blanket with you, and some rope or cord, tie a line between two trees. Tie it low to the ground with just enough room for you to lie beneath. Stretch the tarp over the line. Place large rocks or logs on the ends of the tarp to hold it in place with the edges close to the ground. If it’s snowing, tie the line off higher on the trees. Steeper walls will shed snow better. Now you have an emergency tent.


Your shelter is not complete until you have made a bed to lie in. Dry leaves work well. Make your bed a little bigger than the space your body covers and at least eight inches thick. When you snuggle into it, you are ready for the unexpected night out.


1. Anywhere the ground is damp.

2. On mountaintops and open ridges where you are exposed to cold wind.

3. In the bottom of narrow valleys where cold collects at night.

4. Ravines or washes where water runs when it rains.

58 Comments on How to Build a Survival Shelter

  1. survivergirl // April 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm // Reply

    How would the inside look?

  2. Wilderness Survival will teach you more

  3. My favorite shelter would be something like Holiday Inn. I just can’t imagine getting comfortable on the cold ground! I AM working on this, though—just in case.

  4. Any opportunities to make a shelter in PA? what i mean is what camps can i go to to do this

  5. playbyplay335 // January 8, 2013 at 4:58 pm // Reply

    well it is great but what if u live in a desert? ( i dont) other then that… what could u use 4 clothes if u need new ones? it a greay guide to! 😀 😀

  6. I could really use this if i already didn’t know how to make a better one

  7. Natural shelter is always first choice right?

  8. Im doing a project so this helped me lot

  9. I’m actually trying something like the lean to,but mixed up.I’m taking branches from trees,and folding them over a tree.Then I’ll just apply leaves and a few smaller branches.

    P.S.:I’m a girl. ;D

  10. how to put a bath room in a shelter

  11. i need to no how to make a homemade disater shelter

  12. I think the fallen tree is pretty cool

  13. Good survival tools to know.

  14. Survival shelters // September 28, 2012 at 4:16 am // Reply

    Understanding how to create effective wilderness survival shelters is one of the most important outdoor skills. From keeping you protected from the elements to providing a place to rest, wilderness shelters serve a key role in survival situations.

  15. i made one

  16. Check out Wilderness Survival

  17. I got a partial because at the last 10 seconds my lean to fell down. I’m going to camp and hoping to finish it.

  18. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa // June 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm // Reply

    All you guys that are commenting should take wilderness survival its a fun merit badge to get.

  19. i think the esiest shelters that i can probly do is the the tarp and the fallen tree i will need some work with the other ones

  20. I really like the A Frame and tarp but ill probably use the swamp bed

  21. Arrowman 123 // May 16, 2012 at 6:35 am // Reply

    cool going to try this

  22. T542Scout // May 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm // Reply

    Cool Beans Man!!!!

  23. jackrocks12 // May 4, 2012 at 6:15 pm // Reply

    i have made something like the lean to but a little different

  24. Bear Grylls // May 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm // Reply

    It really depends on where you are… if you’re in the Florida Everglades you’re best bet is a swamp bed. For forests (e.g. a pine forest) you’d best do a A-frame or a Lean-To against or in-between several trees (or one) because the branches of the trees will be extra protection against The Elements. And if you have one with you DEFIANTLY use a tarp. Well if you’ll excuse me its Tea Time!


  25. these are awesome ideas, but you should lite a fire probably 5-7 feet from your shelter

  26. I learned how to make one out of a tarp, a length of cord and two sticks from a book by an ex-Marine.

  27. scoutdance kid // March 22, 2012 at 11:38 pm // Reply

    be prepared always have a backup fire starter and basic survival kit

  28. InBrotherhood // September 8, 2011 at 11:07 am // Reply

    For more, I would HEAVILY recommend the “The Survival Handbook” published by DK, and is approved by Venturing too!

    It includes anything from shelters, to first aid, to outdoor survival, what to pack on trips, how to hunt. . . the list goes on and on.

    I got mine for $25, Great Buy

  29. ilooked at alot of sites and this one was the best i found so far thanks

  30. gr8 ideas!!! i really like the A frame and the Tarp shelter, shall be using them with my Pfs for our next campout.

  31. Beatlesfan // June 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm // Reply

    Boys life is a huge help 2 me cuz im a survivalist

  32. If I ever need it I will have it.

  33. these are good but as I learned from man vs. wild, you should learn how to make an elevated bed to get away from all the critters on the ground.

  34. It’s a good idea to keep an emergency kit with things like rope, a flint and steel, and a pocketknife. I do.

  35. I am awesome // June 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm // Reply

    These r good, but if it is pouring rain and the ground is soaked, pick an a place between two thick, sturdy branches low to the ground on a big tree, then place yourself between the two branches.If you have a backpack or extra sweater, place this under your head and against the tree. It may not be the most comfortable, but it works great! : )

  36. mountainman1219 // May 30, 2010 at 4:01 pm // Reply

    another option is to use a poncho for the lean-to or even the a-frame it is very compact and much like the space blanket will keep you water proof, yet you can also wear it when on the move. Even a cheap garbage bag is great to have in your survival kit.

  37. The cocoon looks awesome!

  38. It’s always good to note the wind direction before placing a fire in front of a shelter. The smoke can fill the shelter and result in mild CO poisoning. Why make a survival situation more miserable by inferior planning?

  39. thats cool

  40. I have a lean to in my yard.

  41. Done These Several Times, Very Useful

  42. I like klondikes theyre cool i like scouts. I am an spl.

  43. I made a lean-to in my backyard.=D

  44. I think this is pretty cool. Like sevenwolves, I regret not visiting the site sooner.

  45. when i took the wilderness survival merit badge it was freezing cold and there were flood warnings

  46. do not build shelter against rock because it will absorb your body heat.

    • middie football // January 27, 2010 at 9:17 am // Reply

      if u lie next to a rock and build a fire on the other side of you you will be really warm because the heat from the fire will bounce off the rock and back at you.

    • Isn’t that what Brian did in Hatchet? He built his shelter in a rock dugout.

  47. im going to do this on my next campout

  48. great!!!

  49. always be organised !!!!!!!

  50. thanks for that,

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