How to Throw Together a Survival Shelter

You’re not stupid, are you? But you can do stupid things. Everyone does from time to time, I’m famous for it, but not knowing how to build a simple survival shelter may not only be stupid, but deadly. Exposure to the elements is the number one cause of deaths for people stranded and lost in the wilderness. Actually you don’t need to be lost. You may be on a familiar hiking trail when an unexpected Spring blizzard strikes making it too dangerous to attempt to walk back down the mountain, and preventing rescue personnel from attempting to find you until the conditions improve. Meanwhile, you’re enduring a white out with 30 mph winds and a chill factor of minus 30 F. Let’s look at a few emergency How to-Survival Shelters.

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KISS: Keep it simple stupid

There’s absolutely no need to explore what happens to the body as you slowly die from hypothermia, besides we already have. What’s the sole purpose of a survival shelter in arctic conditions … Provide heat.

There’s another way to look at that … Prevent heat from escaping.

Building a body-heat shelter, referred to as “a poor man’s shelter” is the simplest form of a shelter. It’s main goal is to trap a pocket of dead air, which your body heat warms, providing an escape from arctic conditions.

In a forested area, scrape together a heaping mound of leaves, sticks, debris, moss, anything you can use to build a large enough mound for you to fit into. Once you have the mound large enough, carefully dig a tunnel or cavity into it. Crawl inside it and use a backpack or other object to block the entrance in order to restrict air flow, and subsequently heat, from escaping. If you are not filthy and cramped, you have made the cavern too large. You don’t want to heat anything other than your body. This primitive shelter can keep you alive during a minus 20F day.

Should you are above the tree line where no trees or litter exist, build the shelter out of snow, which requires essentially the same technique, just different building material. Instead creating a mound using sticks and debris, you build a mound of snow.

No different than you were a kid, unless you lived in the warm areas of the country, build a large snow mound and dig a tunnel straight into it. Again, make it small, close – the opening with a backpack, and if possible lay a layer of plastic, bows, whatever insulation you can find, on the floor to help keep you up off direct contact with the snow.


How to Throw Together a Survival Shelter – Open Shelters

Lean-To (Pole & Bough lean-to) is an ancient and reliable shelter. The single wall of the lean-to fulfills three needs, as a windbreak, fire reflector and overhead shelter.

Step One: Locate a relatively straight strong tree limb to use as a ridgepole, this will serve as the main shelter support. If possible wedge the ridgepole into the crotches of two adjacent trees. If not possible, build two tripods from limbs lashed together and place each end of the ridgepole into them.

Step Two: Gather long limbs to use as the body of the shelter and lean them against the ridgepole tilted to provide an enclave for you to sit and sleep in. To help strengthen these poles, inner lace limber small branches at right angles.

Step Three: Thatch the lean-to with slabs of bark, leafy or pine-needle branches, pointing downward to shed rain, and chink with sod, moss or snow to increase the insulation factor.

A-Frame: The pitched roof design of the A-Frame affords better protection against the wind than a lean-to due to it being enclosed on two sides. By having an opening the shelter can be warmed by a fire placed directly in front of the entrance, however, unless the A-Frame is large, you can’t lay parallel to the fire which could cause an issue with uneven body heat.

Step One: Locate a strong relatively straight tree limb and wedge it into the crotch of a tree. Unlike the lean-to the ridgepole of the A-Frame can be elevated or leaned against the ground.

Step Two: Lean tilt poles against the ridgepole on both sides, lashed together and strengthened with weaved limbs and thatch.


How to Throw Together a Survival Shelter – Enclosed Shelters

Enclosed shelters are much more labor intensive and require longer to build (4 hours or longer) but it may be worth the effort. You are better protected from the elements, specifically the wind, you can heat the enclosure with a small fire, reducing the need for a huge pile of firewood, and the firelight will reflect off all walls which helps moral, a huge factor in survival training.

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Wickiup Shelter: This is the grandfather of the Wigwam and is the quintessential primitive shelter, providing protection from strong winds, weatherproof and can be comfortable enough to serve as a long term shelter. This was a favorite of nomadic hunters as it can be quickly built and can be vented for an interior fire.

Step One: Locate three poles, one with a Y end, at least 10 feet long, and place them together in a tripod, binding them together at the top.

Step Two: Enclose the shelter by leaning poles against the tripod in a circular form, strengthening with thatch and limber limbs as you proceed. Leave the top open to serve as a vent for a fire inside the shelter and leave the front open, covering it with a blanket or other fabric.

Wigwam: This is a larger and more complex version of the Wickiup, which is built with long limber poles positioned into a dome shaped framework which allows maximum interior space.

Step One: Determine the desired size, inscribe a circle to accommodate that size and dig holes at 2 foot intervals in which to accommodate the framing poles.

Step Two: Firmly place the butt ends of the poles into the holes and bend the smaller ends over the top and lash or weave them together, essentially forming a dome-shaped framework.

Step Three: Lace thin green poles and thatch the framework in order to strengthen and waterproof it.


Salish Subterranean Shelter: This shelter is historically used by Pacific Indian tribes from Alaska to California. Obviously without digging tools a pit shelter is impractical unless you are in deep snow. The huge benefit is a shelter located in the ground offers much more protection against cold and heat than an above ground shelter.

Step One: Decide how large a shelter you want, dig a circular pit at least 3 feet deep.

Step Two: Build a tripod of poles over the hole, strengthen by inner lacing limber limbs

Step Three: Thatch the shelter using the dirt and sod you removed when digging your hole. Leave an opening for egress & ingress and for venting the fire smoke.

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Building Materials

Making Shingle and Thatch Weatherproofing

Weatherproof materials should be carefully placed onto the framework, then be bound to the structure with cordage or held against the frame by propping sticks against it. What type of thatch to try and use depends on the angle of the roof. More porous thatch requires a steeper slant to induce quick runoff.

Bough Thatching

Overlay the framework with a mat of evergreen boughs, careful to always have the needles pointing out and down. Use several layers and if possible compact it down with snow or heavier sticks.

Grass Thatching

You need some weaving skills for this roofing, but it is excellent weatherproofing done correctly. Take long water-resistant grass and weave them into mats. Overlap these mats and sew together and around the framework poles.

Bark Shingles

Birch bark is a nature made roofing shingle. Using a knife slice completely around the birch tree twice. Peel the birch bark off the tree between these two slices and use for roofing. Start at the bottom of the shelter and work your way upward overlapping the top shingle over the bottom one.

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I included this material list for two reasons, some people may already know the info but needed a quick refresher, and for people who never had a clue. For those people, which are a vast majority I offer this no-nonsense, doesn’t take rocket science, advise.

1.Use anything you can to cover your shelter. Sticks, leaves stick attached are good, long grasses, anything to put between you and the rain or wind.

2,Anytime you use long grasses or spruce branches, have the material angled downward in order to shed the water.

3. Unfortunately the world is overcome with trash. Use it to your benefit. Plastic bags, cardboard, newspaper and old clothing can be great for helping strengthen and insulate a shelter.

I’ll leave you with a parting bit of advise. If you are new to the survival world with little to no experience, stick to the A-Frame and Lean-to shelter. They are easier to build and will provide good temporary shelter.

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