How to Build a Shelter

By: Charles W. Bryant
Rural tradition amidst peaceful nature.
An elevated open shelter like this keeps you dry and shaded.

Here's a worst-case scenario for you: You've been separated from your day hiking group late on a chilly fall afternoon and find yourself alone in the woods. You have no tent or sleeping bag, and night falls fast deep in the forest. You call out and hear nothing but the cold wind. You mark a tree and walk half a mile and back in every direction -- no one, nothing. A cold shiver washes over you, and you realize that if you don't get some shelter from the coming night's cold, you may be in serious trouble. What happens in the next couple of hours may decide whether or not you survive the night.

You may not think you'd ever need to learn survival techniques. Just because you don't fashion yourself as John Rambo doesn't mean you might not be faced with a situation like the one above. It could be a swerve from a steep and quiet stretch of road. Maybe you find yourself injured and unable to go for help. Knowledge of some of the basic survival techniques will give you a fighting chance.



U.S. military field manual 21-76-1 calls survival a "decision." This means that if you take the proper steps in a survival situation, you stand a good chance at living to talk about it. There are many important moves you make in your bid to survive in the wilderness. The first and maybe most important one is to set yourself up with adequate shelter.

A good shelter is important on several fronts. Not only does it shield you from the elements, it can also hide you from wildlife intruders and provide the psychological comfort ­needed to remain calm and in control. Depending on the s­urvival situation you find yourself in, there are several different ways to seek shelter. In this article, we'll look at some of these scenarios and go over the different ways to build the best shelter for your needs.

In the next section, we'll look at some wilderness shelter basics.



Shelter Basics

Bear Grylls
"Man vs. Wild" host Bear Grylls speaks at the Television Critics Association Press Tour July 13, 2007, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Frederick M. Brown/Stringer / Getty Images

When choosing a place to build your shelter, try to stay near a source of water. If your scenario is a crashed car or a small airplane, stay as close to the wreckage as is safe. If it's heavily shaded from view, stay close but visible. You should also avoid natural hazards like dead tress that could fall, cliffs and dry river beds. Heavy rains can turn a dry bed back into a rushing river very quickly. Your shelter should be no bigger than necessary -- the larger the shelter, the harder time you'll have holding in the heat.

If possible, don't sleep directly on the ground. Piling grass or pine needles can go a long way toward helping you retain body heat. Your shelter should be ventilated, especially if you plan on having a fire inside or near the entrance. Use large rocks or tree branches to block the door. This prevents heat from getting out and animals from getting in.


Let's say you swerved off the side of a mountain at night and can't reach the roadway. The most important thing is to make it through the night with a temporary emergency shelter. All you want to do is to provide some basic protection from the elements. If it's dry, you can simply dig a hole in the ground and cover it with large sticks, followed by smaller, dense boughs. Fir tree branches make excellent insulation from the cold. If it's raining or wet, avoid burrowing in a hole and get off the ground. If this isn't possible at the time, make cover on flat or sloped land so rainwater can drain.

Other ways to find emergency shelter:

  • Use fallen or standing hollow trees as sleeping burrows.
  • Get inside a cave or under an overhang to provide shelter from wind and rain.
  • Stay under dense tree branches to provide an instant canopy of thick cover.
  • Use boulders and large logs to break the wind.

Just remember, in an emergency your goal isn'­t comfort. It's to get through the night until you can assess your situation and build a proper shelter. It's also important to be careful whenever you're dealing with caves. Stay close to the mouth so you don't get lost and be very aware of other creatures seeking shelter alongside you.

­­In the next section, we'll look at how to build shelters with on-hand materials.



Shelters Using On-Hand Materials

poncho tent
This simple pup tent can be made if you have a poncho and some rope.
HowStuffWorks 2007

It's vital in any survival situation to make use of anything you find or already have with you. You can often find useful materials left behind by others. A bit of discarded climbing rope, some ripped plastic sheeting or even an old hiking boot can be of great use in the woods. You should always gather whatever you have or find and keep it at your base camp. Items like ponchos, nylon hammocks or parachutes can serve as shelter materials.

If you have a poncho or any kind of plastic sheeting, you can build several different types of shelters. What you want to do is mimic the shape of a tent. For a basic shade shelter, all you need to do is spread the material out so you can get under it. If you have some rope, you can tie it between four trees to form a canopy. You can fashion a tent shelter by running rope down the center of the poncho between two trees, then staking the sides into the ground with sharp sticks to create an A-frame. Another simple lean-to shelter can be made by tying two opposite corners of the poncho to trees. The other end slants diagonally to the ground and can be secured with stick stakes or heavy rocks.


If you don't have any rope, build a one-person tent from tree branches:

  • Take a forked tree branch and wedge it into the ground about a foot deep, with the "Y" pointing up.
  • The ridgepole is the center ceiling support and should be straight and sturdy. Run it from the ground to the fork, resting in the "Y."
  • Create an "A" for the tent door by resting sturdy diagonal branches opposite each other that meet at the fork.
  • Use vine or thin green branches to lash together all three support points.
  • Create a ribbed frame with branches set diagonally along the ridgepole, wide enough so you have room inside.
  • Once you have your frame built, drape your cover over the top and stake it down with sharp sticks.
constructing shelter framework
This one-man tent is easy to build and provides good shelter from the elements.
HowStuffWorks 2007

If you have enough material and want to suspend yourself from the ground, you can create a cot. Find two long, sturdy branches and roll them into the material on each side like a long scroll, leaving about a foot of wood exposed at each end. Then simply lash the cot to four trees a few feet off the ground. Proceed aboard slowly, but your body weight should pull it tight as long as it's wrapped with enough material.

Combine this above-ground cot with a cover to form an elevated platform. If you can't find four trees in close enough proximity, use a single forked tree at one end to form a "Y"-shaped base. If you have rope but no tree to tie into, tie it around a medium sized rock and bury it 6 to 8 inches into the ground. If you tie rope or twine higher than the shelter, you should attach drip sticks. Just get a 6-inch stick and attach it to the line a few inches from where it meets the material. This allows the water to run down the stick instead of into your shelter.­

In the next section, we'll look at how to build a shelter using only natural materials.



Field Expedient Shelters

debris hut
A debris hut provides great protection in cold conditions.
HowStuffWorks 2007

The U.S. military's term for using natural objects to accomplish a task is field expedient (FE). If you're lost or stranded in the wild and you have no materials at all, you'll need FE tools and shelter.

FE shelters employ the same methods as ones built with ponchos or tarps. The only difference is what you use to cover the frame. After you build the frame, use branches and thicket to make up your roof. Pine boughs make for good insulation, but as long as you stack and weave lots of leaves, branches and twigs, you'll have adequate shelter. Think of your shelter roof as being shingled like a house. Work in layers from the ground up and keep the branches pointed toward down for rainwater runoff.


A debris hut is an FE shelter that's easy to build and provides great protection from the elements. To build one:

  • Place a ridgepole, the pole that runs the length of the shelter, with one end on the ground and the other on top of a sturdy base like a tree stump or boulder. You can also lash it to a tree.
  • Take two more thick branches and place them diagonally at the top of the ridgepole and lash them together with vine.
  • Use thick branches to line the length of the ridgepole to create the ribbed frame. Make sure it's wide enough to accommodate you.
  • Place smaller sticks crosswise to make a lattice effect.
  • Add lighter soft debris like pine needles and leaves until it's at least two feet thick -- the thicker the debris, the more protection it offers.
  • Cover the interior floor with pine and leaves and block the entrance with a rock or more debris.

­If you're in deep snow and have large evergreen trees around, build a tree-pit snow shelter:

  • " type="disc">
  • Find a thick evergreen tree with low-hanging branches.
  • Dig down into the snow to your preferred depth and diameter -- the cozier the better.
  • Pack the interior snow well.
  • Use the natural branches above and add additional boughs for your cover.
  • Use boughs as insulators on the interior floor.
tree-pit snow shelter
A tree-pit snow shelter takes a lot of energy to build, but it's a great insulator against frigid weather.
HowStuffWorks 2007

Some other tips to remember:

  • If you want a fire, it's best to keep it outside or near the mouth of the shelter. In extreme conditions, you can bring the fire inside, but it should be well-ventilated, and the flames should not be near the shelter walls.
  • Heat up rocks in the fire and stack them inside the shelter for extra warmth.
  • Always turn off your stove or lantern inside your shelter -- dangerous carbon monoxide gas can kill you.
  • Found metal isn't good to use for roofs. It will deflect rain and wind, but also reflect needed sun for warmth.
  • Snow is a great insulator, so use it as much as possible.
  • Pour water over thatched roofs in freezing weather -- this will ice over into a hard, protective insulator.

Whatever your emergency scenario, the most important thing is to remain calm and in control. Panic will get you nowhere and knowing some rudimentary survival skills can be the difference between lif­e and death. Basic shelters are easy to build and crucial to surviving the harsh elements of the great outdoors. If you're an avid camper or hiker, you should practice building a shelter on your next excursion. It can be educational, potentially life-saving and a lot of fun.

For more information on building shelters and other survival techniques, let the links on the next page guide you.



Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • How the Army Rangers Work
  • How to Make and Repair Camping Equipment
  • Harrowing Survival Stories
  • How the Nature Conservancy Works
  • How the Audubon Society Works
  • How Mosquitoes Work
  • How Snakes Work
  • How Spiders Work
  • How the World Wildlife Fund Works
  • How The Nature Conservancy Works
  • How Fire Works
  • How Food Works
  • How Water Works
  • What causes heat stroke?

More Great Links

  • "Building a Survival Shelter." Wilderness Survival Skills, 2007.
  • Gonzalez, Laurence. "How to Build Shelter." The Adventurer's Handbook. National Geographic, 2007. ­survival/survival3.html
  • "How to build a wilderness shelter.", June 25, 2003.
  • "Shelters." Wilderness Survival, 2007.
  • "Survival, Evasion, and Recovery." U.S. Military Field Manual 21-76-1, June 1999.