How to

26 April 2016

How to Build a Survival Shelter

If you have even a modicum of sense about you, you’ll never set off into the wilderness without a tent, but accidents happen, and there’s always a chance that one day converging circumstances will land you in the middle of nowhere without access to one, and a need for shelter.

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This is, obviously, a pretty desperate situation, and this article is by no means a license to do anything risky, but should you ever find yourself needing to build a shelter, this advice could just save your life. If you want to put any of these instructions to the test though, we’d recommend going out into a controlled environment, within close reach of civilisation, in a group, and trying them out.

Obviously, there is no one way to build a shelter, it depends heavily on where you are, what is or isn't falling out of the sky, and how many layers you’re needing to wear to keep from shivering. That in mind, this list is divided into subsections based on climate.


It goes without saying that if you’re in a forest, there will be a particular abundance of one resource – wood. You might not think it, but it is possible to build a functional, water resistant shelter out of little more than wood and leaves. The easiest way to do this is to make a round lodge. It’s effectively a tipi, you make it by breaking lengths of branch around 8 feet long and laying them around in a conical shape, using enough that the weight creates its own support system.

If you then lay leaf litter and/or grass across the surface, you’ll have something not water proof, but resistant to rain. Leaves are better, since larger ones will allow the water to run down the edges. Be sure to leave a smoke hole in the top in case you need to build a fire for warmth.


You won’t find anything about how to build an igloo here. Contrary to popular belief, igloos are very circumstantially dependant structures, and knowing exactly what kind of snow you need to build it is kind of an art unto itself. With that in mind, your best options are either a quinzhee or a snow cave.

A quinzhee is like an igloo, but you can build it using most types of snow. All you need to do is pile as much gear as you can under a tarp. If you haven’t got enough gear to make a big mound, find debris to use, like branches, but break them up and pack them tight. That done, pile snow around the mound and pack it down until it’s about 2 feet thick all around. Break off a big bunch of 12 inch sticks, around 4 dozen, and push them into the snow around the dome at regular intervals.
Next, burrow an entrance hole, remove the tarp and gear, then dig out the excess snow until you find the end of each stick. Lastly, gently push your fist through the top to make a ventilation hole, and round it out so it’s nice and even.

That technique works well if the air is relatively still, but if the snow is thicker, and you have an incline nearby, you might want to consider a snow cave. It’s a far riskier undertaking, but in deep snow it might be your only option. Find a big drift, dig your way into the low spot and then dig back up to create a higher ‘shelf’. This higher part is where you will sleep, while the lower is your entrance, as well as a place for the cold air to collect so it doesn't reach you.

From the sleeping area, dig out until there’s around 2 to 3 feet of snow between you and the surface. Poke a 6 inch diameter hole through to the surface for ventilation. Dome the walls and make sure the snow is all firmly packed. Going back outside, pack the snow into blocks to create a wall for the entrance. Make sure to use some kind of visual aid to flag off the shelter so you don’t accidently step through it and destroy it.
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Wet and Windy

If you’re out in wet and/or windy weather with any chance of needing to take shelter, bring a tarp, it will be the most important barrier between you and the elements. Depending on the surrounding environment, there are a number of different ways to apply them. If you have a healthy supply of trees, your best bet is either an A-frame or a tarp hammock.

A-frames are better when it’s dry, or only mildly wet, as it can keep a small area relatively dry. The biggest benefit with them is that they go up quickly. Suspend a line of rope between two trees, nice and taught, and then lay the tarp over the top, tying down all four corners as tightly as you can. If you have material left to build a hammock beneath, even better, otherwise, build a bough bed. Bough beds are easy: two logs, 3 feet apart, and then lay either cedar pine or fur boughs in between. You’ll find either in most woodland areas. After that, just layer some dead leaves or dry grass over the top and boom, comfy bed.

Your other option is to actually build a hammock, which serves both purposes. To make a good one, you’ll need a roll of quarter inch braided nylon rope. Ideally you’ll also have an 8x10 tarp at the smallest. Take one of the long sides and roll it up halfway across the full length, then do the same with the other side. It should look a bit like a giant scroll. Cut two 16 foot lengths of rope and tie sheet bends across the ends of the tarp. Find two trees around 10 feet apart and tie the ropes around, as high as you can. You’re looking for trees at least the width of your leg. Wrap around twice and tie with two half hitches. As previously stated, you can also tie an A-frame above to keep extra dry. If the area is buggy, dip two cloths in repellent and lay them across the ropes at either end.

In less wooded areas, and particularly in high wind, you can make a tarp wedge. For this, you’ll need a set of pegs or stakes, and again, a good length of nylon rope. Tie down two near corners facing into the wind, then use a well buried stick to prop it up at the opposite end to make the wedge shape. Use another stick in the middle to increase rigidity. Tie town the two corners at the far end, and twice more in the mid-section. Line the edges on the inside with rocks or logs to stop water getting in. Once again, either use another mat for a bed or build a bough bed if you can access the resources.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.