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How to Build a Survival Shelter : All You Need to Know

man building a survival shelter in the forest using tree branches and leaves

The list of requirements to stay alive in a survival situation is short, but improvising these items can be a complex task. Ultimately, all you need to live indefinitely in the wild is hydration, food, and shelter.

A lot of time is spent thinking about how to procure food and water in an emergency, but dangerously little time is spent on how to properly build a survival shelter. Although there are countless ways to approach emergency shelters, a handful of basic principles will get you a long way.

Here is what you need to know to build a shelter to keep you safe in any situation.

Clothing Is Shelter

It may not be obvious at first, but clothing is the most basic form of shelter. The goal of the shelter is always to protect you from the elements, and clothing plays a crucial role in this task. This is an area in which prior planning is critical. Whenever you are venturing into a situation that may require survival, consider your clothing selection carefully. Dressing in layers is always recommended for maximum versatility. Fabric choice matters as well. While jeans and a cotton t-shirt may be great for around town, heavy cotton-based fabrics are heavy and difficult to keep dry. Thus, waterproof or moisture-wicking fabrics like wool are your best bet.

Bring clothing for any potential situation, not just the situation in front of you. Even if you start a hike on a warm day, bring a jacket. Even if the day happens to be overcast, bring a sun hat. Weather is difficult to predict and it is always better to be over-prepared.

A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

If you find yourself in a situation that requires a survival shelter, always be methodical in your decisions. It is easy to become scared or reactionary when nightfall is approaching, but wasting time or energy is the last thing you should do. Carefully consider the type of shelter you need. Will it be warm that night or cold? Is rain or snow a possibility? Are there animals you need to protect yourself from? How many people need to stay in this shelter? Quickly running through this list in your head can allow you to form a much more cogent plan, and allow you to build a shelter that uses the minimum amount of materials and energy.

Spending some time educating yourself before any trip is a great way to avoid panic. Emergency shelter is not the time to reinvent the wheel, so having a sample of designs in your head is a helpful fallback. Ultimately, the best shelter is the one you can build quickly that protects you from the pertinent elements. It doesn’t need to be “proper” if it keeps you dry, safe, and warm.

Choose The Location Carefully

Once you have decided on the type of shelter you intend to build, you’ll need to select a building location. All spots are not created equal. Two key elements make a good building site: dry and flat.

Admittedly, this first requirement poses somewhat of a paradox. If you find yourself in an emergency, having access to a source of water is an invaluable asset. Yet, water is not your friend when constructing a shelter. Not only is a damp campsite uncomfortable, but moist ground is often unstable and difficult to build on. Further, moisture can make regulating your body temperature extremely difficult. Whether you are facing winter cold or summer heat, staying dry is the best policy. Lastly, bodies of water are attractive to animals of all kinds. From stinging bugs to ferocious beasts of prey, all animals need water. Thus, staying away from a source when you’re hunkering down is a much safer bet.

Finding a flat building site also makes your life significantly easier. Not only is a flat site easier to build on, but it is safer too. Hills and slopes can pose a significant danger for falling or tripping. Further, slopes are significantly more susceptible to flooding or other drainage dramas. Ultimately, every site will be a compromise. You want to be close to the water but not too close. The site should be secluded but not too remote from potential landmarks. Site selection is best learned with experience, so take your time and select your best possible option.

How to Build a Survival Shelter

As previously mentioned, there is no shortage of variety when it comes to types of shelter. While improvisation will almost certainly be required, having a few shapes in mind can streamline the building process should you ever need it. Here are the main types and how to build them.

The Lean-To

A lean-to is perhaps the most classic survival structure, and for good reason. The inherent simplicity of the lean-to makes it quick and efficient to build, saving energy and materials. Typically, a lean-to is built using branches, leaves, and twigs. Although this is generally a short-term solution, there is no reason why a well-built example can’t last for weeks or months.

shelter using branches in forest

The drawbacks of a lean-to are twofold. First, they are generally very small, which makes it a difficult proposition if you need to shelter multiple people. Second, the wind-tunnel shape makes them susceptible to wind, meaning they are generally not the warmest shelter. That said, they are quick to build and excellent at keeping you dry.

To build a lean-to, find two sturdy trees spaced about eight feet apart. Find a large and straight branch that is long enough to span the distance between the two trees. In building terms, this will be your ridge-beam. Using any materials possible, tie this large branch between the trees. If you have a rope, use it. Otherwise, roots and soft sticks may suffice. Even a shoelace can do in a pinch.

Continue gathering sticks and lean these against the main branch. Work in an alternating pattern covering each side so you don’t put too much pressure on the top branch in one direction. Finally, once you have covered both sides fairly well, layer sticks, leaves, and mud onto the sides. The amount you need will depend on the severity of the climate and the amount of time you have.


An A-frame is in many ways the natural progression from a lean-to. Unlike a lean-to, an A-frame doesn’t rely on trees for support. This allows you to make a large structure that is often more secure. However, A-frames are more resource-intensive, making them better suited for longer stays.

a frame forest survival shelter

To build an A-frame, collect four large and straight branches that are as long as you want your shelter to be tall. Four or five feet is generally ideal. Next, find one large branch that is as long as you want your shelter to be. I typically shoot for around 10 feet. Using rope or cording, tie two of the short branches to each end of the long branch, forming an “A” shape. You have now formed the basic frame of your shelter. From here, it is identical to building a lean-to. Simply stack branches against the sides to form a wall, and then cover with leaves, mud, or debris. If you are in cold conditions, pine straw or moss can make great insulation to keep the wind out and your body heat in.

Snow Cave

Although it may seem counterintuitive, snow caves are a fantastic way to keep warm in frigid climates. Snow is a great insulator and reflects your body heat, keeping you warm.

snow cave survival shelter against a snow mountain

Building one is simple but can be energy-intensive. Find a large snowbank and dig an entrance into the side just large enough for you to climb through. Once your entrance tunnel is around two feet deep, begin digging a wider area in a circular dome shape. Smaller spaces are better here for two reasons. First, the smaller the space the warmer you will be. Second, a small hole is less likely to collapse. Always make sure to dig air holes in your snow cave. Snow can actually seal well enough to block airflow, leading to suffocation.


When it comes to survival shelters, creativity and flexibility are key. Always stay calm and use the resources at hand. If you have a tarp, use it. If you find a pre-built shelter, take it. This is a means of survival, not a design competition. Ultimately, with a few basic techniques, learning how to build a survival shelter can be surprisingly easy. All it requires is patience, planning, and staying calm.

Jared Russo
Hey, my name is Jared, a self-reliant expert and action taker. I hope you've enjoyed this article and found it informative. If you have please feel free to leave a comment below and share it with your friends and family, it would make my day!

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