How to Build a Survival Shelter with Bare Hands

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Survival shelters protect you and help regulate body heat. Learn how to pick the best spot and how to build these four different types of shelters.

Surviving in the wild isn’t a TV show, it’s tough. You have to maintain your body heat and health even in the extreme conditions of survival.

Nature’s #1 rule, the “survival of the fittest”, also implies. You have to be at the top of your game, both in terms of thinking and taking quick actions.

When you are alone in the wilderness and your fun hiking trip has took a turn for the worse, or you’re in SHTF and this is you life now, you may have to go on for several days without water and food.

The purpose of survival shelters, and survival in general, is to preserve as much of your body heat as possible without losing it to the outside environment.

How Do You Build a Shelter in the Woods for Beginners

Make Shelter A Priority

Many, if not most of the people that die outdoors do so not because of they stepped on a snake, or from bear attacks, or even from starvation, but because of excessive body heat loss. Learn more about how important body heat is to survival with 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin.

This is why a shelter is your best option to increase your chances of survival and it should be your priority right behind locating a source of water and starting a fire, and possible before either of these depending on your unique situation.

A shelter can protect you from the weather, wind, wildlife, and other elements. By capturing and holding on to some of your lost body heat your shelter will be warmer than the outside air. By keeping the wind and rain off of you you’ll stay dry and warmer. And by giving you some basic protection against insects, snakes, and wildlife you’ll be a little safer.

Not to mention the huge mental boost and calming effect a shelter has on our minds and emotional states.

Choosing The Best Spot For Your Shelter

Before we talk about how to build a survival shelter, you should know how to choose the right place to construct your shelter.

It is very important to choose the right location because moving it isn’t going to be much of an option, you’ll pretty much have to start all over and try to salvage what you can.

A perfect shelter location should be protected from the wind, have the resources needed for it’s construction readily available, and be within 300ft of water but no closer than 100ft.

Things to keep in mind

  1. Try to find the driest possible spot for building your shelter. It should not be damp or too close to water. Many make the mistake of setting up camp right on the water and get overrun with insects or find out the hard way that they’re in an area that floods.
  2. Don’t set up on the top of a mountain or large hill either, as it exposes you to the wind. Set up on the least windy side of a hill.
  3. Stay out of the valley and away from mountain bases too, as cold air will settle here and it will be much colder that areas nearby.
  4. Don’t set up on or close to dried river beds or ravines. An old creek bed may flood at any time.
  5. Watch out for overhangs and limbs above your head. A rotten branch could fall or snow could melt and fall on your shelter. Overhanging rocks can come loose or overheat from a fire at your camp and can actually explode. Then you’ll have real problems.

Pro Tip – Learn more about how important body heat is to survival with 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin.

Different Shelter Types

Different Shelter Types

There are many simple and easy to make shelter designs that you can build. Many can be built very easily with simple things readily available in the wild such as felled trees, leaves, and vines.

1. Wooded Areas – The round cabin

The round cabin is a cross-design from numerous societies. Part tipi, part wickiup, and taking design elements from numerous compositional styles, all the way back to pre-Roman Britain.

survival shelter basics round cabin

A “round cabin” or round lodge can hold back the wind, rain, chill, and sun. It is built much like a tipi shelter, with the addition of a strong entryway.

They sometimes have a smoke gap through the rooftop and can contain a small fire for warmth and light and a little cooking. It can be covered with grass or brush, or it can be covered with a thick layer of leaf litter.

Styles like this fit the American west very well, but this shelter design works equally well just about anywhere except a desert, even in wet locations.

2. The Lightweight Backpacker’s Option – Suspended A-frame tarp shelter

The A-frame is a classic canvas tent design that can be recreated with natural materials or a simple tarp. They provide excellent coverage from the wind and rain when they go all the way to the ground.

Suspended A-frame tarp shelter

In warmer weather you can suspend it higher so that the ends are about 8″-12″ off the ground, this way more wind can blow through underneath and keep you cooler. It also helps keep the insects out and and makes it easy to set up a hammock underneath.

This shelter design can be set-up quickly. Once you’ve picked a spot for your shelter, you can get it ready in 10 minutes or less. Building an A-frame tarp shelter is as simple as suspending a line of cordage between two trees, throwing your covering over the line, and secure all four corners. In a pinch you can even use a poncho instead of a tarp.

Building an A-frame out of natural materials is similar. First you would find two trees close together, or put two end poles in the ground at the front and back of the soon-to-be shelter, and then strap a pole across the top. This will be your roof pole. From there you lean branches across the top pole to form an “A” shape.

You also can drive a stake into the ground at each corner and lay a branch on the ground to anchor the sidewall branches and keep them from sliding backwards. After that it’s just a matter of throwing leaves and debris on the sides and top.

3. Snowy Areas – Quinzee

The above-given shelter ideas are for warm or moderate conditions. But what if you are stuck in a snowy and cold area? In this case, you can build a quinzee!

survival shelter basics quinzee

A quinzee is basically a dome-shaped shelter that you can build in the snow. It looks and functions like and igloo, but unlike an igloo, it requires less time and effort to be built. It’s essentially a fancy snow cave.

Building an igloo requires a specific type of snow, a lot of time, and some experience. It’s not much of a survival shelter. But you can easily put together a quinzee out of practically any snow.

To build a quinzee, throw a bunch of snow into a big pile. You can dig out all the snow from the area that your quinzee will sit and shovel the snow right back into the area that you have just cleared or you can collect snow into a pile from an ever widening circle. You do this to add air and volume to the snow, which is key.

Pile up the snow as high as you want, but don’t pack it! Four feet high is good enough. Form the whole thing into a slightly rounded shape. The arc will support the snow’s weight and keep it from collapsing.

Now you have to wait. Depending on the temperature you should wait anywhere from an hour to 4 hours. This is where the magic happens and the loose snow becomes one.

After you wait, begin hollowing out your snow pile from the down-wind side. Start tunneling down to ground level, and then up into the snow dome to make your entrance so that it goes down and then up. This is to keep the wind out. Try to keep the entrance as small as possible.

Dig out the interior carefully, being sure to leave a thick base of insulating snow on the floor. Arch the quinzee’s inside roof so it is no higher than the space you will need to sit to minimize heat loss.

You’ll know when to stop removing material because you’ll see the faint glow of light coming through the walls. Try to maintain this thickness on the entire dome, usually about a foot thick.

If you want to be more precise about it, you can poke foot-long twigs into the snow pile before you begin. Then, when you hit the twigs you know the dome is the right thickness.

Finish your quinzee by poking one or two air holes (a bit less than an inch in size) through opposite ends of the roof.

4. Hot Areas – The desert tarp

If you are stuck in a desert instead of the snow or woods, you need a lightweight shelter that can block the sun and provide some insulation, but at the same time not trap any heat. The desert tarp is a good example.

survival shelter basics desert tarp

This doubled-roofed desert tarp has been used by African and Middle-Eastern communities for centuries. It works by providing an air gap between two materials, such as two tarps, while at the same time being open below to let what little wind there is blow under the tarp and keep you cool.

To begin with, you’ll require two tarps, some rope and stakes, and something to prop the corners the up with (rocks, bushes, limbs, more stakes, anything). Find a low spot in the ground, or dig one of your own.

This is to minimize the height you need to raise the tarps, but if long branches are readily available this won’t be much of an issue.

Place your corner props at each corner and lay out one of your tarps on top of them. Drive a stake at each corner of the covering and pull it tight so that the tarp is resting on top of the corner props (see the image above).

Tie your second tarp firmly to the stakes with about one foot of air space between the two tarp layers. This is your insulation.

You can lay rocks at the corners on top of your other corner props like in the photo to create this gap, but if you’re just using long branches driven into the ground you simply have to tie this tarp higher.

You can also overlap the bottom tarp with a bigger tarp on the top layer so that you can keep it pulled up during the day and pulled down to cover the sides at night when temps drop.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully after reading this post you will be able to location and wisely choose a good spot for a shelter and build a few basic designs. No matter the type of shelter you build you’ll find it works much better in the right spot.

Always remember that body heat conservation is the key to any working shelter. If you’re still freezing or burning hot, add more insulating materials or create more air flow.

A good rule of thumb for insulation is to get as much as you think you’ll need, then triple it.

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