Building Basic Shelters

Posted on Posted in Bushcraft & Survival

Building a shelter | WIld SurvivorIn a survival situation, knowing how to build a successful shelter is extremely important in helping to keep you dry, warm and alive. Equally important as knowing how to build a shelter is knowing how to adapt your shelter building techniques depending on the weather conditions, the environment around you and the resources you have available. If you only learn how to build a great shelter with a tarp, but end up in a survival situation where you have forgotten your tarp, then you’re gonna be in trouble unless you think and act fast to solve the problem.  

  • Work with the natural features already around you such as tree trunks, either upright or fallen, walls, rocks, banks and hollows. Using these will help save on time and energy.
  • Make sure your opening or doorway faces away from the prevailing wind. A shelter is not much help if the wind and weather blows straight inside. If you have a fire burning, this will also help to take the smoke away from your shelter.
  • Keep the shelter to the minimum size required for you to sit and lie down in. Any bigger and you will lose body heat to the empty space.
  • Keep the roof well sloped so that rain runs off, down and away.
  • Make sure the shelter is solid and sturdy. You do not want it collapsing on top of you in the middle of the night. Or at any other time.
  • It is equally important to protect yourself from the cold, wet ground, so whatever type of shelter you build, collect as much leaves, brush and pine branches/needles as you can to make a bed and insulate inside.

Woodland & Forest

Trees can offer both ready-made protection and the materials to build your own. Both branches and leaves can be utilised to make a relatively comfortable shelter. Use the branches to construct frames, walls and roofs while the leaves can be used to cover and fill the gaps as well as make a comfy, insulating bed to lie on.

There are several different types of structure you could make out of branches, including lean-to, A-frame and round lodge styles.


This is one of the simplest designs to build, just a basic triangular shaped shelter that can be quickly erected. Make a basic frame with two branches staked upright and then a third, longer branch tied horizontally across the top. Then lean branches sloping against the horizontal pole to form your roof. If you have a tarp or emergency heat blanket, tie this to the frame instead of propping the branches along it. Use more branches to cover the shorter sides and add extra wind protection. Cover with plenty of leaves, twigs, brush or pine needles to fill the gaps and provide insulation.


This is the shape that resembles a traditional triangular tent. It is effectively a lean-to, but with two sides of branches (or tarp) leaning against a central pole frame. Close off one of the short ends with more branches to help to keep draughts and weather at bay.

Round Lodge:

Using similar methods to the above types of shelter, this one is formed from branches tied to a central frame point which are then arranged to slope out into a circle at the base.


Trees can be very scarce on high open ground and moorland, but that does not mean you cannot use natural materials to build shelter. This type of ground often looks barren and flat at first glance, but actually there are often lots of hidden rocks, hollows and low lying bushes which offer natural shelter and can be easily adapted. Because of the wind exposure, small trees and bushes often grow dense and wide instead of tall, providing dry pockets underneath their canopies. Increase the insulation by stacking up cut brush from plants like heather.  


In temperatures below freezing, it is essential to protect yourself from literally freezing. While such conditions can kill you fast, the white stuff is also a great shelter construction material. Obviously, you do need a fairly deep amount of snow, a typical British dusting is not going to provide enough to work with.

Look for deep areas of snow, such as where the wind has blown it into higher drifts to give you more to make a shelter with. You are also looking for snow that compacts and sticks together well, similar to what you’d be looking for if you were building a snowman.

Tree Wells:

Evergreen trees like pines catch and hold snow on their branches, preventing it from reaching all the way to the floor. Often this results in a space, or well, at the base of the tree which can be utilised as shelter with minimal effort. Dig down until you reach the ground level, compacting and strengthening the walls as you go. Go carefully and slowly to avoid the snow collapsing in on you. Use branches and pine needles to insulate the floor and to cover above your head.

Snow Cave:

Requiring virtually no tools and possible to build speedily, this is simply a dugout in the snow. You will need very deep and solidly packed snow to build it. Make the entrance hole quite low down with the sleeping area higher above it to trap the warmer air inside. Keep the ceiling area domed and smaller than the floor space as this will be a stronger shaped structure. Create a ventilation hole to avoid suffocation.


The Canadian quinzee (or quinzhee) is a shelter made from piling and shaping loose snow into a large dome which is then hollowed out. Aim to start on a flat piece of ground with a pile of snow a similar size to a hatchback car and ideally leave it for a couple of hours to ‘sinter’ where the snow crystals freeze and bond to each other again, this makes the structure stronger. Make sure it is as evenly rounded as possible and compacted, then start hollowing out the middle. As you remove snow from the centre, pack it evenly onto the outside and keeping the whole shelter as circular as possible.

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