Learn To Build Shelter For Any Survival Situation

how to build a survival shelterSummer’s right around the corner, and for many people that means getting back to the great outdoors, whether it be for a day hike or a weekend camping trip. This summer, take advantage of your time outdoors to practice the invaluable skill of building survival shelter. That’s right, you need to step out of your comfort zone, leave your four-person tent and goose-down sleeping bag, and try to construct adequate shelter with only the items that would be available to you in a disaster scenario.

It’s the perfect time because if something does go wrong, you can always retreat back into your tent and try again the next night. The summer camping months provide the perfect opportunity to hone your survival shelter skills; however, keep in mind that when the need arises to bug out, you won’t have the luxury of choosing what time of year it is. Practice building survival shelters year-round, especially if you live in a four-season climate where summer and winter present drastically different survival scenarios.

Why Learn to Build a Survival Shelter

Food, water, shelter – the essential elements of survival. Shelter can protect you from the elements and wildlife, as well as keep you warm or dry; finding appropriate shelter can literally mean the difference between living and dying in a survival situation. No matter what your circumstances, you want to be sure you can prepare suitable survival shelter for you and your loved ones.

how to build a survival shelter
Your shelter doesn’t have to be fancy – it just needs to keep you warm and dry.

Possible situations that may require impromptu or planned shelter include bugging out, get-home scenarios, getting lost while hiking or exploring, tending to an injured person while hiking or exploring, or getting caught in a storm. Depending on your situation, your survival shelter needs may differ.

For instance, in a get-home scenario you may only need short-term shelter for a few hours or a night, whereas when bugging out you may be indefinitely on your own. The need for building a lean-to can arise when you least expect it, so learn how to build a survival shelter in a number of different locales and with different resources.

Choosing the Best Location for Your Survival Shelter

Choosing the best location for building your survival shelter will be dependent on how long you intend to be using it – needs for short-term shelter will differ from those required for long-term shelter.

how to build a survival shelter
Take advantage of the landscape when building a survival shelter.

When searching for immediate, short-term shelter, look for trees (especially fallen trees), rocky overhangs, and caves. Trees are an obvious source of shelter and have many useful parts for building shelter including the trunk – which can be used as a support, the branches – which can be used as framework, and foliage – which can be used as insulating material.

Rocky overhangs and caves make excellent areas to take cover but depending on your locale or the time of year, may not be an option. Don’t panic, whether you’re stranded in desert terrain or it’s the middle of winter, you can still put together an effective survival shelter.

In desert terrain with little to no trees, consider using the slope of the land to seek protection and the steep side of a dune for shelter – keep in mind that the gradual side indicates the direction the prevailing wind is coming from and therefore the steep side will provide natural refuge.

If it’s the middle of winter and all available building supplies are frozen or buried under snow, remember that snow will have the same insulating effect as a stick-built shelter. For more cold weather survival tips, CLICK HERE. Additionally, always seek out shelter where the ground is dry. If it is raining, waterways may overflow their banks and ravines, and washes may form.

If you’re in it for the long haul, you will need to consider substantially more factors than sheltering for the short-term. When searching for long-term shelter, look for areas in proximity to water and food sources as well as civilization (if applicable), and for an area that provides adequate visibility for you to see what’s happening around you and for others to see you. In some case, staying hidden may be more beneficial to your survival.

Types of Survival Shelters

Type# of OccupantsTime to BuildDifficultyRequired Resources
Simple Frame and Tarp Method1 to 2Less than 1 hourEasyTarp or poncho
3-4 long straight branches
Cordage to secure frame
Several rocks to anchor tarp
Knife or multitool to cut wood and cord
Simple Body Heat Shelter1 to 2Less than 1 hourEasyLeaves, twigs, dirt, or snow
Sticks to support the opening
Shovel to build mound
Open Shelter or Lean-To1 to 43-5 hoursModerateTree branch to use as ridgepole
10 long straight branches to form a grid
Cordage and/or zip ties
Leafy branches, grasses, bark for roofing
Knife or multitool to cut wood and cord
A-Frame Shelter1 to 33-5 hoursModerateTree trunk to use as support for ridgepole
8 pairs of straight branches to form the sides
Cordage and/or zip ties
Leafy branches, grasses, bark for roofing
Knife or multitool to cut wood and cord
Teepee Variations1 to 23-5 hoursModerateSlender trunk for support pole (optional)
10-15 long straight branches
Cordage for lashing
Leafy branches, grasses, bark for roofing
Knife or multitool to cut wood and cord
Subterranean Survival Shelter1 to 2

4 to 8
1 hour

Weeks to months

Simple- mound of earth or snow, shovel

Complex- shipping container or other wall and floor materials, excavator, tools, plumbing and electrical supplies, power source
Long-Term Log Cabin1 to 4WeeksDifficultLong straight logs
Gravel for drainage and rocks for stilts
Tools for shaving bark and notching logs
Shovel to clear ground
Saw to cut down trees

Simple Frame and Tarp Method

If you happen to have the good fortune of having supplies with you (out backpacking or have bug-out gear) you may be in possession of a tarp that can be used in conjunction with a simple frame to create shelter for the night. To create a frame, lean poles against a lower branch or tree trunk in a manner that will fit under your tarp.

Make sure to remove any sharp edges from the wood or wrap leaves at the corners to ensure you don’t puncture the tarp. If you happen to be lucky enough to have cordage with you, tie it at an angle between two trees and drape your tarp over top, placing rocks on the sides to hold the tarp in place.

In an emergency, you can forgo the frame and simply wrap yourself and your gear in a poncho and huddle amongst the crook of a tree or other sheltered spot until morning.

how to build a survival shelter
A tarp makes an excellent short-term shelter but you may need to upgrade eventually.

Simple Body Heat Shelter

This shelter is fairly straight forward and easy to build – it is useful for short-term or unexpected situations and can comfortably accommodate one, possibly two, people.

To build a simple body heat shelter, use debris from the ground such as dirt, leaves, and twigs, to create a mound and use larger sticks to frame it. Clear a hole just big enough to crawl into and cover the opening to block air flow and limit the open space. Your body heat will be trapped inside the shelter, keeping you warm throughout the night.

If you are seeking shelter in the winter and the ground is covered in snow, use the snow to build your mound. Even though the snow is cold, it will still serve the purpose of insulating you from the elements outside and trapping your body heat.

how to build a survival shelter
Sheltering under the snow will insulate you from the cold and preserve your body heat.

Open Shelter or Lean-To

The benefits of an open shelter or lean-to are that it offers extra protection against the elements such as wind and rain, and can accommodate up to four people (for a typical lean-to, however they can be constructed as large as resources allow).

how to build a survival shelter
We built this lean-to using two tripods instead of trees for support. Zip ties made quick work of building the grid.

Depending on the supply of materials available, the construction can take anywhere from two to five hours. Start by looking for downed trees that have branches low enough to support the topmost point, known as the ridgepole. If you only locate one tree, use it as the ridgepole – lashing in place if necessary – but if you locate two downed trees near one another, lay a sturdy branch between them.

Gather approximately five to six poles to lean against the ridgepole at roughly a 45-60 degree angle, enough to create a comfortable space to fit your team and gear underneath. This will serve as your grid. To create the grid frame, attach 5 to 6 poles across the frame. Weave flexible boughs between poles at right angles and then use bark or leafy branches to thatch the roof, starting from the bottom and moving upwards.

how to build a survival shelter
Use the grid to weave foliage to create a weather barrier.

You can add additional walls for further protection using the same method. Should you be lucky enough to have a tarp or mylar survival blanket, you can hang it from the opening to act as a curtain.

A-Frame Shelter

The A-Frame shelter is constructed in much the same way as the lean-to, the only difference is that the ridgepole starts on the ground and extends up into tree, lashed at a height that allows enough space to sit underneath. In this way, two sides are constructed to create the A-frame shape, providing additional protection from weather or cold temperatures. For added warmth, locate your fire pit near the opening.

how to build a survival shelter
Square lashings are used throughout the A-frame shelter.
how to build a survival shelter
Side view of square lashing.

Teepee Variations

A teepee can stand alone or be built around the slender trunk of a tree. In some cases, it may be easier to use a slim tree as your center support, lashing poles around it to create a cone-shaped shelter, which will provide a sturdy frame, but also limit your interior space.

It’s up to you whether you choose to completely enclose the exterior and create an opening in the top for ventilation or keep the top secure from rain and leave an open doorway. Always make sure you account for ventilation, especially if you intend on building a small fire inside.

For stand alone teepees, start with three long straight poles and use a tripod lashing to join them. Try to locate a long pole with a Y-shaped joint at one end. This will provide the frame with stability as the next pole can rest within the Y-shape. To build the teepee, continually add pairs of similar sized poles and join them together at the top, leaving the base wide enough to curl up in and tall enough to sit comfortably.

how to build a survival shelter
This technique can be the framework for a teepee or provide ridgepole support for building a lean-to.

Once the frame is constructed, fill in the gaps using whatever materials are available to you including leafy branches, vines, mud and grass. Work your way up from the bottom – as you would with roofing tiles – so that the rain will drip down the overlapping layers instead of into your teepee.

Subterranean Survival Shelter

how to build a survival shelter
This fallen tree can provide adequate shelter – just watch out for critters!

For short-term shelter, a subterranean survival shelter can simply be hollowed out of a mound of earth, creating a warm place to sleep. An optimal location is the root base of fallen trees, as the roots provide structure and prevent caving in.

For a longer-term shelter, substantial planning and effort will be required. A long-term subterranean survival shelter is something you would build in preparation for when SHTF, as opposed to building in the aftermath while bugging out. Those who choose to build a long-term subterranean survival shelter either build one on their property or an offsite location. Designs can range from simple cellar-style rooms to complex homes that are fully outfitted with a power supply, furnished with necessities and comfort items, and have functioning defense systems.

Long-Term Log Cabin

If a crisis or disaster situation truly descends into chaos and it’s TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), you may find yourself in the position where you need to build a solid and dependable home using only what the land provides. Obviously, this type of survival shelter requires a tremendous amount of time, resources and energy – therefore it’ll save you time and aggravation to learn the basics beforehand.

how to build a survival shelter
If you are permanently relocating, a log cabin may be the way to go.

A long-term log cabin is built using a similar method as Lincoln Logs you may have played with as a child; the general idea is to lay a frame of logs that interlock at the corners to form a rectangle. Before beginning, you will need to clear the ground of grass, level it, and top it with a layer of gravel for drainage. Locate large rocks that can serve as stilts to keep your cabin off the ground and place them at all four corners as well as every three to four feet.

After the rocks are placed, locate the base layer of logs, the sill logs, which will need to be larger than those used for the walls – about 12 inches in diameter. Once the sill logs are in place, you can add floorboards or skip ahead to building up the walls.

how to build a survival shelter
This notching pattern will help shed water away from the joints.

For the walls, look for trees that are seven to ten inches in diameter and cut them to fit the dimensions of your floor plan. To prepare the logs for the walls, flatten the top and bottom so that they sit flush and notch the ends to interlock them and form a sturdy corner – additionally, cutting a notch in the top log only will avoid pooling water in the joints while in wetter climates.

Once you reach your desired wall height, begin using logs in diminishing lengths on either end to create the peak. Notch and lay two long logs perpendicular across the length of the cabin to act as supports for the roof. Depending on the items you have available in terms of tools and lumber, you can construct your roof with split logs, cut shingles, or sod.

Survival Supplies Beneficial to Have on Hand

Undoubtedly, you’ve included tools and materials in both your bug-out and get-home bags that will lend themselves to building shelter; however, it’s important to consider what tools are must-haves if an unexpected need to shelter arises, such as during a hiking or backpacking expedition.

To ensure you have the proper tools, take inventory of the various tasks you will need to perform when building shelter such as cutting, de-branching, notching, lashing, digging, and weaving. Consider what tools could help with these tasks (and all the better if one tool can address several tasks) and make sure they are in your bug-out and get-home bags as well as on your person while you’re out exploring.

Here is our list of the top survival supplies that are crucial to have on-hand when building survival shelter:

ItemShelter Building Applications
Fixed Blade Knife
Cut cord, small branches
Remove bark from logs and branches from poles
Notch poles to fit snuggly before lashing
Saw through small branches
File sharp corners to prevent tearing tarp
Remove splinters
Loosen knots in cord
Larger cutting and debranching jobs
Cut down trees for a log cabin
Prevents dulling your knife and expending excessive effort
Tri-Fold Shovel
Clear the ground for your shelter
Dig in dirt or snow to make a body heat shelter
Level the ground for support poles
Excavating large rocks for stilts
Lightweight Tarp
Use as roof or door for your shelter
Wrap around you for warmth and protection from weather
Make a sling to hang supplies out of reach of animals
Survival Blanket/Bivvy Sack
Use as roof or door for your shelter
Wrap around you for warmth and protection from weather
Make a sling to hang supplies out of reach of animals
Lash poles for framework of shelter when building a lean-to, teepee, or a-frame
Make a line between 2 trees to hang a tarp shelter
Secure food supply in a tree to keep away from animals
Zip Ties
Attach smaller poles together, such as for the grid in a lean-to
Fasten roofing materials to make a rain barrier
Substitute for cord in light duty construction
Hang a lantern or flashlight in your shelter
Work Gloves
Protect your hands from injury while handling building materials and tools
Melt ends of cord to prevent fraying
Click the images to see current prices on Amazon.com.

Survival Shelter Building Techniques

Knot Tying

how to build a survival shelter
Be sure to melt the cut ends of your paracord to prevent them from fraying.


Building A Frame


Wilderness Precautions

No matter where you choose to set up shelter, always be cognizant of what wildlife may be around. If you’ve found a great location, you are no doubt not the first to have discovered it, so make sure to survey the land for wildlife such as snakes in leaf piles or under fallen trees.

To stir up any creatures that may be hiding in brush or bushes, use a stick to prod the area before proceeding with your hands. Additionally, store any food you have tied up high in a tree to avoid attracting unwanted critters to your dwelling.

In terms of the wilderness itself, avoid any foliage that has a chalky white appearance as this is a mold that could spread through your shelter and impact your health. Also, if a tree contains a lot of ‘lacey’ leaves, that indicates it is probably infested with insects and best to be avoided. For more information on plants and foraging, CLICK HERE.bushcraft skills


Now that you have the basic skills necessary to plan and build your shelter, the next step is to get outside and get practicing! While techniques such as weaving and lashing can be practiced in your backyard, when it comes to building an effective survival shelter, there’s no substitute for the real deal. As you’re practicing, make sure to take note of pertinent factors such how long it takes you to gather materials and construct your shelter – knowing this timing can be life-saving in a real disaster scenario.

Be creative, be resourceful, and most of all – have fun!

Your Thoughts?

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to build a temporary shelter?What did you build? What tools do you carry that are useful in building a survival shelter? Share you thoughts and experiences in the Comments section below, thanks!


Chris Ruiz

My name is Chris and I created this site to help ordinary people prepare for the uncertainties of the modern day world. I believe that a well-prepared society is the best safeguard against any natural or manmade disaster.

7 comments on “Learn To Build Shelter For Any Survival Situation

  1. This was a very helpful article! The Types of Shelters table was especially detailed and informative. I can’t wait to try some of these out. Thank you!

    1. Hey Brittany,
      Glad you found the article helpful. Good luck with your shelter building!


  2. Very nice shelters, except one of them.. Don’t ever go under the roots of fallen tree. You can never know how rotten the trees are and how firmly the root stands upright. If you are under it when it collapses, those critters are the smallest problem, because then you are in a subterranean shelter, for good. I’ve seen a couple of times how such a trap is triggered. Believe me, in a quiet forest even just the sound of the collapsing roots is creepy.

  3. Scouting programs used to teach a lot of these skills in primitive camping, a lost art that needs to return. Most kids want to learn how to build shelters. Sending this along to my son for the grandkids. Thanks.

  4. Specific tools are suggested for certain shelters, but it seems to me that a better option than a multi-tool to cut wood is a folding saw or even a short hacksaw with a muti-purpose or wood cutting blade.

    The saw blades on multi-tools or Swiss Army type folding knives are only 3-4 inches long. I think it would be a lot easier to use a short saw or a folding saw.

    The second thing, is a pair of hand held pruners or pruning shears. Either the scissors type (They say it makes a cleaner cut) or the anvil style. These are great for cutting up small, thin lengths of wood for kindling or for small stoves.

  5. Yea in my mind I have a bad feeling I’ll be homeless someday, and more than for a night.
    Stuff like this helps a lot. A brown or camo tarp with a bug net is pretty good but I’ll need a PO box and hopefully at least a flip phone and medicaid in case that time comes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.