How To Build A Survival Shelter: Tarp-Tent and Lean-to

Learn how to build a survival shelter with a few rudimentary tools, and you will have a leg-up is SHTF.

Many outdoorsmen, long-distance hikers, and military personnel rely on Tarps for emergency shelter because they are lightweight, can be carried from location to location, and are easy to deploy.

The tarp is also excellent when combined with natural materials such as stick-built a-frame structures and natural insulations.

Check out the Ready Squirrel article, Shelters For Survival: Beginner’s Guide, to learn about other shelter options.

How to Build a Tarp Tent in 6 Steps

Gear You Need

  • Tarp or Poncho Liner
  • 2 8 foot long sections of paracord, line, or rope
  • Six sharpened sticks 12″ long
  • Two trees, saplings, or natural structures 10 feet apart

6 steps to Build a Tarp Tent

  • Step #1 If you are using a poncho, tie off the hood (if using a tarp, ignore this step)
  • Step #2 Tie one of the eight-foot ropes to the center grommet on each side of the tarp
  • Step#3 Tie the other ends of these ropes at about knee height to two trees or saplings that are 10 feet apart and stretch the tarp tight
  • Step#4 Draw one side of the tarp tight and secure it to the ground pushing sharpened sticks through the grommets
  • Step #5 Follow the same procedure on the other side
  • Step #6 If center support is needed, use 2 16 ft long sticks with a forked end to form an A-frame. Tie the tarp to the A-frame to support the center of the tent.
Tarp Tent
Tarp Tent #2

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How To Build a Tarp Lean-to In 8 Steps

Tarp Lean-tos are made quickly with minimal equipment. But you are going to need some equipment to build one.

Equipment Needed

  • Tarp or Poncho
  • 10 ft of paracord, line, or rope
  • Three stakes one foot long
  • Two trees, poles, or natural objects 10 feet apart
  • Option gear survival knife and a folding camp saw

8 steps to build a tarp lean-to

  • Step #1 If you are using a poncho, tie off the hood of the poncho (ignore this step if using a tarp)
  • Step #2 Cut the rope in half. Tying half of the string to the corner grommet on one long side of the tarp. Tie the other rope to the opposite corner.
  • Step #3 Attach a drip stick (4″ stick) to each rope about 1″ from the grommet. Drip sticks will keep rainwater from running down the ropes into the lean-to. Tying 4″ strings at each grommet along the tarp’s top edge will allow the water to run to and down the line without dripping into the shelter.
  • Step #4 Tie the ropes about waist high on the trees. Use a round turn and two half hitches with a quick-release knot.
  • Step #5 Spread the tarp or poncho and anchor it to the ground, putting sharpened sticks through the grommets and into the ground.
  • Step #6 Use a lean-to for more than one night or if rain is coming, make a center support for the lean-to by placing a stick upright under the center of the lean-to.
  • Step #7 for additional protection from wind and rain, place some brush, a rucksack, or other equipment at the sides of the lean-to.
  • Step #8 To reduce heat loss to the ground, place some insulating material, such as leaves or pine boughs, inside the lean-to.
  • Step #9 If you are trying to go unnoticed, lower the lean-to’s silhouette by making two changes. First, secure the support lines to the trees at knee height (not waist height) using two knee-high sticks in the two center grommets (sides of the lean-to. Second, angle the tarp to the ground, securing it with sharpened sticks.
Lean-to #1

Tarp Lean-to #2

Tarp tying tip: If a tarp doesn’t have any grommets (plastic or metal lines hole), tie a small stone into the area you need to secure it.

Outstanding Video by Coalcracker Bushcraft: versions of tarp set-up and best use

Choosing a Location For Your Survival Shelter

When choosing a shelter site, walk around the area to look for potential threats, consider wind direction and strength, and where you would put your campfire in relation to your shelter.

Choose a site close to the water but not too close; flash-flooding is serious business.

Do

  • Set up shelter close to a good water supply (200 ft is ideal)
  • Camp close to a good collection of wood
  • Place campfire down-wind from the shelter
  • Place your shelter on the leeward side of hills and mountains
  • Use natural materials like leaves, pine boughs, and moss for insulation
  • Camp in or near low trees and bushes for better shelter
  • Choose level ground
  • Always be prepared for the worst weather
  • Look for high water lines and shelter above them

Don’t

  • Shelter at the base of a hill or an area that can flood.
  • Camp in a hollow or low area. They are wetter and colder
  • Camp near leaning, broken, or dead trees called Widow Makers
  • Camp in areas of flash flooding or below a high water line next to a river or stream.
  • Camp too close to game trails
  • Place your shelter on an ant nest

Sources

US Army Survival Manual ATP 3-50.21

SAS Survival Handbook For Any Climate or Situation, John “Lofty” Wiseman