Shelters For Survival: Beginner’s Guide

A Survival Shelter is one of the first things you should prepare for in a survival situation.

What is a survival shelter?

A survival shelter is a simple shelter made from natural or manufactured materials. Its purpose is to keep you alive until you are rescued or reach a safe location with more substantial protection.

A good survival shelter provides shade, repels wind, rain, and snow, and retains body heat which will allow you to maintain core body temperature.

In some environments, your need for shelter may supersede a need for food and possibly even a need for water. For example, prolonged exposure to arctic temperatures may cause excessive lethargy and weakness.

A survival shelter protects you from the sun, insects, wind, rain, snow, and hot or cold temperatures… It can give you a feeling of well-being and help you maintain your will to survive.

U.S. Army Manual, ATP 3-50 Chapter 6 Shelter and Clothing

A survival shelter can be as simple as a cardboard box or as complicated as a Viking long-house.

When choosing a shelter, consider the climate, the time it takes to build, and the resources necessary.

I. Temporary Survival Shelter

Temporary shelters are easy and quick to build. Shelters are usually used in an emergency when walking away from danger, and they are only used for the day. They don’t offer nearly as much protection as semi-permanent or permanent shelters.

Temporary shelters are typically used in scenarios such as bugging out when fleeing a dangerous event.

When building a temporary survival shelter, try to use the trash lying around, like an old mattress, plastic sheeting, or a cardboard box. Remember the first Rambo film when he cut a poncho out of the tarp he finds in the quarry?

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Learn how to build survival shelters in John “Lofty” Wiseman’s outstanding survival handbook covering everything from shelter building to fire-craft. A great resource and learning tool for most survival situations.

John was the youngest person to pass the Secret Air Service (SAS) selection process, where he remained for 26 years, attaining the rank of Warrant Officer.


10 Immediate Survival Shelters

These shelters don’t require any time or construction. Think of them as coverage from the elements. These shelters can be erected swiftly with little effort. According to the U.S. Army training manual, these types of cover include:

  1. A wall
  2. Existing manufactured structure.
  3. A vehicle
  4. Aircraft
  5. Tarp
  6. Poncho
  7. Piece of plastic
  8. Apace blanket
  9. Any material that is found in the area that will provide top cover
  10. A cave or rock outcropping

9 Examples of Natural Survival Shelters

Use these shelters when there is limited time and you need immediate shelter from the elements or if there are limited materials and tools. Following are some examples of naturally occurring shelters. As a side note having a lightweight tarp or poncho in your pack-out puts you in a much better position to create a make-shift haven.

  1. Caves.
  2. Rocky crevices.
  3. Small depressions.
  4. Large rocks on leeward sides of hills
  5. Clumps of bushes.
  6. Large trees and low-hanging limbs
  7. Fallen trees with thick branches
  8. Uprooted tree buttresses.
  9. Tree pit snow shelters.
U.S. Army Survival Manual, Naturally Occurring Shelters

Man-Made Survival Shelters

  • Poncho lean-tos
  • Poncho tents
  • A-frames
  • Tepees
  • Para Hammocks
U.S. Army Survival Manual, Types of manmade shelters

18 Temporary Survival Shelters for Survival

#1 Clothing Shelter

The clothing on your back is the survival shelter you can almost always count on.

Survival clothing needs to keep you dry, warm, or cool, out of the sun, and away from bugs.

When packing for a trip or voyage, avoid cotton. Cotton kills. When it gets wet, it stays damp and reduces core body temperature.

Choose outdoor clothing that is quick-drying, breathable, and can be worn in layers. Layered clothing allows the survivor to add and remove clothing depending on the weather.

Consider which clothing and gear you take when you travel. Pick the best dress for the trip by keeping in mind the terrain and climate of the areas you will traverse. If you are traveling in a vehicle, you might end up on foot.

Learn more about layering and survival clothing. Read the Ready Squirrel article, Survival Clothing Guide: Layering for Survival.

#2 Lein-to And A Frame Shelters

If you are in a forested area with enough wood, sticks, and saplings, you can quickly make an a-frame with just a knife, but it would be handy to have a foldable camp saw or a hatchet.

Lean-to shelters can be built from manmade or natural materials or a combination of both. I love the refuge in the drawing below because it includes a fire reflector to kick heat back into the shelter.

A-frames take more time to build than debris huts, but they are a superior shelter.

US Army Survival Manual, Field-expedient Lean-to and Fire Reflector
U.S. Army Survival Manual, A-frame Shelters

#3 Bough shelters

If there are evergreen trees in the area, you can build an A-frame with found wood and saplings and cover it with fresh pine boughs.

Fresh pine boughs come off of fir trees easily, and they are a lot softer to sleep on.

#4 Debris Hut survival shelter

Debris huts are a shelter of opportunity. Anything you can pile sticks, pine boughs, and saplings against or over. You’re looking for a down logged, suppression in the ground, or an upturned tree.

Learn how to make a Debris Hut. Check out Ready Squirrel’s article, How To Build a Survival Shelter: Debris Hut

#5 Tarp shelter

Tarps and shelters are lightweight and allow fresh air to circulate. They are also customizable to fit the weather and wind direction.

Tarps don’t protect against bugs unless you include bug netting in your kit.

A tarp is a better choice for a lightweight bug-out kit than a tent unless you can afford $500.00 for an ultralight backpacker’s tent.

To learn how to build Tarp shelters, check out the Ready Squirrel article, How to Build a Survival Shelter: Tarp Tent and Lean-to

#6 Poncho survival shelter

Military versions of the poncho are ideal for shelter building, and they are multi-purpose. You can build a survival shelter with a poncho or wear it as a rain jacket or a windbreaker.

Poncho Tent
Poncho lean-to

Poncho Lean-to, a walking stick used as a tent pole.

#7 Dug-out shelters

Dug-out shelters can be a found cave or depression that you dress with natural materials like saplings, pine boughs, and brush, like leaves and twigs you take off the forest floor. You can dig deeper into a depression already there and build walls, an indoor fire pit, and a roof.

Abandoned animal shelter

#8 Brush survival shelter

A brush survival shelter is another take on the a-frame. To set up, build an understructure with sticks, saplings, or deadwood and cover with pine boughs or leaves from the forest floor.

#9 Stone barrier shelter

Rock retains the heat of a campfire and works well as a fire reflector to block the wind.

#10 Sapling shelter

If you are in a forest with many young flexible saplings, you can cut them to length and bind them with cordage to create a frame for interlacing other branches and then covering them with leaves, pine boughs, or a tarp.

#11 Stick-wall and screen

Building walls from sticks is time-consuming, but If you are in a situation where willow sticks are plentiful, you could use the materials to build a wind or heat screen. Set up a framework of heavy sticks and weave the small pliable sticks to make the screen.

#12 Wattle and woven coverings

Stack wood, logs, or sticks and put clay mud and straw between each layer. Once the shelter is built, keep the clay dry if possible. This technique goes back to Medival times in Europe and earlier in the middle east.

#13 Tropical survival shelter

Use logs, palm fronds, and driftwood to build a shade structure. The one in the picture below is fancy, but you could use the same materials to create a debris hut, a-frame, or lean-to.

#14 Snow cave shelter

Snow caves are one of the most effective survival shelters because the snow has excellent insulating characteristics. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of time and energy to make when building a snow cave or shelter.

Try to build the shelter, so it doesn’t collapse. Snow is heavy, and you could get trapped.

Army Survival Manual, Placement of ventilation holes in the snow cave

To learn how to build a Snow-Cave read the Ready Squirrel article, How to Build a Snow-Cave Survival Shelter.

#15 Tree-Pit Snow Shelter

Minimize the effects of wind and snow by digging a hole in the snow around the base of a pine or an evergreen tree.

Tree-Pit Snow Shelter

Learn more about the tree-pit snow shelter in the Ready Squirrel article, How to build a tree pit snow shelter.

#16 Igloo survival shelter

For igloo building, snow needs to be super hardpacked with no soft layers. You need mountainous or arctic conditions for snow to get strong enough to hold its shape. Use a stick to test for evenly stiff packed snow.


#17 Raised Platform Shelter

This type of survival shelter is used in swampy and boggy areas to minimize the effects of wet ground or standing water found along the Gulf coast of the United States.

Raised Platform Shelter
Swamp Bed

#18 Desert Shelter

If you are stranded in a desert, staying cool and out of the sun is a primary objective. A desert shelter like the one below would allow you to remain hidden during peak sun and move when things cool down.

Below Ground Desert Shelter

Shelter Building Tools

Having the essential tools necessary to build a shelter can save a life. Keep these tools with you when there is a chance you’ll need them. Specifically, please keep them in bug-out bags, go-bags, bug-out vehicles, and load-outs for travel.

  • Bushcraft knife
  • Parachute Cord
  • Lightweight tarp
  • Folding Saw

6 Semi-Permanent Survival Shelters

This type of shelter is typically used if you have the time and materials and plan to stay in the area.

#1 Yurt survival shelter

I’ve always wanted a yurt. These babies are fantastic, but they are pretty expensive. There must be something to them because 50% of the Mongolian population still lives in them. In Mongolia, they are called gers.

#2 Heavy-duty tent survival shelter

Heavy duty tents can be retrofitted with a wood-burning stove and insulated. These are a pretty good option for a semi-permanent survival shelter.

#3 Tee-pee survival shelter

You can live in a comfortable tee-pee, but I’d probably go for a Yurt or guide tent because I’m more familiar with these types of shelter.

#4 Sod house survival shelter

The early pioneers often lived in sod houses. If there aren’t any trees in the area, this type of shelter might be your only option.

#5 Bamboo survival shelter

In the jungles of Borneo? Bamboo is your best best bet for a solid but inexpensive survival shelter.

#6 Grass hut survival shelter

If you’re surviving on the savannahs of Africa, consider building a grass hut out of local materials.

6 Permanent Survival Shelters

Permanent shelters are the best survival shelters. They are well insulated and attached to a foundation, typically built when you plan to stay in one place for an extended period.

They provide the most protection against the elements.

#1 Log cabin survival shelter

Plan on surviving in an area with trees, build a log cabin from natural materials, or purchase a log cabin home kit.

#2 Insulated Shed Survival Shelter

I love sheds because they are inexpensive and easily retrofitted for cold weather. Drop in a wood-burning stove, insulation, and a table, and you’ve got a survival shelter.

#3 RV survival shelter

Insulated RVs could be used as part of a bug-out location or long-term survival plan. They would work as a temporary shelter as you build a house or log cabin or as part of a permanent base camp.

#4 Stick-built house survival shelter

Choose a stick-built house in a rural location with access to clean water and low population density for long-term survival.

#5 Bomb Shelter survival shelter

TA bomb is a survival shelter a prepper might plan to make at a bug-out location. There are still companies building these structures today. Here could be an entire article on bomb shelters.

#6 Viking Long House

Viking long houses were built from a wood frame. When wood was scarce, Vikings used stone or sod. Wattle and daub and grass rooves were also sometimes used.