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Survival Shelters: Beginner’s Guide

Just in, survival shelters are one of the first things you should prepare for in a survival situation because shelter maintains a healthy body temperature and improves the psychological aspect of survival. So what is a survival shelter?

A survival shelter is a temporary structure built to keep you alive in a survival situation. The goal is not comfort if the shelter is made from natural materials there is a good chance it will leak some such as with lean-twos and other debris shelters this is a good reason to always have a poncho when you are out in the wilderness and in your go bag.

The ultimate goal of building a survival is to provide shade, repel wind, rain, and snow, and to maintain core body temperature. Stay alive, not comfortable.

In some environments, your need for shelter may supersede a need for food and even water. A 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.

Let’s look at the types of shelter you will likely build in an emergency.

I. Temporary Survival Shelters

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

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 Wilderness 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 types of survival shelters (wilderness)

Use these structures when there is limited time and you need immediate shelter from the elements or if there are limited materials and tools. Following, are 9 examples of survival structures made from natural materials.

  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

5 types of shelters for survival (man-made materials)

Using synthetic materials is one of the best ways to ensure a shelter is water-proof and retains body heat. Combine a Poncho, tarp, parachute, or a heavy piece of plastic with natural materials to make an even better shelter. Let’s take a look at 5 shelters commonly made from a tarp or poncho.

  1. Poncho lean-tos
  2. Poncho tents
  3. A-frames
  4. Tepees
  5. Para Hammocks
U.S. Army Survival Manual, Types of manmade shelters

18 types of survival shelters (temporary)

#1 Clothing

The clothing on your back is a protective shelter you can almost always count on.

Choose outdoor clothing that is quick-drying, breathable, and can be worn in layers, allowing you to add and remove clothing.

Tip: Avoid cotton because when it gets wet, it stays damp and reduces core body temperature.

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

#2 Lein-to And A Frame

Make an A-frame 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 and a natural frame holding a tarp.

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

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

#3 Bough(s)

Another variation on the a-frame is a Bough shelter. A shelter was built with a frame of saplings and covered with heavy pine boughs.

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

#4 Debris Hut

Debris huts are a shelter of opportunity. Anything you can pile together: sticks, pine boughs, saplings, rocks, an old mattress, plastic sheeting you name it. To build a debris hut find a downed log, an upturned tree, a large boulder, a depression in the ground, or an overhang of a cliff. Stack the debris against a log or over a depression leaving an opening.

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

#5 Tarp

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

This type of shelter doesn’t protect against bugs unless you include bug netting in your kit.

Ponchos and tarps are a good choice for lightweight bug-out kits.

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

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. If you are in a pinch or if the weather is nice sleep in a Ranger burrito using a poncho and a poncho liner.

Poncho Tent
Poncho lean-to

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

#7 Dug-out

This type of structure can be found as a cave or depression that you dress with natural materials like saplings, pine boughs, and brush. Dig deeper into the depression and build walls, an indoor fire pit, and a roof.

Abandoned animal shelter

#8 Brush

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

#9 Stone Barrier

Stack rocks and start a fire close by. Rock retains the heat of a campfire and works well as a fire reflector to block the wind. The stones will retain heat and radiate back toward your shelter.

#10 Sapling

Young flexible saplings make an excellent shelter frame that can be covered with pine boughs, a tarp, or found materials. Cut the saplings to length and bind them with cordage to create a frame for interlacing other branches and then cover them.

#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.

#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

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

This is one of the most effective survival shelters because the snow it is built from has excellent insulating characteristics. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of time and energy to make a snow cave.

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

To build this snow structure the 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

This 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. If you are surviving in an area like this I strongly suggest you keep a bug net in your bug-out bag. Biting flies and mosquitos can ruin morale.

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 structure like the one below allows you to remain protected during peak sun so you can move when the sun goes down. You need a poncho liner or a tarp to build this shelter.

Below Ground Desert Shelter

5 Tools For Shelter Building

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.

#1 Bushcraft knife

If you have the skill set, you can make just about anything you need for camp using a survival knife, but it will take longer.

#2 Parachute Cord

Use for cordage to build a-frames or to bind any other useful items like cooking tripods for a cooking pot to sterilize water or for a ridgeline on tarp shelters

#3 Lightweight tarp

A tarp can be used in multiple configurations to build a shelter or in combination with natural materials.

#4 Shovel (winter environment)

Carry a foldable shovel when it makes sense.

#5 Folding Saw

The easiest tool for cutting up saplings and small pieces of wood for shelter building.

6 Semi-Permanent Survival Shelters

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

#1 Yurt

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 there. In Mongolia, they are called gers.

#2 Heavy-duty Tent

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

#3 Tee-pee

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 shelters.

#4 Sod House

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

#5 Bamboo

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

#6 Grass Hut

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

6 Permanent Survival Shelters

These are the best survival shelters because they are well-insulated and attached to a foundation providing the most protection against the elements. Build a permanent shelter when you plan to stay in one place for an extended period, like a bug-out location.

#1 Log Cabin

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

#2 Insulated Shed

Sheds are inexpensive and easily retrofitted for cold weather. Drop in a wood-burning stove, some insulation, and a table; you’ve got a survival shelter.

#3 RV

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

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

A survival shelter to make at a bug-out location. There are still companies building these structures today.

#6 Viking Long House

Built by Vikings from a wood frame, stone, or sod. Depending on available materials.

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