When venturing into the great outdoors, the ability to create a reliable emergency shelter with minimal tools is a fundamental skill. Without it, you’ll be left to deal with the elements, and exposure can be fatal. Whether you find yourself in a survival situation or simply want to enhance your bushcraft skills, knowing how to build temporary natural shelters and practicing them will come in handy.

Before You Build an Outdoor Shelter

Understanding the Environment

Knowing the local flora and fauna can help you identify hazards and food sources in a survival situation. Look out for rocks, deadwood, dried grass, and other resources. Standing deadwood is best to use, as it is least susceptible to rot and it can be processed and burned, more easily than green wood.

Look for potential hazards such as ravines, predator tracks, and unstable trees or hillsides. Before going on an expedition, look ahead at the weather conditions and adapt your plans accordingly if you are already outside and see signs that the weather will be less hospitable, focus on sealing cracks in your roof and reinforce your heating source.


Selecting the right spot to construct is the first step in ensuring a safe shelter. Choose a location that protects from the elements, including wind and rain. Look for a flat area to avoid water runoff and flooding. Avoid entering caves if you can. Although they provide a roof over your head, they can have hidden pitfalls, house wildlife, and risk flooding or rockslides.

While you will likely want to be close to a river or lake for water, try to be at least 200 feet away from the lake to prevent any waste you produce from polluting the water. Do your best not to trample vegetation and select locations already used for bushcraft or setting up a camp if possible, keeping the Leave No Trace principles in mind.

Five Types of Survival Shelters

Lean-To Shelters


Lean-to shelters have a simple yet effective design. Find a long, sturdy branch and lean it at an angle against a solid support, such as a tree or large rock. Cover the frame with large leaves, ferns, or branches to create a waterproof layer. You can leave one side open if you’d like, with some bracing provided, or you can lay up protective layers on the other sides, too.

Lean-to shelters are best used in fair weather, as there is usually a large opening. The structure provides a wall to protect your outside fire from the wind and will keep you dry in a pinch.

How To Make a Lean-To

Lean-to shelters are simple and effective survival structures that can be constructed quickly in various outdoor scenarios.

  1. Support Selection: Identify a solid support like a tree trunk or a large rock to serve as the main anchor point.
  2. Ridgepole: Find a long, sturdy branch and lean it at an angle against the chosen support. This acts as the ridgepole, the main structural element of the shelter.
  3. Framework: Place smaller branches at an angle against the ridgepole, creating a slanted wall.
  4. Covering: Layer leaves, branches, grass, or any available natural materials over the framework to create insulation and a barrier against elements like wind and rain.

Safety Tips

  • Stability: Ensure the ridgepole and framework are secure and can withstand wind or rain.
  • Fire Safety: If building a fire near the shelter, maintain a safe distance to prevent fire hazards.


  • Quick Construction: Can be built rapidly with minimal tools and materials.
  • Weather Protection: Offers a shield against wind and precipitation.
  • Versatility: Can be adapted to different environments and materials available.

Potential Challenges

  • Limited Space and Insulation: Typically provides shelter for one or two people with limited insulation.

Supplemental Tools and Materials

  • Rope or Vines: Useful for securing the ridgepole and framework.
  • Cutting Tool: A knife or a hatchet can aid in cutting and shaping branches.

Important Considerations

  • Location: Choose a flat area away from immediate dangers like falling branches, flooding, or wildlife paths.
  • Orientation: Ideally, the open side of the lean-to should face away from prevailing winds and have a good view of the surrounding area for safety and rescue visibility.
  • Insulation and Bedding: Use extra leaves, grass, or pine needles for bedding to provide additional insulation from the cold ground.

Lean-to shelters are a crucial aspect of survival skills as they provide necessary protection with minimal resources. Whether you find yourself in a forest, desert, or mountainous area, it is essential to understand how to construct a lean-to shelter as it can be a vital component of outdoor survival strategy. These shelters are adaptable to different environments and are easy to construct, making them a reliable option for many survival situations.

A-Frame Shelter

A-Frame Shelter

Constructing an A-frame shelter involves using two sturdy branches to create an ‘A’ shape. You can then weave smaller branches or vines across the frame to form a lattice. Afterward, cover the frame with insulating materials such as leaves or pine needles. If you don’t have the materials to weave a lattice, you can lean additional branches against the frame and follow the insulation method given in the lean-to model.

How To Build an A-Frame Shelter

  1. Framework: Select two sturdy, long branches to create the ‘A’ shape. These are positioned to form the ridgepole, which is the backbone of the shelter.
  2. Ridgepole: Place another long, sturdy branch across the top of the ‘A’ to act as the ridgepole.
  3. Lattice Formation: Weave smaller branches, vines, or sticks horizontally across the ‘A’ frame to create a lattice structure. This acts as the basic framework for the shelter.
  4. Covering: Overlay this frame with leaves, pine needles, grass, or other natural insulating materials available in the vicinity. Ensure the materials are layered to repel water and retain heat.

Safety Tips

  • Stability: Ensure the main ‘A’ structure is securely anchored to prevent collapse.
  • Fire Safety: If building a fire near the shelter, maintain a safe distance to prevent fire hazards.


  • Quick Setup: An A-frame shelter can be constructed relatively quickly with minimal tools.
  • Weather Protection: Offers protection from rain, wind, and sun.
  • Insulation: When covered properly, it can trap body heat and provide warmth.

Potential Challenges

  • Space Limitation: Typically, A-frame shelters are compact and may not accommodate more than one person comfortably.
  • Waterproofing: Ensuring the shelter is waterproof can be challenging, especially in heavy rain.

Supplemental Tools and Materials

  • Cutting Tool: A knife or a hatchet can be handy for cutting branches to the desired length.
  • Rope or Vines: For securing the main branches together at the top of the ‘A’.

Important Considerations

  • Location: Choose a flat, dry area away from water bodies and dead trees that might fall.
  • Orientation: The open end of the ‘A’ should face away from prevailing winds.
  • Insulation: Use additional materials like leaves or grass inside the shelter for bedding.

The A-frame shelter is a well-known example of a nature-based survival structure that is efficient and easy to construct. It provides essential protection from the elements and can be a crucial aspect of outdoor survival. Building an effective A-frame shelter requires practice and familiarization with the environment. With the right approach and materials, you can construct a reliable shelter that can help you survive in the wild.

Tree Platforms

Tree Platform for Survival

Tree platforms are a clever type of shelter that can be very useful in wooded areas. Elevated off the ground, they provide protection from ground-based predators and help to keep you dry in damp conditions. To build one, simply construct a sturdy platform using the branches of trees. This way, you will be able to protect yourself from pests and predators that roam at ground level.

How To Build a Tree Platform for Shelter

Constructing a tree platform involves creating a stable, flat surface high up in the trees using sturdy branches and other materials.

  1. Selection of Trees: Choose strong, healthy trees with robust branches capable of supporting a platform.
  2. Framework: Using sturdy branches, create a frame by securing them between two parallel, strong branches of a tree or between two adjacent trees.
  3. Platform Base: Lay more branches across the frame to create a flat surface. Ensure they are close together for stability.
  4. Securing the Platform: Use ropes, vines, or any sturdy material available to tie the branches securely in place.

Safety Tips

  • Height Consideration: The platform shouldn’t be so high that it’s unsafe to access or exit, especially in an emergency.
  • Stability Test: Always test the stability of the platform before fully committing your weight to it.
  • Benefits
  • Safety from Ground Elements: Elevates you above ground predators, insects, and damp conditions.
  • Viewpoint Advantage: Provides an excellent vantage point for spotting rescuers or observing wildlife.

Potential Challenges

  • Construction Skill: Requires a good understanding of knots and load-bearing structures.
  • Accessibility: Getting on and off the platform can be challenging, especially in adverse weather conditions.

Supplemental Tools and Materials

  • Rope or Vines: Essential for securing branches and adding stability.
  • Climbing Gear: Depending on the height and location, basic climbing gear can be beneficial for safe access.

Important Considerations

  • Environmental Impact: Be mindful of not harming the trees or the surrounding environment. Do not build a platform near nests.
  • Weather Protection: Consider adding a canopy of leaves or a tarp above the platform for protection against rain and sun.
  • Sleeping Arrangements: Ensure the platform is large and stable enough to accommodate you and your gear comfortably.

Tree platforms offer unique advantages in certain survival situations, particularly in environments where elevation is beneficial for safety or comfort, but they require more skill and effort to construct than ground-based shelters.

Debris Hut Shelters

Debris Shelter in the Woods

In colder situations, you will desire added insulation. Building a debris hut will provide you with a fully covered igloo-style shelter, insulated with leaves, brush, grass, and pieces of wood. Start by creating a framework using a strong, long branch leaned against a tree. Layer smaller branches, leaves, and debris on the framework. Ensure the entrance is small to keep the most heat.

The warmest debris hut will have an entrance so small you have to crawl into it, and have layers of wood, and then dry leaves or pine needles along with branches, and then some additional larger pieces of wood to hold the debris in place. This will provide you with a warm, waterproof, windproof shelter.

How To Make a Debris Hut Shelter

  1. Framework: Begin by finding a long, strong branch and leaning it against a tree stump or forked tree to create the main ridgepole.
  2. Ribbing: Place shorter branches at an angle along both sides of the ridgepole, forming a rib-like structure.
  3. Layering: Cover this framework with leaves, brush, grass, and small pieces of wood. Start from the bottom and work upwards, ensuring each layer overlaps the one below to shed water.
  4. Insulation: Pack additional debris inside the shelter for insulation, particularly at the base where you’ll be lying.

Safety Tips

  • Stability: Ensure that the main ridgepole is securely positioned and can support the weight of the debris.
  • Space: The interior should be snug to maximize body heat retention but large enough to lie down comfortably.


  • Excellent Insulation: The thick layers of debris provide superb insulation against the cold.
  • Protection from Elements: The shelter is effective in protecting against wind, rain, and snow.
  • Versatility: Can be built in most wooded areas where debris is available.

Potential Challenges

  • Time-Consuming: Building a debris hut is labor-intensive and time-consuming.
  • Pest Control: The natural materials may attract insects or small animals.

Supplemental Tools and Materials

  • Gloves: To protect your hands while handling debris.
  • Cutting Tool: Useful for shaping branches or cutting vines for additional support.

Important Considerations

  • Location: Choose a spot away from potential hazards like falling branches or flooding.
  • Ventilation: Ensure there’s enough air flow to prevent condensation and maintain air quality.
  • Regular Maintenance: Debris settles over time, so regular addition and maintenance of the outer layers may be necessary.

Constructing debris hut shelters can be an effective survival strategy in cold conditions with limited resources. Although it requires time and effort, it offers significant warmth and protection.

Snow Shelters

Snow Shelter in Winter

In snowy environments, snow shelters, especially snow caves, are essential for survival as they provide excellent insulation against the harsh cold, which can be life-saving in extreme conditions.

How To Make a Snow Shelter

  1. Location Selection: Find a snowdrift or a snowbank that’s deep and stable.
  2. Digging: Use a shovel or any digging tool available to carve out a cave. The entrance should be smaller than the main chamber to conserve heat.
  3. Chamber Design: Hollow out a space big enough to lie down in, but not too large, as your body heat needs to warm it up.
  4. Ventilation Hole: Always create a small ventilation hole in the roof to prevent carbon monoxide buildup.

Safety Tips

  • Check Stability: Regularly check the stability of the snow to avoid collapses.
  • Avoid Exhaustion: Don’t overexert yourself while digging, as it increases the risk of hypothermia.
  • Regular Checks: Periodically exit the cave to check weather conditions and potential rescuers.


  • Insulation: Snow is a good insulator. It traps body heat inside the cave, creating a much warmer environment than the outside.
  • Protection: It offers protection from wind, snowfall, and predators.

Potential Challenges

  • Moisture: Snow can melt from body heat, leading to damp conditions inside the cave.
  • Oxygen Supply: The limited air exchange can lead to low oxygen levels if the ventilation hole is blocked.

Building Techniques for Outdoor Shelters

Leaf Bed

You can make sleeping more relaxing by creating a leaf bed. Pile up dry leaves, grass, and soft vegetation to insulate yourself from the cold, hard ground. Sift through any debris you collect and remove any pests living in your new bedding.

Natural Insulation

As seen above, natural insulation is key for keeping you warm at night and in the cooler seasons. You can use natural materials such as leaves, pine needles, and grass for insulation. Snow can also act as insulation in a pinch, and you can fill cracks in your structure with clay or mud. Be sure to leave enough openings for air circulation.


Before you go on an adventure, you should learn basic cordage techniques using natural materials like vines, long grass, or strips of bark to tie and secure parts of your shelter. Carrying a knife or hatchet can make it significantly easier to separate fibers.

Fire Reflectors

Building a reflector wall on the side of the fire opposite to your shelter entrance will maximize your heating efficiency. You can build a fire reflector wall out of wood, stones, or other available material. The heat from the fire will bounce off of the wall and warm the area around and inside your shelter.

Emergency Signaling

In an emergency, you should make your shelter visible from a distance by using reflective materials, bright colors, or creating large symbols on the ground that can be seen from the air. Any metallic items or colored fabric items can be rested on the roof, and you can try to spell “HELP” or “SOS” with pieces of wood or stone on the ground.

Taking Your Shelter to the Next Level

Test Your Shelter

If you have the opportunity to practice shelter building beforehand, spend a night or two testing your shelter’s effectiveness in different weather conditions. This ensures that you are well-prepared for any challenges you may face and can better build an emergency shelter if the necessity arises.

Knowledge, Skills, and Tools

There are many resources in books and online to help you as you build shelters. YouTube is rich with videos of hobbyists who engage in bushcraft, and the videos may include many tools or none and provide complex or simple designs for you to test out.

While most of the designs in this article do not require any tools, there are some tools that make building emergency survival structures significantly easier. As mentioned above, an axe or knife is an invaluable tool in the wilderness. A mallet, or a thick log in its place, can be used to hammer wooden spikes into the ground and give your structure more of a foundation. You can research additional tools and see if they suit your needs. Always be prepared when going off into the great outdoors.

Prepare to Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

Remain flexible and ready to adapt your shelter-building plans based on the specific conditions you encounter. Being adaptable is key to thriving in the wilderness. No matter what challenge is thrown at you, be prepared to overcome it.

Survive and Thrive in the Wilderness

Mastering the art of outdoor survival shelter building requires a combination of preparation, knowledge, and resourcefulness. It takes time to develop these skills, but consistent practice in different environments will enhance your ability to construct shelters that are appropriate for the specific setting you are in. Now, explore the wilderness and build your shelter with confidence, knowing that you have the necessary skills to thrive in the great outdoors.

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