Survival Shelters That Can Save Your Life

The goal of all survival shelters is to keep you dry and at a comfortable temperature. This means they should be as weather-proof and insulated as possible. Knowing how to build the following structures can help you survive emergencies in almost any wilderness environment.

Types of Survival Shelters

Lean-To

survival shelters - lean-to

The easiest and most basic structure to build from scratch is a lean-to. It keeps the rain off, but provides little-to-no heat retention since it’s open on three sides. For a single person, build a stick framework roughly 5 feet high by 7 feet long and prop it up at a 45-degree angle with stout posts. Orient the back to the prevailing wind.

  • TIP: To keep as warm as possible (yet not burned extra crispy) build a fire close to, but not inside, the shelter entrance. Try to reflect as much heat as possible into the shelter by building a rock or earth wall on the non-shelter side of the fire.

A-Frame

survival shelters - A-frame

An A-frame shelter is open on two sides providing better heat retention and protection from the elements than a lean-to, but takes twice as long to make. However, by securing a tarp over a line stretched between two trees, an A-frame shelter can be built in minutes.

  • TIP: When building the lean-to or A-frame out of branches, be sure to layer the leaves from the bottom up to create a shingle effect. Green (freshly-cut) branches with broad, spade-shaped leaves work best.

Despite its ability to mitigate temperature extremes (thermal mass), soil is a poor insulator. It can drain heat from the body surprisingly quickly. Conserve energy by placing insulation between you and the ground. Tree branches, grass clippings, moss and even snow make excellent improvised insulation.

Raised Platform

survival shelters - raised sleeping platform

To build a raised platform, anchor four posts into the ground, lashing supports to the uprights. Layer 1-inch diameter poles, then green foliage over the horizontal supports to create a (relatively) comfortable bed.

If the ground is damp or you think flooding might an issue, always, always, always build a shelter with a raised sleeping platform. Moisture draws heat from the body exceptionally fast. If you allow your core temperature to drop just a few degrees (below 95 F), you can die. On average, hypothermia kills over 600 people in America every year. Keep your shelter dry.

In fact, the only time to bed down directly on the ground is in extremely hot climates to prevent dehydration.

Underground

underground desert survival shelters

Underground shelters provide relief from the extreme heat of desert climates.

To build an underground survival shelter, dig a trench deep enough to lay down in, then stretch a tarp over it to provide shade. If possible, secure another tarp over the first one, leaving a 6-8 inch air gap to better insulate you from the sun. Digging just a few feet down can drop temperatures by 30 degrees F or more.

  • NOTE: This comes with a price of course. The local fauna will find your shelter attractive too. You might wake up with a few unwanted bunkmates, many of whom tend to be bitey and poisonous, especially before they’ve had their morning coffee. Creeps.

Unless you find a pre-dug pit or cave, building an underground survival shelter takes lots of work. Be sure to gather plenty of food and water before building.

  • WARNING: Caves as survival shelters are not all they’re cracked up to be. Though they save the back-breaking work of building a shelter, caves are dangerous. In addition to the threats of insect bites, animal attack and being buried alive, you can also easily suffocate.

But if it’s your last resort and must use a cave, never strike a match anywhere near it. A camp fire can quickly burn all the oxygen and if your cave hosts a bustling community of bats, the gas from their guano can ignite, causing an explosion. Though why you’d want to lie in bat shit in the first place is beyond me.

Click here to learn more about building a dirt-cheap permanent underground survival shelter.

Igloo

survival shelters igloo

To build an igloo, saw out rectangular chunks of snow, placing them in a circular pattern at least 8 feet in diameter. To enclose the structure, taper the blocks so they angle inward, or simply offset them so each course has a smaller diameter than the last (called the ‘Corbel effect’). Position the blocks in a running bond, like in a brick wall, for strength. Once the last block is in place, pack the entire structure with snow.

When building completely-enclosed survival shelters, remember to include air holes. (That whole suffocation thing again.) Because cold air sinks, the air intake, often the shelter entrance, should be lower than the sleeping and working platforms. Position the exhaust air hole above the entrance, near the top of the structure.

Final Tips for Building Survival Shelters

  • Use what’s close at hand first, then, if necessary, search for found materials. Working close to camp can save lots of traveling time.

  • Unfortunately, plastic is found almost everywhere, especially along beaches, lakes and rivers. If you don’t have a tarp, a few scavenged trash bags make a quick poncho or tent.

  • Use fallen branches rather than cutting new ones to save work.

  • Use nature. Build your shelter against a rock, tree or in a gully for a natural windbreak.

  • Building survival shelters requires lots of energy; energy that might be better spent finding food, water or help. Always look for ways to reduce the effort of building.

What supplies do you need to build first-rate survival shelters? Click here for my ultimate survival checklist.

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