The links on this website may contain affiliate links. This means that we may receive a commission if you decide to make any purchases using our affiliate links.

eHow To Build A Wilderness Survival Shelter

You should have a store-bought tent with you when you are enjoying the outdoors. However, we are all human, and you may be caught unprepared.


That is why it is essential to learn how to build basic survival shelters when you are without a tent.  This guide will teach you how to build easy survival shelters that have a relatively short learning curve.  And, shortly, I will go over some other, more complicated ones.  First of all, specific criteria need to be considered to make sure that your emergency shelter is both safe and serves its purpose.   Here are some of the fundamentals to keep in mind:

Where  Should I, Ideally, Set Up Camp?

If you set up your survival shelter in the wrong area, you can find yourself in a flash flood or other potentially deadly situation. Therefore, finding the correct place to set up your camp is the first and the most crucial step in building your emergency survival shelter.

So, before setting up camp, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are any natural hazards nearby? Scope out space where you will build your housing and make sure it is free from natural hazards, which means that you should make sure your campsite is free from natural hazards. I.E. like Rockfalls, Standing Dead Trees or  Avalanches.
  • What is the environment of the surrounding area?  Find an area that has  has natural walls and other barriers as best as you can. For example, rock formations, dead and fallen trees, etc., can be used to reflect heat and also helps with your fire.
  • Is my camp close to a source of firewood and potable water?

      Wilderness Shelter Building Considerations

      Before building your emergency survival shelter, you need to consider the following carefully.

      • How many people are going to be needing shelter? Smaller survival shelters are more easily able to conserve heat. That is why it is essential that your temporary living spaces are as small as possible.
      • Does your shelter adequately protect you from rain, sun, wind, and snow? Always plan for the worst-case scenario when building your shelter.
      • What types and amounts of materials are potentially available for you to build your shelter? For example, your options are limited if you are stranded in the desert vs. a forest.
      • Ventilation: Your emergency shelter needs proper ventilation; so, fresh air can get into your make-shift tent and that C02 to leave. This is especially true if you are wanting to build your fire inside your tent.
      • Insulation: Proper insulation is especially important during the winter months or an arctic environment. Some natural insulation that you should look out for is moss, grasses, and pine tree boughs.
      • Frame: The outer frame needs to be sturdy enough to be able to withstand strong gusts of wind. Also, if applicable, the shelter frame should be able to withstand snowfall or heavy rainfall.
      • Shelter Size: It needs to be big enough to serve its purpose of accommodating the right number of people.   The size should not too large that you will wast effort by building an unnecessarily large shelter.
      • What Type of  Bushcraft Gear Do I have?   The type of shelters that you can build largely depends on the survival gear that you have with you.    (That is why you should practice building shelters that require a minimal  amount of tools)

            What If you Only have Non-Water Proof Covering:  A non-waterproof or porous covering will only deflect water when it is stretched out at a sufficient angle.  To do this, you need to do the following:

              1.  Tightly stretch out whatever material you are using for your shelter covering.
              2. Place the covering, on the shelter’s frame, at a 40 to 60-degree angle. At 40 to 60 degrees rainwater will be more likely to runoff the covering, onto the ground, and not drip into your tent.At 40 to 60 degrees rainwater will be more likely to runoff the covering, onto the ground, and not drip into your tent..

            TIP-To lessen water leakage, refrain from touching the outside covering of your tent when it is raining or snowing.


            After you’ve selected your campsite area, the next step is to start gathering up the needed materials. The materials that you may need to start collecting are the following: bedding, insulation, frames, and wooden stakes. Also, you need to do the following preparation before building:

            • Wood: To reduce the chance of your poncho being ripped, or you being injured, remove all uneven edges and any stubs found on the wood. 
            • Natural Coverings: Collect bark from fallen trees, cut off tree limbs, grass, and other forms of vegetation for either added covering or to use solely for natural covering.


            Now for the fun stuff!!! Learning how to build your shelter!   Multiple types of survival shelters are available for you to build.   Some are made from entirely manmade materials, and some are only built from natural materials.   However, the best shelters will use both natural and manmade material.  First of all,  the KISS (“Keep It Simple Stupid) principle should always be filed when you are building your shelter. So, unless it is necessary, don’t reinvent the wheel.
            For example, if applicable, you should first look for abandoned houses, sheds, or a barn for a place to sleep.

            Also,  a cave, or hollowed-out log could be perfectly acceptable for a short-term or even long term shelter.

            This report will go into the following types of shelters, and my advice is for you to master building a certain kind of shelter before trying to move on to the next one.  Also, it is best practice to combine both artificial and manufactured elements for your emergency accommodations.   Here, are the categories of shelters that this report will examine:

            • First Reaction Shelter (“First Reaction”):  First reactions can be built quickly and with little or no effort. Examples of this type of shelter would range from a space blanket, tarp, poncho, and even an extra layer of clothing.  This kind of shelter includes, but is not limited to: caves, overgrown trees with limbs that are close to the ground,  fallen logs, rocky crevices, and other natural formations, which provide cover. A natural shelter can be the right choice for bushcraft as natural coverings are already mostly built and using these pre-built shelters saves you both time and energy.   See Figure XXXX for an example.
            • Manmade Shelter:  As it implies, this type of emergency shelter is made from manmade materials like a tarp or poncho. They differ from the first reaction is that they require time and effort for construction.
            • Natural Shelter: Is a shelter that is solely built with natural materials, like branches, trees, leaves, etc.    Unless

            First Reaction Shelter

            As stated, the First Reaction Shelters are typically temporary and can be quickly used and built. Also, many times, the First Reaction doesn’t need any construction at all. It is the first type of emergency survival shelter that you should consider in an outdoor survival scenario.
            Use first reaction shelters in the following situations:

            • You don’t have the proper materials
            • You don’t need to or have time to build a manmade or natural shelter
            • You need to escape a sudden storm or other poor weather conditions.

            Artificial, examples of the “First Reaction” are the following:

            • Automobile

                                                         Natural First Reaction Shelters

            • Crashed Airplane
            • Poncho
            • Tarp
            • Space blanket

            A naturally built, “First Reaction” can be the following:

            • Cave
            • Overhanging, rock formation,
            • A large tree, with low hanging branches
            • Fallen tree with large, branches

            Your imagination is your only limitation when it comes to the First Reaction shelter.

            ManMade Shelters

            Poncho Lean-To Shelter

            A poncho lean-to shelter is relatively easy to make as all it requires is a poncho and standard bushcraft tools, like your trusty survival knife.  These types of shelters, mainly if you are staying just a short time in any given area, should be your first choice.

            Equipment/Material Needed

            • Poncho: One
            • Rope: 7′ to 10.’
            • Three stakes approximately 1′ in length
            • Two trees or poles placed from 7′ to 10′ apart

            Tip-Before choosing what trees to be used or placing poles you need first to check the direction of the wind and make sure that your lean-to’s back is into the wind.


            Precisely follow these steps.

            1. Secure the poncho’s hood by tying it off. Next, the poncho’s drawstring needs to be pulled tight with the hood rolling long ways, and folded into thirds. Finally, tie it off with your poncho’s string.
            2. Cut your rope in two. One the long side of your poncho, tie one half of the rope to the corner poncho hole or grommet. Afterward, fasten the remaining rope half to the other corner hold.
            3. Place a 4′ thick stick to each rope at around 1″ from the holes. These sticks serve to stop rainwater from going down the ropes into your poncho lean-to. Also, to prevent water from dripping into the tent, fasten 4″ long strings to each grommet near your poncho’s top edge. (This can help stop rainwater from going into your shelter.
            4. Using a round turn and 2 half hitches with a quick-release knot, fasten the ropes waist high onto the tree.
            5. Spread out the poncho and then secure it to the ground by pounding the stakes through the grommet holes into the ground.
            6. You need to support the center of your lean-to if you will be using the poncho lean-to for an extended period or if you expect rain. This support is simply done by, tightly, tying one end of a rope to the hood of your poncho, and the other end tied to a branch. The line should be very tight, with no slack.
            7. For added protection from the elements put brush, backpack or other natural and/or manmade equipment to the sides of your shelter. Also, to minimize the loss of heat, you can put leaves, pine
            8. To reduce heat loss, place natural insulation (pin needles, leaves, etc.) inside your tent

            Natural Shelter

            Tree Pit Snow Shelter

            The Tree Pit Survival Shelter is built in the forest where evergreen trees are abundant in a snow-covered area. The only tool that is ideally needed is a shovel.

               Tree Pit Shelter

            However, in a pinch, you can use your hands to dig out the snow.
            Do the following to make the Tree Pit:

            1. Locate a tree that has bushy, overgrown bushes that can provide, above, cover.
            2. Dig out all of the snow around the tree trunk to a point until you feel comfortable with the depth and you overall would feel reasonably comfortable staying there.
            3. For added support, pack snow near the top and also inside the hole. Pack the snow around the top and the inside of the hole to provide support.
            4.  Gather and cut other evergreen branches and put them over the top of the tree pit. Also, for added insulation place the boughs at the pit’s bottom.

            Sapling Survival Shelter

            The sampling shelter is made in woods and bushy areas where an abundance of young trees and saplings are found.  A sapling shelter also makes an excellent concealment shelter.  A sapling shelter can be constructed in four easy steps that are listed below:

            1. Find and clear a space where there are two parallel rows of tall saplings ten to twenty feet apart depending on their height.
            2. Bend the saplings together and tie them to form several half hoops and form a framework.
            3. Cover the framework with water-resistant material like tarps, treated canvas, etc.
            4. Afterwards, you can insulate the shelter with leaves, dirt, branches, brush and snow. One end of the shelter should be closed off, and more water-repellent material or brush can be used at the open end to make a doorway.

            Lean To Survival Shelter

            The lean-to is ideally  built in heavily wooded areas, and a cord or rope will be needed to make it.   Also, for the novice, the lean-to can be hard to make.   Below are the steps for building it:

            1. Find a site with two trees at least four inches in diameter. They should be spaced far enough separately for you to lie down between them. Two lengths of pole or fallen trees of a reasonable size can be used in place of standing trees by inserting them into the ground a man’s length apart.
            2. Cut another pole for a roof support. Make sure it’s long enough to extend past both trees. Raise and tie the roof pole between the two trees making sure they are parallel to the ground.
            3.  Cut several more poles from either saplings or small trees and place one end on the ground ad the other end should be placed along the horizontal support. These are called stringers. A short wall of logs or rocks can be made on the ground to rest the ends of the stringers on, raising them up, which creates more height and space within. Supple saplings and brush can be woven between the stringers making a wall. Use water-repellent material over the horizontal support to provide a roof, and use as much insulating material as possible around the lean-to shelter.

            Please note, a double lean-to can be constructed using this same model by making two lean-to where one lean-to faces the other.

            Fallen Tree Shelter or Bivouac

            Fallen Tree Shelter

            Fallen Tree Shelter

            These can be quickly built as nature has done most of the work for you.  Again, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

            1. Find a fallen stable tree.
            2. Cut away branches from the underside of the tree and creating a hollow are underneath.
            3.  Use insulating material around the top and sides to protect you from the elements.


            Typically, for rescue purposes, you’ll want to make your shelter as visible as possible. However, if the #$@& hits the fan, you may wish to conceal your shelter, which can  be done by covering your shelter with branches, leaves, dirt, netting, and other natural or artificial camouflage. Additionally, you may want to mark, define, and then camouflage your shelters, entry and escape routes.  As a bonus, camouflage can provide insulation. Here’s a handy acronym to keep in mind when concealing your shelter:


            • Blend your shelter with your surroundings as much as possible.
            • Build with a low silhouette
            • The shelter needs to be built with an Irregular shape.
            • The shelter should be small.
            • It needs to be built in a secluded area.