When it comes to wilderness survival, there are a few fundamental factors that the majority of people think are vital: food, water, and shelter. Regardless of the temperature or region in which you live, it is necessary to protect oneself from the elements. Knowing how to construct simple buildings from foraged items might be a lifesaver if you lack access to a tent or cabin.
However, there are a variety of lightweight survival shelters that can be carried in “bug out bags” or cars in the event of an emergency. These shelters are weather resistant and often fairly quick and easy to erect. I’ll discuss a few ways you may prepare for the possibility of having to provide shelter for yourself, as well as some of the possibilities available on today’s market.
Factors to consider when building a survival shelter
Before you settle on a survival shelter contingency plan, you need first assess your local geography and climate to calculate the chances against which your structure will have to contend. Consider seasonal weather trends, the surrounding landscape, and even fauna while making this choice.
For instance, if you live in rocky, mountainous territory prone to extreme temperature changes and frequented by huge predators such as mountain lions and bears, you’ll have a few unique requirements for your shelter.
For one thing, if the terrain is rocky, hilly, or requires a lot of work to travel, you want to ensure that if you bring your shelter with you, it is lightweight and can be secured without staking it into the ground. Given the temperature swings common in mountainous places, you’ll want to ensure that anything you use is not just waterproof, but also certified for extremely cold temperatures.
Then, keeping in mind the local wildlife, you’ll want something that does not quickly absorb food aromas. While it is unlikely that you will locate a portable survival shelter capable of withstanding a bear assault, even anything that can be sealed extremely tightly to keep tempting scents in or out will be advantageous.
If you’re going to utilize locally foraged materials to construct a robust survival shelter, familiarize yourself with the technique ahead of time so you’re not doing it for the first time when you’re in desperate need of a roof over your head. Consider the resources available in the woods and the natural characteristics that may be used to your advantage.
Other options for building a survival shelter
There are several options if you wish to just purchase something and include it in your emergency kit. Prices might vary dramatically depending on how specialized or comprehensive a shelter you choose.
Simply keep in mind that if you choose a lightweight tent developed exclusively for trekking in cold climates, you may expect to pay several hundred dollars. The more sophisticated your criteria and equipment, the higher the price. If you’re still seeking, we have a few excellent evaluations in our post on winter camping tents.
How to Build a Survival Shelter
If, on the other hand, you’d prefer something that’s already wrapped and ready to go and aren’t too worried about the price, there are some really wonderful alternatives available. I’m particularly fond of mountaineering tents. These are often rather small, perhaps one or two people, and are intended just for sleeping. However, due to their tiny shape, they take up very little room in your pack and are extremely lightweight, often weighing between 3 and 7 pounds. Their pitches are frequently created with strong winds in mind as well, allowing them to withstand abuse without bending poles or blowing away.
Additionally, because they are developed with mountain climbers in mind, a good number of them are rated for extremely low temperatures, as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit. But seriously—be prepared to pay a premium for these bad boys—the majority cost between $500 and $800. However, if you can afford it, much the better; they are the tanks of the tent world (check out North Face or Mountain Hardware for some of the best). You may find further similar goods in our post on survival tents.
If you’d rather make a survival shelter kit than buy a tent, there are a few items you can toss in a backpack to rig up a variety of shelters. This type of pseudo-hybrid shelter is an excellent idea since it makes use of readily available materials while also providing some tools to hasten the process.
If you choose this route, take certain items that may be time-consuming or difficult to manufacture in the wilderness on your own (remember, you only have one day to build a shelter; there is no working after dark). Several recommended essentials to carry include the following:
- A tarp or polyethylene plastic sheeting—In a hurry, water proofing your construction may be accomplished without the use of these materials. However, in horrible, wet weather, these products will expedite the process for you. Tarps are excellent, however they are somewhat hefty. I much like a high-quality all-purpose plastic sheeting, or even a simple thick plastic drop cloth. Not only are they functional and adaptable, but they are also extremely cost effective.
- The necessity of rope/paracord cannot be emphasized. There are several methods to weave branches into a shelter, and you can absolutely make rope from malleable plant fibers, but it’s extremely time-consuming and difficult job that normally requires some experience to master. Invest in as much as your budget and space allow—you’ll be pleased you did.
- Knife and hatchet-While both are necessary components of any decent survival pack, they will save you great aggravation and work while attempting to construct a shelter. Purchase a knife with a very thick blade, preferably one with a serrated edge and one with a smooth edge (or just pack two). When it comes to your hatchet, ensure that the blade is thick (this will ensure that it lasts through several sharpenings) and that it has some weight to it—the back side of a hatchet makes an excellent hammer. We’ve compiled a wonderful array of hatchets (together with their respective evaluations) in our article on the best tactical hatchet, so be sure to check it out!
- Bastard file-This is not absolutely necessary, but it takes up so little space in your kit and can save you so much aggravation that I made it a must in mine. Nothing is more aggravating than a dull knife or hatchet, especially when the only available building material is green wood (which, in case you didn’t know, is far more difficult to cut than seasoned dry wood). Develop a working knowledge of fundamental sharpening techniques and maintain this file in your equipment at all times.
- There are other additional items you might include in your survival shelter kit, but these are what I consider to be the primary basics, and they are truly all you need to get started. With a little creativity and elbow grease, these fundamental components will assist you in erecting a shelter in nearly any situation.
Natural refuges in the wilderness
Naturally, there are several methods to protect oneself without using any of the aforementioned items. While having a comfortable, weather-proof tent is undoubtedly more convenient, there is something to be said for constructing your own structure entirely from items found in the outdoors.
The sensation of foraging for building materials while going through the forest evokes a primal drive that many of us have forgotten. We may still have no idea what we’re doing, but just having to discover what we need and work with nature’s forces rather than against them is enormously fulfilling.
What I mean by “working with nature” is not some tree-hugging adage, but rather a very practical, highly scientific attitude with which you should get acquainted regardless of your survival style. When all you have to work with is the soil beneath your feet and the brush of trees on your legs, you must think practically. Whereas in a traditional house construction scenario, you build the home to meet your wants and substantially modify the land on which you build, in this situation, you work around what nature requires.
For instance, you may build ditches and runoffs to ease a drainage problem on your land, but while erecting a shelter in nature, you choose a well-drained place and modify the structure to meet the region. Therefore, if you’re attempting to survive in a frozen tundra, even if you’re more familiar with cabins and teepees, a scarcity of timber plus the hardness of the ground make creating one of these structures far more difficult than building an igloo or anything similar.
The goal is to work with what you have—do not push the environment to its boundaries, since the environment will always win. That said, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with some basic natural survival structures and even spend an afternoon or two building a few of prototypes (this is an excellent activity for the kids!).
Tipis and similar structures
Acquainting yourself with the fundamental concepts of tipi construction is a priceless skill. While it may not work well in an area devoid of lumber, it is a basic, practical, and extremely adaptable design in any other location. There are other complexity and improvements to tipi construction that the Plains Indians have perfected through time, but simply understanding its fundamental architecture may be quite beneficial.
Specifically, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the pole assembly. Harvesting a few tiny trees for the job is an easy enough chore; just leave time to peel them before assembling your tripod. After erecting your poles and securing them with rope (here is where the paracord comes in useful), you may seal in your walls using a number of materials, depending on what you have on hand.
Naturally, animal skins were originally used, but since you’re unlikely to have many tanned and ready to go, make do with what you do have. You may utilize your plastic to create a watertight barrier; however, keep in mind the mechanics of smoke evacuation and moisture buildup inside the walls.
If you don’t have plastic or something similar, you may even begin by weaving a web of thin branches around your poles to make a type of mesh wall, which you can then seal with a mixture of mud and leaves (depending on the thickness of your branches).
Snow as a construction material
If you become stuck in a snow-covered location, retrieving lumber and making use of it would be extremely tough. In this case, your best choice is to utilize the snow to construct an igloo or a Quinzhee (a structure made out of snow, easier for beginners than igloos). There are several techniques for creating these sorts of shelters, some of which are more involved than others. However, if time is an issue and you’re unfamiliar with snow construction, I strongly recommend going with a Quinzhee.
There are several technical details involved in their construction, but the procedure is fundamentally as follows. You choose a suitable place that is surrounded by plenty of loose snow and is ideally shielded from the wind. As you pack a huge mound around some objects—preferably items that are readily transported, such as packs or even wads of branches—find anything to function as a placeholder beneath the snow pile. Pack snow all around the items, forming a couple of foot-thick mound.
Add a few marker sticks, approximately a foot long, and pierce the dome all throughout. Tunnel into the mound and take the goods, then burrow outward until the ends of your sticks are reached. Additionally, drill a vent hole to ensure that the structure receives appropriate oxygen.
Utilizing an area’s natural characteristics is a simple and foolproof technique to obtain a roof over your head. Even if your shelter is built against a rocky wall or dug into the side of a hill, it will significantly limit your exposure to the elements. Additionally, you receive the advantage of the earth’s thermal mass, which helps regulate temperature and retains heat.
Although moist and perilous at times, Rocky Wall Shelter Caves may provide a wonderful sanctuary from the weather. They’re an excellent alternative as long as you have a method of illuminating your path and, preferably, a guide rope out in case your light source fails. However, if you choose this path, take the following precautions:
- Always certain that you are alone. Throw pebbles into the depths, create a lot of noise, and provide sufficient chance for any other residents to emerge or make themselves known. You do not want to get into close proximity to a sleeping bear.
- Avoid going too far. Caves may deceive you with their vastness. What looks to be a single little chamber may have a fracture or hole that extends hundreds of feet. Compliment your circumstance by not exploring and being disoriented. Maintain a close proximity to the entryway.
- Maintain an awareness of your surroundings. By definition, caves are produced by swiftly flowing water and soil. Keep an eye out for rockslides, cave-ins, and flash floods, especially if the weather is stormy or local streams and rivers are high.
- Overall, caves are a basic and practical kind of shelter, although they do come with certain inherent dangers. Use common judgment and step carefully if you choose to spend the night in one.
More things to consider when building a survival shelter
There is just no way to overstate the critical nature of shelter. Without it, you expose yourself to certain unpleasant circumstances. Even a few hours of exposure to wind and rain can result in a case of potentially fatal pneumonia or hypothermia.
Intense sun exposure can result in dehydration and sun sickness, which can make you feel quite queasy and decrease your cognitive functions significantly. And a cold wind combined with dampness or snow can result in severe cases of hypothermia, which gradually shuts down your organs if left untreated, or frostbite, which permanently destroys limbs.
The best preparation you can do for survival shelter construction is to arm yourself with information. While high-tech equipment and techniques can make life simpler, understanding how to survive without them is considerably more useful.
Take the time to investigate different types of shelters and put what you learn into practice. Take the information you’ve gleaned from the internet and put it to the test—make prototype shelters in your backyard on weekends, or go camping with only the bare necessities and see what you can create.
Finally, knowing the ins and outs of these structures and then applying that information via hands-on experience is the finest preparation you can offer yourself, and will, in my opinion, go well beyond a $800 tent.