Building a shelter in the wild is the most important survival consideration in many biomes, even in mild or hot climates. A well-built shelter will enable you to shield yourself from the weather, including wind, rain, and snow, and allow you to conserve body heat by proving insulation and often letting your body heat warm up the space.
Additionally, your shelter also serves to provide security. Not only does it help provide safety from wild animals, but it is also insurance against equipment, food, and other supplies getting damaged (or eaten).
Even so, for the uninitiated, building an outdoor dwelling is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Here are 10 common and primitive shelters that every survivalist should know how to build. Designs of varying difficulties and suited for many different conditions are included.
- Debris Shelter/Cocoon
- Platform Shelter
- Leaf Hut
- Dugout/Pit Shelter
- Snow Cave
Let’s cover each one in detail.
A lean-to shelter is one of the most popular shelters in temperate wooded areas or even more arctic conditions. They are often seen in TV and film, and include an open front and a back wall. The shelter depends on a fire in front of it to keep it warm. Therefore it is best suited to areas with plenty of wood available.
With a good fire only a step away from you, a lean-to will provide adequate shelter in even snowy conditions, although it does not make for a good long-term shelter. As it can be relatively quick to build, it is the best option if you are traveling through an area and need a new shelter each night, or on your own with limited equipment.
How to Build a Lean-To
- Install a cross beam between two trees, or between two other branches.
- Lean further poles against this to form the back wall.
- Insulate the structure using leaves, branches, and any other material available.
- It is advisable to build a raised bed underneath the back wall to provide insulation from the ground.
The more adverse the conditions, the more important it is to also make sure you follow a few tried and true guidelines. Here are a couple of tips to help ensure your success in building a lean-to:
- Always try to position the back wall to provide the best possible shelter from the wind.
- It is sometimes a good idea to build an overhead canopy to provide further insulation.
#2: Debris Shelter/Cocoon
A debris shelter is another quick, easy-to-build shelter suited for an individual. If you are in a group, you will each need to build your own shelter since “cocoons” only really fit one person.
The debris used to build it will also mean they are somewhat camouflaged against your surroundings. However, you remain in a vulnerable position as you need to crawl out the entrance hole to get onto your feet.
If you are in a suitably wooded area with sufficient poles available, even if they are relatively short, building a debris shelter can be quick and easy and does not require any further equipment. Because they are a small space, your body heat will warm up the space quickly.
How to Build a Debris Shelter
- You will need only one long pole, which needs to be longer than your height. Prop this up using two Y-shaped sticks on one end to form an elongated, three-sided pyramid.
- Make sure you can comfortably lie in your shelter.
- Using shorter sticks, create the walls on the long sides of your shelter along the entire length of your long pole. Start by using thicker sticks and increasingly gather stick debris and place it all over.
- Cover the structure with leaves to create the best possible insulation.
#3: Platform Shelter
If you are in a situation where safety from ground-dwelling animals or other people is important, a platform shelter will allow you to stay in a less vulnerable position.
In essence, a platform shelter simply refers to a raised platform on which you can sleep. There are multiple different issues to take into consideration when building a platform shelter to determine if it is suitable for your needs and, if so, what you need to look out for.
Should I Even Attempt to Build a Platform Shelter?
First, you need to consider if it is at all possible to build a raised platform and build it well. Depending on what material you have available, this might not be possible. Often, it is better to build a much simpler shelter since platforms are labor-intensive.
It is necessary to have a fairly large and sturdy one that you can build onto along with sufficiently rigid poles. Considering whether the material is suitable is important, as you do not want your shelter to collapse while you are on the platform. Not only would this defeat the purpose of the shelter, but it can lead to significant injury, which will impede your survival further.
Similarly, you may need equipment like a saw, shovel, or rope, depending on the materials. Also, remember that if you are unsure of how to build a platform shelter, it is likely to be unstable and unsafe. Therefore make sure you practice in advance of any anticipated survival situation and are sure of how to make sure the structure is sound.
How High Should I Build a Platform Shelter?
You will want to consider why you require a raised platform. If you want to decrease the risk of a scorpion, snake, or other insect bites, a raised platform that is 50cm off the ground will likely suffice. This is the best course in tropical environments, for example. A low platform shelter like that will also keep you dry if heavy rainfall occurs or the ground is already very wet.
If you want to shelter from larger animals and be in a less vulnerable position if you encounter danger, a higher platform is better to make sure it is out of reach of predators. Even though many predators do climb trees, they rarely hunt in them, making them the safer option for rest. For this, you will likely want to use a suitable tree with solid branches, as otherwise, this type of shelter will be too difficult to construct.
Don’t Forget the Roof
Last, the platform itself might protect you from animals and groundwater, but it will not shelter you from the elements. Therefore you will want to consider what type of shelter you will want to build over your platform. For lower platform shelters, this is often a lean-to. For higher shelters, you will have to consider how to construct a roof using branches, or a tent, depending on the conditions.
A ramada is a shelter with a flat roof but no walls or only partial walls. This is particularly useful in situations like desert climates, where you need to shelter from the sun rather than wind and cold. The sun during the day can pose a significant risk, and it is best to seek shelter during the hottest parts of the day to avoid heatstroke and dehydration.
To build a ramada, you will need at least three, if not four, sturdy poles for the corners, as well as material for the roof. This can either be branches fastened between the poles, a large tarp, or other fabric if you have it available. If you do, this can make building a ramada significantly easier, especially in desert areas where raw materials will be limited.
It also means that you can move your structure more easily if you are traveling through an area. As the purpose of a ramada is to keep cool rather than to conserve heat, you want to aim to increase airflow. The lack of walls is best for this, and if you intend to build a wall, make sure it doesn’t impede the most common wind direction, as that will cause the air under the ramada to stagnate.
How to Build a Ramada
- Anchor the poles in the ground a sufficient distance apart (more than your body length) in a triangle or rectangle shape.
- Secure branches across and cover them with debris, a tarp, or other fabric.
- Build up a bed with whatever debris is available.
It is important to remember that a ramada is not a suitable shelter during the night in the desert, as temperatures can plummet significantly. Therefore, if you are intending to stay overnight, you can construct a temporary smaller but insulating shelter underneath the ramada, like a lean-to, including a small fire.
A teepee is traditionally made from animal skins strung over wooden poles. The main benefit of these is their portability. They are essentially a type of tent made from raw materials, with the distinct characteristic of a smoke flap at the top. This allows you to build a fire for cooking as well as heat inside without causing unpleasant and dangerous levels of smoke to accumulate inside.
TeePees can be large enough to house groups of several people. They are quick to assemble each day after traveling, which means that you can maximize your travel time if you have a destination in mind.
However, building a teepee in the wilderness can be a challenge. While you may be in an area that has sufficient woodland to find the poles you require, the material needed for the cover is more difficult to procure. It is traditionally made from buffalo hides, but these are notoriously difficult to come by and hunt and you would require a large number.
These days, it is significantly easier to use ready-made fabrics. A large tarp or other fabric would be suitable if you have it available, but you can also consider sewing together other pieces of fabric you have available. Therefore a teepee is best for situations where you have been able to prepare directly before your trip and are able to take suitable materials with you.
Here is a cool video on how to build the frame of a teepee:
#6: Leaf Hut
A leaf hut is a cross between a teepee and a debris shelter. It consists of a significantly large wooden frame made from long poles, covered in leaves, moss, or other insulating material.
The benefits of this over a debris shelter are its size and comfort level. Unlike a teepee, they do not have the same portability, but instead, they are easier to build from the materials you may find around you, especially in wooded areas or shrubland.
You will likely require several more large poles than you do for a teepee to create a sufficient framework, which is then covered in smaller twigs and then leaves. With sufficient material around it, a leaf hut can also be more insulating than a teepee, although it is less suited for having a fire inside it.
If you are intending to use your shelter for longer periods of time, you can also build more complicated frames depending on your needs, including an overhanging roof to provide shelter while cooking outside, or a raised platform to provide shelter from animals and water on the ground.
#7: Dugout/Pit Shelter
A dugout is a shelter that has two key benefits. First, it requires fewer raw materials, as you are digging the shelter into the ground beneath you. You will need some material, such as poles or a tarp, to construct a roof, but you do not need material for the walls. This is beneficial in arid areas with fewer trees.
Secondly, a dugout is often used for concealment purposes, as depending on its build, it can be mostly or completely hidden from view. Unlike the debris shelter, a dugout is a much more permanent structure that also requires significantly more effort to construct.
In essence, a dugout is a large hole in the ground with a roof, making it easy to construct, although digging a hole of sufficient size will take time and is best suited for shelters aimed at housing at least small groups rather than an individual.
Aside from the material for the roof, you will also need to consider if you require material to reinforce the walls, depending on the nature of the soil around you.
The benefits of a dugout also include:
- Its size and customization possibilities.
- You can easily create seating and storage space in the ground by digging out more space as required.
- If you ensure suitable ventilation, you can also have a fire inside your dugout, although this will be less useful for concealment.
The amount of effort needed to create a dugout does mean you should consider carefully if it is the most suitable option, but if you are intending to create a long-term shelter, this is one of the best options.
#8: Snow Cave
A snow cave is a hollowed-out structure built into an existing snowdrift. You will need a shovel to build one. Otherwise, you’d probably freeze to death while building it.
Snow caves are the easiest shelter in snowy conditions, as long as there are snowdrifts of sufficient size in a safe area available. They can also last for several days as long as you make sure they are properly maintained and all floors are kept ice-free.
Inside a snow cave, your body heat will allow you to maintain a temperature of up to 0 degrees Centigrade even when outside temperatures can reach up to -40 degrees Centigrade. In combination with the shelter from wind chill, snow, and animals, a snow cave makes an excellent way of sheltering from the cold.
How to Build a Snow Cave
When building your snow cave, make sure you are in a safe area free from avalanche or tree fall risks.
- Compact the snow drift down by walking back and forth over it.
- Dig out the structure. Make sure the entrance is lower than the main sleeping area to best preserve heat inside the cave.
- Build an insulating layer on the floor to keep you off the cold ground.
- Create ventilation holes.
This brings up an important point. There are some dangers associated with snow caves.
- Make sure you do not run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is particularly important in snow caves due to the lack of ventilation, although you can include ventilation holes.
- You also need to make sure not to overexert yourself as sweating can lead to a quick loss of body heat, which can be very dangerous in cold climates.
A quinzee is a structure very similar to a snow cave. It is made by first creating a pile of snow and compacting it to a suitable size before digging the shelter. This allows you more flexibility when choosing a convenient and safe location for your shelter.
However, having to first build the pile of snow means that building one is significantly more work, and you are at a higher risk of overexertion, which can lead to a dangerous loss of body heat. It also means that constructing your shelter will take longer. This can be problematic if you are pressed for time, like when weather conditions are getting worse, or nightfall is approaching.
Overall, Quinzees can be a very stable structure. If built well, they can tolerate adults walking over the top. However, as with snow caves, a collapse of the shelter poses a significant danger, and you should make sure your structure is stable, as well as take further precautions to ensure your safety.
- Marking the quinzee, including where rescuers should dig for you in case of collapse.
- Insert a hiking pole or branch near your head to create a ventilation hole in case of collapse
- Keep tools inside the shelter to aid in digging yourself out should the entrance fall down.
An igloo is built from the ground up using blocks of snow rather than digging out the structure.
Like a quinzee, this allows you to choose the best possible location for your shelter. However, it also means that it takes significant effort to first create blocks of snow and then build the igloo. This means it is even more important to make sure you take sufficient breaks and work in groups.
As igloos are typically larger than quinzees and snow caves, they are better suited as a shelter for larger groups, although small igloos are also possible.
Igloos need to be built in the correct parabolic shape, as well as making sure the dome is stable. They are typically built in a spiral for best stability. This can take considerable skill and practice so an igloo is best suited to the more experienced and prepared survivalist.
The benefit of igloos is that large structures can be more comfortable for living and sheltering in for prolonged periods, and the method of constructing them allows for more ways to improve them. This includes a narrow entrance tunnel to avoid loss of heat, windows using clear ice, ventilation holes, and door flaps using fabric or other materials.
Igloos are the most stable out of the snow shelters discussed here and are the best option if you require long-term shelter for a larger group. However, all snow shelters face the danger of rising temperatures, and you need to monitor the weather to avoid a collapse of your shelter when temperatures rise above 25°F (-4°C).
Understanding Why Shelter is Important
If you are spending the night outside, or if adverse weather makes conditions dangerous, you will require shelter to survive in the wilderness. The biggest danger in the outdoors, especially overnight, is the loss of body heat. This is why building a structure properly is important.
Of course, you will be best served if you have a tent or bivvy sack with you. However, this may not always be possible. Whether you are caught in the wilderness by surprise or your equipment has become lost or damaged, knowing how to protect yourself from the elements is always an important factor for survival.
Choosing the Correct Shelter
There are many different types of shelters, ranging from the easy to build, like a debris shelter, to the more complicated, like a teepee or an igloo. It also depends on what purpose you need the shelter to serve, as a platform shelter will keep you away from most animals but won’t keep you as warm as a lean-to that has a fire in front of it.
Similarly, you will need to consider material and conditions, as in snowy areas, a snow cave or quinzee would be more suitable, while in wooded areas, you will be able to build a lean-to. If you are able, consider which materials and equipment will be most useful to you in building your shelter.
Most shelters can be constructed more easily if you have a saw, shovel, some rope, and a large waterproof tarp available, although they are not required. If you are able to take some equipment, consider which will be useful for a range of shelters that you have found suitable for your area.
It is important to remember that building all these types of shelters requires skill and preparation, so if you are able, it is helpful to practice building these shelters safely and efficiently. You don’t even need to go out in the wild if you have a backyard. There’s no reason you can’t test out your skills at your leisure. It just might save your life one day.
How big is a teepee? A typical indigenous teepee (tipi) is usually 10 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter. However, they can range from as small as 6 feet across all the way up to a massive 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide.
What is a lean-to roof called? A lean-to roof only has a single slope and is, therefore, known as a single-pitch roof.
For more, don’t miss Why Is Shelter Important for Survival?
- Best Places to Survive in the Wilderness (Or Build a Retreat)
- Are Caves Hot or Cold? Can a Cave Help You Survive the Wild?
- The 7 Dangers of Snow Caves & How to Prevent Them
- Are Tree Tents Safe and Comfortable?
- How To Hang a Tarp for Shade | The 4 Best Ways
- Bivy Sack or Tent: How Do You Decide?
- Best Survival Tube Tents for Emergency Kits or Bug out Bags
- Do Emergency Survival Blankets Really Work? | What to Know
Attributions: Main imag-: cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Sarah Smith - geograph.org.uk/p/1873104, Leaf hut photo courtesy of Sarah Smith, Lean-to photo courtesy of Oliver Dixon, Dugout photo courtesy of Evelyn Simak
Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!