What is a survival shelter?
Survival shelters can protect you against animals, sun, insects, wind, rain, snow, cold or other people. It can provide well-being and lift morale. It can keep you wanting to survive.
In some areas, the need for shelter can overcome hunger or even thirst. For example, prolonged exposure to cold will cause excessive fatigue and weakness. If you’re exhausted, you may develop a passive attitude and lose the desire to survive.
The most common mistake in preparing a shelter is oversizing. A shelter must be large enough to protect you. But small enough to conserve body heat, especially in cold environments.
Table of Contents
Survival priorities: the rule of three
One rule that can make the difference between life or death in nature is the rule of three.
Three minutes without air
After 3 minutes without air, your brain suffers permanent damage. Every minute that passes after them can lead to death.
Three hours without shelter in harsh conditions
After 3 hours exposed to the elements, hypothermia or hyperthermia can set in. These are the leading cause of death in nature.
Hyperthermia is the classic heat-stroke. It is a state of overheating of the body when the environment’s temperature is very high. You sweat, but you don’t consume enough fluids to cover the loss.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s heat loss exceeds its ability to produce heat. Hypothermia is most common during the cold season or after immersion in cold water. It can also occur in hot climates when a person stands motionless on a cold surface.
Immobilization, wet clothes, and wind increase the risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia slows down all physiological functions, including the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Three days without water
Of all the substances that enter the body, water is the most important. Your body contains about 65-70% water.
Your body eliminates salts and toxins using water. It also helps regulate your core temperature.
Three weeks without food
The last thing you need to worry about is food. The body can last three weeks without food. After a certain period without food, the body will begin to consume muscle and fat to survive.
An essential piece of advice is if you don’t have water, don’t eat. The body needs water to digest. If it is missing and you eat, you will dehydrate faster.
Types of survival shelters
When in a survival scenario, the first thing you need to do is to assess your situation. Then, based on the rule of three, start building your shelter. Here is our list of the best types of survival shelters recommended by experts.
Branch and log shelters
If you are building a long term shelter, you should use branches and logs. These will ensure that the structure is stable and durable. Look for healthy wood and avoid the dry or rotted ones.
Wickiup shelter / Round lodge / Tipi
You may know the Wickiup by many names and variants. It has a broad base narrowing at the top like a cone. The walls are made of straight branches covered by smaller sticks and dirt. This provides excellent insulation and protection from winds and cold.
You can even make a fire inside the Wickiup to keep you warm. Thanks to the open top of the shelter, the smoke isn’t trapped inside.
Debris Survival Shelter (Spider shelter)
The debris shelter is easy to build yet adequate. You only need some stakes, one long pole, various size sticks, leaves, or other debris. The small size and simplicity make the shelter a go-to for a lot of preppers. The debris keeps you warm and protected from rain and wind. At the entrance, you can make a fire to keep you warm.
Mud and branches Survival Hut
The mud shelter is a straightforward build. It doesn’t take long to set up and requires minimal materials. You only need a few branches, smaller stakes, and some rope or cord. The frame is triangular, so the water will not infiltrate your shelter. The mud and leaves applied to the walls and roof provide insulation. You can make a fire in front of the shelter to stay warm.
The Lean-to shelter is one of the most stable and durable ones. It requires more work but provides better resistance to elements. It would be best if you used rocks when building this shelter.
Besides the new resource, you need to lean the shelter on a large rock or tree. The open front allows you to make a fire and stay warm while the roof insulation keeps you dry.
If you follow essential survival guides, you should have tarps in your bug out bag. Tarps will help you build a shelter a lot faster and with less energy. Also, they provide excellent insulation against the elements.
If you build an A-frame tarp shelter, you need tent sticks, a lighter, a tarp, and some cord. If you don’t have tent sticks, you can use regular sticks. The A-frame shelter is easy to build and can be set up in a short time. Since it only requires a few items from your bug out bag, you save a lot of energy by not gathering resources.
Tarp Burrito shelter is an emergency option when you need to get things set up in a few minutes. It only requires a tarp and a specific way to wrap it around yourself. It does not provide the insulation the other shelters do, but it protects you from the rain.
C-Fly Wedge Tarp
The Wedge Tarp shelter offers adequate protection from the elements and is easy to set up. It provides a floor and has good rain runoff. The only downside is that you’re not protected from the wind on two sides. This means that you might want to look for the best location to set it up.
Tarp Tipi / Tarp Teepee
The Tarp Tipi or Teepee does not need many materials. It would be best to have a large tarp 12′ by 16′, a multi-tool, a pole, tape, stakes, and some cord. These are all items that we recommend for your bug out bag. Although it does not require too many materials, you do need to put in some work.
The Lavvu shelter is versatile, and you can set it up in different ways. To build a Lavvu shelter, you need a saw, an ax, a knife, a walking pole or a wood pole, a paracord, and a ridgeline. Depending on the conditions, you should choose one of the setups in the video above.
Cold weather and snow shelters
If you find yourself in a cold or snowy environment, you need shelter. There are a few options that need only a few materials but a bit more work. No matter what type of snow shelter you choose, you should elevate your bed. It will give you another layer of protection against the cold.
A snow cave can save your life. You can choose from several types of snow caves. The end goal is the same for all: to keep you warm and safe. If you want to maximize the effectiveness of the cave, you can raise your sleeping platform. This way, the cold air stays below your sleeping level.
The Quinzhee is an alternative to snow caves. Its building process is the same and provides the same protection against elements. Both the Quinzhee and the Snow cave need a lot of energy and are not easy to build.
If a snowstorm is approaching, you shouldn’t choose these types of survival shelters. In very harsh conditions, choose something faster and easier to build.
Igloos have been around for centuries. People have been living in them in the harshest weather. If done right, it provides excellent insulation and protection from the elements.
You have to make sure that the structure is stable before entering. Create a dome to make the Igloo stronger. Bind each layer of snow to the next to make it structurally sound.
If you’re in a survival situation in the desert, you need shelter as soon as possible. The hot sun can cause dehydration and sunstroke. You want to avoid this as much as you can. Deserts are hazardous environments if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The dugout shelter is one of the easiest to make. You only need a shovel, some sticks, and leaves. Although it’s easy to set up, it provides excellent protection from the hot sun. There are a few rules you should follow. Check your surroundings first. You don’t want to build in a dry river bed or an area that can be flooded.
A fast way to get some shade is the Desert tarp shelter. It is straightforward to set up. You only need anchor points for your tarp, and you are good to go. The most important thing is to place it so that it provides shade for the entire day. Once you figure that out, setting it up is a piece of cake. One of the drawbacks is that it does not provide any protection from the wind.
This category is dedicated to bushcraft shelters rather than survival shelters. We added this category as some of the survivors want to build long-lasting shelters. These shelters need a lot of work and materials but provide the best protection against animals and the elements.
The Viking house is a more ambitious project and is more about bushcraft than it is about survival. If you plan to use this shelter for a long time, you might want to give it a try. The only downside is that it requires a lot of work. It is an excellent pick if you have other survivors in your group.
Thatch Roof House (Saxon house)
Like the Viking house, the Thatch Roof house is a big project. It will take days if not weeks to complete, depending on the number of people in your group. We don’t advise you to work alone on this project as it will take a lot of time and might exhaust you.
Depending on your situation, you might find natural shelters. It can be anything from caves, large rocks, trees, or overhanging cliffs. Anything that can protect you from the elements can become a shelter. If you find such a spot, that is great. Most of the work is already done for you.
One thing that you should be aware of is that some trees might be dry and the rocks might be loose. Always check the integrity of natural shelters before setting up your camp.
Survival tents are an excellent addition to your bug out bag. Nowadays, most emergency tents are ultra-lightweight and can fit in any survival kit. If you have the resources, go the extra mile and purchase a lightweight survival tent. You will thank yourself if you have to use it.
If you don’t know how to pick a survival tent, many articles on the web highlight each model’s pros and cons.
When you’re planning your shelter, you should always have in mind the following things. This can save you a lot of time and energy in the future.
Proximity to water
Based on the rule of three, you can only survive three days without water. This might seem a lot, but dehydration symptoms take a toll on you a lot faster. So, when you’re building your shelter, make sure you have a source of water close to you.
Exposure to the elements
No matter what you choose from our list of types of survival shelters, nature protects you the best. Take a moment to observe your surroundings and choose the best spot to build your shelter. Look for areas that protect you from the elements. Keep an eye on loose rocks or dead trees that can fall over your shelter.
Fuel for fires
Once your shelter is up, you should focus on fire. To start a fire, you need dry wood and some tinder or a fire starter kit. It would help if you tried to keep this in mind when setting up your shelter.
Distance to a fishing spot
Fishing spots can provide you with much-needed calories. Rivers and lakes are great fishing spots and can give you both water and fish. Keep that in mind when building your camp.
One of the most important things you should consider is to avoid wildlife paths. Do not build your shelter in a spot where you see large animal tracks. You can check out an animal track guide to learn about predator tracks.
General shelter advice
We have prepared a few rules that you should follow based on your location. You should assess your situation and check your surroundings before building a shelter.
- In the desert, on the shore, or in areas without permanent shade, you need a shelter to protect you from the sun’s rays.
- Raise or dig a ditch to create a cooler area than the ground surface.
- Do not position yourself in a dry riverbed. During torrential rains, it becomes a rapid torrent of water, mud, and debris.
- Raise your bed to avoid insects and to keep yourself dry.
- Choose a place that is safe, smooth, and large enough to allow you to lie down.
- Leave room for ventilation so that the shelter is kept dry and fresh air can come in.
- It helps if you have a well-insulated shelter to protect you from cold and blizzards in the winter.
- Snow is the best insulating material.
- If you breathe and do not see the air’s condensation, it means that it is too hot inside. If this happens, there is a risk that the shelter will melt.
- Avoid areas at risk of avalanches.
- Avoid areas with dry trees that may collapse over your shelter.
Frequently Asked Question
How do you build a natural shelter?
When it comes to shelters, there are two categories: natural and humanmade.
The ones made by humans use natural materials but are not shelters made by nature. These need planning and building.
When you say natural shelter, you refer to caves, large rocks, or overhanging cliffs that protect you without any intervention.
Is shelter necessary for survival?
Experts follow the rule of three when it comes to survival scenarios. This rule says that you can survive up to three hours exposed to harsh weather. With that in mind, YES, you always need shelter to survive. Most of the time, a shelter should be your number one priority.
What do you think is the single most important survival skill to have?
If you want to survive in the wild, you have to know to adapt and improvise.
Every situation you encounter might seem easy to solve with things you have at home or the store. But you have to consider that you have limited space in your bug out bag. You will most likely have to adapt or use unconventional methods to solve problems in the wild.
What is the best way to learn survival skills?
You can learn a lot online from other experts. There are courses, videos, and websites that teach you survival skills. But when it comes to learning, practice is everything.
So, if you want to learn how to survive, try applying the theory into practice. Practice in controlled environments as opposed to venturing into the wild straight away.
Summing things up
No matter what shelter design you choose, always plan before starting to build. Check your surroundings, materials, landscape, and then start building. Don’t waste precious energy unless you have to.
Follow the rules of three and build a shelter right from the start. Your chances of survival will increase dramatically.
Check out the general shelter advice above. Build your shelter based on your situation. Don’t forget, don’t build anything too big or fancy. Focus on what you need at the moment.
If you want to learn more, check out our survival tips section.