The A-Frame Shelter: Everything You Need to Know

The A-frame shelter can be the difference between life and death in a survival situation.

Learning survival skills–like the A-frame shelter–isn’t like mastering a language, becoming proficient in carpentry, or dabbling in pottery. It’s devoting yourself to developing expertise you hope never to need. And chances are, you won’t. Most people don’t get lost in the wilderness. Most of the time, nothing goes wrong on a camping trip or a hike. But the responsible thing to do, if you spend any time outdoors is to learn the basics of survival. You’ll be able to take care of yourself and others in an emergency.

Once you know how to make an A-frame shelter, you never have to worry about surviving in the wilderness for a night or two.
With practice, making an A frame shelter will become a reliable skill you can use in emergencies.

The Rule of 3s

The Rule of 3s states that you can survive:

  • Three weeks without food.
  • Three days without water.
  • Three hours in a harsh environment without shelter.
  • Three minutes without air.

While food may be your biggest concern if you wander from the trail, it’s the least important to your survival. In temperatures as mild as 40 degrees, you can become hypothermic if you’re wet from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. That’s part of the reason for bringing waterproof matches and firestarter anytime you head into the outdoors. But also an excellent basis for learning about the A-frame shelter.

The A-frame is sturdier and more reliable than a lean-to, but doesn't retain body heat as well as a tipi.
The A-frame shelter is just one of many survival shelters that you should learn how to build.

What Are A-Frame Shelters?

The A-frame is a triangle-shaped shelter, designed to keep your body heat close. You construct them with collected wood and a tarp. When you make an A-frame, it will be small and close to your body to trap heat better. If they’re more spacious, there will be more airflow. It’ll be less effective for warmth but still provide cover from the rain in a survival situation.

Unlike the lean-to shelter, which protects from wind and the elements in just one direction, the a-frame has two sides, braced against each other. It’s a better shelter when wind and rain seem to come from all sides. Or when you need to conserve body heat.

Building shelter is one of the first things you should do once you realize you're lost. An A-frame is just one option.
If you’re facing a night out in the elements, building an A-frame can prevent panic and make the night more comfortable.

Why Use an A-Frame Shelter?

The unexpected is a constant possibility when you spend time outdoors. Even something as minor as a twisted ankle may prevent you from making it back to the trailhead before nightfall. Once it gets dark, you don’t want to be wandering around, searching for the trail. Spending a night in the elements may be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be life-threatening.

Learning to build an a-frame is easy. It’s a structure that you’re able to create without prior experience. It might not be the best survival shelter ever created, but it’ll shelter you from weather, cold, and wild animals. And that’s all that matters.

Also, building a shelter when you’re lost gives you something to do besides panicking. It helps you stay put, which is one of the most critical aspects of wilderness survival when you’re lost. Every additional mile you travel while lost increases the search area for rescuers exponentially. One mile creates three square miles of ground for search and rescue. Walk two miles in the wrong direction, and it increases to 12 square miles.

The best thing you can do when you’re lost is to stay safe wherever you are. There’s no hard and fast order in which to execute the following tasks:

Once you’ve done those three things, you can survive for up to three weeks, even if you can’t find food. That time gives Search and Rescue a good shot at finding you.

You can keep adding to an A-frame shelter to make it more durable, better insulated, and more waterproof.
Find the balance between not getting a shelter built by nightfall and quickly building a weak or ineffective shelter.

How to Make an A-Frame Shelter

Building a shelter is the first thing you should do when you realize you’re lost and will spend any amount of time out in the elements. You can become hypothermic even in mild weather. Without shelter or fire, you can develop hypothermia just by getting caught in the rain on a warm night.

There are other reasons to build a shelter, besides protection from the elements. As we said before, staying in one place to give rescuers a better chance of finding you. But also by staying busy building, you’ll avoid panic. Survival is about attitude. If you’re confident that you can build a shelter and survive the night in the wild, then chances are you will.

  1. Take your time. A thrown-together shelter won’t give you much benefit. Take your time to find sturdy, straight wood and use care when erecting your survival shelter.
  2. Choose a site. Find a flat place that, if possible, provides some natural protection from the elements. Look for a campsite next to a tree, or near large rocks. Avoid dry creek beds; they’ll fill up fast if a storm rolls in.
  3. Select a ridgepole. The ridgepole is the top post of your A-frame. Take your time finding a branch as tall as you are, sturdy and straight. Place one end on the ground or a low branch in a tree.
  4. Find arms for your ridgepole. These are the two posts that make the front of the survival shelter. They should be sturdy and straight. You want them tall enough for you to lie down inside the A-frame, but not so big that the shelter won’t trap heat.
  5. Collect ribs for the shelter. These are additional branches and logs to add support along the ridgepole. They should be about the height of the A-frame, and uniform in thickness. Place them about every eight to 12 inches, sunk several inches into the ground, if possible.
  6. Fill in the empty spaces. You can use smaller sticks to fill in the gaps between the ribs. They aren’t structural, so you can use any twigs and branches that didn’t cut it as arms or ribs.
  7. Add insolation. Wherever you’re making your A-frame shelter, find soft material to use as thatching against your survival shelter’s ribs. Grass, moss, evergreen needles, and twigs are all potential thatching. You’re looking for material that’ll protect from rain and snow, and trap heat inside the frame.
  8. Insulate the ground. You may not realize it, but sitting or lying in the dirt will sap you of your body heat faster than the air. You never want to put your body directly on the cold ground. Instead, use some material you collected for thatching to insulate the earth and carry an emergency blanket in your pack.
  9. Build up the base. Use dirt, mud, or rocks to fill in any gaps along the bottom of the A-frame. It’ll provide better protection against the wind and keep more heat inside the shelter.
The A-frame benefits from the use of a rope and tarp, or you can make a variation of the shelter.
With rope and a tarp you can make a variations on the A-frame for different situations.

Variations On Shelter Survival

The above guide to building a framed shelter is for situations when you’re in the wilderness without a bug out bag, pack, or equipment. There are variations on traditional wood survival shelters for when you have rope and tarp, or even a rain poncho.

  • Tarp shelter: tie a rope between two trees. Lay a tarp over the line and tie down all four corners of the tarp. It protects you from rain but allows more airflow than a traditional survival situation building.
  • Tarp and wood shelter: use a ridgepole, but throw a tarp over the ridgepole and tie down the corners before adding the ribs. You get added protection from the wind and better insulation. Add the ribs, filling, and thatching as before.
Use what's available in the moment for building an A-frame shelter, you can always adjust and improve later.
Use what’s available to you for building a shelter, and remember leaves, grass, and fronds for insulation and waterproofing.

What Are the Best Materials to Build a Shelter?

Using dedicated building materials would be ideal, but it’s not like you’re heading into an emergency with foam insulation and wood planks. The situation dictates which building materials are best. Is it raining late in the day? The best materials are the ones that will quickly protect you from the elements. Maybe that’s an overhanging rock and your rain poncho for the moment.

Make the best shelter for the situation. You can improve on the building as you have time and find better materials.

  • Ridgepole: a sturdy tree branch or rope are best. It needs to support the ribs and arms.
  • Arms: thick branches that will support the ridgepole’s weight, and you won’t knock down getting in and out of the shelter.
  • Ribs: you need sturdy branches and a lot of them. With them, you’ll build a stable structure that won’t collapse from wind or if you bump into it.
  • Filler: a tarp, lashed down over a strong ridgepole, is the best; it protects you from wind and rain and provides extra insulation.
  • Insulation: Debris, like pine boughs, dried leaves, long grasses, and moss are all the best for trapping heat and keeping out rain. Quantity is key. The more insulation you add to your building, the more comfortable your night’s sleep will be.
  • Ground cover: make sure you don’t forget about the ground. No matter what kind of shelter you build with whatever materials–the earth is your greatest enemy for sapping warmth. Never sit or lie on the bare ground.
By insulating the ground, your a-frame shelter will become a cozy, warm place to spend the night.
Insulating the ground helps preserve your body heat and makes for a more comfortable night of sleep.

When to Use an A-Frame Shelter

There’s no better protection from the elements than an a-frame if you’re lost in the outdoors and have time before nightfall. But every survival situation is unique, and there’s no guarantee an A-frame will work for you. For instance, you’re in a blizzard, without a tarp, rope, or trees–there’s no way to build an A-frame without materials. And this kind of shelter is by no means perfect.

Pros

There are a few undeniable benefits:

  • Easy set-up: you can adapt this shelter to the resources and time at hand. With a rope and tarp, set-up takes as little as ten minutes.
  • Excellent heat retention: unlike a lean-to, which exposes you on three sides, the a-frame traps body heat.
  • Room for improvements: if you’re stuck for several days, you can keep adding to the shelter to improve its heat retention and the protection it provides from the elements.

Cons

There are downsides:

  • Environment dependent: you can only make an A-frame if you have building materials. In a place, without trees, there’s just no way to erect a structure.
  • Complicated set-up: you might get stuck searching for ribs and filler branches for a long time, while the sun sinks lower and lower on the horizon. Some shelter is always better than none. Opt for a lean-to when you don’t have time to make a full A-frame.
Always let someone know where you're going when you head into the outdoors, familiarize yourself with the route, and bring emergency gear.
Being prepared is the best survival skill you can develop. Always bring a map and compass when you head into the outdoors.

Know Before You Go

Inform yourself before you head into the wilderness. Learn about the trail conditions and the weather for the day and upcoming week. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Practice making a shelter in your backyard or at a park, so you’re comfortable and experienced in an emergency. Hone your skills, and hope you never need to use them.