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Survival Shelter: Heating With Fire

Survive the cold by heating with fire inside your shelter
Survive the cold by heating with fire inside your shelter

The cold winter air was creeping into my sleeves and lingering around the back of my neck. With each exhalation, large clouds of condensation were visible in the night before me. There was no fire. There was no noise.

I was sitting under a clear winter sky with the unfathomable silence of a cold night in the woods. If you have never camped out in the dead of winter then it’s hard to understand the silent woods that are void of animals and insects who typically serenade the nights of the other 3 seasons.

Before long the cold becomes unbearable. I pull back the tarp on my shelter and quickly enter. I am hit with a wave of heat from the stove that is burning wood off in the corner of my shelter. It’s a tight little setup and keeping this survival shelter warm takes little wood even on a cold winter’s night.

Have you ever camped out in the winter with a fire built inside your shelter? It’s not as hard as you think but you have to be safe.

The Right Kind of Fire for Inside your Shelter

Keep your hands warm within your shelter by heating with fire
Keep warm within your shelter by heating with fire

Building a fire in your shelter will heat your entire shelter and keep you toasty inside. There is more than one method of building fire and some of them lend themselves to more success inside the shelter.

The fires we have chosen below have characteristics that will assure you have a safe and effective fireplace built into your shelter.

In-Ground Fire

Digging a depression in the ground of your survival shelter will allow you to easily create a border for your fire. This is important because it will keep your fire from spreading to places where you do not want it to go.

An in-ground fire does not need to be buried deep in the ground. A shallow divot of 5-6 inches, at its deepest, is a great way to keep your fire contained and safe inside any type of shelter.

Dakota Fire

The Dakota Fire is a unique survival skill in and of itself. If you know how to make a Dakota fire you can hide your flames and smoke. This is also a great fire to build in a windy environment. However, the Dakota fire can also be used to heat your shelter because it is buried underground.

The Dakota fire is in two holes that are connected by a small tunnel in the ground. In one hole you start your fire and in the other whole the smoke comes out from the fire. This hole will also help keep the fire oxygenated.

If you are creative you can even dig one hole in the shelter and connect the other hole outside the shelter to assure that much of the smoke is kept outside the shelter.

Rock Fireplace

A rock fireplace is a great way to enjoy the heat of a good fire in a small shelter. You are still going to need to ventilate the shelter for carbon monoxide buildup but this kind of fireplace will limit how much you have to worry about the flames of your fire licking the walls or the roof of your shelter.

Heating with fire in a small shelter is dangerous. Mostly because the fire itself can catch the shelter on fire! These dangerous shelters can kill you in your sleep.

Building a rock fireplace is simply the process of stacking rocks to create a 3 sided enclosure and then covering that three-side enclosure with a larger rock roof. The rock roof will spread the heat out and help it radiate in your shelter while clocking the flames from touching your shelter.

Make sure the rocks you use are not from the river. Rocks on the banks of rivers and streams or pulled from the water have water inside them! They could crack and explode when they get too hot. This would shower you and your shelter in hot sharp rock shards.

Shelters that are Best for Heating with Fire

The best kinds of survival shelters for building a fireplace inside are going to be the kinds of shelters that are spacious and have some kind of exhaust or escape built-in so the smoke does not choke you out of your shelter. If you are going to build a fire in your shelter you have to have proper ventilation.

Teepee Shelter

One of the easiest shelters to put up is a simple teepee. The teepee shelter, like those you have seen built by the native Americans, is designed to put up and build a fireplace at the center of the shelter. You can build a teepee off a large tripod of 6-8 foot saplings and then add similar-sized sticks to the teepee.

You can wrap the teepee with a good tarp or you can use evergreen boughs to fill out the holes between the sticks in your teepee.


Primitive Survival A-Frame Debris Shelter in the cold winter snow
Primitive Survival A-Frame Debris Shelter in the cold winter snow

The A-Frame shelter that is built with logs or tarps can be a candidate for building a fireplace in your shelter. You are going to want to keep the ends of the A-Frame shelter open for the best ventilation. Remember an A-Frame Shelter will not offer you a roof for ventilation.

However, if you build your fire at one of the open ends and manage that fire, you can have yourself a nice fireplace in your shelter. This is a great opportunity to use the Dakota design so much of the flame is kept underground and will not threaten your tarp or the wooden roof of your shelter.

Three Sided Shelter

You can build a three-sided shelter from natural materials. This can be built like a lean-to where you add walls on either side but keep the from wide open. The key to building a fire in this shelter is to have a nice wide opening in the front.

If you are intentional about wind direction you can have a very effective shelter, even in the cold, with three sides. When you add fire to that shelter it will really keep you warm

Hot Tent

One Tigris makes an amazing, lightweight hot tent that you could pack down into your bag and use as your own survival shelter. This tent is designed to accommodate a small camping wood stove. These stoves put off tremendous heat and can be the solution you are looking for if you want a fireplace in your survival shelter.

Building Fire and Sustaining it Inside a Shelter

The biggest mistake I made when building fire in a shelter was not to store enough fire-starting materials and fuel. If you run out of fuel for your fireplace inside your survival shelter then you have to either bundle up in the sleeping bag and just outlast the cold or you have to venture out into the cold and find more, most likely in the dark.

However, it’s not just about having extra wood fuel. You need extra tinder, kindling, and a quick firestarter. When you fall asleep your fire is going to burn out. If you wake up freezing in the middle of the night you need to be able to start that fire again. When you wake up in the morning you will have to start that fire again.

You are gonna want to do this quickly.

My advice is to stack some tinder, some fire extender, and a good bit of kindling in piles that can be quickly grabbed in the dark and lit with matches or a lighter to get a fire going again quickly.


  • Carbon monoxide will kill you in your sleep. If you do not have proper ventilation in your shelter then you will kill everyone in the tent.
  • There is a good chance your survival shelter is made of natural materials so your fire could also catch your shelter on fire if you are not careful.
  • Do not drink alcohol when you are managing a fire inside your survival shelter.
  • Use greenwood and freshly cut materials to build your shelter. Avoid using dry wood for anything but fuel for your fire. This will make your shelter more fire-resistant.

Dominate the Winter Season

Man hiking in snow
Be a 4 seasons outdoorsman

The best thing about building a fire in your survival shelter is that you can become a 4 seasons outdoorsman. Suddenly, the cold temperature of the winter can be kept at bay. You get real peace of mind in knowing that you can keep your shelter warm even when it is terribly cold outside.

The silence and the solitude of winter nights are like nothing else. Most people miss out on this because they retire the tents and camping gear in the cold months. That’s for good reason because most tents are not designed to keep you warm in the winter season.

The shelters described above are all great for cold weather survival but if you find yourself really enjoying cold nights in the woods I would highly recommend investing in a hot tent. They provide you with another level of protection from the cold and precipitation.

Dominate the winter season inside your shelter by heating with fire.