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How to Build a Survival Shelter: the 6 Best Shelters to Master

What drives us to want to learn how to build a survival shelter? There is the excitement of creating that “fort” from the natural world. There also seems to be an innate understanding of how important sheltering is.

How to build a survival shelter

Every year people flock to survival and bushcraft schools to get hands-on training for making fires, building shelters, and making traps to procure food in the wild. Knowing what to do in a survival situation has some real value. In this modern age, we rarely see these skills handed down.

If the wheels in your head have been spinning about survival shelter we will talk about how to build a survival shelter right now. The first thing to decide is whether you want to build a short-term survival shelter or a long-term survival shelter.

Short Term Survival Shelter

When it comes to how to build a survival shelter, sometimes you really only need one that will last a few days at the most. Quick-up shelters go a long way with this. These can be made using tarps or even just natural materials around you.

We will cover some great options for short-term survival shelters in our how-to-build section, but it is important that you can make the distinction between short- and long-term survival shelters. Primarily, so you know how to best spend your time in an emergency and how to build a survival shelter.

Long Term Survival Shetler

The long term survival shelter should be built when there is no rescue in sight or if you know that you are going to be in the wilderness for a long time. That could be an emergency or it could be the fact that you are spending every bit of 2 weeks in the woods and plan on “living” in that survival shelter.

Sometimes there is no better way to take in the wild places than to build yourself an outdoors home and spend some real time there. It can be an almost vital reset.

Tools for How to Build a Survival Shelter

The most important part of the process of how to build a survival shelter is having the right tools. You do not need a lot of different tools to quickly build a survival shelter but you can make the job a lot easier. Sure, it is important to know how to build a survival shelter with only a survival knife but, you can make it much easier on yourself with the right collection of tools.

Folding Saw

The folding saw turns small trees and branches into poles to build with. If you have any aspirations to learn how to build a survival shelter then you have to include a simple folding saw in your pack. It will cut so much time off the building process.

A folding saw for how to build a survival shelter

Hatchet or Ax

Another important tool in shelter building is the hatchet or woodsman’s axe. The axe makes a very short list of tools that I need to pack every time I head into the woods. There is just so much utility in that axe head.

Whether you are splitting wood, cutting lengths of wood, or even driving in hand-carved stakes, the ax is just perfect.

Survival Knife

Though you might be able to do all things through your survival knife, I wouldn’t recommend it. However, having an axe and a folding saw does not mean that your survival knife is no longer a necessity. Striping leaves off branches, carving stakes, and creating fine notches in your survival shelter for lashing or other needs are all best handled by the survival knife.


I know that cordage is more of a resource than a tool but it is so essential to survival shelter building that I like to include it in this list. If you need to process plants and vines to create cordage then it is going to take much longer.

Cordage for how to build a survival shelter

A spool of bankline or a few hanks of paracord can solve that problem.


The tarp is another example of a resource that I put in the tool column. The tarp is instant wind protection and instant water protection. If you have to fortify a short-term or long-term survival shelter in a hurry there is really no substitute for a tarp.

Learning how to build a survival shelter is much easier with a tarp.

How to Build a Survival Shelter (Short Term)

1. Debris Shelter

One of the simplest short-term survival shelters to build is the debris shelter. The debris shelter uses the refuse off the floor of the forest to insulate and protect you from the elements. There are many ways to build a debris shelter but if you use the method with a single ridgepole then it can be done in 10-15 minutes.

A ridge pole that is about 2x the length of your body can be propped up on a tree stump or stuck into the Y of a tree. Here your ridge pole will be secured and you can start lining each side with smaller sticks.

Using leaves, moss, dry grasses, and even dry dirt, you can begin to pile debris at the base of your shelter and work your way up. You want your entire shelter covered in debris except for a small opening to climb into.

The debris shelter should not be a spacious survival shelter. Limited and insulated space will trap your body heat and keep you warm.

2. Leanto

The leanto is a different kind of shelter that utilizes a ridgepole. The process of lashing a ridgepole to two trees that are around 7 feet apart is a great skill to have. This is where the resource of cordage really comes in handy.

A leanto is a great type of shelter to learn when you're learning how to build a survival shelter

The leanto is basically a set of sticks that are leaned against that ridge pole at a 40-50 degree angle. You can fortify those sticks as you see fit to create a single wall. I like to weave cordage through those poles or sticks and then slip things like pine boughs into the weaving to create more protection from things like wind and water.

When you learn how to build a survival shelter the leanto should be one of your first builds.

3. Fallen Tree Shelter

Sometimes you can get lucky enough to happen upon a sturdy fallen tree. The fallen tree is a ridgepole that is delivered by nature! You don’t even need to cut anything! You can line each side of that fallen tree with sticks and create a simple short-term A-frame shelter.

The fallen tree shelter practically builds itself. If you have a tarp you can also throw the tarp over top to make the shelter instantly waterproof.

Be sure that you give the tree some kind of stress test before curling up underneath it. You need to make sure that if you stand on the fallen tree that it will not crack further and crash down on you in the middle of the night.

Make the shelter close to the stump or the root system as that will give you the most overhead space.

How to Build a Survival Shelter (Long Term)

4. Teepee

The chosen shelter of prairie Native Americans, the teepee is an incredible shelter that gives you lots of headroom and can even work well with a fire inside. Remember, this shelter was designed for nomadic people that followed the herds. The teepee can be packed up and created in another location.

This is my first pick for a long term shelter because of its ability to be mobile. If you are trying to survive in the woods for a long time there is a good chance you are going to need to move to different areas depending on the seasons.

This could also help you when trying to be rescued as you can move and stay at different locations that would benefit from signaling for rescue.

5. Rock Shelter

Sometimes you can get a long terms shelter that is simply a gift from nature. It’s not just the fallen tree shelter that could help you out. Sometimes rock shelters can be made up of rocks that gather in such a way that they can provide you with some overhead protection and even wind protection.

A rock shelter is often something you can take advantage of without having to build anything

Then, of course, there are caves. In caves, you have to be sure that you are the most dangerous thing living in the cave. You do not want the cave to be home to you and a pack of grey wolves. That will not be a good long term solution.

Fire is another consideration when it comes to rock shelters. If the top of your rock shelter gets too hot, from a powerful fire, then the heat can force the rock to expand and even crack. If this happens then that rock might come crashing down on you.

6. In Ground A-Frame Shelter

How to build a survival shelter can be easy or it can be complex. This shelter can be a little complex.

We have discussed a few ways lay sticks on either side of a ridgepole to make a simple A frame shelter. These are usually a short term shelter solution. However, when you create an in ground A frame then you are using a much more reliable material to make up a large portion of your shelter.

This shelter requires that you dig out an area that is large enough for you to live in. This area should be large enough to contain all your gear and a place to sleep. Dig this area out about 2-3 feet deep. It is not going to be the full shelter. You are going to use a ridge pole and build an A frame over top of the hole you dug.

Having about 1/3 of your shelter underground means you benefit from a little of the climate control of living in the ground rather than on top of it.

Your ridgepole can be lower than normal, too. Since you will effectively be climbing down into your shelter. The in ground A-frame is also great as a covert shelter because it is not as high as a normal A-frame or leanto and can be easily concealed.

How to Maintain a Survival Shelter

There are fundamentals when you learn how to build a survival shelter. Most of them come down to stability and the shelter’s ability to protect you from the elements. You do not want a shelter to fall on you while you sleep and you aren’t doing yourself any favors if you are getting hit by direct rains and wind in your shelter.

Weather Proofing

Some of the best materials for weatherproofing your shelter are going to be pieces of bark, layers of large leaves, pine boughs, or even moss. Using cordage or vines you can attach these materials to the outside of your shelter so that rain can be wicked away from your shelter and not wind up dripping on you.

A shelter with reinforced walls

These same kinds of materials will also help stop the winds that can quickly drop your body temperature.

When it comes to maintaining these materials you may have to swap them out for new ones in a long-term survival situation. Keeping an eye on the vines and cordage is a good idea, too. The weather and sun can quickly make things brittle.


Maintaining the stabilizing elements of your shelter is just as important as anything else. You are always going to have a ridgeline, ridgepole, or frame that will hold the shelter up. These stabilizing elements will need regular maintenance.

I find it best to inspect them after any kind of weather event be it rain or wind. Also, serious heat can take its toll on your shelter’s stability. This could be the core elements of the shelter like the wood itself but just like the weatherproofing, you might also have issues with whatever form of cordage you are using.

Wrapping Up How to Build a Survival Shelter

Learning how to build a survival shelter is fun and fundamental. It is one of the most appealing aspects of wilderness survival to kids. They can really get behind the idea of building their own survival shelter. It’s like building a fort in the backyard or in their bedroom.

No matter the type of shelter you learn to build it will help you understand the process. These primitive shelters are very effective and could be the difference between life and death in a wilderness survival situation. Never forget that exposure will kill you faster than any other threat in the forest.