Skip to Content

How to Make and Use a Wickiup Shelter

The Algonquians were one of many American tribes that used the woods and the land to survive. The wickiup shelter was created, and the name coined, by this tribe. Their word for home-dwelling was “wikiyap” and it was this kind of teepee-style shelter.

The skills and the knowledge of Native American tribes are something that we are all trying to understand and take a little piece from these days. We know the value of a bit of self-reliance and independence in these times. Whether that knowledge comes from pioneers or Native American tribes makes no difference.

Primitive Wikiup shelter in the snow
Primitive Wikiup shelter in the snow

Are Survival Shelters Really Any Good?

What is the percentage of Americans who have actually slept in a survival shelter overnight? Is it one percent of Americans? These temporary shelters are often featured in survivalists’ blog posts and bushcrafting YouTube videos but do they really work?

Well, the Native Americans would have called them home. There are a variety of these shelters but the ones that are the most effective in severe weather conditions are those in which you can build a fire. We are going to look at one of the oldest shelters that can contain a fire and is little more than tree branches and forest debris.

We are talking about the Wickiup wilderness shelter.

What is a Wickiup Shelter

The wickiup shelter is a teepee-designed shelter that is built off of a tripod made from branches. It is a throwback to the Native Americans and can stand up to all kinds of conditions. The teepee frame of the shelter is insulated with lots of leaves. The forest debris should cover the entire exterior of the shelter.

You could also dig out the forest floor a little bit if you wanted to sit in the ground as further protection from high winds or just cold temperatures.

Making one of these huts in the forests is very simple if you know what you are doing and if you have the right tools for the job. I would highly recommend an 8-inch folding saw for this job.

Ideal for Cold Weather Situations

The wickiup is an ideal shelter for cold weather because it mostly covers you on all sides. It is not like a lean-to that simply exposes your body to too much of the wind. The insulative nature of this shelter makes it great for holding in heat, too.

Of course, the design of the wickiup also allows you to create something like a small flue that lets the smoke rise up out of the shelter so you can have a fire. Having a fire in the winter or cold weather situations goes a long way in adding comfort to a survival situation.

The Wickiup could be a summer shelter, too, but I think it thrives in these cold weather conditions.

How to Build a Wickiup Shelter

Sticks leaning against the tripod
Sticks leaning against the tripod

The Tripod

Building a tripod of any size is one of the most basic bushcraft skills. To create a sturdy tripod I use paracord and these strong sticks. For your Wickiup you want these sticks to be a little taller than you. Start with three but any branches or saplings that you come across during this phase should be set aside for later in the build.

Take the end of one branch and tie a simple knot about 4 inches from the top. Then wrap your paracord around the stick, towards the top, 3-4 times. From here you are going to grab the next branch and line it up with the other. Wrap that branch in the same way. Then do it to the final branch so each branch is connected and wrapped about 3-4 times.

After that, you can tie it off and set the tripod up with confidence. If it is windy or you are unsure of the strength of your tripod you can wrap 3-4 more lengths around where the sticks meet at the top of the tripod as further fortification.

The Greenwood Saplings

Once you have the tripod setup you are will be able to start adding saplings and branches to it. You are basically going to continue to lean branches against your tripod working your way around the whole thing. You are using the branches and saplings to create the ribs of your shelter.

In total, you are probably going to lean around 15-20 sticks to create your wickiup shelter. The less space between sticks the better.

Vining and Debris

Weave vines, branches, and saplings into the wickiup shelter walls
Weave vines, branches, and saplings into the Wickiup shelter walls

Even in the winter, you can find vines that are perfect for this application. You want to start weaving vines between the branches of your wickiup. This will both fortify your shelter and give your debris something else to lean on.

This can be time-consuming but it will be worth it in the end. Weave at least 5 vines from one side of the entrance of your door to the other side. Work your way from the base upward as you go.

Finally, you are going to start piling up leaves and debris against the outsides of your shelter. Pile them all the way to the top of the shelter and make sure you have nice thick insulation. This debris is what will really contain the heat of your shelter.

You can pile the rest of the debris inside your shelter for insulation from the cold ground. At this point, your wickup shelter is ready to receive you.

How to Make a Safe Fire in your Wickiup Shelter

The biggest benefit of the wickiup is the fact that you can build a fire in the center of the shelter and thanks to its design it will not burn the whole thing down!

You will need a fire ring at the center of your wickiup or you could even dig a depression in the center of the shelter. The safest way to build your fire is by digging a fire hole. This will actually allow you to build a bigger fire, too.

Your biggest concern should be creating a fire that gets too big and the flames catch something else on fire in your small shelter or they get high enough that they can lick the top of the structure. By digging a hole you can avoid that. The struggle becomes airflow. You need to get air down in the hole to keep the fire going.

Keep your fire small and manageable inside the wickiup shelter. Remember, you are basically sitting inside of a larger version of a teepee fire.

The only other thing to consider is carbon monoxide. Keep your entrance open or some means of circulating fresh oxygen into the shelter. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer.

Build a fire inside of a Wickiup Shelter
Build a fire inside of a Wickiup Shelter

A Skill Worth Learning

Wilderness survival shelters can literally mean the difference between life and death in a cold-weather emergency. If you spend time in the wild, then building these shelters is certainly a skill worth learning. In my mind, there are two types of wilderness survival shelters that you can build. They are heated and non-heated.

If I am going to spend my time creating a shelter then it is going to be a shelter that I can safely bring a fire inside of. I should be able to heat myself, cook, boil water, make charcloth, and anything else survival necessitates in the comfort of my shelter.

The wickiup is a perfect example of a shelter that allows you to do that.