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Building A Survival Shelter With Natural Materials

Ever wondered what you would do if you were stuck without a tent or a tarp to protect yourself from the elements?  Should you ever find yourself in the wild without appropriate shelter, here’s some good news: you can build your own.  Within just a few short hours, you can build yourself what many refer to as a “debris hut” and have somewhere dry and warm to spend the night.  What you first need to consider is…

Location, Location, Location

Before you start constructing your shelter, you have to think about where you’re going to place it.  Some considerations that must be made include:

  • Avoid building your shelter in any low spots (this is where water and other debris pool and gather)
  • Look around and check for any dead standing trees or any other large objects that could potentially fall or roll onto your shelter
  • Consider where the shelter is in relation to materials that you’ll need, as well as any food and water sources.  You don’t want to build a shelter that’s too far away from the things you’ll need; otherwise you’ll waste too much time and energy gathering those materials every day

Build When The Time’s Right

No one wants to get stuck without a shelter overnight, so you should give yourself ample time to build it.  Make sure that you give yourself at least two hours before sundown, though take into consideration the fact that it will get darker in the woods far sooner than before the sun goes down.  Add on another two hours if you find yourself in such a situation.

Building The Shelter

When you’re walking through the woods and you know you’re coming close to a time when you’ll need to stop and build a shelter, start looking around for a strong ridgepole.  Ideally you want the ridgepole to be double your height, though anything that’s at least a bit taller than when the tallest member of your party has their arms over their head will do.  Look for things like a broken tree or a thick tree branch.

Next, it’s time to start hunting around for a ridgepole “rest.”  Keep your eyes peeled for something that will allow you to rest your ridgepole against it, such as a boulder, the fork of a sturdy tree, or a stump.  One end will be propped up against the “rest,” and the other end will be against the ground. The ridgepole and the “rest” should create a right-triangle shape with the ground.

Now on to the next part: the ribbing.  The “ribbing” will act as a support for the materials that you’ll use to build the roof.  Sturdy, straight branches make for great ribbing.  Place the branches vertically along both sides of the ridgepole.  Once complete, crawl inside of your shelter and see how well you fit.  While you don’t want your shelter to be so small that you aren’t able to fit, you also don’t want it to be so large that it’ll be difficult for you to retain any heat inside.  A good way of thinking about your shelter is to picture making yourself a sleeping bag.  If it’s too big, then either break down the ridgepole and start again or look for another.  If it’s too small, then it’s time to hunt down a new, longer ridgepole.

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When the ridgepole and ribs are back in place, it’s time to start building onto the roof and build what many survivalists refer to as a “lattice.”  Twigs and brush are a great “lattice,” acting as a net that will hold debris in place.  Add these on top of the ribbing.

Now it’s time to start building the insulation for your shelter.  All of the time that you’ve spent building up the shelter will be for naught if you don’t have enough insulation to keep you warm on a cold night.  The ideal insulating material is dry, and its fibers will trap heat inside.

Suggested materials for insulating your shelter include:

  • Dead pine needles
  • Any grass that’s dry
  • Broad leaves that are dry

If you can’t find dried-out varieties of these materials, then opt for any green plant material like hay or straw, or even yard clippings.  Conifer boughs are also a great choice.

Continue to build up the insulating materials on the roof so that it’s at least two feet deep (or more, if you think that you may get wet).  The more you have, the warmer you’ll be.  Make sure that you’ll have enough materials to also seal off the door area so that you’ll be warm if the wind begins to blow.

Last but not least, it’s time to build the roof. This may be optional, depending on where you find yourself in this situation, but for the most part having a roof will help keep you warm and protected from the elements.  As you have the ribbing in place, you can then begin to add leafy layers to the top of your roof.  From time to time, add a layer of sticks on top of the leaves to help hold them in place, and then add another layer of leaves or a layer of the same insulating material that you’re using for the inside of your shelter (this will keep your shelter extremely warm and cozy throughout the night).

Additional Shelter Building Tips

If you have a tarp, garbage bags, or a rain jacket, by all means throw that on top of your shelter to help act as a roof.

It’s also not a bad idea to try and camouflage your shelter to throw off any intruders – both animal and human.  Throw some old branches and bushes outside of the walls of your shelter to help make it appear natural and uninhabited.

If you’re carrying weapons, it’s a good idea to dig up a deep hold in your fort that’s next to where you plan on sleeping. Place your weapons inside and cover them with sticks to help conceal them.

Lastly, strongly consider building a ditch a few short feet in front of your fort.  This will allow you to be able to run out of your fort and cover yourself should you find yourself in a situation where you need to draw your weapons, hide, or protect yourself.

©2012 Off the Grid News

© Copyright Off The Grid News


  1. Just a suggestion: if you are advising the use of dry material such as pine needles and leaves for shelter construction, you may want to mention that the structure will be highly flammable. A spark can ignite the shelter and burn it to the ground quickly. I prefer live branches with green leaves. I like your idea with conifer bows. A simple lean-to can be quickly constructed from a large, fallen tree. Make sure you clear the area of snakes and varmints before you lay down. NEVER roll out your bedroll or sleeping bag until you are ready to climb in for the night. Snakes are known to slither into warm spaces. What a horrible surprise that would be! I was a career military man, over 30 years in the Army. Consequently, I carry survival items with me every single day, on my person (handgun, multi-tool, Swiss Army Knife, lighter, matches, bandannas and small flashlight). I have even more stuff in my SUV (Bug Out Bag with camping items, food, clothing, water, blankets/bivy, machete/saw, AR-7 Survival Rifle and a Rossi Circuit Judge .410GA/.45LC shotgun/rifle. I am not advocating that everyone lug around all the stuff that I do. But, I HIGHLY recommend that people have access to the following base necessities: Swiss Army Knife, multi-tool with saw, lighter, matches, poncho/tarp, space blankets, bottled/jugged water, lifeboat rations and a firearm (law permitting). It is FAR better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it!

    • I was thinking the same thing. Unless desiring to remain unobserved, I would desire a campfire and with all the dry material you could end up with a bonfire instead of a shelter. The photo should show what is being described, with the tree as the ‘rest’, what I see is a tripod.

    • thanks for the added very, very good advise and will heed all of the advise you folks mentioned.
      as mentioned, better to be ready than suffer latter.
      again, thanks.

    • Don’t forget the 550 cord. That is like duct tape for me.

  2. Has anyone noticed how Biblical this is? This is very close to the time commanded for Bible believers to build themselves temporary dwelling places (booths, tabernacles, sukkot) as a commemoration of (and a practice for?) a time of dwelling in the wilderness. The construction method advised is also quite Biblical. Is there a time expected in the future when the Biblical people may need to live in temporary shelters in another wilderness experience? If so, maybe we should rehearse to have the necessary skills. The Hebrew word Mo’ed can be translated as feast, festival, appointment, commemoration OR rehearsal. So, if we are keeping the commandments of Scripture, including the appointed times, we should be prepared for what lies ahead.

    • Very refreshing to see someone has actually read the Bible and realizes the Sabbaths are a perpetual covenant and us to be God’s people.

      • too cool these comments seem old but great all the same nice to see that there are those out there that know the why of whats happening in the world
        a wise man see evil coming and hides himself Prov.

  3. there is an old saying…indian build small fire ,sit close. white man build big fire and stand far away.A tiny fire in a bean can is good enough to keep you warm in a shelter.little smoke, safe easily smothered to avoid detection.a small vent hole in the top of the shelter will vent the smoke and the fuel is all over he walls and floor of a good shelter.the smoke will also help repell bugs .build your shelter in dense cover off the beaten path for security in dense undergrowth.hide your trail to the shelter. maintain a low profile.stay hidden ,live long.

  4. I agree with Curtis. Low profile. I may also suggest no fire and just be prepared to be comfortably cool ( cold ). Most likely reason for having to do this is to avoid human contact. No fire.

  5. I have a multi-pocket belt pack in which I carry all small items ie: spce blanket, pocket saw, small flashlight, matches/lighters, ammo for my .22/20ga, In earlier years I learned to brain tan hides so I have a skinning knife and a whet stone as well. In myvehicle I have my back pack which includes a poncho and a 6 x 8 tarp. When carrying my back pack I turn the belt pack buckle to the back so the bulk of the belt device does not interfere with the Back Pack. There is als a small hand gun in the belt pack as well. I travel in some very remote areas and fully believe in being prepared. Don’t forget your snake bite kit/medica supplies By the way – I am a 73 year old female. Travel safe.

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    Nice article, I will as well advise that the structure is highly flammable…live branches with green leaves is always better. Also don´t forget to take with you a body warmer.. here some for less than $3bucks

  7. The article suggested “dry” materials, several commenters suggested “green” materials. I say: “It doesn’t really matter all that much which you choose.”

    In case no one has noticed, forest fires burn nicely whether the foliage is dry or green. The main difference being the acridity of the smoke is greater when green materials burn vs dry materials.

    Dry materials will yield more satisfactory insulative value. Green materials may cause greater condensation because they are “green” meaning “wet”.

    If you’re truly concerned about flammability, follow fire marshall recommendations and either keep the heating fire VERY small or outside your shelter (there are many ways to do this). Clear visqueen plastic sheeting placed between the fire and shelter with mylar space blankets at the back of the shelter for reflection works well as long as the fire is going (difficult to maintain all night long).

    Perhaps a better alternative is to make your shelter without the expectation of it serving ALL your needs and pack a sleeping bag liner and large heavy mil plastic (contractor) garbage bags to sleep in. Plastic is noisy if you move around while sleeping, however, so your OpSec may be compromised.

    As always, compromises may be necessary; if you’re lucky you’ll learn what works best for each situation, and if unlucky, you might just die in the process.

    Differing scenarios will dictate different methods of sheltering as well. In event of a Nuke, your shelter had best be underground (heavy log ceiling and earth walls well-braced against overpressure waves) and covered with at least three feet of earth and containing your supplies (including water) sufficient for a month before emerging to start life anew.

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