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Bushcraft 101: How to Build a Survival Shelter in the Wilderness

Bushcraft 101: How to Build a Survival Shelter in the Wilderness

Do you have any plans to spend time in a survival shelter? We didn’t think so, but that’s the problem. You need a bushcraft shelter to survive in the wild. Usually, you need one because you ran into an emergency and need to hunker down out of the elements. 

So, maybe you should plan to spend some time in a survival shelter for practice, or at least know the basics of building one. Keep reading for some bushcraft 101 skills about how to build a survival shelter. Let’s dive in!

Survival Shelter No No's: What not to do when setting up camp!

What Is a Survival Shelter? 

Survival is all about the basics, a survival shelter is not luxury accommodation. Spending time in a bushcraft shelter in an emergency will probably not be an enjoyable or comfortable experience. However, if you do it correctly, your chances of surviving a crisis are much better than without one.

A survival shelter is a natural shelter that keeps you out of the elements. But shelter can mean several things, like clothes to protect you from the sun’s rays in the desert or a lean-to for the wind and snow. If you are ever in a situation where you may have to stay put for longer than you expect, finding a place to keep you safe is your number one priority. Shelter needs to be a priority like food or water.

Survival shelter in forest
Knowing how to build a survival shelter is a key skill to know before you head out into the wilderness.

What’s the Difference Between a Survival Shelter and a Bushcraft Shelter?

A survival shelter and a bushcraft shelter are basically the same thing, it’s just how they are used.

Bushcrafting is a hobby way of living using primitive skills in nature. When someone goes into the woods to live off the land, they’ll need shelter, food, water, and other tools to survive. A shelter they built would be a bushcraft shelter.

When someone goes on a day hike to summit a mountain and loses their way in an unexpected downpour with the temperature plummeting, they might have to build a shelter to keep warm. Their structure would be a survival shelter.

Either way, both shelters protect you from the harsh elements that nature can deliver at a moment’s notice.

Pro Tip: Always be able to start a campfire by packing one of these 8 Best Campfire Starters to Bring on Every Outdoor Adventure.

Why Is Shelter Building Important for Wilderness Survival?

Shelter-building is essential for wilderness survival because it provides protection. Whether that is a torrential downpour, blizzard conditions, freezing temps, or even sunshine beating down on your bare head, weather moves quickly and can kill. 

How important shelter is will depend heavily on your location and surroundings. If it rains or snows regularly where you are then shelter will be critical to keeping you warm. If you are in the desert shelter during the day may be more important to keep you out of the sun.

Kids learning how to build bushcraft shelter
If you enjoy bushcraft camping, you’ll have to learn how to build a basic bushcraft shelter.

What Are the Three Basic Types of Survival Shelters?

While shelter can be various things, like an overhanging rock or a shaded tree, there are three basic survival shelters. The types are a lean-to, an A-frame, and a debris shelter. Each type has varying qualities. Where you are or what you need protection from will dictate what shelter to build.

Lean-To Shelter

A lean-to shelter is a structure you build out of long pieces of wood. You can also cover it in debris. It has one side open, making it excellent for protection from the wind on one side while having warmth from a fire on the other side.

Bushcraft: How to make a lean-to shelter from only natural materials - survival shelter

A-Frame Shelter

An A-frame shelter is similar to a lean-to in that the sides lean and support each other. However, you’ll have two sides protecting you from nature. This shelter scenario helps get you out of the wind when you don’t need the added warmth of a fire.

Bushcraft Shelters - The A Frame Shelter | TA Outdoors

Debris Shelter

The debris shelter is one of the most useful and insulated shelters and takes the longest to construct. You would make it out of a long pole as the spine, which you’d generally balance against a tree. It consists of other branches that create an A-frame-like structure branching off the spine. 

Once you have enough branches and sticks acting like shingles on the roof covering the sides, place debris all over the shelter as a layer of insulation. You can use this type of shelter if you build it using enough debris for protection from rain, snow, and cold temps.

How to Build a Debris Hut | The Survival Summit

What Do You Need to Build a Survival or Bushcraft Shelter?

If you have packed wisely before your hiking adventure, you will have some survival tools in your pack in case of an emergency. However, you will not have everything because most of what you need to build a survival shelter comes from nature.

Generally, you will need many logs and sticks of various sizes, along with downed debris like fallen branches, dead leaves, and pine needles. If you have time to find a place with many natural items, build it there. 

Prevention is the first key to survival. So before you have to build a shelter, pack wisely. This means extra clothing, including hats, gloves, and rain gear, along with a survival kit, including an emergency blanket and fire starters. If you need to build a survival shelter, the equipment you packed for prevention goes a long way.

Pro Tip: You’ll be glad you packed one of these 6 Best Survival Knives while buchcraft camping.

Close up of wooden survival shelter
Know how to build a lean-to, A-frame, and debris shelter before you hit the trail.

How Do You Build a Survival Shelter in the Wilderness

Even if you have planned and packed wisely, things happen unexpectedly in the wilderness. You might have to build a survival shelter. Most of us aren’t carpenters; therefore, we think that we don’t have the skills to make one. Think again! Anyone can build a shelter if they know how. 

Find a Suitable Location

Finding a suitable location isn’t always something you’ll have time for in an actual survival scenario, but if you have the time and energy, do so. A suitable location includes an area with the resources to build the shelter type you require. 

When picking an area for your survival shelter, consider the Five W’s. These are wind, widowmakers, wildlife, water, and wood. The wind brings in weather, and since that is what you are sheltering from, choose a spot out of the wind as much as possible. Dead trees in the survival world are widowmakers because they can crash down on you. In other words, don’t pick a spot next to a bunch of still-standing dead trees.

Wildlife can also make your time in a survival shelter miserable and dangerous. Be aware of animal paths or anthills; don’t camp there. Water is two-fold in that you don’t want to be where water can pool up around you, and you need a dry spot. While you don’t want water in your shelter, having it nearby for ease of use is a bonus. But don’t underestimate the power of water. If you’re too close to a stream and it rains overnight, that stream could be your death. 

Wood, the last of the 5 W’s, is essential because that is usually the material of your bushcraft shelter. Look for a spot with downed timber in various sizes and types. Building a refuge while shuffling back and forth with large loads of wood takes up too much time and energy. Make a plan that makes sense.

Make a Plan

Making a plan will also save energy. Stop, breathe, and think. Before you start building a survival shelter, look around the environment. Based on that and what you need protection from, decide what type of shelter you need to make, how big it needs to be, and where to build it.

Choose Materials That Will Be the Best Insulation

You have a plan. You know where to build, and it’s time to begin. The best idea is to start from the bottom up. Once you’ve chosen your location, cushion the ground with warmth using natural substances. 

Those natural substances can be anything from layers of dead leaves and pine needles to old dried-out bark and other nearby plants. If you have a sleeping bag, pad, or emergency blanket with you, use it. Set it up now, so you can build your shelter around it. The thicker the insulation, the better. This doesn’t just go for the ground, either. Once you’ve made your shelter, you’ll continue the insulation by adding more debris to the shelter’s walls.

Interior of a survival shelter
Making shelter should be a top priority if you find yourself in a survival situation.

Build the Shelter Frame First

Before you add insulation to the walls, you need to build the shelter, and the frame comes first. Most people build shelters against a natural element, like a large tree or boulder.

From there, you’ll build the shelter’s frame onto a V into a tree or a crevasse of a rock. The structure usually starts with a long, solid thick piece of wood, generally a bit longer than the height of the person building the shelter. This keeps the shelter big enough to fit in but small enough not to waste heat. Once you have a sturdy foundation or spine, it’s time to build the walls and the roof.

Walls & Roof

With most common survival shelters being lean-to or A-frame, the roof is generally a part of the walls. Whether you have an entire roof or slanted walls, you lay against the foundation or the spine; these need to be as sturdy as the tree or rock forming the foundation.

To build walls that hold additional insulation, start with long thick sticks you’ll lay against the spine at around a 45-degree angle. Place them along the entire length of the spine. The ends of the stakes shouldn’t stick up more than one to two inches above the crest. Think of it as creating a tight rib cage. Just like your rib cage protects your organs, this rib cage is the basis for protecting you from the elements.

Once you have a rib cage, find sticks with branches coming off at different angles. Broken pine tree branches work well for this. These will act as the shingles on a roof, providing stability for the insulation to stay in place. Place these branches along the walls. 

As you did when you piled insulation on the flooring before building the shelter, you’ll want to do the same to the walls and roof. Grab armfuls of leaves, pine needles, and other plants and debris from the forest floor and pile this all over the shelter. Ideally, you’ll want the debris to be around a foot thick, but this will depend on what is available and the weather. The more debris, the warmer and more secure the shelter.

Floor & Bedding

Because you planned, you prepared your floor and bedding before you started building the foundation of the shelter. But if you can push more leaves and other natural insulation items into the shelter, do so. Be careful not to raise the flooring of the shelter so high that you can’t get into the shelter. You won’t be warm if you can’t access it.  

Old survival shelter in forest.
Build your shelter away from wind, widowmakers, wigglies, water, and wood.

How Long Can You Survive Without Shelter in the Wild?

Surviving without shelter is possible. However, that survival depends on where you are and the weather. Many people sleep in the wilderness without any shelter and do fine. In inclement conditions, shelter is a top priority, and you might only have a few hours before your body succumbs to impending weather threats. 

Beginning Bushcraft Gear, Skills, Camping in the Woods

Hone Your Bushcraft Skills With Shelter Building

Hone your bushcraft skills to prevent possible threats to your life in the wilderness. Prevention and practice are your best insurance regarding survival in the outdoors. The shelter you make will depend on how much weight you want to carry and how much time you put into practicing your skills before using them in an emergency.

Heading out on a multi-day backpacking trip, you may have some bushcraft skills beyond shelter building and the tools that come with a multi-day trek.

On a two-hour hike, you may have a lighter pack and knowledge of shelters and other survival skills. While we get that, you don’t want to lug around a 20-pound bag for a two-hour hike. Carrying preventive tools for any length of the walk is always good insurance. 

Now that you’ve added bushcraft and survival shelter knowledge to your skill set, where’s your next hike? Tell us in the comments!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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