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Building a Survival Shelter: A Guide to Considerations and Techniques


When it comes to wilderness survival, having the knowledge and skills to build a proper shelter can be a lifesaver. Whether you find yourself lost in a remote area or facing unexpected challenges during a multi day hike, understanding the essentials of constructing a survival shelter is crucial, as well as whether you should even bother to build a shelter at all.

In this guide, we'll explore key considerations and techniques for building a shelter that provides protection from the elements and enhances your chances of staying warm and safe.

  1. You might not need to build a shelter at all: Building a shelter from scratch requires a huge amount of time and energy, and some knowledge. and a strategic location. I typically spend around 3 hours building a shelter at a leisurely pace, and knowing my plan up front, and it could take up t0 5 hours to gather all the materials required. In my past experiences I've also walked a surprising 15,000 - 30,000 steps in the process of building a shelter, just moving around the local area to shuttle materials back and forth. So consider that if you know which way civilisation is, and you can get there in 5 hours or less, you might be safer, warmer, and expend the same amount of energy to just start walking rather than stop to build a shelter.

  2. Location Matters: Choosing the right location is critical for shelter construction. Natural shelters, such as those formed by earth banks or boulders, can offer a good starting point. However, it's essential to consider wind direction to avoid smoke-related issues. Sideways wind is ideal to blow smoke through your camp area (wind going the same direction as you are lying), while facing the wind will lead to problems, filling your shelter with unbearable smoke. Counter-intuitively, backing into the wind can also cause it to swirl inside your shelter. Avoid hilltops due to wind exposure, and steer clear of depressions into which cold air will sink. Always be cautious about camping near large fallen trees' root balls, as the tree may pop back up unexpectedly.

  3. Shelter Roof Materials: Selecting suitable materials for your shelter's roof is essential for insulation and weather resistance. Options like leaf debris, bracken, and moss have their pros and cons. Leaf debris can be time-consuming to gather, while bracken may be more insulating but requires more material. Moss, though heavy, can provide an instant, rainproof roof. Additionally, using a poncho, if available, can serve as an instant barrier, enhancing your shelter's effectiveness.

  4. Shelter Style and Proportions: Consider the style and proportions of your shelter to maximize heat retention. Lean-to shelters are recommended for their simplicity and speed of construction. Before you start, ensure there is enough space for lying down, and choose the angle of the roof slant carefully, especially in rainy conditions - be aware that the only dry area will be behind the ridgepole, not directly under it.

  5. Bed Construction: Constructing a comfortable bed is crucial for a good night's sleep. Use materials like moss or holly covered in conifer branches for padding. Yes, holly! It's shapre gives it a springy texture, and when covered in another layer of branches it's a comfy mattress I've used many times. Explore options like a raised flat bed or a crib-style bed by using sawn wood to lay across a frame - although this takes yet. more time and energy. Ensure that the bed is level and well-padded for optimal insulation from the cold ground.

6. Fire Placement: Positioning your fire correctly is key to staying warm. Ensure the fire is at or below your sleeping level; never uphill from you, otherwise the heat will rise above you. Maintain a safe distance from your sleeping position to avoid burning, but you need to be much closer than you think! 1 large pace away with woods that don't spit too much is ideal for cold weather. Depending on the available wood, choose a suitable fire lay method, such as a long log lay if you have thinner logs, or if you have very thick logs available, try stacking them and lighting the middle, to provide a slow burn throughout the night. If it's not too cold (perhaps no lower than 15 degrees C) you should not even light a fire, as you'll save energy on collecting and managing tinder and fuel - instead, make a shelter that's closed on both sides with a small entrance to crawl into, and stuff it full of as much leaves and debris as you can for insulation.

7. Clothing Considerations: Your choice of clothing is crucial for safety around the fire. Opt for non-flammable and non-meltable materials, such as wool or animal skins. This ensures your safety and comfort, especially when dealing with an open flame.


Building a survival shelter requires careful consideration of various factors, from wind direction to bed construction and fire placement. By understanding these essential aspects, you can enhance your ability to create a shelter that offers protection, warmth, and comfort in challenging outdoor situations. Always be prepared, stay vigilant, and adapt your shelter-building techniques to the specific conditions you encounter in the wild.

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