A finished debris hut.

A finished debris hut.

This is a guide to creating a shelter in a wilderness environment. This is one of the quintessential survival skills to have, and it’s about time I wrote this article. After securing a source of water, your next priorities should be starting a fire and building a shelter.

We will be covering shelters with tarps, shelters when a tarp is not available, and snow shelters.

Let’s start with finding the proper site for your shelter.


The first and most important thing is choosing the right site for building your shelter. There are many variables involved here, but here are some things to look for, and some things to avoid.

Good Qualities:

  • Dry land
  • As flat as possible
  • Has a nearby supply of firewood and building supplies
  • Is close enough to water to carry it to base, but far enough that you won’t be bothered by insects
  • Provides cover against the wind

Bad Qualities:

Low ground can collect cold air. Go for high ground if possible, but land that is protected from wind.

Rivers can flood; avoid dry river beds or places too close to a river.

Don’t build a shelter underneath anything that can fall on you.


Before we get to the shelters, let’s cover how to build a sleeping area, a skill you will need for most of them.

You want to make sure you’re sleeping on dry ground that isn’t cold. Make a bed with things like dry grass and spruce twigs. Make your bed a few inches thick, enough so that you don’t feel the ground beneath it.

If you have a sleeping bag, good work. Place it on top of the bed.

Sleeping close to others is a good way to preserve heat. Skin to skin contact is the best way to do this, so if you needed another reason to get naked with someone inside of a sleeping bag, there it is.


These two methods incorporate a tarp into your shelter. One is for protection from heat, the other is for protection from rain.

Making a Sun Shelter

figure 1

figure 1

This shelter is meant to supply a cool area to rest in very hot climates. It works by creating a layer of insulation that keeps the heat out, as well as a shaded area to rest. You will need two tarps (or a large on that can be folded over). The lighter in color and the shinier the better, as it will reflect sunlight better.

Find a low spot on the ground. If possible, dig a hole to get an even greater lowering of temperature.

Drive four stakes around your spot.

Spread out the first tarp, and use string to tie the tarp to the stakes, a few feet off of the ground. The lower the better, but you want to be comfortable inside of it.

Spread out the second tarp, and tie it to the stakes a foot above the first (see figure 1).

Crawl under your tarps and enjoy temperatures 5-15 degrees lower than outside.

Making a Rain Shelter

A rain shelter.

A rain shelter.

This shelter is very common; if you’re a camper you have probably used it yourself. Its goal is keep an area dry when it’s a-raining hard.

The concept is pretty simple. Attach a line to two separate points above head level (trees work well) over the spot you want to keep dry.

Place the tarp over this line diagonally, so that there are corners at each end of the line, and on the middle of the sides that hang over each side of the line.

Tie the corners that hang over each end to a line, then tie these lines to a spot lower than the first line.

The end result should be a triangle-shaped cover over your area, where rain will run down and fall over the sides (avoiding water build up). It will keep the area underneath it dry.


These shelters don’t require a tarp, and are meant for situations where only outdoor supplies are available. They are all-purpose shelters, meant to keep you warm and dry.

Making a Lean-to Shelter

A lean-to shelter.

A lean-to shelter.

Lean-to Shelters are the more basic wilderness shelter. They have on leaning wall that protects against the wind, and should have a fire on the open-end of the shelter to maximize warmth.

Find two trees a few feet apart.

Find another thick branch, log, or other object that is longer than the gap between the trees and is fairly sturdy.

Find a way to lay the long object across the trees, just over head level. The ideal is for both trees to have branches on the same side at roughly the same height. Another idea is using rope to tie the object to the trees. A third option is hammering nails into the trees to serve and a ledge.

Find various sticks, branches and pieces of wood. Lay them against the long object, at an angle with the ground. This should give you a wall that leans maybe 45 degrees or so.

Cover this wall with leaves, pine needles, or any other object that supplies insulation.

Make a sleeping area inside of your shelter.

Make a fire pit and start a fire at the open end of the shelter.

Making a Debris Hut

figure 2.

figure 2.

This model is a little more complex, but still fairly simple to put together.

Find a log or pole that is roughly twice your height in length. Lay this log against an object such as a rock or tree. The log should sit at angle, at its highest point giving you space to sit in plus a little extra.

Make a sleeping spot in the large side of your shelter.

Find some other branches, and set them up at an angle, teepee style, along the log (see figure 2).

Cover your shelter with leaves, pine branches, etc. Anything that will supply insulation. Make sure to leave an opening to enter and exit (see picture at top).

Here’s a great article that covers building a debris hut in detail.


This section is for the specific scenario of cold, snowy environments. Cold environments are very dangerous, and building a good shelter can ward off hypothermia and save your life. Here is a brief introduction to two of the types of shelters that can be made in such an environment.

Making a Snow Cave

The inside of a good snow shelter. Notice the elevated sleeping area.

If you have access to a large pile of snow, a snow cave is an option. Using a shovel, try to compact the snow as much as possible.

Use your shovel to dig an entrance into the pile. After you get a few feet in, start to dig upward. The goal is to create a sitting/lying area large enough for you to fit in. This area should be a few feet above the entrance area, as this will stop cold air from entering and will keep the heat trapped in the upper area.

Poke a few holes from the inside to the outside of the hill. This is important for air circulation. But be gentle so as not to affect the structural integrity of your shelter.

Be very cautious as these types of shelters can collapse. Keep some of your bags outside of your shelter, so that search crews can find you in an emergency.

Making an Igloo

Ahh, the Cadillac of snow shelters. Igloos. Here’s how to make them.

The process is a bit complex, so instead of having me write about it in an already long-winded article, I will link you to a website dedicated to covering this very subject:


Good luck and stay prepared!

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  1. Great article. Also keep in mind that if you can’t raise the bed off the ground in a snow shelter, dig out a cold air well in the floor for the cold air to sink into. It’ll work the same way.

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