I love the great outdoors. I hate being exposed.
Wait…Don’t those two statements contradict each other?
They do if you can’t build a survival shelter. But if you can…then the answer is: NO.
Let me explain.
Being forced to ride out Mother Nature’s worst without a survival shelter is not only crappy time, but it’s also deadly. When unprepared humans go up against extreme weather, weather wins. You lose.
And even if the weather decides to “play nice,” there’s just something comforting knowing you can build a safe barrier between you and the rest of the world.
Cold, wet, heat and fierce animals reduce your survival chances. And at the extremes (blizzards, torrential downpours, heat waves, and attacks), you’re survival window slams shut. So if you can’t build a survival shelter fast in harsh conditions, you’re done for in mere minutes.
Survival shelters are essential to your survival success. Whether you’re planning a long-term wilderness bug out or want to be prepared for an emergency.
That’s why you should learn how to build survival shelters.
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So in this article, we’ll cover what I consider the ten best survival shelters. The easiest emergency survival shelters, a few long-term survival shelters, shelters you can build without tools and we’ll also cover a few of the best tools to help you build your shelters.
Now not all survival shelter designs work in all environments. A good forest survival shelter will not work in deep snow or a deadly hot desert. So I’ll break down this article into the following categories:
- Forest Survival Shelters
- Snow Survival Shelters
- Jungle Survival Shelters
- Desert Survival Shelters
And within each of these environments, I’ll show you an emergency survival shelter option and provide my favorite long-term survival shelter builds as well.
So let’s start things off with the simplest shelter everyone should learn how to build.
The fast, efficient, lifesaving emergency tarp survival shelter.
Forest Survival Shelters
Emergencies are, by definition, unplanned events:
“A serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action.”
The key word here is UNEXPECTEDLY. You didn’t expect the event but never-the-less; shit happens. So while we cannot prevent all emergencies situations from our lives, we can prepare for the unexpected.
Or as they say “expect the unexpected.”
So how do you do this in regards to forest survival shelters?
3 Key Emergency Shelter Tools
I’m often asked which survival tarp I consider the best. I personally like the Aqua Quest Defender Tarp. It’s 100% waterproof, extremely durable, lightweight, compact, and includes over 20 reinforced loops for versatile setup in any situation.
Remember, when it comes to survival tarps, you get what you pay for.
2 – And as we’ll cover in more detail shortly, you’ll also benefit from having a bit of paracord with you at all times. Paracord has many survival uses, but with shelter building, it’s essential for securing tarps and lashing wood together.
And while some paracord is better than others, most will work for building survival shelters. Here’s the paracord I recommend.
3 – The third item I recommend you stash is the TACT Bivvy. It’s the ultimate solution to keeping you warm under your survival tarp. Sleeping bags are too bulky to stash in small spaces and take with you. However, the TACT Bivvy fits in your hand and is designed with NASA Mylar heat reflective technology.
It’s worth investing in one for each of your vehicles.
Click here to find out why the TACT Bivvy is one of the best survival tools ever.
1 – Tarp Shelter
Here’s a video sharing an easy way to build a tarp shelter if you have a high-quality survival tarp with you.
Now, there are more elaborate survival shelters you can make (which we’ll get to shortly), but they require more of a time and calorie commitment. They are not something you will build for a single night in a rare emergency. But a night or two is exactly where the tarp survival shelter excels.
A couple of key takeaways before we continue.
- If you have some extra time, and you’re not minutes from hypothermia or dehydration, you should look for a good base location. You want the natural surroundings to help reinforce your shelter. There are good shelter locations and bad locations. Take a few minutes to find a good location.
- Also, you need to figure out the prevailing wind direction. For most of us in the United States, that’s going to be from West to East. So you’ll want to have the back of the tarp facing to the west. That way, driving rains and howling winds will be deflected by the tarp. If you build your shelter’s entrance facing the prevailing winds, the winds will enter and push rain with it into your shelter. Not fun.
Pro tip: Understanding prevailing winds is key for all survival shelter setups and not just for tarp shelters.
Ok, so what about some other tarp survival shelter variations?
2 – Several Variations Of The Tarp Shelter
Here’s a video that focuses primarily camping undetected, but it also show’s us several simple tarp setups that you can use in an emergency.
So as you just saw, each of these designs is simple to set up and serve the purpose of keeping you warm and dry. They will help keep the rain and wind off of you, and that’s about it. Nothing luxurious about them but emergencies rarely are.
You can combine any of these setups with fire if hypothermia is a concern.
Before we move on; a quick note about tarps:
- Not all tarps are created equal. Cheap tarps rip.
- Cheap tarps have don’t have many grommets.
- You need lots of grommets to make all the tarp shelter variations.
- And the grommets cheap tarps do have, will rip the tarp under very little tension.
- Cheap tarps will quickly deteriorate under UV light exposure.
- Cheap tarps are not good for survival. Don’t buy cheap tarps.
Instead, get a tarp that is built for survival like this one. It’s completely waterproof, is highly durable and includes 20 reinforced loops. This survival tarp is ideal for creating any of the tarp configurations we’ve shown you in this guide.
Now if you don’t have a tarp, building a one-night survival shelter becomes a more labor intensive task.
Forests offer an abundance of resources you need to build a strong survival shelter. Trees provide ample amounts of logs and sticks. They also provide pine straw and leaves. These are your basic building blocks to many survival shelters.
Note: If these resources are not readily available, then these survival shelter won’t work very well. You’ll need to check out some of the other survival shelter options later in this article.
3 – The Debris Survival Shelter
The simple debris shelter is your next best bet if you are without a tarp. Here’s a quick video showing how to build a debris hut shelter.
Now before we move on to more sophisticated survival shelters, I want to talk about the often overlooked but absolute simplest survival shelters; Natural Shelters.
Take advantage of what nature can provide. I’m talking about outcrops, caves, large burrows, or natural depressions. If you can find a natural area that’s protected from wind and rain, then by all means, use it. Take what nature gives. Don’t spend hours or days building a complex shelter when there’s an empty cave in site.
To make the most of a forests resources and to build a stable structure, you’ll want to have a few essential survival tools with you. At a minimum, you need a high-quality survival knife.
Assuming you have these items you’ll be able to construct the following survival shelters with some knowledge and practice.
4 – The Spider Shelter
This first series of videos goes over a spider debris shelter. It’s a modified debris hut with an extra dome at the front to provide enough space to sit up in it. Followed up with a couple of videos on how to make some upgrades to this type of shelter. This kind of survival shelter is ideal for solo survival for both the medium or long term.
This type of survival shelter is ideal for solo survival for both the medium or long term.
Now if you are staying for the long haul, then you might as well make your house a home with a few upgrades. Every day, add a few small upgrades to your shelter and in a few weeks, you’ll have yourself a longer-termer term shelter. Upgrades such as a sleeping mat, a fire hole, and more layers of debris for more insulation.
The spyder debris shelter is a relatively simple design and it’s proven.
5 – The Ultimate Wickiup
Next up, is a Wickiup. This shelter is more elaborate and will take extra time and energy to build. However, you can scale this survival shelter design to include larger survival groups for long term stays.
Now, if you’re planning an extended stay in a Wickiup, it makes sense to invest some effort making life a bit more comfortable. You’ll also have time to add upgrades to your shelter over the weeks or months that you’re living there.
So here’s a 4 part video series with ideas on how to upgrade your wickiup from surviving to thriving.
Jungle Survival Shelters
For emergencies in a jungle, your best bet is a tarp shelter. If you don’t have one, then you can build a debris survival shelter similar to the ones we previously covered. The trees species and debris will be different in a jungle, but the concept is the same.
So let’s move one to my favorite long term jungle survival shelter: The Survival Hut.
6 – The Survival Hut
Jungles provide unique materials you can use to build with. They have thick vines, hollow shoots, large leaves, and the ground is often made of clay. Plus, you’ll have an abundance of water available to work with.
A survival hut starts by using the wattle technique to interlace shoots and sticks. Wattling creates a simple fencing structure. Then you use the duab technique to smear a clay-like substance onto the wattle and allowing it dry. These two methods create a substantial survival hut.
Now, feel free to use tools to make your hut but this video is impressive since he builds his entire hut with starting with no tools. He makes tools with just the resources around him. Worth watching the whole video if you have the time.
Snow Survival Shelters
The previous shelters we’ve covered don’t work in deep snow. Forest shelters can still work if they’re trace amounts of snow, but if your dealing with multiple feet of snow, you won’t find the wood or debris necessary to build them.
So instead, you’ll need to take advantage of the snow.
7 – A Snow Cave
Snow caves work well as emergency survival shelters. You dig a snow hole and get in. It’s fast, quick, down n’ dirty.
The reason this works is that snow has insulating properties. So while snow itself is cold, it also does a fantastic job of trapping heat.
So if you dig a hole in the snow and then bundle up inside, the air temperature inside the snow cave will rise over time due to your trapped body heat. When built correctly, the air temperature inside the snow cave will rise several degrees higher than the outside air temperature. Plus, it will protect you from the wind, which in a severe blizzard is the bigger concern.
However, you still need to be careful when building a snow cave. There’ are some dangers you need to be aware of. First, you need to remain dry at all times. Avoid extreme sweating while building because wet and cold leads to a hypothermic situation.
Second, cooking in a snow cave has been attributed to several mountain climber deaths over the years from carbon monoxide poisoning. Here’s an article that covers more snow cave dangers.
This video shows you the basics to building a snow cave. Now in an emergency situation where time is of the essence, you wouldn’t make it as large. Just big enough to get in it fast.
While snow caves are relatively straightforward to build, they’re not suitable for longer term situations. Snow caves will eventually collapse in on themselves. A full out collapse typically takes several days of warm weather or rain, but they are not meant for months of sheltering.
7 – An Igloo
And that’s where the iconic igloo comes in. By design, igloos are made to last. Obviously, snow melts in warm weather, but the integrity of an igloo (if properly built) is impressive.
To show you just how strong and durable igloos are, check out this short video.
So how do you correctly build an igloo by yourself? Here’s a step by step video showing you how to build your own survival igloo.
Note: Cold weather survival is more than just snow caves and igloos. Make sure you understand all aspects of cold weather survival.
Next up, the opposite of cold and snow; heat and desert.
Desert Survival Shelters
Desert survival takes a unique set of skills. Many people make the mistake of thinking a shelter isn’t necessary for a desert. They think “it doesn’t get cold in a desert”; which is false.
Deserts at night can get brutally cold. For example, America’s most infamous desert “Death Valley” often drops into the 30’s over the winter months.
And many people also forget about the need for shade in the heat of the day.
In one study, they found an average difference of 27.5 degrees in shade vs. direct sunlight. 27.5 degrees a big deal in the brutally hot desert.
So while it’s blistering hot during the day, you need a shelter to help shade you from the sun. But as evening sets in you’ll need shelter to keep you warm.
The bottom line is, you need shelter in a desert survival scenario. So it’s best to learn how to make one.
Now, if you’re stranded in the desert due to a broken down vehicle, then you already have a decent shelter; the vehicle itself. So in most cases, it makes the most sense to stay with your vehicle instead of abandoning it. There are expectations, but if you’re stranded, lost, and hoping for rescue then use the inside of your vehicle as your desert survival shelter.
If you’re stranded on foot, a good tarp will work wonders in a short term desert survival situation, but if you don’t have a tarp with you, then you’re going to have to improvise. You’ll have to use what the environment gives you.
You’ll have to use what the environment gives you. Which in the desert often means miles and miles of juniper trees and sagebrush.
9 – A Juniper Tree Shelter
Here’s a video showing how to use a Juniper Tree to improvise a survival shelter in the desert.
10 – Dug Out Survival Shelter
And for a longer term survival stay you could build a dugout survival shelter in sandy area of the desert like this one:
Of course, this one takes quite a lot of work, so if you plan on building this sort of shelter in a desert, you’ll want a shovel and plenty of water available. Otherwise, you’ll quickly suffer from dehydration.
You also need to think about the location of a dugout shelter. Flash floods in a desert are dangerous. The last thing you want to do is build a dugout shelter in a wash out basin.
Skip ahead to about 1:22 in this video to see some massive desert flash flooding in action.
Your Survival Shelter Action Plan
It’s time to get outside! No matter what environment you live in or what season it is right now, you can build yourself one of these survival shelters. Practice making them today in a safe location, when you’re not under extreme stress.
Make them close to home, where the consequences of a screw-up are not life threatening. Practice makes perfect, and mistakes help you learn. Just make sure you’re making safe mistakes before you put your skills to the ultimate test.
I keep both with me at all times, just in case, and you should too.