How to Construct Wilderness Survival Shelters

Shelters

Survival Shelters Construction

Shelters

© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton

Those of us who enjoy the outdoors very rarely consider the real dangers associated with the sport. We frequently go out in the extreme cold and snowy country to backpack, hunt, fish, or just to see the beauty. As a result, we often find ourselves miles from any one or any place as we travel. While the day may start out nicely, it only takes a short period of time for the weather to turn bad, and we will be forced to seek shelter quickly. But, do you really know how to construct a shelter in arctic like conditions? Could you survive until the weather clears, or help arrives? I do, thanks to a variety of United States Air Force Survival Courses.

 

There are many different types of cold weather shelters that a person can construct and some take only minutes to prepare. I suggest, even if the amount of snowfall is sufficient, that most people avoid building an igloo. I have found them difficult for most of us to construct. I have found other types of cold weather emergency shelters that work just as well and take less effort to construct.

 

The first shelter, a “tree pit” shelter is by far the fastest and easiest to construct (I always suggest this shelter in any article I write about winter or arctic survival). As heavy snow falls, it covers the branches of large trees. Under the tree's lowest branches, however, there is usually a “pit” where no snow, or very little, has reached. Usually, all a survivor has to do is clear away what little snow may be there, and perhaps remove a few lower branches and the shelter is almost completed. I suggest building the shelter up by positioning poles around the trunk of your chosen tree (like the frame of a tee-pee) and then covering it with pine boughs. Or, if you have the material, cover these poles with a tarp or poncho, then layer with boughs, and add snow when you are done (I always carry a casualty blanket in my survival kit that works well for this). This will aid in insulating the shelter and help block the wind.

 

While constructing this shelter, avoid knocking the snow off of the lower branches that you have left intact. The snow on the tree branches will further insulate the shelter. Remember to cover the floor of the shelter with about fourteen inches of pine boughs to insulate it as well. Nothing ruins a good nights sleep like a cold sleeping platform. The drawback with this type of shelter is the lack of a fire pit. A campfire is not recommended due to the hazards associated with the tree limbs. Make sure you make a ventilation hole in the shelter to allow carbon monoxide to escape if you are using a candle or other portable heating device. All shelters should be well ventilated at all times.

 

Another type of shelter to consider is a simple A frame. This shelter is quickly constructed and is easily made. Once again, if you have a poncho or a tarp, the shelter is done in no time. Another survival item that I usually carry that helps greatly is about twenty-five feet of cord. The type of cord used is up to you, but I prefer nylon parachute cord (550 cord) because it is lightweight and strong enough for most tasks. The cord can simply be ran between two trees about two feet off of the ground and secured to the two trees. Then the material can be draped over the line and secured to the ground. Make sure all stubs and sharp points are removed from any limbs you are using to avoid puncturing the material and to avoid head injuries once in the shelter.

 

If you do not have material to work with, position a long limb between two trees and secure it at each end. Your next step is to construct a rough frame once you have the top pole in position. I suggest you use two poles, crossed at the point where the top is at both the front and rear of your shelter. Then, secure two horizontal poles on each side to make the structure stronger. To make the walls of your shelter, position pine boughs or limbs, standing up along the sides of the frame. Remember to follow the angles of the shelter so the shelter resembles the letter A when viewed from the front. Once the frame is completed, the walls added, you should now cover the shelter with snow. Keep in mind that snow, though is seems very cold, makes a great insulator for shelters.

 

A fire pit can be made near the shelter and I recommend you use heat reflectors (boulders or a stack of logs, one on top of the other) to reflect heat back to your shelter. Make this fire pit no closer than 10 feet to your shelter. It is also important to line the floor of your shelter with pine boughs to protect you from the chill of sleeping on a cold ground. Place your gear and enough fire starting materials in the shelter immediately after construction. This provides you with enough wood to get a morning fire going as well as prevents gear being lost. Falling snow will quickly cover any object left unattended in a very short time.

 

One shelter I use most of the time is a simple lean-to. This type of shelter is great when you need a shelter quickly, or if there is not enough snow for making a true arctic shelter. I simply tie a cord between two trees, just as I explained in A frame shelter above. I then drape about a foot of a tarp or poncho over the line, tie a cord to the grommets on the ends of the material and run the cord down to two stakes I have stuck securely into the ground. My next step is to use stakes at the other end of the material to secure in to the ground. Once again, I cover the roof with pine boughs. If snow is available, I add snow to the pine boughs also. Remember, snow is a great insulator!

 

And, like in all cold weather shelters, be sure to line the shelter with pine boughs to insulate you from the cold ground. Once the floor is lined, you should make a fire pit in front of the shelter. I never build a fire any closer than 10 feet (pine boughs burn very quickly). If you place a heat reflector on the side opposite of the shelter entrance you will be surprised how warm the shelter will be. The advantage to this type of shelter is the speed and ease of which it can be constructed. In a real emergency, speed may make the difference between life and death.

 

If you have the time to make one, a snow trench shelter is one of the best. I have spent days in one of them and I know from experience they work very well.

 

Your first step is to dig down into the snow and clear a trench about three feet wide, three feet deep and seven feet long. This is just a little longer and wider than most people are, to allow you to store your field gear in the shelter. But, make sure you make it roomy enough. Keep in mind that you are looking for emergency protection from the environment, not a suite. The actual size used in construction is an individual preference, depending on your body size and amount of gear you have, but I want a small and compact shelter with only my immediate needs in mind.

 

As soon as you have the trench made, line the floor of the shelter with pine boughs from the nearby pine trees. Other sources of insulation can be used if pine is not available where you are (If you survive an aircraft crash, the insulation from the walls or the material from the seats on an aircraft provide excellent protection from a cold sleeping surface). I suggest you place the boughs a little over a foot thick. I would prefer to pile them higher, but you have to be able to crawl into the thing once you have a roof on it. I have discovered, in my opinion, that you can never have too much floor insulation in a survival shelter.

 

Next, put your gear in the shelter up against the far wall, away from the entrance. Now you can start gathering up logs and limbs to cover the snow trench. Make sure you avoid rotted wood (the weight of the insulating material and snow may make it collapse) for the roof. Starting at the end opposite the entrance, I lay the logs and limbs over the open trench until it is all covered with the exception of a small opening. This opening would be the shelters entrance. You will have to estimate the size of your entrance based on your body size, but keep it as small as possible.

 

Also, made sure the logs overlapped the sides of the snow trench by about a foot on each side. This will give the roof strength and additional support. After the logs are in place, cover the top of the shelter with pine boughs. These pine boughs will provide insulation for your shelter. This insulation will prevent body heat from escaping and help keep the shelter protected from the wind and elements.

 

Once the boughs were placed on top, covered them with any material you may have. If you don't have anything, you can still make the shelter. Just make sure you secure each corner of the material to keep it from moving as you pile snow of it. I recommend you anchored the edges the material with wooden stakes. Once the material has been secured, begin covering it with snow.

 

As you work on any shelter, avoid over heating. If you get too hot remove a layer of clothing. It is important to avoid sweating because of the danger of the sweat freezing. Also, if you feel yourself becoming too warm, stop for a few minutes and cool down. It is not a bad idea to stop at times and maybe have a hot drink. Just make sure you drink lots of water in cold weather conditions to avoid dehydration. I know it sound insane, but dehydration is a serious cold weather problem. I usually drink hot water frequently, because it assists in keeping my body warm and prevents dehydration.

 

Once the shelter has been constructed crawl inside and poked a hole approximately three inches in diameter in the top. This hole is to allow for ventilation. If you plan to burn a candle in the shelter (plus you will need some fresh air) you will have to constantly checking to make sure the hole stays open. Without the ventilation, and with the candle burning, carbon monoxide poisoning was a real threat. Always keep your shelter well ventilated.

 

Your last step is to make a door for your shelter. You can use a poncho, tarp, space blanket, etc., and spread it out on the snow near the entrance to your shelter. Then, pile snow on the material until your have enough snow to block the hole used for your entrance. Pull the ends and sides of the material together and tied them in place using some cord or material. You now had a door, roughly the shape of a ball. You can use the ends of the material as a crude door handle to pull the “door” closed once you are inside.

 

Survival shelters are easy to make. You can make the lean-to, “A” frame, and tree pit even when there is no snow around. Just complete all of the steps except the part about adding snow. In the desert you can add a dead air space (a good insulator in hot weather) to your shelter by placing another material over the first material you used during the construction of your shelter. Keep the material separated by placed brush between the materials.

 

The best shelters for general use are the lean-to or the “A” fame designs. They are easy to make and construction takes just a little time. Always consider what you need insulation from, the heat or the cold. In most cases we just need a shelter for comfort (rain or wind) or for psychological reasons. I do, nonetheless, always suggest a shelter for any survival situation. A good shelter will keep you rested, healthy, and if nothing else, happy.

 

 

Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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