Building A Survival Shelter

Paul Pinkerton

In this part of our series on Survival Shelters we’re talking about Building shelters as opposed to using the natural shelters discussed in part one of the series.

Knowing how to build a shelter is a key survival skill and we encourage everyone to learn hot to do it, even if it’s just the basic principles, it could stand you in good stead if you’re a traveler or you’re faced with an emergency.

This is our second in a three part series on Survival Shelters from James Mandeville.

Read part one – Natural Shelters
Read part three – Security and Snow

If you’re out in the wilderness or in a possible unstable area, maybe from environmental or civil issues then knowing how to build a survival shelter is an important skill.

Making a shelter

You possibly have two items in your Personal Survival Kit that can be used to make a very efficient shelter for adverse weather conditions — your Space Blanket and a double loop snare.

If you don’t have a double loop snare, improvise using the strongest cord you have (two trouser belts, shoelaces, cordage, etc.) and make a slipknot loop at each end. Using these items, you can make a quick overnight shelter or a shelter with one week’s durability if you are carrying a reusable Space Blanket.

Locate a low overhanging branch or construct an A–frame using three poles (about your height) so it looks like a low version of a Red Indian tepee.


Mark out a triangle on the ground and stick one end of each pole into the ground, pull them together at the top to form an apex and then lash the tops of the poles together; if one branch is forked this is an advantage as you can rest the other branches in the fork.

Spread out your Space Blanket and locate the center. Place a smooth stone in the center, grasp it and turn the blanket over holding the stone inside.

Space blanket
Space blanket

Drop one of the loops of your double loop snare over the stone and pull gently tight. Your Space Blanket is now hanging down from the center suspended by the snare.

Attach the other end of the snare to the low branch, or to the apex of your A–frame. Make sure it is not too high, so you have plenty of material hanging down. If necessary, adjust the height of your A–frame.

Spread out the Space Blanket and tie three corners to the A–frame or weight them down with stones if you are using a low branch.

Lift up the free corner of the blanket and trap it in the top loop of the snare. This forms the opening.

You have now constructed your quick shelter; effectively this is a tent!

If it is windy, very severe weather or if you need to stay put for several days, you need to build a “debris” shelter around your tent.

To make a debris shelter, rest strong branches over the low tree branch or all around your A–frame to form an outer layer. Use as many branches as possible to make a strong “shell.” Fill in gaps between these outer branches with any materials to hand. (A debris shelter can be constructed without the Space Blanket if you are sure it is not going to rain.

Similarly, your Space Blanket can be hung over a low branch and weighted down to make a “ridge tent” if you need to make a shelter really fast and cold is not an issue.) Light a reflector fire near your shelter — the silvered interior of your Space Blanket will reflect a lot of heat rays and quickly warm up the inside of your shelter.

Dig a trench around your shelter to channel away rainwater. Bear in mind that you should protect your shelter from sparks and flames so position your fire carefully.

Debris Shelter

Simply, rest or lash support timbers against each other and cover in thatched reed, branches from fir trees, earth sods or anything else available to keep out the elements.

Debris smoker

Lean–to shelter

The shelter below was built in a fir forest using only a commando wire saw for felling and trimming and uses the natural support of the trees themselves as the main structure. It took me 2 hours to collect the materials and 1 hour to build a shelter large enough for six people. I undertook this as a demonstration of how one person could construct a shelter for a number of injured people as part of an Army training exercise.

Such a shelter has various possibilities. It could be built faster and lower using only one side to protect from the prevailing wind. It could be constructed on four sides to give a bad weather shelter in unpredictable weather conditions. A shelter this size could house a group of six and is high enough to allow a small cooking fire inside it.


Study what is available and make a shelter good enough to protect you and strong enough to stand up for the length of time you intend to use it. Always test the stability of a large shelter by shaking key supporting parts as you build it.

The shelter crossbeam could be lashed to the trees for additional security in a strong wind if you have plenty of cordage. If you use trees as the main structure, bear in mind they sway around in a strong wind and raindrops from the leaves drip down long after it has stopped raining. Test and retest everything you do. Better if it collapses at the outset, rather than when you are asleep inside it.

Points to watch

Make certain the crossbeam is securely in place before walking underneath it.

Use the weight of heavy side beams to press the crossbeam back against the supporting trees if you have no means of lashing the crossbeam to the trees.

Hang the thatching branches pointing down to send rain shooting off them. Construct your thatch from the bottom working up, so each new layer overlaps the layer below it by one third.



Reflector Fire

The safest and most effective way of heating a shelter, like the lean-to shelter in the above photo, is to make a reflector fire. Hammer two rows of uprights in a line parallel to the entrance of the shelter and pile timber up between them to make the reflector.

Light a fire a short distance from the reflector. This directs more heat from the fire towards the entrance of the shelter. Lining the rear, inside wall of the shelter with a silvered space blanket reflects more heat inside the shelter.

Read part one – Natural Shelters
Read part three – Security and Snow


Thanks to James Mandeville for this article.  Jame is an ex-Army survival instructor and runs the popular survival website site Survival Expert.

He has many years experience in difficult terrain, notably the Amazon, the African bush and climbing in various mountain regions including the Drakensburg Mountains and the Andes.



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