Natural Shelters – Identifying And Adapting A Survival Shelter

Paul Pinkerton

This is our first in a three part series on Survival Shelters from James Mandeville.
Read part two – Building Shelters & Warmth
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.


We regularly get out and play with the kids and practice building shelters; it’s a great way to have fun as well as learn some serious lessons.

I’ve not spent many nights in survival shelters, but I’ve been grateful for the ability to construct them when they’re needed. Here at Outdoor Revival, we think that everyone should have at least an idea of the principles and reasoning behind them, just in case.

The following comments from James Mandeville refer to building a shelter in a survival situation.

It takes some practice to make a shelter; if you are practicing the craft, bear in mind that you probably need permission from the landowner to cut down standing timber, fell branches, etc. Always take down your practice shelter afterward as it may become unstable with time and be a danger to children playing in the area. Some temporary shelters can be dangerous if not made correctly, for example, the igloo as illustrated above. This sort of construction requires knowledge and skill.

Most people can manage to find shelter or make a crude shelter in a survival situation, which is why I cover only the necessary basics here.


The first rule in a survival situation is not to waste precious energy, so always look for natural shelter rather than spending time and effort making a temporary shelter. In the photo below, the fallen tree is stable, and it would take little work to turn it into a debris shelter by propping branches against it and sealing the gaps with grass sods or foliage (see below).


A few pointers about using natural shelter

Animals use natural shelter, especially caves, overhangs, thickets and they shelter in and beneath trees; basically, they seek the same sort of shelter as humans. Ensure that the shelter you choose is not already occupied. Equally important is to make sure that the shelter you have chosen is not the natural night–time habitat of any predatory or venomous wild creature.

The rule is never to shelter in a cave without first checking inside it (especially at dusk or night). Study the cave and listen carefully for the sound of young animals inside.

Cave dwellers can include adult animals and the young of wild cats, wild dogs, and bears (depending whereabouts in the world you are). Caves also harbor snakes, bats, scorpions and many different biting insects. Large cats in particular (leopard, cheater, etc.) may leave their young in caves while out hunting. If you hear young animals inside a cave, leave the area.

Snakes are sensitive to vibrations; throwing some rocks or branches into a cave will usually bring them out (not always, so be very careful in areas with pit vipers and boas — especially if there are puff adders in the vicinity because they are slow to react and their bite is deadly). Think about what you would do if there were a wild animal in a cave you have entered and be prepared to deal with it.

Bats are difficult to dislodge and they do not normally leave a cave until sundown. Not all bats are harmless, they can bite and they foul the floor beneath them, creating a potentially serious health risk.

Bats are associated with a few diseases that affect people, such as rabies and histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is caused by a fungus (Histoplasma capsulatum), the disease is transmitted to humans by airborne fungus spores from soil contaminated by bat droppings.

Rabies is a dangerous, fatal disease, but only about 5 percent of bats submitted for testing are infected with the rabies virus. In recent years, however, there has been increased concern about the risk of rabies transmission following contact with bats. Bats living in tropical areas will probably be actively hunted by venomous snakes. If you do enter a cave, use a burning torch.


Most animals, including bats, will retreat from flames and heat but bats and most snakes do not react to the beam of an electric light. If you decided to shelter in a cave, it is best to stay near the entrance so you can make a quick exit if necessary.

Some cave floors shelve steeply down and the ceilings can be unstable. A cave makes a good shelter, but it also makes a good trap, so be careful!

Lighting a fire in a cave can be dangerous. As heat builds up and the cave roof heats and rapidly cools, you run the risk of cracks opening up; large flakes of rock can be brought down this way if the cave is unstable. Heating up the inside of a damp cave may literally cause tons of rock to break away.

It is best to build a reflector fire away from the entrance and lie down close to the entrance where it is just warm enough to endure the elements.

Overhangs can make a good overnight shelter. Study the ground below the overhang. If there are large boulders or stones immediately below the overhang, suspect the mass above is not too stable. Also, study the formation of the overhang itself.


You can see in the photo below that there is a large slab of rock that could potentially collapse. It may stay in place for thousands of years, or it may choose to collapse on the day you settle down to sleep under it. Pay particular attention to signs of recent cracking, trickles of small stones and other debris that may give some clues about the stability of the rock.

If the rock inside the overhang is very wet in dry weather, this could indicate that an aquifer is leaking through the rock and it could get very wet if it rains even a great distance from where you are. If you are in snake country (desert, etc.) look for signs that snakes have traveled the area.

Pit vipers may regularly check out areas below overhangs hunting for sheltering frogs and rodents. They may also shelter from the heat under overhangs. The same warnings about lighting a fire under an overhang apply as with caves.

Thicket or other very dense vegetation can often be hacked out to make a good overnight shelter. Many animals will not try to enter into thicket but reptiles, of course, are undaunted by it. As with a cave, once you are in a thicket you are also in an effective trap should predators be around, so make a couple of exit points in case you need to escape.

Cheetah hiding in a thicket

Trees can make good shelter, but there are things to watch out for. Many insects may dwell in a single tree. Ants, for example, can be a deadly nuisance and there may be thousands of them living in and around a single tree in the desert or in the jungle.

It may seem obvious, but always study the canopy of any tree you decide to use for shelter and also the surrounding trees. I met a guy in South Africa who was attacked by a leopard as he rested under a tree and he had the scars to prove it. OK, you could live for three lifetimes before ever meeting anyone else that had such an experience but just make sure it isn’t you!

“Caves” in glaciers are not true caves. A glacier is moving, and a cave can close up in a matter of a few hours. You don’t want to wake up inside a giant ice cube, so avoid the temptation of sheltering in glacial caves. For the same reason, never shelter in, or pass through, tunnels under glaciers because they can collapse with little or no warning.


Natural shelter is anything that protects you from sun, wind, cold and wet. Remember that a hillside can be natural shelter if it gets you out of a cold wind. If that is all you have to worry about there may be no need to build a shelter.

Points to consider:

  • Choose natural shelter as a preference when seeking shelter for short–term protection.
  • Always give yourself plenty of time to build any shelter. In the topics, night falls quickly with little or no twilight. In the jungle, the sun may still be out above the canopy but little light penetrates and darkness comes quickly to the forest floor.
  • Make the shelter no larger than you need. This preserves body heat in cold and wind; a larger shelter wastes time and energy and larger structures are more easily damaged by the elements.
  • Make sure you have plenty of ventilation.
  • Avoid building your shelter on wet ground or make sure your bed is raised off wet ground if this is unavoidable.
  • In jungle or on the Veldt: Always clear an area of ground four times larger than the area of the shelter — snakes and scorpions do not like to cross disturbed ground. Always clear debris from the jungle floor with a handful of branches; never use your hands. Lighting a fire and spreading the hot embers over the ground you have cleared is a good deterrent to scorpions.
  • Do not build your shelter on an exposed site; pay consideration the wind direction may change.
  • Always make sure that your shelter is safe to sleep and live in; test main structures as you build.
  • If you are thatching your shelter: Always work from the bottom up over lapping each row by one third.
  • If you are making a fire: Make sure it will not set light to your shelter if the wind changes direction.
  • Make sure you can get out of any shelter fast if you need to.
  • Learn to make one or two types of basic shelter, nothing elaborate, become proficient in building the shelters, so you don’t have to waste time and effort working from first principles if you are ever in a situation when you need one.

Read part two – Building Shelters & Warmth
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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