Survival Shelter – A Sapling Hut

Ian Kershaw

Building a shelter in the wild can be challenging. It has to be made of existing materials and has to be built quickly. This usually means building something out of tree branches as these are often the most readily available building materials.

Building a shelter
Building a shelter

Two very common shelters are lean-to and debris hut shelters. Like all shelters, these have their limitations. The lean-to provides fairly good protection from the wind and rain, but it can’t do much to help keep you warm.

The open front prevents it from holding in heat. On the other hand, a debris hut is great for holding in heat but is almost impossible to build when the ground is wet or snow-covered. Something else has to be done in those cases.

Pine Trees for Shelter

One excellent shelter for such times in the woods where a lean-to or debris hut won’t work is a large pine tree – one which has bottom branches brushing the ground. Pine trees are unique in that their branches grow straight out from the trunk.

As the tree grows, the branches all grow longer, become heavier, and start bending downwards from their own weight. So, with larger pines, the branches touching the ground will be connected to the trunk three to four feet above. Any branches connected below that tend to die off from a lack of sunlight.

Natural shelter under a pine tree
Natural shelter under a pine tree

This leaves a nice space under the lowest branches that can be used as a natural shelter. If it has never been used for that before, it might be necessary to cut or break off the dead branches, but this isn’t much of a problem.

If the branches aren’t thick enough or the wind is blowing, the shelter can be improved upon by adding additional branches, cut off from other pine trees, around the base. Snow can also be used for this by piling it against the branches.

A small fire can be lit in the shelter, but care must be taken: if the fire is too large, the branches above will catch. This could burn down the tree or start a forest fire. Keep the fire small and put it out before going to sleep.

The Sapling Hut

Sleeping under a pine tree might be good for a night or two – assuming you can find an appropriate tree to use – but I wouldn’t want to rely on this for long-term shelter. There isn’t a great area underneath the trees and there isn’t a lot of headroom. So, while good for an emergency, you’d need to step it up for something which could last a bit longer.

That’s where the sapling hut comes in. This was a fairly common shelter for explorers and travelers in the days of the Old West. Of course, to make a sapling hut you need to be in an area where you can find enough saplings. Ideally, you need somewhere between six and ten to form a rough circle six to eight feet across.

A hut made of branches
A hut made of branches

Start by clearing out the area between the saplings. This may mean cutting out some other saplings as it is rare to find the ones you need with nothing in-between.

You’ll probably also need to clear out some underbrush if it is getting in the way. You can also trim off extra branches from the saplings you are going to use, but just trim them on the side facing towards the center of the circle.

The next step is to tie the tops of the saplings together about six feet above the ground. This is the basic structure of the hut so you want to make sure that it is secure. The saplings will make a dome, which can then be covered with other materials.

Pine branches are ideal as they provide thick coverage that wind and rain can’t get through
Pine branches are ideal as they provide thick coverage that wind and rain can’t get through

With the structure in place, the next step is to cover it with branches cut from trees. Pine branches are ideal for this as they provide thick coverage that wind and rain can’t get through, but any branches can be used. The key is that they need to have heavy foliage so that they can form a wind and water barrier.

Lay the branches starting from the bottom and working your way up – tying them to the saplings with either paracord or grass. Each layer needs to overlap the one below to aid the shedding of water. The layers also need to be thick enough to block the wind and keep it from blowing through the structure.

Be sure to leave an entrance on the downwind side of the structure. This can be covered by branches too, but they should not be tied in place. Instead, a mat of branches can be tied together and used as a door to cover the opening.

The one problem with this design is that the leaves will dry up and fall off with time. The only way to use it for an extended period of time would be to cover the walls with something other than branches, like a tarp, or to replace the branches periodically.

Using the Sapling Hut in a Survival Situation 

One of the nice things about this sort of shelter is that it is fast and easy to build. One person can easily construct a sapling hut in about an hour if they can find the right saplings. This is roughly the same amount of time that it takes to build a debris hut. Of course, the challenge – as with any other sort of survival shelter made in the wild – is finding the necessary saplings located in such a way that makes making the shelter possible.

A basic survival shelter
A basic survival shelter

It’s always a good idea to carry plenty of cordage with you for making such shelters. Paracord is excellent, but you can get by with lower quality cordage for something like this.

Another alternative is wire ties, which are fast and easy to use but work well for tying branches together. While not natural or biodegradable, they are lightweight and easy to use. Just make sure your multitool contains a set of wire cutters in case you need to remove them.


vika-makeenko is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival