Survival Shelters 101 – A Basic Guide to Covering Your Shelter Needs

Shelter Made from Tree Branches

When you are in a survival situation, you have to make sure your basic elements of survival are met—food, water, and shelter.

It isn’t going to matter which season it is when that situation arises because you’re going to need something to protect yourself from the elements, insects, and other animals when you aren’t moving.

survival shelter in a forest

In many situations, a survival shelter with a tarp of any kind can be the difference between you returning home to your family or… Not.

Look, being in a situation where you have to endure Mother Nature’s unpredictability is never an ideal situation, especially if it isn’t by choice.

Not only is it uncomfortable and scary, but it can also be deadly. In this article, we are going to share with you with basic knowledge that you’ll need to keep yourself safe.

​Top Survival Shelters

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What to Consider For When Choosing Survival Shelters

When you want to choose a wilderness survival shelter, you first have to understand that not all survival shelters are going to be good for every situation. As Skilled Survival, there are four categories that a survival shelter fits into:

  • Forest Survival Shelters
  • Winter Survival Shelters
  • ​Jungle Survival Shelters
  • Desert Survival Shelters
Survival Shack Emergency Survival Shelter Tent Design

When it comes to choosing which shelter will work best for you, you have to consider your environment, the environment where you’re going (if it isn’t local) and the time of year. In most cases, you can use a weatherproof, waterproof tarp that is made for survival situations and a paracord to set up a makeshift shelter, or you can even use a sturdy survival tent.

However, if are without your survival pack and you have nothing with you, you aren’t out of luck—you can still make a shelter.

As you read, you’ll learn what is the best survival shelter that will work for your particular situation, and how to build a survival shelter that will work for you.

Types of Forest And Jungle Survival Shelters

When you’re going out into the great unknown, you’re probably going to be out in the forest, and you’ll have plenty of resources at your disposal. The Bug Outs Bag Guide describes how to make a survival shelter out of resources that you have handy (these shelters can also work when you are in a jungle, too):

Frame And Tarp Method​

The simple frame and tarp method can shelter one to two people in less than an hour. This easy shelter which only requires the use of a tarp or a poncho. Find at least three long branches that are relatively straight. Then use the cord to secure the frame and then place several rocks around the parameter of the tarp.

Basic Frame and Tarp Shelter

Body Heat Shelter​

A body heat (or debris) shelter is good for one to two people and can be built in an hour as well. With this shelter, you’re going to use leaves, twigs, dirt, and/or snow. The sticks are going to support the opening of your shelter, and you’ll want to create a mound with a shovel.

Open Shelter or a Lean-to​

An open shelter or lean-to can provide shelter for one to four people. This shelter takes anywhere between three to five hours, and it requires moderate skill. To build this, you’ll want to use tree branches as a ridgepole. Then use ten long and straight branches to create a grid and then use the paracord to secure the branches in place.

Then you will use branches with leaves on it, some grass, and bark as a roof. Off Grid Survival shows how you can create unique add-ons like a swamp bed or a reflector wall to help make your stay in one of these shelters a little more comfortable.

A-Frame Shelter​

With an A-Frame shelter, you can provide shelter for one to three people. This shelter requires three to five hours to construct and moderate skills. You’ll want to use a tree trunk as a support.

Basic A-Frame Shelter

You’ll then want to use 16 branches to form the sides of your shelter, using the paracord to secure everything in place. As with the open shelter, use leafy branches, grass, and/or bark for a roof.


A teepee can provide shelter for one to two people, and it’ll take a little longer to construct than the lean-to or A-frame. Use a slender tree as a support pole and 10 to 15 long, straight branches. Follow suit with the leaves, branches, and grass for roofing.

Winter Survival Shelters

The shelters we just talked about isn’t going to help you very much if you’re caught in a blizzard, or you’re in deep snow. Instead of using branches, debris, and other materials, you’ll want to use the snow. Yes, the snow. One would assume that this is counter-intuitive, but like Skilled Survival mentions, snow has insulation properties, and it’ll keep any heat that your body emanates inside and keep you warm. Also, the snow cave will protect you from the wind.

Snow Cave​

A snow cave can work as an emergency survival shelter. Just dig a hole and climb inside. If you have a blanket and a tarp in your survival pack, you can lay the tarp on the ground to keep you dry and use the blanket to add warmth. It’s important that when you build the cave, you be mindful of how much you sweat and how hot you get. If you get too wet, you could risk catching hypothermia.

Illustration of a Snow Cave Shelter

Secondly, you may not want to cook in your cave because of carbon monoxide poisoning. For a more in-depth detailing at all the potential dangers associated with a snow cave, read the article posted on Traditional Mountaineering. As easy as a snow cave is to build, you aren’t going to want to stay in it for very long, as the cave will eventually collapse—and you don’t want to be in it.


An igloo is designed for long term shelter. If the igloo is built properly, it can last for a while, even when the weather gets a little warm. Field and Stream describe how to build an igloo, but there’s a video that shows you how to build a proper igloo. It would be wise to understand that if you are in a survival situation in frigid temperatures, you need to be familiar with other aspects of surviving in cold weather.

​Tree-Pit Snow Shelter

Wilderness Survival also mentions a tree-pit snow shelter. This shelter is most commonly used in a wooded area during the winter. You’re going to dig out any snow that has accumulated around the base of a tree trunk until you feel the hole is big enough, or until you’ve reached the ground.

Pack the snow around the top and the inside of the hole to give support. Then you’ll want to cover the top of the hole with fallen branches. These will act as insulation and help keep you warm.

Illustration of a Tree Pit Shelter

Desert Survival Shelters

If you find yourself traveling in an arid environment, your energy and time are going to be very precious. You are going to want to find water first and foremost. Then you can focus on building yourself a survival shelter with any material you may have, like a (white) survival tent or even a poncho.

Find yourself an outcropping of rocks and anchor one end of your material with rocks or anything else with some weight. Then stretch out the material as far as you can and secure that with more weight. This will provide you with some shade during the daytime.

If you’re in a sandy location where there aren’t any rocks, you can still build yourself some shelter. To do this, you’ll want to dig a hole into the side of a sand dune or create a mound of sand. This will be one side of your shelter.

Then you will want to anchor one side of your material on the top of the mound with rocks. Stretch out that over the opening so that you have ample shade. Note: If you have a lot of material, fold it in half and leave a wide gap in between the two layers. This airspace can reduce the overall temperature of the shelter.

Illustration of an Underground Desert Shelter

An underground survival shelter, as pictured on Wilderness Survival, is one of the trickier shelters, as it can take up a bunch of your energy and cause you to become dehydrated much quicker. To do this, you will want to find a low spot or depression between some rocks or sand dunes.

If you have to, dig a trench as deep and as long as you can so that you will be able to lie in it comfortably. At the You will want to use the sand that you’ve dug to form three walls. Then at the opening, dig out more sand so you can get in and out easier. Cover your trench with your material and secure it in place with weight like sand, rocks, and tree limbs.

You can also build a similar shelter as discussed, but instead of using sand walls to block you in, you’ll want to pile the sand up at the corners and leave gaps in between, thus allowing for air to circulate.

We should point out that if you’re in a desert survival situation because your car broke down, you shouldn’t leave the vehicle instead of abandoning it. Of course, there are going to be a few exceptions where you’d want to leave, but your best chances of survival will be to use your car as a survival shelter.

Man Constructing a Shelter in a Forest

Putting Your Survival Shelter Plans in Action

Now that you know the types of survival shelters you could use in a survival situation, you have to consider how well prepared you will be actually to build your shelter should the need ever arise.

The only way you can really be sure your plans will work is if you go out there and actually construct one or two (or more!) of these shelters. You want to practice making them now when you aren’t in a survival situation because you’ll be able to think clearly and understand the process involved with building the shelter itself.

You’re going to want to choose a location that is near your home just as a precaution. Not only will your phone most likely still be able to pick up reception, but you can easily walk home in case something goes wrong. That’s another plus about doing this in a familiar location—you can walk to safety, or have someone find you if you are gone for too long.

We recommend that if you do decide to practice building your own survival shelter, you will want to include the items that you’re going to have in your survival pack—things like parachute cords, a survival knife, heavy-duty survival tarps, as well as a shovel or something to dig with. All of these items will make building your shelter must easier.

Kelty Noah's Tarp Shelter in Woods


It doesn’t matter which method of survival shelter you wish to build, it’s always important that you understand the environment that you are going to be staying in. As we mentioned before, not all survival shelters will work in each environment or during the same time of year. If chosen wisely, the shelter you choose to build will use materials that you have on hand, but also materials that you can find in your surroundings.

Of course, if you don’t want to build a shelter, you could always stick to a survival tent. They are easy to use, reliable, and can protect you from the elements and bugs. Basically, it’s a personal choice which shelter you choose. We just hope you know how to use or make them when the time comes.

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