Wilderness Survival Shelters
By Steve Gillman
Though wilderness survival shelters may prevent an animal
attack, this is rare. They have one primary purpose, which is
to keep your body temperature in its normal range. They do this
by keeping you cool in the case of a hot environment. That usually
just means shading you, unless you find a cool cave to spend
A survival shelter in a cooler wilderness has to preserve
your body heat. This is accomplished in one or more of four basic
ways. First, by keeping you dry so you don't lose heat through
the evaporative process. Second, by insulating you from the ground
or snow to limit conductive heat loss. Third, by blocking the
wind which would otherwise carry away body heat. Finally, if
the shelter space is small enough the air around you can be heated
by your body.
With this basic function in mind, here are some suggestions
for different types of wilderness survival shelters and a few
tips for each.
The igloo is perhaps the best known of snow shelters, but
it is too complicated and time-consuming to build as a survival
shelter without previous experience. An easier one is the basic
snow cave, which is dug into the snow on the side of a hill,
with a sleeping bench carved out above an entry. The hole near
the entry is referred to as a "cold well" and allows
cooler air to collect so the warmer air stays near the sleeping
area. Some tips:
- If you can generate enough heat during the digging process,
wear as little clothing as possible to keep from getting too
- Lay down a layer of plastic, dry grass, evergreen boughs
or other barrier on the sleeping bench to insulate you from the
- If you will be heating the snow cave with a candle or stove,
push a stick or ski pole through the top to create an exhaust
There are several designs possible with a lean-to, but the
basic idea is to lean sticks or poles against a top support or
cross-beam (this can be a pole set between two trees), and cover
it with overlapping tree branches, leaves, bark, and anything
else that will keep out the wind and act as shingles to keep
out the rain. For an illustration of an even simpler lean-to
made with a poncho, see the page Survival
Shelters. Some tips:
- Be sure that you start the covering from the bottom and
work your way up, so the roofing materials shed water like shingles.
- Some evergreen roots can be found almost at the surface
of the ground and can be used to tie sticks together. Experiment.
- Make the lean-to small enough that your body can help heat
- Have the entrance parallel to the wind if you have a fire
in front, so smoke doesn't get blown into or sucked back into
- Make a door that closes if you won't be using a fire for
heat. This can be made of sticks or a large piece of bark, or
- Insulate yourself from the ground with leaves, grass, or
Overhanging rocks and rock ledges can keep the rain or snow
off of you. They are also a good start for a better shelter.
Lean small trees or sticks against them to create a more enclosed
space. This then is like a cross between a cave and a lean-to.
- Note where the underside of the rock is stained to see where
rainwater will drip (sometimes it flows to the underside of the
rock), to avoid spots where you might get wet.
- Insulate yourself from the ground.
Caves that are deep and wet are not the best shelters. On
the other hand, in some areas there are many dry holes and rooms
in sandstone cliffs. These are commonly called "shelter
caves" and they live up to their name. Some tips:
- Avoid caves with rodent nests and droppings. These are usually
from pack rats and can carry disease.
- Avoid caves with streams running in them, as the water volume
can change while you sleep, possibly endangering you.
- Be sure that there is adequate ventilation if you plan to
have a fire for warmth.
Fallen trees are sometimes large enough to keep the rain off
of you if you can get under them. Often they are held several
feet off the ground by their branches. You can break away enough
branches in one area to create a space to crawl under. Other
branches can remain to be used for a roof. Lean more sticks against
the tree as necessary to make a kind of lean-to, and add live
tree branches, grass, large leaves, bark or other materials as
"shingles." Some tips:
- Check carefully for ant colonies and other insects before
crawling under a dead tree.
- Put your weight on the tree to be sure it is stable before
you set up camp under it.
- A candle or stove might help heat the space, but this is
not a good shelter to have a fire in.
- Make a bed of dry leaves, grass or other materials to insulate
yourself from the ground.
In forests full of deep snow there is often a "hole"
around the base of evergreen trees. Sometimes there is even a
bit of dry ground, or at least shallow enough snow that you can
dig down to the ground. These natural shelters, called "tree
wells" or "tree pits" keep out the wind and often
much of the snow. With the addition of some more branches to
close in the gaps they can make a decent shelter. You can see
an illustration of a tree pit
shelter on the page "Survival Shelters."
- Fires are a bad idea in these, since snow on the branches
above can be loosened and fall in large quantities on you.
- Try to stay as dry as possible while modifying a tree into
a survival shelter.
- Use evergreen branches, grass, leaves, a sleeping pad or
other materials to keep yourself off the ground and snow.
- When you need immediate shelter, these can be the fastest
way to get out of the wind and cold. Just climb in, sit on something
and hold your legs against your chest to conserve body heat.
This is perhaps the simplest of the wilderness survival shelters
made of snow. You just scrape a trench a couple feet deep in
the snow, big enough to lay down in, and then you cover the top
(leave a small opening to climb into). Some tips:
- As with other snow shelters, it is important to provide
yourself a way to stay off the snow, whether this is a mattress
of dry grass, evergreen boughs, leaves or whatever is available.
- If the snow is crusty you might be able to stomp out rectangular
blocks that can then be lifted into place to form a roof over
- Build a better shelter when daylight or better weather comes.
This is one of the easiest wilderness survival shelters to build,
but not one of the most comfortable.