How To Build a Survival Shelter For the Most Extreme Survival Situations

How To Build a Survival Shelter For the Most Extreme Survival

Spending time outdoors has become increasingly popular over the last several years. This has been especially true in 2020 as restrictions have caused people to find social distancing friendly things to do. If you are one of those people that have just begun to explore the outdoors, welcome to the outdoor loving community! Hopefully as you begin to get more experienced and more confident, you’ll begin to start venturing further into the wilderness.

But before you begin to go deep into the backcountry, it’s very important to have a few pieces of knowledge in your back pocket so that if the worst happens, you’ll be prepared to survive until you’re rescued. One of the most important things that you can do to improve your chances of surviving in the event the worst happens while you’re in the backcountry is to be able to build a survival shelter. 

What are the basic rules of shelter building

Emergency situations usually happen when you are least expecting them. If you’re venturing outdoors, you should always carry the 10 Essentials with you, regardless of the length of trip you’re planning on going on. But what happens if you forget to bring your 10 Essentials with you or if you get separated from your tools? How will you build a shelter if you’re way out in the backcountry and you don’t expect to be rescued for a few days?

Luckily, there are a few different ways for you to build up a survival shelter without tools! Before you get into the details, keep the following principles in mind when building your shelter:

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it functional
  • Keep it warm

Before you go about trying to rig up a tree house in the woods, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to create very much to survive. Keep it simple to conserve as much energy as you can.

By keeping it simple, you can focus on keeping your shelter functional. What do you need your shelter to do? Host your in-laws or a group of friends for a dinner party? No! You just need it to stay warm and out of the elements.

If you keep your shelter simple and functional, you’ll be well on your way to keeping it warm. Try to make your shelter just big enough for you to sleep in laying down. The reason you want to focus on keeping it small is that small spaces keep their heat much easier than large spaces. And since you’ll likely be spending at least a night in this shelter, you’ll want to optimize as much of your space as possible so that you don’t end up experiencing hypothermia.

How do you build a shelter without tools?

How do you build a shelter without tools

With those principles in mind, you’re now ready to get a few ideas on how to build a simple, functional, and warm shelter. Here are 3 ideas of how to build an effective shelter without tools.

Leaf Shelter

You read that right, you can literally make a shelter out of leaves! This is the most basic survival shelter to make as it literally only takes piling up leaves.

Start by creating a bed of pine boughs. Placing pine boughs on the ground helps you stay warm as they will put space between you and the cold ground. When your body is in direct contact with a cold surface, it loses heat through the process of conduction. When you touch something cold, the heat your body produces is transferred into that cold object. That becomes a problem when you’re trying to survive, because hypothermia will set in shortly after you’ve been exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time. 

Aside from keeping you insulated from the cold ground, pine boughs also are much more comfortable to sleep on top of than the ground!

After you have created your pine bough bed, start locating dry leaves to cover yourself up with. The dryer the better! The last thing that you want to do is cover yourself with wet leaves as they will rob you of body heat through-out the night as temperatures go down.

Lay down on your pine bough bed and cover up with the leaves. The leaves will act almost like a natural blanket by keeping your body heat from escaping too quickly. They will provide a small degree of insulation which is invaluable when you are trying to conserve as much heat as possible.

Lean-to Shelter

After leaf shelters, lean-tos are one of the most basic shelters you can make. Start by finding a base to lean branches against. Examples of effective bases are large boulders, fallen trees, and large standing tree trunks. 

Once you have found your base, it’s time to begin building the wall of the shelter. Look around for branches that are on the ground and begin leaning them against the base. You’ll want to look for branches that are at least 4-5 feet long to give you plenty of space to crawl inside for the night without risking knocking your shelter over accidentally.

For length, you’ll want to give yourself about a foot worth of space at the end and a foot worth of space at the entrance so that you are completely covered by the lean-to. Once you have stacked all of your branches against the base, it’s time to begin insulating your shelter.

Start by piling some dirt along the bases of the branches you’ve stacked. This will serve two purposes: 

  • Keep cold air from entering through the sides
  • Keep your branches in place

After you’ve done that, begin looking for pine boughs to stack on the branches of your shelter as well as on the ground inside your shelter. Pine boughs are great to stack on the outside of your shelter because they help “waterproof” your shelter. This shelter won’t be waterproof, but the pine boughs will help encourage the rainwater or snow to stay on the outside of your shelter. 

Remember to also stack those pine boughs inside of your lean-to to create that insulated layer between you and the ground as you did when you created your leaf shelter.

A-Frame Shelter

In the even that you can’t find a suitable base, the next best shelter to make is an A-frame. These shelters are still pretty easy and basic to construct, but they do take a little more planning compared to lean-tos.

Start by locating a long branch, at least 8 feet long. This is going to be your base that you’re going to build your shelter around. The reason you want it a to be longer rather than shorter is that you’re going to need to bury a portion of it in order make sure that it stays up while you stack sticks along the sides of it.

Once you’ve located your longer base branch, begin by propping it up with two other sticks on one end. If you’ve done this step right, you’ll be able to see the shape of an A forming at the front of the shelter.

Now that you have started your shelter, you’re going to want to reinforce the main body of your A-frame by burying the back end of your base branch and the two branches that are propping up the front end of the base branch up. Pack the dirt down so that it gives your shelter decent stability.

After you have set up a basic A-frame, start stacking branches up on both sides of the base of your shelter. Stack as many as possible so that you give yourself as much surface area as possible to shed any potential water from entering your shelter while you sleep.

The A-frame has now taken shape. Just as with the lean-to, pile dirt on the edges of the shelter to help keep your shelter in place as well as keep cold air from entering through the sides. 

Pile pine boughs inside of your shelter to sleep on and on the sides of the shelter to help make it as watertight as possible.

While all of this can be accomplished without tools, you’ll be able to make your shelter much more efficiently if you do have those tools with you.

What are the tools you should always have with you when you go into the outdoors?

What are the tools you should always have with you when you go into the outdoors

If you are stuck in the backcountry and you need to construct an emergency shelter, having the following will help you make that shelter stronger and quicker than if you didn’t have tools:

  1. A knife
  2. Paracord
  3. A lighter


One of the most important things that you can bring with you into whenever you go into the backcountry is a knife. These tools are the most versatile things you can bring with you. There are several styles of knives that you can bring, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. Two of the most popular knives are:

  • Folding Knives

Folding knives are great because they are generally really light and small which makes them easy to carry in a pocket. This makes it more likely that you’ll always have a knife on you, regardless of whether you lost the rest of your gear. 

The draw back to folding knives is that they don’t have very long blades and they aren’t balanced as well as full tang knives. That makes them a little trickier to use when trying to cut large pieces of wood for shelter or fire construction.

  • Full Tang Knives

Full tang basically means that the blade of the knife extends into the handle of the knife. This makes these knives incredibly durable as well as balanced. These knives usually come with a sheath so that the blade isn’t exposed when you don’t intend to use it.

A drawback of these styles of knives is that they tend to be rather bulky and difficult to fit inside of a pocket. The options for carrying full tang knives are to buy a knife with a sheath that has loops to feed a belt through it or to place it in a backpack. However, the risk you run with these options is that the knife could get accidentally caught on something like a branch as you are walking in the woods and get torn off of your belt. And if you lose your pack, you’ll likely lose your knife as well if you’re carrying it in there.

Assess the risk vs. reward of both styles of knives before you decide which one you would prefer to carry. In either case, it’s better to have a knife than not, so either option really is a matter of personal preference.


After knives, paracord is one of the most valuable tools you can take with you into the backcountry to help you build a survival shelter.

If you are constructing a lean-to, you can use your paracord to secure the pine boughs on the outside of your shelter to the branches you’ve stacked so that way they stay on the side of your shelter no matter what.

Paracord makes building A-frames so much easier because it allows you to lash the main 8-foot long branch to the other two support branches at the front of the shelter together. This provides an extremely stable base to stack the rest of the branches that will make up the sides of the shelter against. 

As with knives, there are a few different ways that you can carry paracord into the backcountry. One of the most functional ways to carry paracord is to wear it in as a survival bracelet. Paracord survival bracelets are awesome because they weigh next to nothing and they have several feet worth of paracord braided together. These are pretty easy to make, so if you don’t want to purchase a survival bracelet, you can definitely make one pretty easily. 

If you would prefer to carry paracord in your backpack instead, it’s very easy to wrap up paracord so that it fits nice and neatly inside of your pack. To make sure that it doesn’t become a giant mess inside of your pack, consider wrapping it around a water bottle or keeping it inside of a sealable bag. That way it’ll be ready when you need it and not knotted up all over your pack.


Lighters are excellent tools to bring with you in the event of a survival emergency. These are very helpful in shelter building as they can be used to burn the ends of paracord when you’re done cutting it so that they don’t come unraveled after you’ve cut it.

Lighters are also very useful for starting fires which will help you stay warm through the night! But can you build a fire inside of your shelter? In short, yes!

How do you build a fire in a shelter?

How do you build a fire in a shelter

Be very careful when doing this. The last thing that you want to do is accidentally set your emergency shelter on fire. With that being said, fires can multiply the amount of heat your shelter is able to provide, especially when you set it up right.

The only shelter that you should really try to build a fire nearby is a lean-to. One of the benefits of building a fire near your lean-to is that the heat will reflect off of the lean-to walls and radiate back into you. So not only will you have the heat coming at you directly from the fire, but your lean-to will help you capture that heat and return it back to your body.

For this method, try to stack a few rocks in a circle that should be no more than 2 feet in diameter. You’re not trying to make a huge fire here, but one that is just big enough to keep you warm. Keeping your fire small with ensure that the flames won’t reach the top of your lean-to, which will reduce the risk of it accidentally catching fire.

Through the night, you’ll need to add wood to the fire. Don’t let it go out! You won’t sleep very much, but in the end, you’re trying to survive, not get a good night’s sleep. Losing heat will kill you faster than losing sleep, so keep at it all night so that you can make it until morning and potential rescue!

Final Thoughts

Survival shelter construction can be done in several different ways, with and without tools. Now that you have read through this guide, go practice! Shelter building is a skill that needs to be developed and sharpened. Set up in your backyard or in a piece of public land and make lean-tos and A-Frames with and without tools so that if you ever end up actually needing to make one in a survival situation, you’ll be well practiced and more than ready to make it out alive! 

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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