The Top Ten Survival Shelters For Wilderness Survival Scenarios
Survival shelter should be one of your first priorities in a survival situation due to the fact that your primary vulnerability in a typical survival situation is going to be maintaining your core body temperature. You can survive several days without water and several weeks without food but depending on your circumstances (climate, weather, clothing, etc.) your body may only be able to withstand those elements for as little as a couple of hours. A survival shelter can protect you, your body and your core temperature from serious life-threatening elements like rain, snow, wind, cold, heat, sun, and more. That’s why knowing how to build a survival shelter is so critical during a crisis.
First Priority: Shelter Or Fire?
There is some debate/different schools of thought in terms of whether your first priority in a survival situation should be survival fire or survival shelter. Honestly, in my opinion, there is no single right answer to this dilemma. It really depends on the particular circumstances of your situation (I am going to go into this more specifically in just a bit) as there are numerous variables that will impact this decision. For example, starting a fire may be incredibly challenging without a shelter due to conditions like high winds, pouring rain or high humidity. I would personally recommend prioritizing your survival shelter over addressing your survival fire in most situations, but if you get lost in the woods after dark or some other challenging circumstance, that might not be possible. As the saying goes, you typically have to adapt to your situation in order to overcome it.
There are almost always exceptions to virtually every rule in a survival situation. While survival shelters are key assets in terms of maintaining and safeguarding your core body temperature, there are situations when your core body temperature is already in crisis mode and you need to raise it immediately. For example, you fall through the ice on a frozen waterway or are forced to swim in frigid waters and your clothing is soaking wet with icy cold water. Obviously in a case like this you are going to want to disrobe in a semi-protected area (from wind, rain, snow, etc.) and get a fire going immediately to bring your body temperature back up because a shelter alone may not be sufficient. Remember, shelter protects/maintains core body temperature. Fire can actually RAISE your core body temperature. So choose accordingly. Ideally you’d already have your shelter built and can quickly get a fire started, but on occasion shelter and fire can be an either/or situation and you must choose your priority based on your immediate needs.
Function Over Form
Your survival shelter doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be effective. There are lots of incredibly picturesque bushcraft shelters online that are geared more toward having a sort of “base camp” for more recreational/leisure time in the bush like practicing skills, cooking over a fire, etc. and I absolutely LOVE seeing those kinds of shelters being built and enjoyed! But this article is more about purely functional emergency shelter options for legitimate survival situations using the limited resources and tools you have on hand to actually survive through the night (or the next few nights) when your life actually depends on it. Survival is not a beauty contest. It’s about staying alive!
Labor Of LIFE!
If you have never built a survival shelter before using natural materials, then I feel like I have an obligation to tell you that building a shelter is a lot more arduous work than you’d expect. Even the simpler shelter options. Prepare yourself for this reality. Shelter building is labor-intense when you are fed, hydrated, warm and comfortable. It’s even more challenging when you are tired, stressed, cold/hot, dehydrated, hungry, etc. That’s why it is so critical to be familiar with and have experience building several different types of primitive shelters. It’s also wise (and fun) to practice your shelter-making skills in the woods in advance of a crisis so you have that experience, confidence and the skills required well before you actually need them! As always… practice these skills!!
So How Do I Decide Which Type Of Primitive Survival Shelter To Build?
That is a terrific question! Unfortunately, as with most things, there is not a single “one size fits all” answer to this question or solution. But don’t fret! I’m going to show you exactly how to decide based on your situation! Let’s take a closer look at the variables in this equation:
Even the most temperate climates are rarely “comfortable” 24/7/365. And when I say “comfortable” in this application, I am not referring to the kind of comfort you get from your favorite flannel “jammies” and your Sleep Number Bed. No, I am referring to a more meaningful level of “comfort”. The kind of “comfort” where temperatures and environmental conditions allow you to maintain your core body temperature properly without help from shelter or fire. A beautiful, comfortable sunny day can easily turn cold, wet, and deadly after dark. Even the hottest deserts that reach over 100° F during the day can plummet to below freezing at night. Don’t assume because you are reasonably comfortable at a given moment that you are going to stay that way indefinitely. Make preparations for any potential changes.
Daylight is another factor in your climate equation. Depending on where you are and what time of year it is, you may have to deal with limited daylight. Just factor this into your overall shelter build decision as well.
Unlike climate conditions (longer-termed, general conditions associated with a particular region), weather conditions are the day-to-day short-term specific conditions that you are experiencing in that moment. These conditions can stay consistent for several weeks or they can change in a matter of minutes. Cold, heat, wet, wind, humidity, sunlight/overcast… these are the types of conditions that can threaten your survivability if you remain exposed to them but a survival shelter can help guard you against.
This might sound like an odd variable to consider in terms of shelter building, but it’s actually more of a factor than you might think. For example, what if you are on a day hike that “goes south” on you leaving you stranded just prior to dusk? You don’t have a lot of daylight left, making shelter building considerably more challenging. When you can help it, it’s definitely prudent to avoid doing arduous tasks with sharp tools after dark. Throwing caution to the wind on this front… you are setting yourself up for an injury. Low visibility and sharp tools are a dangerous combination. It would be preferable to choose a much simpler shelter concept in this situation that can allow you to complete your shelter (at least to a reasonable point) before darkness falls.
Physical threats include anything that could cause you physical harm or injury. Hopefully you are fairly familiar with the region you find yourself surviving in and the threats that are local to that particular region. This could include wildlife both large and small (like stinging/biting insects). Keep your shelter build a safe distance away from waterways that could potentially rise dramatically from heavy rains (even distant rains) and avoid low areas where rain could collect. Look for signs of past high water levels but don’t assume that water levels can’t surpass what appears to be precedented. Another thing to watch out for is the potential for rolling/sliding rocks. Also, make sure you look above as well for potential “widow makers” (dead branches that could snap in the wind and fall on your head) in trees.
RESOURCES (materials that surround you):
Another variable that will inform your shelter design decision is the resources/materials you have to work with. It’s always wise to keep a good mental inventory of potential resources and their locations as you are enjoying nature. Potential building materials are going to depend on what region/climate you find yourself in as well. You could be surrounded by pine boughs, bamboo, palm fronds, or several feet of snow depending on when and where you find yourself in a survival situation. The good news is… ALL of these can be terrific shelter-building resources if you know how to leverage them properly!
Shelter-Building Materials To Look For:
This is in no way an exhaustive list, but here are a number of natural materials to look for that you can leverage for shelter building:
- Trees (trunks, limbs, leaves, bark, saplings, pine boughs, palm fronds, etc.)
And don’t forget the potential of scavenged urban resources! When you are trying to stay alive, there’s no reason to be a “purist” about things! Every option is on the table and there’s absolutely no shame in that! A couple of pieces of wind-blown corrugated roofing material, Tyvek, Reflectix, cardboard, an abandoned bath tub, or an old car hood can be terrific survival shelter building resources too!
ASSETS (things you brought with you):
The clothing that you are wearing/have with you are your first line of defense in terms of “shelter”. Clothing is basically the “shelter” that goes with you wherever you go. That’s why it is so critical that you dress wisely for adventures in the outdoors and honestly wherever you go. Having a solid change of functional clothing packed in your vehicle at all times for emergencies is also an extremely prudent thing to do. Just like the traits you want in your ideal survival shelter, you are going to want to have garments that protect you from moisture, wind, cold, heat, sunlight, etc.
Hopefully whatever situation you are in you were prudent and brought at least a basic survival kit with you. And if you did, then that kit should at least have a quality knife in it. A good quality knife is simply the bare minimum tool you need to survive in the wilderness. I would recommend as a close second in terms of importance a quality folding saw like a Bahco Laplander or Silky, but even the tiny folding saw on a Swiss Army knife can be extremely helpful in a survival situation. Machete’s (or just large bladed “chopper” knives) are also terrific tools for shelter building. Axes and hatchets are terrific assets for survival shelter building as well, but they are much larger, heavier, and bulkier than the items mentioned previously, so understandably these tools are seldom included in your average basic personal wilderness survival kit.
Tarps are incredible multipurpose survival assets, but they are particularly helpful in terms of shelter building in numerous ways. I highly recommend including a quality tarp in your personal wilderness survival kit. Not only can a tarp save you tons of time and energy when building a survival shelter, tarps are actually useful tools while building your shelter. For example, tarps are terrific for quickly gathering and transporting much larger loads of leaves, moss and other materials more quickly and easily back to your shelter site to use toward your shelter build.
Tarps are also much more water resistant than most of the natural materials you would forage for your shelter build, making them terrific for shelter roofs. Tarps can also give you terrific protection underneath as well by protecting you from ground moisture. Your tarp doesn’t have to be enormous, but make sure it is large enough to be useful. A quality 8′ x 12′ tarp can fold down nice and small and doesn’t have to add a lot of extra weight or bulk to your kit. Cheaper tarps tend to be heavier and bulkier, so I recommend choosing something a little nicer like a waterproof silnylon tarp. Oiled canvas works great too, but it tends to be much heavier and bulkier.
Ponchos are extremely versatile items that can be real assets in terms of shelter building. While not as large as most tarps, ponchos are wearable making them more multifunctional. When leveraged properly, ponchos can actually make really nice shelters almost on their own! You can simply tie them up across a ridge line and angle them down like a lean to shelter. Or, with a little forethought, you can actually convert your poncho into a standalone shelter using the Alpha Tent method!
Cordage is a tremendous asset when building a shelter. Cordage allows you to secure various components of your shelter and keep everything in its place. Now most wilderness survival enthusiasts tend to immediately think of the classic 550 paracord when they think of cordage, but paracord isn’t your only option. In fact, paracord may not even be your best option. Bank line is a waxed nylon cordage that is fairly strong (not quite as strong as 550 cord, but let’s be honest… do you always need 550 lbs. of strength in your cordage?) and MUCH less expensive than paracord, and bank line is actually more weather resistant than paracord is.
Other terrific cordage options include large zip ties (these can be coupled together to make larger zip ties), wire, webbing straps, and even duct tape (I personally recommend high quality duct tape brands like Gorilla or T-rex).
Regardless which kind of cordage you ultimately choose, it will do you absolutely no good if you don’t actually carry some lengths of with you on your outdoor adventures. So make sure you have at least 100ft. of cordage with you at all times. bank line, zip ties, wire, webbing straps, etc.)
55 Gallon Drum Liner
Another great item to include in your personal wilderness survival kit that has terrific shelter-making qualities is a heavy duty 55 gallon drum liner. Again, these don’t take up much room or add that much weight to your kit. These heavy duty drum liners are tough, rugged, versatile, and multi-use. You can keep them intact and sleep in them like a sleeping bag (although they don’t breathe at all so this isn’t really the best use for them), fill them with leaves to make an insulated bed, cut a couple of holes in them to make a poncho, or cut them open completely to get a decent sized heavy tarp out of them.
Clear Plastic Sheeting*
Clear plastic sheeting is useful in many of the same ways that tarps, ponchos and 55 gallon drum liners are. That being said, they have one distinct advantage over the others in that, because they are clear, they can be used to create a Super Shelter to guard against the coldest temperatures! Super Shelters are basically an open concept survival shelter that you cover the entrance to with clear plastic so that the radiant heat from your survival fire can pass through the clear plastic… and become trapped in your shelter! Super Shelters allow you to achieve temperatures inside your shelter well above 80° F even when it’s well below freezing outside! Super Shelters work almost like a traditional greenhouse in this regard. They are incredibly effective shelters for cold weather.
Many wilderness survival enthusiasts think that Mylar blankets are useless pieces of garbage. Well, they aren’t. Most of these folks simply aren’t using them correctly. Mylar absolute does what it is designed to do: Reflect RADIANT heat. Laying a Mylar blanket down on six inches of snow and then laying on top of it expecting to keep you warm… yeah, that’s not going to work. Mylar is not effective as an insulator (it’s paper thin, so how could it be?) so using it in a way that expects it to do something its not designed to do is only going to result in… disappointment.
As I indicated previously, Mylar reflects RADIANT heat (like body heat, heat radiating off your fire, etc.). Mylar will NOT be an effective barrier against conduction (direct contact with a cold surface like the cold, wet, ground). The correct way to combat conduction is with a non-conducting barrier known as insulation. Mylar has no insulative properties to it at all.
So now that you officially know what Mylar can and cannot do, let’s give you an example of how Mylar can be leveraged very effectively in a survival scenario in terms of shelter building. Lining the back of your Super Shelter with a Mylar blanket can reflect the radiant heat from your fire that you trapped inside of your shelter down onto the ground, bedding and even you for extra warmth! If you really want to maximize the effectiveness of your Super Shelter, then the addition of a Mylar blanket to the back of your shelter is an incredible use for it!
And I realize that when most of us think of survival shelters, we naturally think of needing a shelter to stay warm. But a survival shelter can also protect you from the heat and sun! And Mylar is a terrific material to put on the OUTSIDE of your shelter to reflect heat and sunlight away from you on hot days!!
*I marked these two particular items in orange because they are essential for a “Super Shelter” build to keep warm even in the coldest weather.