The Top Ten Survival Shelters For Wilderness Survival Scenarios

 

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?

Survival Shelter Or Survival Fire First Priority

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

Survival Shelters Don't Have To Be Pretty

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!!

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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:


LIABILITIES:

Climate
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.

Weather Conditions
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. 

Light Conditions
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
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.

ASSETS:

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.)
  • Vines
  • Soil
  • Stone
  • Moss
  • Sod
  • Bamboo
  • Snow

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):

Clothing

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.

Tools
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. 

Tarp
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.

Poncho
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!

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Cordage
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. 

Mylar Blanket*
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.

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The Top Ten Survival Shelters For Wilderness Survival Scenarios:

1. Debris Bed

1. Debris Bed Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️

Debris Beds are one of the most expedient survival shelters that you can make in an urgent situation where the bitter cold is bearing down on you. Debris Beds may not look like much, but they are quick to make, less work than other shelter concepts, and offer surprisingly effective insulation against cold and wind. The disadvantage of the Debris Bed shelter is it does nothing to protect you from pouring rain or falling snow (unless you have a tarp that you can throw over it). All you need to build a debris bed is a log frame filled with pine boughs or leaves! When urgency is a factor and the weather is dry, a simple debris bed could just be the ticket for you!

2. Debris Shelter

2. Debris Hut Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️

Debris Shelters function similarly to Debris Beds in that they employ “debris” (like leaves and pine boughs) to insulate you from the cold and wind, but Debris Shelters have an extra advantage over Debris Beds in that they actually shield you from rain and snow from above. The Debris Shelter concept relies almost entirely on insulation so they work best when you make them snug. Don’t be tempted to make your Debris Shelter too roomy on the inside or else you will end up inhibiting the effectiveness of your Debris Shelter’s insulation properties. Debris Shelters are ideal when you aren’t able to get a fire started for some reason and need to rely purely on insulating yourself to retain precious body heat.

3. Tinkers Tent/Bender Tent

3. Bender Tent Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Bender Tents (or “Tinker Tents”) are similar to debris shelters in their construction but tend to have a much larger and more open entrance. Bender Tents are built using bent over saplings for the shelter frame and are then reinforced by weaving additional saplings, green sticks and vines throughout the framework to add rigidity. Making a bender tent is basically like weaving half of a giant basket on its side and then covering with leaves/pine boughs for insulation and protection from elements from above. Because of their large openings, Bender Tents are ideal when you have a roaring fire going. That large opening grabs and reflects the radiant heat from your fire really nicely!

4. A Frame Shelter

4. A Frame Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A Frame Shelters are another terrific shelter concept that work best when facing an open fire for warmth. A Frames are very similar in function to Bender Tents. The main difference between A Frames and Bender Tents is, while Bender Tents rely on flexible, green materials, A Frames are made from more straight and rigid materials. Thus the the much more angular appearance of A Frames.

5. Lean To

5. Lean To Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lean To Shelters are definitely a favorite of many wilderness survival and bushcraft enthusiasts because they are extremely versatile. Lean To Shelters are yet another open concept shelter that not only protects you from the elements while sleeping, but you can easily pivot on your bed making it a nice bench that you can easily tend to your fire, cook and other similar camp tasks. Because Lean To Shelters are so open, be conscious about which direction your shelter opening will face. You’ll definitely want to build your Lean To Shelter so that the opening is facing away from the wind so that you are protected from all the elements blowing/falling from that direction.

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6. Double Lean To

6. Double Lean To Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Double Lean To Shelters may appear to be A Frame Shelters at first glance, but if you take a closer look and see two large parallel and level ridge poles (as opposed to a single sloping ridge pole like in an A Frame), then you are definitely looking at a Double Lean To. Double Lean To Shelters often have a gap at their peak a couple of feet wide that allows smoke from your fire to escape easily. This gap can be either flat with both ridge poles set at the same height or they can be offset with one ridge pole a couple of feet higher than the other.

The primary advantage to the Double Lean To is that it protects you from the elements much better than a single Lean To does. The primary disadvantage to the Double Lean To is that it is TWICE as much work as the single Lean To (because you are building two separate Lean To Shelters facing each other)!

The Double Lean To makes a fantastic bushcraft project and base camp or even a nice semi-permanent survival shelter. But because of the amount of work involved in building one of these shelters, it’s not a terrific choice for a true survival scenario. It’s simply an unnecessary amount of work to attempt for simply staying alive during an emergency.

7. Wikiup

7. Wikiup Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Wikiup Shelters are another popular shelter type for wilderness survivalists and bushcrafters. The two primary advantages to Wikiups is that they are much more enclosed giving you much more protection from the elements 360°, and they offer terrific head room for sitting upright and even standing! There’s plenty of room for firewood, gear, and other resources inside a typical wikiup as well! Wikiups are perhaps the most “homey” of these primitive shelter concepts, but they too can be a lot of work unless you deliberately keep them fairly minimal.

8. Platform

8. Platform Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Platform Shelters are typically the best option in extremely wet conditions or somewhere “creepy crawlies” are more problematic which is why they have become a go to option in rainforest and jungle environments. Platform Shelters can also be a terrific choice in hot environments because they promote improved ventilation. Platform Shelters are not great choices for cold weather though, as this improved ventilation can really bring your core temperature down in the cold wind.

9. Wattle

9. Wattle Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Wattle is a fantastic shelter construction method that is completely underutilized, in our opinion. Wattle is an extremely versatile and surprisingly sturdy technique that can be utilized to weave walls, roofs, doors, etc. for shelter making, but wattle is a technique that is far more versatile than just for building shelters. To construct a shelter (or trap, fish basket, table, and so many more applications!) simply secure a series of upright poles about a foot apart, then weave smaller diameter branches/vines/saplings in and out of your upright poles like a big flat basket. The tightly woven sticks/vines make a surprisingly rigid wall/structure once fully assembled!

Wattle on its own is not a terribly waterproof/windproof… which is precisely why it is traditionally supplemented with “daub” (mud/clay) in more permanent shelter building, but in a survival situation you can get away with leaves, moss, pine boughs, etc. just like you do with other shelter build styles. Think of wattle as more or less the framing/structure of your shelter. You still need walls and a roof to keep the elements out completely, right?  But you still need that framing to attach your walls and roof to!

The nice thing about using wattle for shelter building is that it relies on much lighter/smaller materials. This can be a terrific advantage in situations where your strength is sapped or if you are hampered by an injury. But despite these lighter materials, finished wattle structures are incredibly rigid and stable!

10. The "Super Shelter"!

10. Super Shelter Survival Shelter Bushcraft

RATINGS:
Labor: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Expedience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Protection: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Versatility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Durability: ⭐️⭐️

If you need to build a survival shelter that is quick and easy yet provides you with incredible protection from the freezing cold, then the Super Shelter is your best bet by far! What makes Super Shelters so amazing is that they can allow you to achieve temperatures inside your shelter over 80° F even when it is well below freezing outside! The actual construction of your Super Shelter can be any of the more open shelter concepts listed above (Bender/Tinker Tent, A Frame, Lean To, Wattle, etc.) as long as radiant heat from your fire has a large enough point of entry into your shelter.

The Super Shelter achieves these incredible internal temperatures using a sort of “greenhouse” effect by allowing radiant heat from your fire to pass through the clear plastic front of your shelter where it is not only trapped inside your shelter but it is magnified and reflected downward onto the occupant by the Mylar blanket.

Unlike all of the previous shelter concepts on this list which can be constructed using 100% natural materials, building a Super Shelter requires two man made materials that you will need to have with you:
1) a large clear plastic painters tarp, and …
2) a Mylar blanket or tarp.

 


Full-Sized High Resolution Infographic:

Top Ten Primitive Survival Shelters Full Sized Infographic With Watermark width=

 

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Photo Credit:

The beautiful example of a wattle shelter that we used for our infographic was built and photographed by Joe O’Leary of Wilderness Survival Skills. Great job Joe!

Author: Josh Nieten

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