How to Build a Winter Shelter
Learn how to survive blizzard conditions by
crafting a winter shelter out of snow, space blankets, fallen branches, cave
openings and more.
January 9, 2013
By Reid Kincaid
A major outdoor survival
book, The Extreme Survival Almanac (Paladin Press, 2002) is written specifically for regular folks who may be suddenly
forced to survive in the wilderness without assistance … and with no planning,
specialized training nor equipment. This remote-area survival manual provides
clear decision-making guidelines to walk you step-by-step from the first signs
of trouble all the way through to rescue. In the following excerpt from
“Part 1: Survival on Land,” learn how to build a proper winter shelter out of
You can purchase this
book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Extreme Survival Almanac.
Winter Shelter Tips and Types
Shelters are particularly
important in cold or rough weather or when you must remain in an area for a
prolonged period of time. Good shelter should:
you from the wind and the elements.
easily built to conserve energy.
easily and adequately ventilated.
large enough to be comfortable but small enough to heat easily.
• The better your shelter,
the less energy lost in compensating for its inadequacies.
• All shelters should have
entrances placed at 90° to the prevailing wind. This will maximize your
protection from the wind and prevent smoke from your fire from curling back
into the shelter.
• For large parties, it may
be better to divide into groups of two, three, or four, with each group
building their own shelter. This will keep the shelter sizes small and easier
to heat. Build them close together to make communication and work easier.
• Remember that almost all
outdoor shelters (especially snow shelters) have extremely poor contrast with
the environment and will be difficult for search parties to see.
• Keep a watch or make sure
plenty of highly visible signals are left outside the shelter.
Better early than late.
Always give yourself at least an hour before dark to set up your camp for the
night, scour the local area for firewood and food, and get your fire started.
You can estimate the amount of time until sunset with this technique:
the sun and fully extend your arm towards the sun.
your wrist inwards so your fingers lie stacked one atop the other, parallel to
the sun atop your uppermost finger.
finger between the sun and the horizon represents 15 minutes, so if you have
four fingers between the horizon and the sun, you have approximately one hour before sunset.
If you need immediate
shelter don’t worry about this section, just build the quickest shelter you can
with whatever you can find.
If you have time to choose
a site, look for the following:
free from signs of avalanche, flash flooding, falling rocks, incoming tide, and
free from animal kills and insect nests.
access to building and fuel materials.
of swampy ground, upright deadwood, and thick overhead vegetation near your
free of heavy snowdrift.
to water. Avoid being either too far or too near a source of water. Mountain
streams can rise 10 feet or more in a night, so note any high water marks or
steepness of area and ground clear enough to build on (or which can be leveled
and cleared with minimum effort).
timber for protection from snow and wind.
of the sky for seeing and signaling rescuers. Make sure they can see you as
not located at the base of steep cliffs or rocky slopes in case of rockfall.
not under leaning trees, even if they appear stable.
not below high tide line along the shore or high water mark along a stream
edge. Not located in a streambed or gully, even if dry.
not located in coastal mud flats or isolated from the main shore by mudflats.
Keeping Runoff Out of
This will be a problem
anywhere you build a shelter that isn’t on snow or very high ground.
Fortunately, it’s simple to solve. Just dig a small trench around the shelter
to funnel rainwater away from the bottom of your shelter.
If you have a tarp or
space blanket, using rocks in the corners to tie into knots will make a much
more stable shelter than will just weighing down the corners.
Caves have the advantage
of being ready-made shelters, but their disadvantages are significant. In
shelter does not help you get rescued because no one can see it.
walls absorb heat so will make staying warm much more difficult (and require
more energy expenditure).
are usually already occupied by wildlife, some of it bigger than you.
tend to be damp and moldy, which makes staying warm and dry more difficult and
increases the risk of infections for open wounds.
• Consider building a better
shelter if you are staying put. As transient shelter, caves may be adequate.
lean-to of branches can be added to break the wind. Be cautious of caves or
recesses surrounded by animal feces or tracks, and always be careful of snakes
when first entering.
caves are very deep and may have many twisting passages. Stay near the entrance
or leave well-marked trails.
• Rock shelters are really
just windbreaks but may be helpful on open beaches or in some desert areas.
• Build a rock shelter by
stacking rocks into a U-shaped wall at least two feet high. Sleep against the
inside of the wall. Build your fire in the mouth of the U.
90 Degree Shelter
• The 90 Degree shelter can
be built anywhere a 90º angle can be found. This includes bluffs above
treeline, large boulders in the woods, and fallen trees.
Locate an object with an approximate 90º angle between the ground and the back
If the ground is soft, create a shallow pit the size of your body at the corner
of the angle.
Line the pit with branches or bark slabs.
Build a fire next to the pit so that you lie in the pit between the fire and
the log. The maximal heat from such a fire is located at the corner of the 90º
• Leafy branches leaned over
the pit will add additional protection.
• Wind breaks can be built
at each edge of the angle to funnel wind away from you and the fire.
• In warm or mild weather it
may not be worth the time or energy to build a real shelter. In this case a
number of fast and excellent options exist.
• Carefully tended, very
small fires will safely warm any of these shelters.
• All of these will insulate
better if roofed over with a space blanket (shiny side down) or plastic.
The easiest may be the low-hanging tree. Many large pines
drape their branches almost to the ground, and under these lowermost branches
you are relatively safe from wind and rain. They also tend to have a
comfortable layer of needles already there.
Next is the space blanket shelter, made by
hanging one cross-pole or rope from trees or rocks. Hang the space blanket over
the cross-pole and tie each corner to the ground (or weight it with rocks). A
quick, easy, and warm shelter. A tarp or your sheet of plastic (if not being
used for water collection) will work in place of the space blanket.
A tube tent can be formed out of two garbage bags with the bottom
of one bag split. The split bag is slid over the open end of the unsplit bag.
The tent can be propped open with padded sticks or hung on a line run through
the bags and tied to two trees. The tube tent can also be used without support
just by crawling into it.
Leaning pine branches
against a tree trunk, tree branch, or rope strung between two trees will also
work. This is the classic lean-to.
To ensure good shedding of rain, remember to build the ceiling at a 45º angle and
pack the ceiling with at least three inches of leafy branches or, better yet,
cover it with a plastic sheet.
• If you are not traveling
and need a longer term shelter, the above shelters will still work very well. Just
insulate them more thoroughly and fortify them against the wind by lashing
everything together with fish line or cord.
Wickiup (for Individuals or Small Groups)
• This is a quick, easy, and
very good long-term shelter for one or two people.
• This is a tepee-shaped
lean-to, which can be built on open ground around a tree or using fallen trees
- Lean tree limbs, branches, or large leaves against each other to form a cone
- Pile leaves, brush, dirt, bark, snow, or grass around the bottom and up the
sides to the top, leaving an entrance at 90° to the prevailing wind.
- Lean more branches against this insulation to keep it in place.
- Break off or pull out any leaves or branches cluttering the inside. Your shelter
The A-Frame (for Groups)
If you have a large number
of people or want a more comfortable place to stay, try an A-frame:
- Construct your A-frame so that the prevailing wind strikes a back corner first.
- First place your roof cross-pole. This may be leaned against a tree or rock,
hung between two of these, or supported by two poles planted into the ground.
- Tie sticks to each side of the cross pole so that they lean at a 60° angle to
- Next find wall materials. These may be bark, downward-pointing pine boughs,
bundles of grass, or large tree or plant leaves.
- Start with the bottom row. Lay a single row of the material packed as tight as
possible and tied to the angled sticks.
- Lay the rest of the rows, moving upwards. Wall material should be layered so
that each bundle or section is overlapped by the bundle or section above it.
- Wall all but one end of the A-frame.
- Fill in gaps and leaks and put on a second layer if needed to prevent leaks.
Put as much wall material on as you must to keep out the wind and rain and hold
in heat. If you can see light through the wall it probably needs more
- Build your fire outside the open end of the A-frame, with a heat-reflecting
rock or log on the other side of the fire if the weather is chilly.
• A space blanket or more
branches should be hung over the entrance on chilly nights unless the fire is
• The presence of snow makes
survival more difficult but finding shelter much easier.
• The makeshift snow saw can come in handy when constructing and repairing snow shelters.
When to Seek Shelter
• It is important in cold
weather, particularly in snow-covered areas, to seek shelter early on in a
• Never try to find your way
out while the storm is ongoing.
• Construct a snow shelter
and wait it out; otherwise you may wander in circles, stumble into dangerous
shallows or icy slopes, or just burn up all your energy and freeze to death.
Vehicle vs. Shelter
• It is warmer in a snow
shelter than in vehicle wreckage, particularly in a strong wind, since the
wreckage is out in the open and will NOT effectively seal in heat. Equally
important, snow is a better insulator than the metal walls of a vehicle because
of the insulating air spaces between snow crystals.
• In addition, you want to
conserve heat by minimizing the amount of space your body must heat up. In a
car your body is trying to raise the temperature of the entire car.
• Get out of your vehicle
and dig a snow shelter right next to it. IF A WHITEOUT IS ONGOING, DON’T TAKE YOUR HAND OFF YOUR CAR!
• Do not, if your car
still works, sit inside and run the engine for heat. Carbon monoxide, an
invisible, odorless and TOXIC gas, may accumulate inside the car. You will get
drowsy, fall asleep, and never wake up.
Tips When Utilizing Snow
• Be aware of avalanche and
lightning dangers when selecting your shelter site.
• Always take your gear in
with you or it may be lost or buried outside.
• Store your food and water
in the shelter with you, preferably next to your body, to keep it from freezing
• Mark your snow shelter
well if you plan to use it more than once or even travel 200 yards from it.
Snow shelters disappear into the landscape very quickly.
• For this same reason,
large and prominent signals should be placed outside the shelter. Otherwise
rescuers won’t be able to hear or see you.
• Snow is a great insulator
of sound as well as heat. Don’t count on hearing aircraft or rescuers through
the walls of your snow shelter. Build large, prominent signals outside your
• In severe cold, dig deeper
snow shelters with longer, more sloping entrances.
Problems in Snow Shelters
• The five main problems in
snow shelters are ventilation, drifting snow, melting snow, snow blindness, and
the internal temperature gradient.
• To ensure adequate
ventilation and avoid the buildup of carbon monoxide, leave at least one hole
in the roof at a 90° angle to the prevailing wind. This need only be a few
inches in width, wider if you have an open flame inside your shelter.
• A smaller hole should be
poked through the opposite side of the shelter to allow cross ventilation.
• Leave a branch in the
shelter to occasionally clear the holes of snow.
• Leave the entrance open
whenever a fire is going, and place the fire near the entrance hole.
• Watch each other for signs
of carbon monoxide poisoning whenever an open flame is present at the entrance
to your shelter.
• Drifting snow will be a
major problem if you fail to place your entrance at a 90° angle to the
prevailing wind. It will blow straight in your front entrance or swirl in your
back one. It is possible for drifting snow to block your entrance completely and
force you to dig your way out.
• Drifting snow will be a
major problem even if you do position your entrance correctly because it can
often block your ventilation hole, leaving you short on air or oversupplied
with carbon monoxide. To avoid this, place your ventilation hole at the same
angle to the wind as your door (90º). More importantly, keep a sturdy stick
inside with you to clear it regularly during falling snow.
• Never sleep on the snow.
Use anything to sleep on but the snow. It steals body heat and soaks your
• To prevent getting wet from
melting snow, sleep on top of a couple of leafy branches or bundles of grass or
• Run your gloved hand or a
smooth stick down the walls of your snow shelter to smooth them into a curve.
You want melting roof snow to run down the sides, not to drip on you.
• Don’t think a snow shelter
is supposed to be as warm as home. It must be kept cold enough, inside and out,
to support the frozen structure of the walls. Keep your fires small and don’t
hesitate to open the ventilation holes more if the walls are becoming mushy.
• You can get snow blindness
even in a snow shelter. If you can see daylight through the walls, then you can
get snow blindness. If it’s bright out, add snow to the outside of your snow
shelter to cut down on the interior glow.
• The temperature gradient
is caused by the tendency of hot air to rise above cold air. Temperature
gradients in snow caves can go from 0º near the floor to 50º near the ceiling.
• Since you want as much of
the heat as possible around your body, you should have your bed raised (in a
side tunnel or on a raised snow platform) as high as possible, and your roof as
low as possible.
• Hang your snow-filled
bottle near the roof to melt snow into water.
Precautions to Take While
Digging Your Shelter
• Take off your outer layer
of clothes. Don’t stay so bundled up that you sweat.
• Use some sort of digging
tool, be it a piece of metal, a square of bark, or a stick. Avoid frostbite by
avoiding the use of your hands alone unless thickly gloved.
Fine-Tuning Your Snow
• If the roof of your snow
shelter melts and drips excessively, the roof is too thick. Scrape some off or
add more ventilation.
• If the roof of your snow
shelter is frosted or icy in the morning, it is probably too thin. Add some
more snow on top.
• If the roof of the snow
shelter settles as much as five inches, nothing is wrong. Just add more snow on
top of the shelter and let it settle and freeze. After the new layer freezes,
scrape away snow from the inside.
Maximizing Warmth in a
• The most important way to
maximize warmth is to avoid sleeping directly on the snow. Sleep on evergreen
branches (the softer the better), extra clothes, plastic, or a backpack. Use
bark, dirt, branches, and leaves, even rocks if it means keeping dry.
• Also, if there is more
than one of you, sleep close together to minimize heat loss and share body
• Keep your roof low and
your bed high.
• Keep your entrance small
and blocked when not in use. Dig your entrance lower than the floor of your
• Remember that snow closer
to the ground is warmer than fresh-fallen snow or surface snow.
• Sleep whenever you can.
Going to sleep will not kill you if you are not severely hypothermic. You will
awaken if you get too cold, and sleeping saves energy. You help no one by
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from
The Extreme Survival Almanac, published by Paladin Press, 2002. Buy this book from our store: The Extreme Survival Almanac: Everything You Need to Know to Live Through a Shipwreck, Plane Crash, or Any Outdoor Crisis Imaginable.