DIY

Short-Term Wilderness Survival Shelters

Build short-term survival shelters out of a few simple-to-carry materials that can keep you covered in a pinch.

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by Aden Tate
A simple lean-to is a great option for a warm-weather shelter that’s quick to assemble.

Build quick-construct wilderness survival shelters using these three tarp shelter configurations that only require tarp, paracord, and trees or branches.

I’m of the mind that you should always carry some gear that will enable you to build wilderness survival shelters if you’re going out for a hike in the wild. Even if you’re only going on a quick day hike, the possession of a few simple tools can determine whether you make it out alive or not.

Accidents happen — even on short excursions — so it makes sense to be prepared for such, especially if you’ll be by yourself. For example, say you’re out on a day hike to one of your favorite secluded locations when you slip on a rock and take a tumble down a hill. You wind up with a badly sprained ankle, and you know there’s no chance of making it back to your vehicle by nightfall. Because you planned for just a short hike, you didn’t bring a sleeping bag, tent, or any other materials, and now you have to figure out a way to stay warm and dry through the upcoming night.

red backpack open with blue tarp and black paracord inside

In such an event, outside of medical trauma, the most pressing survival need is shelter. One of the easiest ways to ensure you’ll be covered in an emergency situation is to carry a simple 30 feet of paracord and 5-by-7-foot tarp for shelter. These two items can be used to construct a number of wilderness survival shelters; they’re inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to fit into a daypack without taking up a lot of room. In short, there’s simply no reason not to carry these items with you when you go out into the woods.

Let’s look at a few short-term, field-expedient shelters you can easily construct using a tarp, paracord, and materials found in your surroundings.

Simple Lean-To

Time: roughly 15 minutes

Materials:

  • 5-by-7-foot tarp
  • 30 feet of paracord
  • A couple of closely situated trees

This is the easiest shelter to construct on this list. If all you need is a way to get out of the rain and wind temporarily, and cold isn’t an issue, this lean-to is about as simple as it gets.

blue tarp hanging over black paracord strung between two trees i

All you have to do is tightly string up your paracord between two trees, and then drape your tarp across it. I form a slight overhang on mine to assist with rain shedding and add a little more protection against the weather.

After that, I anchor all the tarp corners in place with remaining pieces of paracord. If you don’t have enough paracord to spare, use a rock to hammer a small, pointed stick through the grommets close to the ground to secure the tarp.

It’s nothing to write home about, but this shelter can easily get the job done and keep you safe so you can get home.

Ground-Hugging Spear-Point Shelter

Time: roughly 20 minutes

Materials:

  • 5-by-7-foot tarp
  • 30 feet of paracord
  • 10-foot-long stick
  • 3-to-4-foot-long sticks (2)
  • A couple of big rocks

I call this one a “spear-point” shelter, because of the shape of the framing. If you’re alone or with a small child and you don’t have a lot of materials available, and the weather’s not brutal, this makes for a great emergency shelter.

three branches tied together to form the base of the spear-point

After gathering your sticks, lash the two shorter sticks to the front of the longer stick so they prop it off the ground (see photo above). Position the end of the long stick in the direction the wind is coming from to keep the shelter from being ripped apart.

Next, drape your tarp over the structure and use paracord to tie it to the joint and the bottom of the two front legs. Use rocks to pin down the tarp on either side of the end of the long stick, and place additional rocks along the sides of the tarp to help keep heat trapped inside and protect you from wind and rain.

blue tarp over three sticks assembled in a tent shape

Fill the inside of the shelter with leaves and pine needles, and you’ll have a cozy way to stay safe overnight in the woods. For added warmth, you can cover the outside of the tarp with leaves and pine needles as well. Just be careful not to accidentally poke a hole through your tarp in the process.

Comfy Bed with A-Frame

Time: roughly 45 minutes

Materials:

  • 5-by-7-foot tarp
  • 30 feet of paracord
  • Logs and branches, 1 foot taller than your body, about the diameter of your arm (about 16)
  • Logs and branches, 1 foot wider than your body, about the diameter of your arm (about 10)
  • Pine needles and leaves (as many as you can find)

Of all the shelters in this article, this is the one that’s going to keep you the warmest. If you’re in a wooded environment that’s very cold, this is the shelter I recommend.

logs stacked in a rectangle

The raised debris bed is a concept I learned from Tony Nester of Ancient Pathways in Arizona. Given the opportunity, I highly recommend checking out his courses and books. According to tests Tony has done, a simple debris bed can be somewhere around 23 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the outside environment. That’s a substantial improvement that could make the difference between life and death.

To start with, you’ll need to search for a number of fallen logs and branches that are about a foot taller than you are. I look for ones that are about the diameter of my arm. You’ll also need some logs and branches that are about a foot wider than you are.

logs stacked to form a rectangle shelter with pine needles and other debris inside to provide insulation.

Once you’ve collected your logs and branches, stack them together Lincoln-Log-style to form a rectangle (alternating stacking long and short sides). Don’t worry about lashing them together; they’ll stay in place just fine. Keep building the shelter up until it reaches about the depth of your knees. At that point, you should have a rectangle that you can comfortably lie down in. This structure will hold all of your debris bedding.

Now, gather up as many leaves, pine needles, and whatever other forms of soft debris you can find. I even used pine boughs in my debris bed. It really doesn’t matter what you use, provided it’s soft and will provide insulation. The more you have, the better. Not only will you be using this soft matter as insulation to guard against the heat-sapping ground, but you’ll also be burrowing yourself into it, forming a nice blanket around yourself.

blue tarp hanging over paracord, which is strung up over a rectangle frame made with sticks.

After you’ve filled your structure with soft matter, use your tarp and paracord to make a simple A-frame shelter over the top. Should you get any rain or snow, this will help protect you from the elements, and it’ll also give you some degree of protection against the wind.

When I built this structure, I pulled the tarp away from the logs a bit, giving me a location to safely stow my daypack and thermos away from rain (see photo below).

backpack and thermos underneath blue tarp next to log shelter

I used a number of methods to lash the tarp down so it wouldn’t blow away. Wrapping paracord around a hefty stick or rock is a method I’ve used on hammocking trips in the past, and it works great for an expedient survival shelter as well. If you’re having difficulty finding large enough rocks or sticks, you can tie the tarp to the shelter itself.

One thing to be cautious of with this type of shelter is the risk of fire. If you build a fire to keep yourself warm at night, keep in mind that you’ll be sleeping inside a gigantic tinderbox. Pine needles burst into flame very easily, and you should practice extreme caution when using any type of flame around this or other structures that you’ve insulated with soft matter.

Final Thoughts on Tarp Shelter Configurations

The woods are enjoyable. Spending time in them is fun, relaxing, and good for you. However, there’s also a degree of inherent danger involved in journeying deep within them — no matter how short of a time you plan to be there.

Nobody plans on getting hurt, lost, or stranded on a short solo trip, but it does happen. If you’re going into the woods, take a small tarp and some paracord with you. While I hope you won’t need them for the purposes discussed in this article, the chance you might need them makes it well-worth the small amount of effort required to bring them along.


Aden Tate is a writer who enjoys backpacking, playing basketball, and taking pictures of mushrooms deep in the woods. He’s the author of The Faithful Prepper: A Christian’s Perspective on Prepping.