How to Build a Shelter

Learn about the shelters you can build in a time of need. There are shelters you can purchase such as tents and hammocks, but also many types of shelters you can build.

| May 2018

  • hammock
    You can find water-resistant hammocks but if need be you can put a tarp over your hammock.
    Photo by GettyImage/sshepard
  • emergency-preppedness
    “Dr. Prepper” by Jeff Garrett, is filled with tips and tricks to help readers prepare for disasters.
    Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

  • hammock
  • emergency-preppedness

Dr. Prepper (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016) by Jeff Garrett, will teach readers how to be prepare for and handle disasters. From first aid kits to distinguishing poisonous plants, this book has it all. Learn about the tools you need in order to be ready. Find this excerpt in Chapter 2, “How to Lay the Groundwork.”

Shelter can mean a lot of different things to different people. Depending on the severity of your survival situation—short-term where you only have to stay warm for a night, or something more long-term—there are several different ways to build reliable shelter that will keep you warm, dry, and able to get going the next day. Whatever your situation may be, the first and most important step in seeking shelter is to analyze your surroundings. Particularly in cases of extreme cold or heat, building shelter and finding water are crucial to ensuring your safety or the safety of your loved ones. Find or set up your shelter in areas near fresh water, but not so close that you are sharing space with water-hovering insects like mosquitos or are in danger of flooding. Take into account that dry riverbeds or trails can be perfect paths for flash flooding if severe weather hits, so 20 even this poses a risk. If you are in the woods or near a cliffside, stay clear of dead trees or loose rocks, as these pose a real risk of falling and harming you and your shelter.

When choosing the kind of shelter you plan to build, take account of the environment around you, how long you will be there, and any potential changes in weather. Do you need to build a fire inside the shelter because it is too cold, windy, or rainy outside? In that case, you would need a structure that vents the smoke while also insulating the heat. When setting up a space inside your shelter for sleeping, make sure to put protective space between you and the ground. Especially during frigid weather, the cold ground can absorb body heat and make it harder to stay warm as the night progresses. Place dry brush like leaves, sticks, and evergreen boughs to form a six-inch-thick layer over the area you will use for sleeping and cover it with a tarp, blanket, or sleeping bag if you have them available. Ideal camping sites are on a slight downward incline so that rain will not pool around you. In cases where extreme weather may cause flooding in your shelter, dig a trench around the area for easier drainage. In the opposite situation of desert heat, it is a good idea to set up your shelter out of direct sunlight; remain wary of how much sun the shelter is getting during the day, as temperatures can increase so intensely that your new home is now an oven. Since it is unlikely that you will happen across a fully stocked log cabin for your convenience in a survival scenario, this list of shelters will help you get by—whether you just need to camp out for a few hours, or build some-thing a little longer term.

Tents and Hammocks

While this section will go into more depth about do-it-yourself shelters, it is worth noting that camping tents and hammocks are well worth the purchase if you can afford them. While large four-person tents can be difficult to carry if you have to stay on the move, they will make your life a lot easier if you don’t have to go too far and are experiencing wind and cold. Many tents have vestibule compatibility, which can be helpful in keeping out rain, drying clothes, and protecting your belongings that would not otherwise fit in the tent. When carrying a large tent is just too much, try tenting hammocks. Hammocks made from parachute material are water-resistant and easy to string up between trees, and a simple tarp hung above the hammock can protect you from the elements. If you can splurge, some hammocks are designed specifically as suspension tents.



Tarps, Parachutes, and Plastic Sheeting

In any survival scenario, having tarp, poncho, or parachute material with you can be a lifesaver. It can protect you from wind, cold, and extreme heat, while also blocking out pests, insects, snakes, and other potential nuisances or hazards. In situations when you cannot build a closed-in shelter and there will be open air, just make sure to position the material so that it blocks the direction of the wind, sun, or precipitation.

Securing a Tarp or Plastic Shelter

Regardless of the shelter you are setting up with this material, you should be mindful of how you secure it to the ground so that it can last for many uses, if not indefinitely. If you are using basic plastic sheeting or a tarp without grommets (the metal rings that allow you to feed rope through them), you should avoid securing the base of your shelter with stakes or any other method that will tear holes in the material. This will compromise the shelter and cause leaks. Instead, place rocks, bags of sand, logs, or any other heavy objects along the base of the material to keep out the elements.

In the event your tarp or parachute material does have grommets, you can secure the base of the structure by using aluminum poles, camping stakes, or paracord. Your ropes or paracords should always be several feet longer than the tent you plan to build. If you are using paracord, it can be helpful to feed the cord through the grommet from the bottom-up and then wrap the cord around a wooden stick. Thread the other end of the cord back through the grommet and then secure it to another stake or object to dig into the ground. This will help prevent tearing of the grommet and tarp in the event of tugging or aggressive winds.

A-Frame Tent

This tent is the most straightforward tent you can build using a tarp, plastic sheeting, or parachute material. It looks like a simple pup tent and can be built with paracord or even ski poles. Find a location where you can secure two ends of the tent—preferably between two trees (or the two ski poles) about six to ten feet apart. If the tarp has grommets, feed the paracord through them on each end of the tarp when making the peak; this will help keep the tarp in place so it doesn’t shift or become lopsided with wind or movement. Tie the paracord between the two trees, securing the knots tightly. If your tarp does not have grommets, it is best to secure the base with heavy rocks so that the tarp does not tear from puncturing it. Otherwise, use stakes, paracord, or other objects you have on-hand that will keep the base snug to the ground.

Tarp Teepee

Teepees are regarded as one of the best wilderness shelters for a reason. They are relatively easy to construct and keep the warmth in. This ver-sion of a teepee does not require the framework of a traditional one. With the help of a low-hanging branch, simply gather material from either end of the tarp, wrap it tightly into a nub with cord, and tie the remain-ing cord to the branch. The rest of the tarp will hang down, and from here you can spread the material to make the teepee shape and secure the base to the ground using rocks or logs. Alternatively, you can throw the rope over the branch and wrap it around the tree for a pulley-like system that lets you raise and lower the tent. Make sure you have arranged it so that there is an opening to get in and out of the shelter. The higher you pitch the teepee, the better it will be at shedding water, snow, and wind. A shallow pitch will be less effective at reflecting water, but will offer more room inside.

Tarp Lean-To

Lean-tos are simple in design, but pretty effective at blocking out the ele-ments if you construct them against another surface like a cliff, incline, or densely situated trees. In this scenario, simply spread the tarp out until it is completely flat, and tie the top left and right ends to trees. Secure the base of the tarp with stakes or paracord (if your tarp has grommets), or with heavy rocks and logs. This shelter is not meant for long-term use, but it will work if you are in a bind and need to get out of the rain and cold.

One-Man Hut

When you are on your own, need protection from the cold, and are short on tools and building supplies, this shelter can make a big difference. Find a long, sturdy tree limb between six and ten feet long, depending on your height. One end of the limb will rest on the ground, and the other should rest two to three feet in the air against a stable structure, like a rock wall or a stump, or over a tripod made of branches that are snugly buried into the ground. With the center pole in place, begin by gathering branches of varying lengths to  align vertically along the length of the center pole. The more branches you can find to lean against the center pole, the more insulated and stronger the structure will be. When each side of the pole has a line of branches and limbs, gather dry brush like leaves, grass, small sticks, and evergreen branches to cover the walls. Build this section out until it is thick (at least a couple of feet in width) to ensure that wind and rain will be effectively blocked. If there is snow on the ground, use the snow to help insulate as well.

Snow Cave

In the event of a snowstorm or blizzard, finding shelter is top priority. The best way to build a safe snow cave is to start by finding areas where the work is already done for you: find a snowdrift or hillside area that has a lot of snow cover. Be wary of choosing a snowdrift that is in an area prone to avalanches or that have snowdrifts set higher on the hillside than yours—the higher snowdrift could give way and destroy or envelop the one you are in. If you are able to find a snowdrift, make sure it is at least five feet high. You can use this as your foundation to build a safe shelter that will hold in a lot of warmth.

Building a snow shelter is not about speed. Exerting a lot of effort and sweating can be dangerous—this will lead to loss of energy and a drop in body temperature. Move at an easy pace and take breaks. If you are starting from scratch and not from a snowdrift, take your time while shoveling snow to make a large mound that is at least five feet high. Make sure to stomp or roll on the snow to make it more compact as you set it in place. Light and powdery snow does not set easily, so give it time to set and become compact as you work to ensure a stable structure; this can take several hours. Once your snow cave is at least five feet high, allow it to set for at least two hours. From there, place two ski poles or large sticks about twelve to eighteen inches into the center of the dome at about two feet apart, like flags. These will be your point of reference when you are digging out the inside of the cave.

It is safer to build a snow shelter with a partner. He or she should be equipped with a shovel and stand outside of the cave as you dig in the vent of collapse. When digging out the snow cave, start by digging a small trench at the doorway so that the threshold is constructed lower than the inside of the cave. This will help maintain heat inside. Continue by shoveling out a tunnel from the center of the snow mound. Shovel from this central tunnel only until you have cleared at least two feet, and then you can begin to hollow out the cave. When you can fit your whole body in, continue scraping out the dome. If you clear enough snow that the bottoms of the ski poles are exposed, you have reached your stopping point for the ceiling. The roof should be at least one foot thick, and the walls should be at least two feet thick.



With enough snow, consider carving out benches to sleep on or shelves for storage. The benches will help you stay warm by elevating you off the ground. Layer the floor with insulation, like evergreen or fir boughs, sticks, sleeping bags, or blankets, to help contain the heat and prevent it from being absorbed by the ground. Create one-inch ventila-tion holes by inserting a ski pole, or stick at an angle through the ceiling and clearing a small airway. If it feels like too much warm air is escaping, you can block the holes with clothing or a snowball. Just make sure to remove the blocker and keep the air hole clear when going to sleep or if the air gets stuffy. Smooth out any bumpy snow on the inside of the dome so that a change in temperature won’t cause the jagged parts to drip. If the temperature is below freezing and you have extra water, pour the water over the outside of your snow shelter to help harden the surface and set the structure. DO NOT do this if the air is above freezing, as it will melt the snow and weaken the integrity of the snow cave.

Place bright markers on the outside of the snow cave so that other people (if they should cross paths with you) do not accidentally damage the pile. Use clothing or backpacks as your door so that animals and cold air do not come in. Store shovels inside the cave in the event of ceiling collapse or avalanche so that you can dig yourself out.

Reprinted with Permission from Dr. Prepper  by Jeff Garrett and Published by Skyhorse Publishing.






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