Making a survival shelter

Making a Survival Shelter
by survival expert James Mandeville

Survival shelters, reader rating 4.5 stars
New November 2015; not rated yet

The following comments refer to building a shelter in a survival situation.

It takes some practise to make a shelter; if you are practising the craft, bear in mind that you probably need permission from the landowner to cut down standing timber, fell branches, etc. Always take down your practice shelter afterwards as it may become unstable with time and be a danger to children playing in the area. Some temporary shelters can be dangerous if not made correctly, for example, the igloo as illustrated above. This sort of construction requires knowledge and skill.

Most people can manage to find shelter or make a crude shelter in a survival situation, which is why I cover only the necessary basics here.

The first rule in a survival situation is not to waste precious energy, so always look for natural shelter rather than spending time and effort making a temporary shelter. In the photo below, the fallen tree is stable and it would take little work to turn it into a debris shelter by propping branches against it and sealing the gaps with grass sods or foliage (see below).

natural shelter

A few pointers about using natural shelter

  • Animals use natural shelter, especially caves, overhangs, thickets and they shelter in and beneath trees; basically, they seek the same sort of shelter as humans. Ensure that the shelter you choose is not already occupied. Equally important is to make sure that the shelter you have chosen is not the natural night–time habitat of any predatory or venomous wild creature.

  • cave as survival shelterThe rule is never to shelter in a cave without first checking inside it (especially at dusk or night). Study the cave and listen carefully for the sound of young animals inside. Cave dwellers can include adult animals and the young of wild cats, wild dogs and bears (depending whereabouts in the world you are). Caves also harbour snakes, bats, scorpions and many different biting insects. Large cats in particular (leopard, cheater, etc.) may leave their young in caves whilst out hunting. If you hear young animals inside a cave, leave the area. Snakes are sensitive to vibrations; throwing some rocks or branches into a cave will usually bring them out (not always, so be very careful in areas with pit vipers and boas — especially if there are puff adders in the vicinity because they are slow to react and their bite is deadly). Think about what you would do if there were a wild animal in a cave you have entered and be prepared to deal with it.

    batBats are difficult to dislodge and they do not normally leave a cave until sundown. Not all bats are harmless, they can bite and they foul the floor beneath them, creating a potentially serious health risk. Bats are associated with a few diseases that affect people, such as rabies and histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is caused by a fungus (Histoplasma capsulatum), the disease is transmitted to humans by airborne fungus spores from soil contaminated by bat droppings. Rabies is a dangerous, fatal disease, but only about 5 percent of bats submitted for testing are infected with the rabies virus. In recent years, however, there has been increased concern about the risk of rabies transmission following contact with bats. Bats living in tropical areas will probably be actively hunted by venomous snakes. If you do enter a cave, use a burning torch. Most animals, including bats, will retreat from flames and heat but bats and most snakes do not react to the beam of an electric light. If you decided to shelter in a cave, it is best to stay near the entrance so you can make a quick exit if necessary. Some cave floors shelve steeply down and the ceilings can be unstable. A cave makes a good shelter but it also makes a good trap, so be careful!

  • Lighting a fire in a cave can be dangerous. As heat builds up and the cave roof heats fire in cave and survival sheltersand rapidly cools, you run the risk of cracks opening up; large flakes of rock can be brought down this way if the cave is unstable. Heating up the inside of a damp cave may literally cause tons of rock to break away. It is best to build a reflector fire away from the entrance and lie down close to the entrance where it is just warm enough to endure the elements.

  • Overhangs can make good overnight shelter. Study the ground below the overhang. If there are large boulders or stones immediately below the overhang, suspect the mass above is not too stable. Also, study the formation of the overhang itself. You can see in the photo below that there is a large slab of rock that could potentially collapse. It may stay in place for thousands of years or it may choose to collapse on the day you settle down to sleep under it. Pay particular attention to signs of recent cracking, trickles of small stones and other debris that may give some clues about the stability of the rock.

    overhangs and survival shelter

    If the rock inside the overhang is very wet in dry weather, this could indicate that an aquifer is leaking through the rock and it could get very wet if it rains even a great distance from where you are. If you are in snake country (desert, etc.) look for signs that snakes have travelled the area. Pit vipers may regularly check out areas below overhangs hunting for sheltering frogs and rodents. They may also shelter from the heat under overhangs. The same warnings about lighting a fire under an overhang apply as with caves.

  • thicket and shelterThicket or other very dense vegetation can often be hacked out to make a good overnight shelter. Many animals will not try to enter into thicket but reptiles, of course, are undaunted by it. As with a cave, once you are in a thicket you are also in an effective trap should predators be around, so make a couple of exit points in case you need to escape.

    Cheetah in thicket
    Cheetah hiding in a thicket.

  • Trees can make good shelter but there are things to watch out for. Many insects may dwell in a single tree. Ants, for example, can be a deadly nuisance and there may be thousands of them living in and around a single tree in the desert or in the jungle. It may seem obvious, but always study the canopy of any tree you decide to use for shelter and also the surrounding trees. I met a guy in South Africa who was attacked by a leopard as he rested under a tree and he had the scars to prove it. OK, you could live for three lifetimes before ever meeting anyone else that had such an experience but just make sure it isn't you!

  • "Caves" in glaciers are not true caves. A glacier is moving and a cave can close up in a matter of a few hours. You don't want to wake up inside a giant ice cube, so avoid the temptation of sheltering in glacial caves. For the same reason, never shelter in, or pass through, tunnels under glaciers because they can collapse with little or no warning.

  • Natural shelter is anything that protects you from sun, wind, cold and wet. Remember that a hillside can be natural shelter if it gets you out of a cold wind. If that is all you have to worry about there may be no need to build a shelter.

Points to consider:
  • Choose natural shelter as a preference when seeking shelter for short–term protection.

  • Always give yourself plenty of time to build any shelter. In the topics, night falls quickly with little or no twilight. In jungle, the sun may still be out above the canopy but little light penetrates and darkness comes quickly to the forest floor.

  • Make the shelter no larger than you need. This preserves body heat in cold and wind; a larger shelter wastes time and energy and larger structures are more easily damaged by the elements.

  • Make sure you have plenty of ventilation.

  • Avoid building your shelter on wet ground or make sure your bed is raised off wet ground if this is unavoidable.

  • In jungle or on the Veldt: Always clear an area of ground four times larger than the area of the shelter — snakes and scorpions do not like to cross disturbed ground. Always clear debris from the jungle floor with a handful of branches; never use your hands. Lighting a fire and spreading the hot embers over the ground you have cleared is a good deterrent to scorpions.

  • Do not build your shelter on an exposed site; pay consideration the wind direction may change.

  • Always make sure that your shelter is safe to sleep and live in; test main structures as you build.

  • If you are thatching your shelter: Always work from the bottom up over lapping each row by one third.

  • If you are making a fire: Make sure it will not set light to your shelter if the wind changes direction.

  • Make sure you can get out of any shelter fast if you need to.

  • Learn to make one or two types of basic shelter, nothing elaborate, become proficient in building the shelters so you don't have to waste time and effort working from first principles if you are ever in a situation when you need one.

Making a shelter

You possibly have two items in your Personal Survival Kit that can be used to make a very efficient shelter for adverse weather conditions — your Space Blanket and a double loop snare. If you don't have a double loop snare, improvise using the strongest cord you have (two trouser belts, shoelaces, cordage, etc.) and make a slipknot loop at each end. Using these items, you can make a quick overnight shelter or a shelter with one week's durability if you are carrying a reusable Space Blanket.

  • Locate a low overhanging branch or construct an A–frame using three poles (about your height) so it looks like a low version of a Red Indian tepee. Mark out a triangle on the ground and stick one end of each pole into the ground, pull them together at the top to form an apex and then lash the tops of the poles together; if one branch is forked this is an advantage as you can rest the other branches in the fork.

  • Spread out your Space Blanket and locate the centre. Place a smooth stone in the centre, grasp it and turn the blanket over holding the stone inside.

  • Drop one of the loops of your double loop snare over the stone and pull gently tight. Your Space Blanket is now hanging down from the centre suspended by the snare. Attach the other end of the snare to the low branch or to the apex of your A–frame. Make sure it is not too high so you have plenty of material hanging down. If necessary, adjust the height of your A–frame.

  • Spread out the Space Blanket and tie three corners to the A–frame or weight them down with stones if you are using a low branch.

  • Lift up the free corner of the blanket and trap it in the top loop of the snare. This forms the opening.

  • You have now constructed your quick shelter; effectively this is a tent!

  • If it is windy, very severe weather or if you need to stay put for several days, you need to build a "debris" shelter around your tent.

  • To make a debris shelter, rest strong branches over the low tree branch or all around your A–frame to form an outer layer. Use as many branches as possible to make a strong "shell." Fill in gaps between these outer branches with any materials to hand. (A debris shelter can be constructed without the Space Blanket if you are sure it is not going to rain. Similarly, your Space Blanket can be hung over a low branch and weighted down to make a "ridge tent" if you need to make a shelter really fast and cold is not an issue.) Light a reflector fire near your shelter — the silvered interior of your Space Blanket will reflect a lot of heat rays and quickly warm up the inside of your shelter.

  • Dig a trench around your shelter to channel away rainwater. Bear in mind that you should protect your shelter from sparks and flames so position your fire carefully.

Debris shelter
Simply, rest or lash support timbers against each other and cover in thatched reed, branches from fir trees, earth sods or anything else available to keep out the elements.

debris smoker

Lean–to shelter
The shelter below was built in a fir forest using only a commando wire saw for felling and trimming and uses the natural support of the trees themselves as the main structure. It took me 2 hours to collect the materials and 1 hour to build a shelter large enough for six people. I undertook this as a demonstration of how one person could construct a shelter for a number of injured people as part of an Army training exercise.

Such a shelter has various possibilities. It could be built faster and lower using only one side to protect from the prevailing wind. It could be constructed on four sides to give a bad weather shelter in unpredictable weather conditions. A shelter this size could house a group of six and is high enough to allow a small cooking fire inside it.

Study what is available and make a shelter good enough to protect you and strong enough to stand up for the length of time you intend to use it. Always test the stability of a large shelter by shaking key supporting parts as you build it. The shelter crossbeam could be lashed to the trees for additional security in a strong wind if you have plenty of cordage. If you use trees as the main structure, bear in mind they sway around in a strong wind and raindrops from the leaves drip down long after it has stopped raining. Test and retest everything you do. Better if it collapses at the outset, rather than when you are asleep inside it.

Lean–to shelter

lean to shelter
Points to watch
Make certain the crossbeam is securely in place before walking underneath it.

Use the weight of heavy side beams to press the crossbeam back against the supporting trees if you have no means of lashing the crossbeam to the trees.

Hang the thatching branches pointing down to send rain shooting off them. Construct your thatch from the bottom working up, so each new layer overlaps the layer below it by one third.


Reflector fire

reflector fire
The safest and most effective way of heating a shelter, like the lean-to shelter in the above photo, is to make a reflector fire. Hammer two rows of uprights in a line parallel to the entrance of the shelter and pile timber up between them to make the reflector. Light a fire a short distance from the reflector. This directs more heat from the fire towards the entrance of the shelter. Lining the rear, inside wall of the shelter with a silvered space blanket reflects more heat inside the shelter.

Security: The stockade

stockade shelter
Traditional Masai thorn stockade

The stockade is one of the earliest forms of security enclosure built around a shelter or for protecting animals from predators. Before the invention of barbed wire, thorny branches or thorny scrub was used to deter attack by humans and animals.

Masai stockade
Traditional thorn stockade used to protect both livestock and herders

How to make a thorn stockade

making a thorn stockade
Use a peg and a length of cordage to mark out two circles, one of 2 metres (6.5 feet) diameter and one of 2.5 metres 8 feet diameter. Scale up or down to suit the number of people you need to protect, but remember it is quicker to build two smaller stockades than one very large one, and security is increased if not everyone is housed in one stockade. It is wiser not sleep in the same stockade used to house animals. If scorpions are present in the area you are building the stockade in, first, cover the whole area of ground with brush wood and burn the ground to kill off any scorpions that are living below the surface soil or grass. Let the fire area burn hot for half an hour and then rake the hot ashes over to spread the heat. (Make sure all the ashes are dead before building the stockade.)

Hammer in posts around the perimeter of both circles and fill the area between them with thorny branches or thorny scrub. This should be tightly packed to prevent smaller animals from passing through any gaps.

Leave a small gap for an entrance and make a gate of compacted thorny branches. To close it, pull it shut with cordage from the inside to plug up the gap. Use a long pole to push it open again.

If you are in an area where snakes could pose a threat, rake the ground over around the outside of your stockade before you close it up for the night. Snakes prefer not to travel over newly disturbed ground.

Finally, build your shelter inside the stockade. This stockade will give you good protection from most small predators, even lion. However, the Masai have tales of lions jumping into a stockade and then you have a fight on your hands in an enclosed area that you cannot easily escape from. If you are in lion country, you need to surround the outer wall of your stockade with pointed stakes hammered into the ground at an angle to give further protection. Lions are more likely to attack a stockade containing livestock than humans — if this is any comfort. A stockade built in this way as a temporary survival technique will not stop larger animals; bears, for example, have been known to tear a stockade apart to get at the people inside.


In snow

How to make a snow–hole

building snow hole survival shelter
To make a snow–hole (snow cave) you dig into a deep, compacted snowdrift (requires about 3 metres 10 feet of deep snow), which you'll usually find on the lee side of a wind–exposed ridge.

Excavate a hole large enough to lie down comfortably inside it. The construction is very important and means the difference between freezing to death and staying alive. A snow–hole is warmer to live in than any surface shelter, including a tent. It takes time to make, especially if you do not have a shovel and are digging with improvised tools. The snow–hole (above photo) was dug in the Grampian Mountains in February. Although you cannot tell the scale from the photo (we were more interested in getting under cover than in taking photos) it was large enough to accommodate four people and took five hours to dig out. We sheltered in it for three days to ride out a bad storm. It was a very cold and unpleasant but safer than ploughing through a blizzard driven by winds reaching 40 mph (18 m/s). An occasion when survival knowledge was vital.

Inglis and Doole's story
In 1982, Mark Inglis and Phil Doole were high up the slopes of New Zealand\'s highest mountain, Aoraki Mt. Cook, when a blizzard hit. They built an ice cave and waited for the storm to pass, but it would be 13 days before help could reach them. They survived on meagre rations, but in the cramped cave they lost circulation in their legs, which had to be amputated. This has not stopped the men's climbing careers. Both have gone on to summit Mt. Cook, and in 2006, Inglis became the first double amputee to conquer Mt Everest, losing five fingertips and more flesh off his legs to frostbite, though none of his strength of character. He told the New Zealand Herald, 'When you lose your legs when you're 23… something like this is just a minor hiccup, just a bump in the journey, really.

Making a snow–hole

  • Step 1. Dig into the base of a drift, clear a chamber approximately 2 metres (7 feet) high, 1 metre (3.3 feet) wide and 1 metre (3.3 feet) forward into the drift. It is easier to move dug out snow if you are on a slope facing downhill.

  • Step 2. Excavate a dome–shaped room by digging into the drift in all directions, starting 1 metre (3.3 feet) beyond the tunnel entrance.

  • Step 3. Build a platform 1 metre (3.3 feet) off the floor to lie on; you need to do this because the cold air is heavier and will collect at the lowest point of your chamber.

  • Step 3. To reduce the size of the tunnel entrance by half, pack it with snow, which you have to compact down with something heavy. The entrance must be lower than your sleeping platform to make a heat trap. Use anything available to make the entrance as small as possible. You are essentially entombing yourself in a snow chamber.

  • Step 4. Make 3 ventilation holes in the roof of your snow–hole using sticks, walking staves, anything you can force through the snow. Keep the vent holes open by waggling the sticks around from time to time. Mark the top of your snow–hole so you do not mistakenly step on it when working outside.

  • Step 5. Back in your chamber, smooth the ceiling so no water can drip from any pointed surfaces. (Your body will heat up the snow and melt it and your breath will condense as water droplets.)

  • Step 6. Mark a route from your sleeping platform to the entrance using cord, coloured tape, or anything else you have to hand. This is useful if your snow home collapses and you have to dig your way out (can happen!).

  • Step 7. Leave a marker outside made from whatever you have available so you can be found if people are searching for you because they may not find you in a snow–hole!

  • Step 8. Settling in — try to get a layer of insulation between yourself and the sleeping bench. Pine branches are good, use anything possible to form an insulation layer between you and the snow. A snow–hole is considerably warmer than being outside but it is still very cold to live in. Any heat source inside will help, even a candle will add considerable heat but be mindful of the fact a candle uses up oxygen so make sure you have adequate ventilation.