How to Build a Shelter in the Woods

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How to Build A Shelter in the Woods
How to Build A Shelter in the Woods

During one of the most scenic drives that we’ve taken in recent times, we happened to stumble upon this old school tavern in Marmarth, North Dakota.

Great appetizers, terrific walleye and cold beer aside, we bumped into some friendly old timers and got talking about bushcrafting.

Turned out that the great gramps of one of the guys who’d homesteaded there in ND had shared a wealth of information about building shelters in the woods. A Soddy being his specialty.

We enjoyed the insightful conversation and also had the fortune to see some of their bushcrafting skills on display. We particularly liked a wood and mud structure that they’d built using the Wattle and Daub technique.

Roomy, warm and made from ground up using just a rudimentary-looking axe.

Back home, it got us thinking about how we needed to brush up our bushcrafting skills, especially building shelters.

So we put everything we knew on paper and then got some hands-on practice building all of them.

We figured that some of you guys might also be interested in that list.

So here goes.

This is a list of the best shelters that you can cough up on short notice with minimal gear. Some of them can serve the purpose of keeping you dry and safe for short term.

Others will take more time to build but can be used as a hideout, staying away from invading zombies and the occasional curious bear.

It’s going to be a long read. So get strapped, grab a beer and enjoy the read.

#1 – The Lean-To

How to Build the Lean-To Shelter

The Lean-To is one of the most basic shelters that bushcrafters can build in the woods.

Basic, because it can be built from even a tarp or a mylar blanket or some debris that you can collect off the forest floor.

It might look unassuming but it can offer excellent protection from wind and precipitation.

Throw in a camp fire surrounded by a fire-wall and you can use the radiative heat to keep hypothermia at bay.

In a survival scenario, it can probably save yours and your fellow campers’ life.

Difficulty level: Easy

Time Required: The Lean-to has an uncomplicated design and can be constructed in a couple of hours if you follow some basic rules.

Materials Needed

Tarp, blanket, trash bags, poncho OR branches, sticks, debris from the forest floor. A sheath knife or a hatchet can also be useful in trimming the branches, cordage or vines to tie the branches together.

How to Build the Lean-To

If you can find a large stone face or a fallen tree or an overhang, use it to create the wall against which you can prop your lean-to structure. This will save time and conserve effort. If you cannot find anything, then you can always make one yourself. This will be the backbone of the shelter. So it needs to be strong enough to sustain the weight of your roof.

Find a long stick or log that you can prop up with two sticks or across a tree limb may be. Prop up the other end using the same technique. You have a horizontal log now that should be able to support the roof of your lean-to.

Gather sticks or branches and place it at a 45-degree angle on the horizontal stick. Stack them real close to prevent the debris from leaking through. If it’s raining and you have the back of the structure to the rain, you might want to make this angle steeper. This will help in preventing the run off from entering your shelter.

Gather debris off the forest floor. Leaves, twigs, bark, pine needles, boughs whatever you can get your hands on and cover the roof. Be careful while gathering the debris as snakes and other crawlies like to rest under a bed of dry leaves.

Once you have a reasonably thick covering of debris on the roof, place some small branches on it to prevent it from being blown in the wind.

That’s it. You can now add some ribs to the side of the shelter to prevent wind drafts. Add a fire pit a little away and you should be able to stay warm from the radiative heat.


#2 – The A-Frame

How to Build the A-Frame Shelter

The A-Frame or the Double lean-to is another shelter that can be built with basically no tools. Of course, if you have a tarp and a cord, it becomes a snap.

But even if you are stuck in the wilderness with just a tiny knife, here’s how you can make an A-Frame shelter that will protect you from adverse weather.

A mylar blanket will be too small to build an A-frame that offers weather protection. So, we won’t cover that option.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Time Required: Three to four hours

Materials Needed

Sticks, a Y-shape tree or a branch, a large stick for the spine of the shelter, debris for the roof, a knife or a machete or a survival saw of some sort, vines for cordage or a parachute cord if you are carrying it.

How to Build the A-Frame

Find the ideal location to build the shelter. If you can spot a tree with a Y-shaped fork, that’s half the work done. If you cannot, then look for a Y-shaped stump that you can cut and use as the base for your shelter. It will have to be inserted on level ground without too many rocks or roots that can disturb your sleep.

If you cannot find this either, then you will have to find branches to make two uprights that will support the spine or the ridgepole and lash them together. The other end of the ridgepole will be placed on the ground.

Find a large, sturdy stick that can be used as the ridgepole. This will support the weight of the insulation that you place on the roof. So it needs to be strong. Anything that was in direct contact with the ground can be decomposed and weak.

Once you find the right stick, place in the groove of the uprights and use the vines or cords to secure it.

Use your knife to scratch a groove or a straight line on the ground from the uprights to the other end of the ridgepole. This can be used as a reference to place the sticks that will form the walls of the shelter.

You will need sticks of varying lengths that will taper as the ridgepole meets the ground. A knife can really come in handy here. If you don’t have a knife, you have your task cut out.

Stack the sticks close together and push them a little into the groove you made on the ground.

You can either start stacking the leaves and debris on the walls right away or you can use small saplings to weave in between the sticks. This is totally up to you. The advantage is that it creates an impenetrable wall of sorts. If harvesting live saplings is not permitted, look for a fallen tree. You can harvest the bark to use for weaving.

Stack the debris. A lot of it to create a roof that is at least two to three feet thick. Use more leaves to create a leaf bed.

That’s it.


#3 – A-Frame Tarp Shelter

How to Build the A Frame Tarp Shelter

Personally, we would never step into the wilderness without a tarp. It is an invaluable addition to our camping kit and one that has proven its worth multiple times when the weather turned for the worse.

With a tarp and a para cord or a strong vine, you can make a rudimentary A-frame shelter in less than an hour. The use of the word ‘rudimentary’ is strictly limited to define the aesthetics though.

A Tarp A-frame shelter can provide protection from precipitation and deflect wind.

Moreover, it’s one of the easiest shelters to make in the woods.

Diffculty level: Very easy

Time required: Less than an hour

Materials Needed

Camping tarp or plastic sheeting, para cord or vines, extendable poles or hiking sticks (Optional), sticks to stake the tarp down, sheath knife

How to Build the A-Frame Tarp Shelter

Find two trees that are 10-15 feet apart. If you cannot find these, then prop up two hiking sticks or extendable poles 10-15 feet apart. Tie the cord or the vine tightly across these trees. This is your ridgeline. If you tie this loosely, then the tarp will sag in the middle.

Good quality camping tarps have grommets or holes at the edge which can be used to stake it down to the ground. You can also loop the cord through this to secure the tarp to the stakes.

Some campers carry stakes or pins that are used with camping tents. But you can always make these with sticks that you can find on the forest floor.

A 30-degree angle works best for a tarp A-frame shelter as it provides excellent rain and snow run off.

Ensure that the area where you construct the shelter is free of deadfall and that it’s not in a water runoff.


#4 – Debris Hut

How to Build the Debris Hut

A Debris hut is another type of shelter that’s extremely useful in a survival situation where you cannot even make a fire to stay warm.

It is insulated and uses your body heat to warm the surroundings.

More importantly, it can be made with literally no gear at all (Barring a knife of course).

Diffculty level: Hard. This is going to test your mettle and burn a boatload of calories. So use it as a last resort only.

Time required: At least three to four hours. So if you are planning to construct a debris hut, do it well before sunset.

Materials Needed

Para cord or twine, Strong stick for the ridgepole, smaller sticks for the wall, tons of debris for the insulating inner layer and the outer layer that provides runoff.

How to Build the Debris Hut

The Debris hut is essentially an A-frame shelter. So the construction is exactly the way you’d build the A-frame. Find a stick strong enough to be used as the ridgepole, use the y-shaped crook of a tree, or prop up two support sticks and lash them together with twine or cord. The other end of the ridgepole will be placed on the ground. You can dig a small groove and sharpen the edge of the stick to insert it into the groove.

You should now have the frame for your debris hut ready.

Time to make the interior insulation bed.

Find debris like pine needles, dead grass or dead leaves to create a thick bed. It has to be thick enough to allow you to snuggle inside. The lower part insulates you from the ground while the upper layer offers protection from the air.

Set the ribs or the walls with smaller sticks, ensuring that they don’t stick above the spine. This will cause water to pool on the ridgepole and it will either find its way into the shelter, or the ridgepole might break due to the weight.

You have the option to use a weave with bark to secure the ribs. If that’s too much work, you can create a lattice by using smaller twigs and placing them across the ribs.

Stack the debris really thick. Most people try and cut corners at this stage. But you need at least two to three feet of debris to insulate the shelter. You can place smaller branches on the debris to prevent the wind from blowing it away.

A lot of bushcrafters also make doors for their shelters by lashing branches together. It keeps the shelter warm and will offer some degree of protection against prying wildlife.


#5 – Bough Bed

The bough bed is a survival bed that helps campers and survivalists tick off the one thing that’s often taken for granted in bushcrafting talk, sleep.

How important is uninterrupted, restful sleep in the woods?

It can help your body replenish, allow you to think clearly and make uncompromised decisions which might be critical for your survival.

Not to mention that staying off the ground helps conserve body heat and keeps you protected from creepy crawlies.

Thankfully, making a bough bed is one of the simplest tasks that can be accomplished in little time.

Diffculty level: Moderate

Time required: Less than an hour

Materials Needed

Two logs that are 7-8 feet long and at least 6-inches thick, two smaller logs that are 4-5 feet long and of equal thickness, cord or twine to lash the frame, a bough saw or a knife at least, smaller logs to form the framework, boughs or needles to form the bed.

How to Build the Bough Bed

Gather the two logs that are 7-8 feet long or chop them down and lay them on the ground parallel to each other. Place the two shorter logs across the ends of these logs to form a rectangular frame. Lash them together using cord or twine.

Now place the smaller sticks or logs perpendicular to the longer logs and stack them together to form the frame. Lash these tightly for it has to support your bodyweight. The last thing you need is your bed crashing in the middle of the night.

Gather boughs from any tree that has soft needles like spruce or white pine to form the bed. In case you aren’t in an alpine forest, you can swap this with dry leaves and debris.

You can also make an A-framed bough bed that’s elevated off the ground and inside one of your shelters.


#6 – Wickiup Shelter

How to Build the Wikiup Shelter

The Wickiup or the Teepee is one of the oldest known man made shelters that’s still used widely by survivalists and bushcrafters.

This conical structure can be roomy enough to accommodate two to three campers. And it is one of the only ones that allows you to light a fire inside the shelter without the risk of the smoke choking you.

It goes without saying that making a roomy Wickiup is a labor-intensive task and the sooner you get started with it, the better.

The good part is that a Wickiup is sturdy enough to be used as a long-term hideout as well.

Diffculty level: Hard

Time required: Three to four hours

Materials Needed

Large, strong logs to be used for the base frame, debris or trash bags or tarp to be used for weatherproofing the shelter, debris for the internal bedding, cord or vines for lashing the frame, knife or saw to trim the logs.

How to Build the Wickiup Shelter

As we mentioned earlier, you will be making a conical structure. So start off by gathering or harvesting at least three logs that are 7-8 feet in length and at least 6-8 inches thick. The three logs will be used like a tripod to form the base frame.

Lash the three logs together at the upper end and spread the other end to form the cone. We like to sharpen the bottom end of the logs and inserting them in the ground to prevent the structure from wobbling under the weight of the debris. You can also use stones to secure the base.

Once you have the tripod ready, add more poles closer to the three main poles. You can add as many as you want really until the structure has no gaps to allow wind or rain to percolate.

Stack on the debris starting at the bottom and working your way up. You can also add trash bags as an insulating layer before adding the debris.

When you have the structure ready, you can create multiple leaf beds inside as well. We light a campfire and smoke out any insects before we nest in. I’d recommended a small fire that can burn all night.

A wickiup may be a tedious and time consuming build. But it is one of the most rewarding shelters in the right scenario.


#7 – The Leaf Hut

How to Build The Leaf Hut

There are many spinoffs of the simple A-frame shelter. One of them is the leaf hut. It is an A-frame shelter in design and function. The only possible difference is that you will be stacking leaves over the frame rather than using debris.

You can also make a leaf hut like a Wickiup. But that would be more time consuming.

If you have decided to make a shelter in a survival scenario, then chances are that you are drastically short of time.

The A-frame leaf hut can be constructed in a couple of hours.

We have already covered it in detail earlier in this list.


#8 – Swamp Bed Shelter

So, you’ve managed to find yourself in the wetlands without a dry place where you can catch some winks.

You are not alone. A lot of campers and bushcrafters land up in the marsh or the bogs or the less glamorous terrain that rarely gets mentioned in camping manuals and online forums.

Only, you’ve got to survive, don’t you?

A swamp bed shelter ensures that you get a resting place elevated high enough from the ground to keep you dry, and protect you from everything that makes the swamp its home.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Time required: Two to three hours

Materials Needed

A saw or a machete, two logs that are seven to eight feet long and sturdy enough to support your weight, smaller logs to lay perpendicular to the longer logs, cordage to lash everything together, grass or broader leaves that can be used to form the sleeping surface.

How to Build the Swamp Bed Shelter

Look for four trees or at least two, that form a cluster. If it’s a rectangular space, then you have most of your work cut out.

But things rarely work so well in the real world. So find logs, preferably bamboo that can be used to form the platform.

Drive them into the marsh, deep and firm, so that they don’t wobble with the tide. Form a rectangular frame that’s long and wide enough to make a comfortable bed.

Find more logs, smaller ones that will span the width and can lashed together with your main frame.

You can stack these close or space them apart. Anything works in a swamp bed. By now, you should have a raised rectangular platform in place.

Gather broad leaves or grass and stack it on the frame to form the bed.

Since you will be using fresh leaves for the bed, you can make a small fire pit on one corner of the bed with clay or mud. Just let it dry enough. Gather some Cyprus bark if you can and use it as a fire starter.

Get the fire going. It will keep the bugs at bay and make the night a lot easier to live through.

The swamp bed will keep you dry and warm. But it will only work when there’s no rain around. If it’s raining, you will need a platform shelter.


#9 – Platform Shelter

As made evident by the name, this type of shelter is built on stilts and there are many designs that are modified by bushcrafters depending on the availability of materials in the terrain.

The design that we will be discussing here is a modified lean-to shelter with an elevated bed. It features a thatched roof and can be built anywhere with minimal camping gear.

The thatched roof will offer excellent runoff while the raised bed will keep you dry and protected from venomous snakes and other insects.

Diffculty level: Hard

Time required: Four to five hours

Materials Needed

Long sturdy logs or bamboo to be used for the frame of the shelter and for the bed frame, smaller logs or sticks that will be used for forming the ribs of the roof and the latticework on the bed frame, vines or cordage, knife or machete or a sharp stone.

How to Build the Platform Shelter

We will construct the platform first. Chop down two logs that are at least 8-9 feet long. Dig holes that are at least 6-inches deep in the ground and drive the logs into these holes firmly.

You can fill the holes with mud to secure the posts.

Make two more posts with slightly smaller logs that should be placed parallel to the longer ones.

The frame should now resemble a rectangle that’s two meters long and one meter wide.

Connect the four posts using two logs. This will form the roof and will do the bulk of the lifting. So ensure that these are thick and sturdy. You should now have a structure with a thatched roof at a 30-degree angle.

You can add ribs for the roof and lash them together to the frame using cordage or vines. Add grass or leaves or other debris on the roof, working your way from the bottom. You can add branches or small rocks to prevent the grass from being blown in the wind.

Once you are done making the thatched roof shelter, it’s time to make the elevated platform bed.

Gather two logs that can be used as crossbars that will support your bed frame at each end of the platform.

Lash these logs at the joint of the lower end of the roof and tie them to the longer log in a straight line.

You can use the same technique that’s mentioned in the swamp bed to make the actual bed frame. The only thing to keep in mind is that the bed should be the exact length of your shelter so that it can be placed on the crossbars.

You can tweak the shelter to elevate the bed as much as you want to. Make it high enough to allow you to make a small fire just below the bed. This will keep you warm through the night.


#10 – Dugout Shelter

Here we have the dugout shelter, another very easy shelter to build, provided you have the right terrain.

As implied by the name, the dugout is made by digging into the ground. So it is important that the soil is not too sandy or else, it will just keep crumbling around you.

The soil should be hard enough to hold its own without the need for shoring the pit.

Now, ideally you need a shovel for digging. If you were smart enough to carry a shovel with you, kudos. You’ve just made life easier for yourself.

But if you don’t, then you will have to find something that can be used to dig. It can be a branch or a sharp edged stone.

Diffculty level: Hard

Time required: Three to four hours

Materials Needed

Shovel or any digging tool, a strong branch to use as a digging tool, smaller branches to use as the skeleton frame for the roof, vegetation or grass to line the frame with and to use as a bed inside the dugout.

How to Build the Dugout Shelter

The idea of a dugout shelter is very simple. You will dig a furrow in the ground that’s big enough for you to fit in. So, 6-feet by 3-feet should be a good ballpark figure.

It can be as deep as you want it to be. But 2-3 feet should be about right. One edge of the furrow should be sloping inwards. This can be your entrance and exit.

The digging is the hard part, especially if you don’t have the right tools. Also, you want to go real slow with this because if you keep digging hard at full steam, you will burn yourself out and start feeling real low.

You don’t want that to happen in a SHTF scenario. Pace yourself. It’s important.

Once you have the furrow ready, gather branches that can be lined across the width of the furrow. This will be your roof. So you can stack them real close, weave them together with bark or vines, whatever works for you.

Some bushcrafters like to prop some sticks up and create a thatched roof. This can be very useful if you are expecting rain. But if you in a dry area, you can conserve the energy and just line the roof with vegetation, very similar to what we’d do with a debris hut.

Once you are done making the roof, you can line the interior with vegetation or dry grass to make a comfortable bed.

That’s it. Your dugout shelter is ready. You can make a fire pit just outside the shelter to thwart curious animals and to let fellow campers know about the shelter.


#11 – The Bushcraft Tinker Tent

Last but not the least, we have a timeless classic, the Bushcraft Tinker tent or the gypsy tent or the bender tent.

One name too many for such a simple shelter. Let’s stick to the Tinker tent for now.

The Tinker tent is a nomadic shelter that can house an entire group of campers. Yet, it can be constructed fairly quickly and easily.

The only thing that you need is a tarp. There’s no two-ways around this. If you do not have a tarp, you are better off building one of the other shelters that we’ve covered in this list.

And if you have your heart set on a tinker tent, but you don’t have a tarp, then you can try to build it like a debris hut. Only, the design of the tent and the fresh, flexible saplings used to make the frame can bend under the weight of the debris.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Time required: One to two hours

Materials Needed

Saplings of flexible wood like Willow or Hazel, Vines or cordage, smaller saplings, tarp

How to Build the The Bushcraft Tinker Tent

There are many ways to build a tinker tent. There’s the round design or a more conventional rib-cage styled design with a center ridgepole. We like the round bender more than the oblong one. So here goes.

Gather fresh, flexible wooden saplings or branches that are 5-6 feet in length. Around a dozen of these should be right.

Dig a circular pattern of holes that are 12-inches deep.

Drive the widest end of these branches into these holes. Fill it with mud and stomp around it to secure the poles.

You should now have a circular frame with the branches facing inwards, almost touching, like a star pattern.

Find smaller saplings or bark that can be used to weave horizontally through the poles to create a lattice framework.

If you are really short on time, you can skip this step and place the tarp on the pole frame directly. But the framework adds to the strength of the structure and will prevent leaks.

Throw the tarp over the frame and place heavy rocks on the edge to prevent the tarp from flying away in the wind.

That’s it. Your Tinker tent is now ready.


Five Things You Must Know Before You Attempt to Make Shelters

Making a shelter is one of the most important survival skills that you can learn. One that can save your life by protecting you from extreme weather conditions.

However, if you find yourself in a survival situation without even the most basic gear, then some essential bushcraft skills can help you tide through the night.

Here are five of them:

  1. The rule of threes: Always remember the rule of threes when you are stuck in a survival situation. A human can survive for:
  • Three minutes without air
  • Three hours without a shelter or a regulated body temperature according to the weather conditions.
  • Three days without water
  • Three weeks without food

So if you expect things to go south, then now might be the best time to consider making a shelter. Also, overestimate the time that you will need to build it. If you expect to build an A-frame in two hours, start at least four hours before dusk.

  1. The location is the key: All the practice and skills in the world will prove futile if you pick the wrong location to build the shelter. The location should not be in a wildlife trail frequented by animals, it should not be in a run off or too close to a water body, it should not have deadfall anywhere close to it and lastly, it must offer solar gain.
  2. Conserve energy if you can: Why build a time-consuming and energy exhaustive platform shelter when a simple lean-to can do the job? Be smart. Conserve the energy, especially if you expect to be stuck in the woods for a while. Only build a shelter that’s big enough to accommodate you. Anything bigger will be very difficult to keep warm.
  3. Learn bushcraft knots: Knowing how to tie knots can prove to be a lifesaver in the bush. There are tons of knots that are used by campers. But the most popular ones are the figure-eight knot, the bowline, the clove hitch, the sheet bend and the taut-line hitch. Mastering these knots will allow you to set up shelters in a jiffy and in a secure manner.
  4. Carry a camping knife: Seasoned bushcrafters can survive without any kind of modernized weaponry or gear. But it takes months of practice and skills honed through years and years of spending time in the bush. If you are not experienced enough, learn about survival basics and always carry at least a camping knife with you. It will make life easier for you in the bush.

Closing Thoughts

That’s it folks. We hope that you enjoyed reading this blog post about the best shelters that you can build in the woods.

If you feel that we’ve missed out on anything, feel free to give us a holler in the comments box below. Until next time, Ciao!

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