Improvised Shelters

Improvised Shelters

Shelter is an essential need for human survival which has evolved throughout our history. At its core, shelter is about getting out of the elements and staying relatively warm and dry. And while we sure are glad that we get to live in an era of great creature comforts, humans have used improvised shelters since the dawn of time and continue to do so. Whether you are backpacking, camping, hunting, or in the military, let’s have a look at some different styles of improvised shelter that are used today.

When we think about improvised shelter, the first thing that may come to mind is the tent. Easy to carry and set up, tents are by far the most common form of improvised shelter. The earliest known tents have been dated to approximately 40,000 years ago and have been found in what is now Russia. Like all improvised shelters, these tents used materials that were easily attainable such as animal bones and hides. Archeologists have found Wooly Mammoth bones, tusks, and their hides used in these ancient encampments which have been found in groups of up to 70 tents ranging in size from 80 to up to 250 square feet. These shelters would have helped our ancestors survive as being caught in unfavorable weather conditions can prove deadly in just a few hours.

When it comes to wilderness survival, understanding how to build an improvised shelter can easily mean the difference between life and death. Let’s explore some of the most common improvised shelters that are quick and easy to build at a moment's notice in order to keep you safe and alive if you ever find yourself unexpectedly caught in the elements.

Simple Tarp Shelter

There are many different types of improvised shelters that you can craft with a simple tarp and paracord. That is why it is crucial to keep these items when you are hiking, backpacking, camping, or to stash in your bug-out bag. Your tarp should have at least four tie-out points at the corners, but the best tarps will have more tie-outs along the sides, offering more staking options. A basic knowledge of knots will also help in the construction of tarp shelters. Depending on the design chosen, a tarp shelter can shield you from rain, wind, and the sun on one to three sides.

The A-frame tarp shelter is easy to set up, versatile, and is excellent at holding up in a variety of weather conditions. To build the A-frame tarp shelter, you will need four stakes (branches, sticks, or rocks will do), and two trees or poles in an area of about 10 ft across. Tie your paracord around each tree at a height of 4-5 feet off the ground, making sure the paracord remains taut. Throw your tarp over the taut paracord and use your stakes to anchor the tarp to the ground. This design protects from rain or snow on two sides and is quick to set up.

A modification to the A-frame design is the C-fly which provides a floor, though it is slightly harder to set up and offers less wind protection. This design requires three paracords and six stakes in addition to two trees or poles. Stake the tarp directly to the ground using 2-4 stakes along the long side. Tie your paracord to the two trees 4-5 feet off the ground, keeping it taut. Throw 1/3 of the tarp over the paracord and use two stakes to anchor the corners to the ground. Adjust the depth of the tarp floor and secure with stakes.

Snow Cave

A snow shelter is one of the most commonly used shelters that can be built quickly in areas that boast heavy snows and cold temperatures and keep you safe and warm during emergencies. Snow shelters can be dangerous, so it is important that you understand the concept and even practice building one before you find yourself in a situation where you need one. If you are planning on trekking out in the snow, whether you are snowshoeing, hiking, or skiing, it is important to keep certain tools with you, such as a small emergency shovel to assist in building a snow shelter.

One of the most basic forms of snow shelter is the snow cave. For this, finding the best location to build your snow shelter is crucial. You are going to need to locate an area that has the best and most ample amount of snow, such as large snow drift. Ideally the snow should be able to compress and pack with ease in order to build a sturdy, reliable structure. Next, you are going to hollow out your shelter area. Start by digging a circular entrance at the bottom of the drift which is large enough to fit your body through. Once the entrance is created you can shape the inside of your shelter to look like an upright bell. This shape is structurally strong and can prevent the roof from starting to sag over time as your body heat warms up the interior. As you hollow out the inside of your shelter, start as low as possible and work your way up. This gives you the option to create a sleeping area inside of the shelter where you can sit at a slightly higher in elevation than your entrance, thereby trapping heat and moving the cold air out. As you work to create the shape, make sure that you are continuously packing the snow in order to secure your shelter.

Leaf Hut

If you find yourself in a wooded area, a leaf hut shelter — also known as a debris hut shelter — is one of the best options for creating an improvised shelter. This shelter type can be quite labor intensive to build, but it can be built in a variety of sizes and will help keep you warm and dry.

You will first need to find an appropriate location for your hut. Ideally, you will be able to build your leaf hut in an area which already provides some shelter from wind and weather. Study the location you wish to build your shelter on and be aware of your surroundings, especially in high wind conditions as a branch or other debris could unexpectedly fall and cause serious injury. It is important to know where the prevailing winds are coming from so that you create the opening facing away. Make sure the ground is dry; finding a location that is slightly elevated and away from a body of water is essential for warmth and safety. Finally, examine the area for signs of dangerous plants or animals such as poison ivy, poison oak, stinging insects, or bears.

To build a leaf hut, you are going to want to find a long, sturdy log or pole (approximately 9 to 12 feet long) to act as the main beam. Prop this beam up in a fork of a tree, forked prop sticks, or set it on a rock. Be sure to not make the angle too large as the larger the hut is, the less heat it will hold. Next, you will create the roof of your hut by alternating sticks along the main beam at a 45-degree angle. Keep these sticks close together so they can better hold the leaves.

Once you have the frame of your hut built, you will want to insulate it. Leaves, grass, mosses, and ferns are the best material for insulation while conifer needles are the worst. Dead material will insulate the best, but live material can also be used if there is no dead material available. You will need a considerable amount of material as you are trying to cover your frame with debris that is at least 2 feet thick to keep you warm and dry inside, making sure you continue checking stability as you layer on the debris. Use small sticks on top of the debris to secure it and keep it from blowing away. Finally, feel free to fill the inside of your shelter with a nice pile of vegetation for bedding.


The lean-to is one of the easiest improvised shelters to craft and can be constructed from pretty much any material you have on hand, from leaves and sticks, to tarps, ponchos, or even trash bags. This shelter is similar to the leaf hut shelter, but it is more basic and is generally only one-sided. To build, you are going to want to securely support a long tree pole in between two trees. Next, begin to cover one side with branches, poles, and/or brush and then start to pile with grasses, leaves, palm fronds, boughs and any other vegetation on top of the side pole. If you have a tarp or other man-made material, you can secure that against the prevailing winds. It should be noted that this shelter has a few drawbacks. It doesn’t store heat very well and if the rain or wind changes direction you will no longer be very well sheltered. You can dig out a fire trench in order to stay warm. Simply lay down under the lean-to and extend your arm all the way out to your side. This is a safe spot for your fire trench. Dig out the trench about 8 inches deep for a half to a third of your lean-to’s length and then use rocks to make a fire reflector at the rear of the trench. You can also add debris to the floor of the lean-to for extra warmth when sleeping.

Wikiup Shelter

The wikiup is similar to a tipi and is erected from simple poles, vegetation, and brush. It can be a bit more permanent than some of the other improvised shelters but can still be made in a few hours with some know-how and tools. The wikiup shelter boasts a steep roof that makes it excellent for climates that have occasional heavy rain as well as hotter, dry climates. As the shelter is also broader in style and is covered with light brush, you will find that this shelter provides you safety from a number of elements.

To craft a wikiup shelter, you are going to start by clearing the ground where you will erect your shelter. You will collect at least a dozen thick branches or poles, ideally 7-11 feet tall. If you can, find some that are forked at the top. Next, start to lock a few of the forks together to craft a tripod that is freestanding. You can also use paracord to use a tripod lashing to secure it. You are then going to lay the remaining poles around the tripod in order to create a tipi frame. Finally, finish up with the vegetation layer by piling on any vegetation you can find to shield the main frame. If your wikiup is big enough, and the vegetation that is covering the roof is green and wet, it may be safe enough to light a very small fire inside. Be smart about this and do it at your own risk.

As always, if you find yourself in the elements, remain calm and aware of your surroundings. Shelter is a greater need than food as your body can survive for some time without food, but exposure to the elements for even a short time can result in serious injury or death. Improvised shelters have proven to be invaluable assets for humans for centuries, and we have learned how to survive and thrive in using some of these primitive structures, constantly striving to improve the process of shelter building.

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