How to build a shelter

John Fenna


When it comes to survival, shelter is paramount. Whether you find yourself in cold, wet or extremely hot conditions, protection from the elements can mean the difference between life and death. But Mother Nature can be very accommodating if you know how to use her resources to the best advantage, says bushcraft expert John Fenna

Shelter is the first of your survival priorities. If you have little or no equipment with you, then a shelter built out of whatever’s lying around is your only option. To create the maximum amount of protection with minimum effort, some sort of ‘dog kennel’ shelter made of debris is probably your best option.

In the doghouse

Give me shelter

First, build a frame. Start by finding a length of wood or similar that’s a couple of feet longer than your height. This will form the ridge pole. Prop it up at one end against a tree fork or between two strong branches and dig the other end into the ground. This should form a triangle shape, wide enough for you to crawl through. This frame needs to be strong as it’ll be supporting some weighty materials; it should be large enough for you to be able to move comfortably inside it, but not so big that it’s difficult to heat.

Next, build the walls. These can either be made from green saplings and branches woven together basket-style, or a better solution is to find more lose branches and lean them against the ridge pole at right angles. Pack these branches tightly against one another and secure the ends firmly into the ground. This will make it much easier to add the layers of insulation and waterproofing to your shelter.

The materials used to insulate and weatherproof your shelter can be anything from leafy boughs to leaf litter, but it needs to be piled as thick as possible – at least a foot at the ridge and preferably deeper. If you’re using leafy boughs from pine you’ll need a really good depth to prevent rain penetration; if you’re using leaf litter and dead leaves, secure the covering with light branches to stop any wind removing the insulation!

The disadvantage of this kind of dog-kennel debris shelter is that you can’t safely use it with a fire to help warm you. This is where a lean-to shelter comes in.

Lean on me

Built at 90 degrees to any wind (so you don’t get smoked out or roasted!), the lean-to can be made either like a one-sided dog kennel or on a grander scale with a horizontal ridge lashed between two trees, which can be done using pine roots. The insulation layers are pretty much as per the dog kennel shelter, but this method allows multiple occupancy shelters to be built around a fire, so you can share the company of fellow ABRs – if you’re not on a solo trip – maintain morale, and perform any first aid.

Whatever kind of shelter you build be sure it’s strong; you don’t want to end up being buried beneath the thing that’s meant to save you from harm. Make any fires a long pace from your shelter and maintain them so they don’t become a hazard.

Give me shelter

Make your bed

If you have no roll mat or sleeping bag, you could fill the interior of the shelter with dry, dead leaves, with a floor of springy pine twigs for insulation if you can find them. But a simple way to improve the comfort of any natural shelter is to raise the bed off the ground.

Build a frame approximately 3-4ft wide and about 1-2ft longer than you are tall. Lay two large logs 3-4ft long to form the ends of the bed area, then two long poles to make the bed ‘rails’. Add foot-end and head-end logs on top of the rails and another cross log where your shoulders will come.

Give me shelter

Build the bed base of long poles over these cross members, then add a deep layer of insulation (pine boughs are ideal) for comfort. Make the head end extra thick for a pillow.

If you’re sheltering under a lean-to, this raised bed can be heated by making a fire a long stride away from one edge; if you’re sheltering in an enclosed structure, place hot rocks underneath the bed so the warm air rises.

If you cannot build a raised bed, then piles of pine boughs, dead, dry leaves, or any springy, reasonably dry foliage (even spiky stuff like holly and gorse if you add a barrier layer above to prevent puncture wounds) will keep you insulated from the cold, hard ground and improve the comfort of your shelter.

Cold comfort

If you find yourself stranded in snowy conditions and the white stuff’s deep enough, your best chance of survival is to dig! Here’s how to build a snow shelter:

A ‘snow grave’ can be constructed in any moderately consolidated snow. Dig a pit that’s barely longer and wider than your body, and about 3ft 6″ deep and roof it either with chunks of snow or fabric supported on sticks. Make sure you can get in and out easily by making an entrance slope and you’ll be surprised how cosy it can get. I If there are snow banks, you can tunnel in to make a ‘snow cave’, ideally with a raised sleeping platform and a ‘cold sink’ pit to a low-level entrance. You can dig a big entrance for ease of getting waste snow removed, and block most of it up when the interior is completed.

In conditions where you can’t dig or the snow is too shallow, build a quinze. To begin, pile up snow into a neat dome about 4-6 feet high using a core of kit or bags to reduce the amount of snow you need to shift. Leave the dome to harden for about an hour to make it safe to work before pushing 12-inch sticks into it to use as a guide.

Start tunnelling into the dome from the downwind side, removing gear as you come to it. Excavate the snow inside until you come to the ends of the twigs, then stop. Smooth out the inside of the dome to prevent drips and you have a safe quinze with 12-inch thick insulating walls and a roof. The excavated snow can be used to make a windbreak around the entrance.

Take care using stoves in snow shelters as there’s a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Always ensure good airflow by leaving the doorway open and by poking an air hole in the roof. Keep a candle burning. This not only warms the shelter, but if it dies it will warn you that the oxygen in the shelter has run out and you need to get some fresh air in, or get out of there quickly!

Photos: John Fenna