Here’s what you need to know to build a shelter outdoors.
(Photo by iStock Photo)

How To Build A Shelter In The Woods: Surviving The Elements

You find yourself in a situation where an emergency bivouac is in order. We aren’t going to tell you what caused that situation, but you can imagine it is any combination of getting lost, injured, or stranded somehow. You don’t have any supplies like a poncho, tarp, or 55-gallon drum liners to make your life easier, and you will need to pull resources from the land instead. If this sounds like a bad time, you’re probably right. Here’s everything you need to know to build a shelter and survive the situation.

You won’t be as comfortable as you would be at home or as you would be in a traditional sleeping bag inside a tent in the wilderness. Then again, comfort is a relative term; you just have to make it through the night until the sun comes up when you can improve your shelter in warmer weather. For now, here’s what you need to know to build a shelter outdoors.

Leran to build a shelter in the woods with these tried and true techniques.
(Photo by Kevin Estela)

How To Build A Shelter

​A good shelter provides something you can sleep inside of, over, and under. In other words, “I.O.U.” Additionally, you can look at a shelter and characterize them as open and heated, open and unheated, closed and heated, or closed and unheated. The worst-case scenario is being in the cold with an open and unheated shelter. That could be you sleeping in just your clothes under an overhanging rock. The best is closed with a fire. In a perfect world, that’s a cabin with a wood stove. As you consider where you will build your shelter, consider the W’s; wind, wiggles, water, widowmakers, and wood. The shelter is all about location location location. Take the time to pick the best location, and don’t settle for the first spot you find. You might locate something better.

Getting Started

​One of the easiest shelters to construct is a compact A-Frame. If you are without matches and need a shelter in the worst way, learn to make a shelter for the worst condition, and you can always improve upon it with a fire if you are willing to prepare by carrying a lighter or Ferro rod. The A-Frame is built with two diagonal poles that create an opening and a center ridgepole that runs the length of the shelter.

Think of making the diagonals out of “Y” branches that are as long as your arm outstretched to the center of your chest. If this seems short, remember, you aren’t building for luxury, you are building for survival. The ridgepole is approximately 9’ long or 1.5-2 paces for the average person. Criss-cross the “Y” poles and place the ridgepole in the center. This is the framework you’ll build upon. There is no need to overbuild your shelter, so use branches for the diagonal pieces that are no thicker than your wrist and no thicker than your forearm for the ridgepole.

A Place To Lay Your Head

​The next step is staging your bedding. This is possibly the most important step considering your body will lose heat from conduction cooling in contact with the cold earth. You will really need to stuff the inside of your shelter with plenty of light and fluffy material and know it will compress under your body’s weight. Don’t skimp on this step, or you’ll be extremely cold during the night. No exaggeration, you want enough bedding to create a compressed bed that keeps you about 6” off the ground. It is easier to set your bedding at this stage rather than later when you would have to crawl deep inside your shelter and be in the confined space.

Do you know how to build a shelter in the woods that actually could help you survive?
(Photo by iStock Photo)

The Shelter Roof

​Once your bedding is in place, start laying the ribs of your shelter on the same angle as the opening along each side of the shelter, the length of the ridgepole. These ribs can be finger thickness, and you can cheat the process by using strips of bark or evergreen boughs in the process. The purpose of the ribs is to keep debris on top of them without falling into your shelter. Keep these ribs short and not much higher than a couple of inches over the top of the ridge pole. Later, after you apply debris on top of the ribs, if a rib is exposed, it becomes a way for water to drip down into your shelter if there is precipitation. The ribs you add don’t have to be stripped bare of leaves. In fact, small branches and existing leaves will help other debris stay in place.

​Once your ribs are in place, start adding your debris (leaves, pine needles, substrate) from the bottom of your shelter up. Work from the bottom the way you would lay shingles on a roof. This will keep the water out of your shelter. The more debris you add, the more insulative the sides will be. When you get to the top of your shelter, ensure you cannot see the ribs looking down from the top of your shelter. Keep applying debris until you cannot see light from the inside of your shelter looking out. As you use your shelter each day, improve upon it, and eventually, the debris you add will matt down and become incredibly windproof and water resistant.

Last But Not Least

​The A-frame shelter will be tight, and there will be a slim margin of comfort. One way to make the shelter even better is by adding a door. You don’t want to seal off your shelter entirely as that could make you feel claustrophobic, but adding a door will block some of the wind and cool air that can be uncomfortable. If you have evergreen boughs, all you need to do is hold them by the main branches and pinch them together. It will form what looks like a triangle that resembles the shape of the opening of your shelter. Lash these together or twist and place them in a manner that holds them in place. This door will significantly improve your shelter blocking the cold and providing peace of mind fooling your brain into believing you have closed off shelter from the hostile world.

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