How to Build a Shelter and Protect yourself from the Elements

Most people won´t end up in a situation where it is a matter of life and death, but when you are more than often in the outdoors, knowing basic survival techniques might save your life one day.

When you are in a survival situation, you will have to find water, know how to make a fire and… build a shelter to protect you from the elements.

Since the environment you are in will determine how easy or difficult it is to complete these tasks, we will share some shelter techniques that work in different environments.

Basic Emergency Shelter tools

To build a shelter, it is very useful to have some tools. These include:

  • Cutting tool (knife or axe)
  • Paracord or rope
  • Tarp

Steps for building a shelter

Step 1 – Choose a site

The same goes when you are looking for a place to wildcamp. It takes a trained eye to find a spot that meets all conditions. The place needs to be dry, flat, preferably not too far from a water source, but not right at it, have space in front for a fire pit and needs to be on a safe spot, where there is no chance of having rocks or branches falling.

Step 2 – Determine what you need

Do you want to be easily found or well camouflaged? How many people need to sleep in the shelter? Is it for long-term or short-term use?

Step 3 – Check what tools you have for making a shelter

In best-case scenarios you will have a knife or axe, some rope and maybe even a tarp and sleeping bag available for building a basic shelter. However, there is a chance that you are in an emergency and find yourself in an unplanned situation with little to no tools at all.

Step 4 – Decide on the type of shelter

This decision will be made based on the different parameters above and the environment you are in. Below we will give instructions to build a basic shelter in different environments: forest, snow, jungle and desert.

Forest Survival Shelter

The Tarp shelter

This is a very easy type of shelter to make. For this you only need a tarp and some cordage.

How to make?

Use your cordage to make the ridge line for your shelter. Tie your ridge line to the trees (or sticks). You can read about which knots to use in our post Essential Knots for Camping, Hiking and Survival. Make sure the rope is tied around shoulder height.

Place your tarp over the center of your ridge line so it is folded in half over the line.

Most tarps have holes at their corners enabling you to place a line through and use this to stake the edges down. Pull the lines tigh to ensure the strenght and support of your shelter.

However, there is more than one design possible to build a shelter with just a tarp and cord. The options are endless.

Simple types of shelters : coolguides
Natural shelters

Building a shelter when you don´t have a tarp can be time-consuming, so before you start building one, we recommend to check if there are natural shelters nearby such as outcrops, caves, large burrows, or natural depressions.

Debris shelter

The debris shelter is your best option of shelter when you don´t have a tarp and you can´t find a natural shelter. This type of shelter uses natural resources you can find around such as trunks, branches, leaves, mud, etc.

Basically there are two options to go from here: make a lean-to shelter or make a debris hut.

Gerelateerde afbeelding

How to build?

First of all you will need a spine branch. It should be longer than your body and strong as it will need to hold most of the weight of your shelter. Next step is to find a tree (see picture above) or two strong branches to hold the spine branch up. If you want a horizontal roof instead of a leaning one, go for four branches. Put the branches in a A-shape in which you can lay your spine branch to rest.

Tip: If you don´t find a good spine branch, you can opt for a fallen tree as well, and go from there.

Next, look for branches to lean against the spine branch. The last step will be to cover these with foliage or moss as this will work as insulation. Don´t stop when you think it looks pretty, as this will not keep your warm. Make sure the foliage insulation is at least 20 cm thick to ensure a warm night.

A Debris Shelter | 14 Survival Shelters You Can Build For Any ...


Being in a warm shelter is one thing, but make sure to add ground insulation as well to avoid that your body heat gets lost through the cold ground. Again, use foliage or moss to prevent this.

Snow Survival Shelter

Snow Cave

What is there are no trees or debris around and only snow can be found? It can easily be like this when going on a winter trekking.

Building a snow cave is hard work, but easy and straight-forward. Snow in itself may be cold, but traps the heat well, making it perfect insulation.

However, a fair warning, building a snow cave is not without risk. Avoid cooking inside to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Also, heavy sweating in combination with the cold can result in hyporthermic reaction.

Snow caves are perfect for short-term but not for long-term as they will collapse in time as a result of rain or warmer temperatures. If you plan to spend longer times in snow conditions, opt for an igloo.

Jungle Survival Shelter

Tarp shelter

In the jungle a tarp shelter like mentioned above is your best option. Combine this with a hammock so you are lifted from the ground. This way you will avoid snakes, spiders and bugs that are crawling on the jungle floor at night. Being lifted from the floor is top priority in the wet jungle environment!

Swamp bed

If you don´t have a hammock, you will need to make a bed that is lifted. A swamp bed can easily be made. Find four trees that are in a rectangular position. These trees will be used to make a platform in between. Look for two strong logs to connect on each long side of the trees. You can do this by using square lashing. Read more about Essential Knots for Camping, Hiking and Survival.

Once your framework is done, you will have to find strong branches to create the bed floor. Cover these with foliage and moss for insulation.

Gerelateerde afbeelding
Ideal construction to combine with a debris shelter

Alternative tip: instead of using branches as floor bed, you can opt for paracord as well to create a webbing.

Desert Survival Shelter

Another extreme environment where it will take unique skills to build a shelter is the desert. While deserts can be hot in daytime, the nights are often very cold, making shelter very much needed.

If you are stranded in the desert because your car broke down, your vehicle can be your shelter. However if you are lost in the desert on foot, you will need to find another way.

Use natural shelter

Rock outcrops are not uncommon in desert environment and can provide good options for shelter. However, avoid wash areas as they are prone to flash floods.


When you are in a sandy environment with little to no trees, shelter options are limited.

One way is to dig a trench. This is best done in the early morning when the sun is still low, to avoid dehydration. Use the sand to build a mound of sand on three sides. Ideally, find something as a roof to cover your trench (such as a tarp, poncho, …). This can be held in place by the weight of the sand of the mounds.

Shelter in the Desert

Source cover photo: Primal Survivor

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