How to Build a Survival Shelter

How to Build a Survival Shelter

Sleeping outside in a primitive survival shelter with no tent and no sleeping bag?! In the rain? Are you crazy?

This idea may indeed seem crazy and a bit daunting to many of us. However, with a couple of hours, proper materials and the right mindset, constructing and sleeping in a primitive survival shelter can be a life-changing experience. Although there are many types of group and individual primitive survival shelters, at Wilderness Awareness School, we often begin by teaching our students how to build a survival shelter called a debris hut. These structures are fairly easy to construct and can be a warm, dry place to spend the night.

First of all, location is key. Aside from the normal criteria which includes avoiding low spots, steering clear of standing dead trees, etc….proximity to materials can save a lot of time and energy. Take the time to find a spot that feels right.

For construction, the first thing you’ll need to build a survival shelter is a strong ridegepole that is at least a little taller than you are with your arm stretched above your head. You’ll also need something for one end of the ridgepole to securely rest on—a stump, boulder, fork of a tree, some kind of prop. The other end rests on the ground. At the high end, the ridgepole should be at about hip height.

Once your ridgepole is in place, you’ll need ribbing. Lean the ribs against the ridgepole fairly close together leaving a door at the high end. Once ribs are in place, crawl inside feet first checking to see that you have a little room to move, but that it is still snug and cozy. If your survival shelter is too big, you will have trouble staying warm. Imagine you are making a sleeping bag out of natural materials!

debris hut

Drawings by Laura

Next, add a layer of lattice, something to act as a net to hold debris in place when it is piled on next. Brush and twiggy branches may work well. The debris that you have available can help determine how small the spaces in your lattice can be.

The structure is now in place and it is time for the essential component of insulation. Of all the things you’ll learn about how to build a survival shelter, not having enough insulation on a cold night will teach you quickly what is required. Get ready to shuffle your feet or make yourself a rake and start gathering debris! For good insulation, you’ll want material that can trap air. Obviously, dry material is optimal. Pile on your leaves, ferns, grass, or other available debris.

Keep piling, keep piling, go for TWO FEET THICK or more if you might get rained on. Be sure to close up the door area so that you have just enough room to squeeze in without disturbing the structure. Crawl in to see how your cocoon feels. Finish up your insulation by adding some small branches that will hold the debris in case of wind, maintaining as much loft as possible.

Now that the outer layer is complete, it is time to stuff your primitive survival shelter with dry soft debris. If you only have wet leaves, use them anyway, you may get wet, but you can still be warm. Once your shelter is full of debris, wiggle in to compress a space for your body. Add more debris as needed, and don’t forget the foot area! Fill up the spaces if you are concerned about being cold. Before you crawl in for the night in your primitive shelter, gather a pile of leaves near the door so that you can close yourself in most of the way.

Aside from having a great story to tell your grandkids one day — or from being able to teach others how to build a survival shelter, spending a night in a survival shelter like a debris hut is an opportunity to overcome fears and gain feelings of freedom and confidence. Pushing our mental and physical comfort edges also brings us chances to find greater comfort and appreciation in our daily lives. HAPPY BUILDING AND SWEET DREAMS!


  1. Sean the survivalist

    i made 5 shelters in the rain like this and i was bone dry i used the info from here as a guide and i used these shelters when on my 20 day get a ways in the woods of newfoundland i rate this info 5/5 stars

    • Really? Wow! That’s bad azz. I enjoyed the article and really hope I never have to build one of these, but it’s pretty cool. Laura, thanks for sharing this info.


  2. Brett (Mudpuppy) Barnes

    This is vey helpful to me as a FCF Frontiersman, as Sean did i rate this 5/5 Stars!

  3. Rickba

    Nice Job. I call this shelter a double lean-to. I use it quite a bit when I spend a couple a days in the mountains. I never take a sleeping bag or tent. I always build my shelter. I like to build mine against fallen tree roots. The root and dirt wall make an excellent starting point and cuts down on build time. Also you can build your campfire right against the dirt wall and the heat will be reflected into your shelter keeping you nice and cozy. I like the fact that you mentioned covering thickness. This is the mistake made the most by rookies. In too big of a hurry to get finished and skimp on wall thickness. Like you said, when it rains it pours.

  4. I also have used this shelter several times before. I am getting ready to live in the woods and have been for a while now. I often go stay in the woods for a week at a time just to keep up on my survival skills. I give this article a 5 star plus. It is one of the easiest and quickest shelters to throw together. Be sure, and I never see this mentioned, to not grab the little weeds with little flowers on them for bedding. If you do, you may be living in chigger hell for the next 7 to 9 days. I recently made that mistake a few days ago and it made me cut my trip short and come home.

  5. John Rose

    Greetings, The debris hut here is in my opinion among the finest shelters for wilderness shelter. I spent a week in one some time ago in some of the worst weather conditions I have faced in the wild. I was three miles from the coast and weathered a hurricane quite well. Location of my shelter prevented me from harm, and the breathability of the shelter itself prevented it from blowing away. I awoke one morning to find tents washed into a pile while I was high and dry.

  6. Eureka Thomas

    What do you use for ribbing?

  7. D

    very useful

  8. Chad

    The first time I tried this I ran out of daylight, and did not make it thick enough. That was a cold night, luckily it was not raining, but I still went back to the truck to get warm. Anyway the rest of the second day added plenty of insulation and top debris, that worked a lot better stayed fairly warm. Thanks Laura this was a great learning experience.


  9. Eric

    Thank you so much. I have to do a research paper for a college class. Our paper can be on any subject from the book Into The Wild. I chose wilderness survival skills. Your step by step instructions for how to build a shelter was a great addition to my paper. I would like to thank you again for writing a great article.

  10. Autumn

    Cool!I might actually try this down at my new house!

  11. PJ

    I love these shelters. They are easy to build and serviceable in most any weather.

    HELP! My Daughter lives about a mile and a half from me. We live in rural GA and both our homes have adjacent woods. I wanted to teach my grands to make this shelter and spend the night in the woods. It would only be less than 100 feet to the house, but my daughter is afraid to even let them in their woods because of snakes. she is afraid one would crawl in on them/us during the night. What can persuade her to let them learn outdoor skills?

  12. Woodsman

    I have used this type of shelter for years. Debris works in none snowy situations. When the snow is deep I shove snow off of a spot about the size of a pool table set my ridge pole then add bows to the ground about a foot and a half thick putting in nothing with big limbs. they poke into my tender parts at night. Then it is Rib and lattice sides and a layer of bows on that. Over this I scoop snow lots of snow and it is a great place to stay for a night in the deep cold of Northern Maine. with a fire at the door opening it can keep you toasty all night. Or skip the fire and close the door hole off with bows after you crawl inside.

    I Have never had anyone say they slept cold in a debris snow hut.

  13. chris allen

    I want to build one of these with my grand kids. Looks like fun.

  14. dion jones

    OMG this is a great shelter and im only 13 year of age i went with my little bro in the woods and spent the night so i built this shelter and it worked great i was cosey and he was so thanks very much for this piece of shelter upload more please.

  15. Suzan

    I just bought some land on a small lake. The municipality does not permit camping, no tents, no mobile campers until a house plan has been approved and building commences. Do you think that a survival shelter would count as camping? It isn’t a tent after all.

  16. Matt Hintz

    hey, im fifteen, and this guide was well written enough that i was able to glance at it before i left for the weekend to northern michigan, and i slept better than i do now back in my bed! took little or no preparation, this is a very easy and comfotable way to rest.

  17. SJeanine

    I would also like to know how you keep snakes and/or other bugs from joining you in your huts?

  18. Like Woodsman says, these work in the winter too…

    I have spent several nights in these at 20 below zero and have never had a problem staying warm.

  19. I am doing a project for school, and the first place I came was here. this is an awesome place to get information about surviving. And of course I’m giving you credit.

  20. BKaiser

    I built these types of shelters when I was younger, central Indiana. Spent many winter nights (<30 degrees) in them and slept in my t-shirt! Nature is awesome! I did, of course, have my fire next to my entrance. When spending an extended period of time, I always put a tarp down on the ground first, and a tarp over the debris roof, then added more debris on top of the tarp….this decreased the shelters breathability, but man, was it warm and waterproof!

  21. I never built a survival shelter but when it will come I will be glad I have read your article! :)


    With the overwhelming probability that FEMA Region III will be affected by something of a power grid outage in the coming months, what is the possibility of making one of these for a family of 6??? and if so how big would it have to be?… I have watched many survival videos on how to make shelters but none in great detail like this…if you can make a video of building a 6 person shelter like this one and post it to my email I would really enjoy watching it…have a wonderful day…and remember Keep your powder dry we are in for a rainy day ahead!

  23. jeff

    Awesome information ! Many thanks.

  24. Dee Thunder

    RL, A family of 6 suggests 2 parents and 4 children. If this is right, don’t try for a large one. I’d be building 2. 1 adult and 2 children per. It would require a slightly larger shelter but would work the same. When picking a site, you look for a site where you can build 2 shelters near each other.
    If more adults are involved, then each adult per might be what’s needed and spread the children accordingly. Think small and cozy.
    I have never tried this one, but do know small is easier to keep warm and supporting the whole works better. This one is what I will be using next time I’m out in the wild. :)

  25. Life is so precious and along with first aid there should be lessons on building survival shelters. Very good articles and tips, good job!

  26. SnowHowl

    For my EPQ project I am doing forest survival and was wondering would it be okay to include this method in my survival guide? It will never be published or anything but would be printed out in a pocket guide to go with a pack I am putting together, it’s all going towards my grade this year and would be helpful in the future. :)

  27. JS

    That was very useful Laura. I hope I will never have to use it! Thanks

  28. michael

    Agree this is a good design. though most of us don’t ever plan to be in an emergency situation, a little planning ahead can make all the difference between surviving comfortably or not. If you aren’t going to pack an emergency tent, I would suggest either bringing lightweight tarps (Wal Mart ) or heavy duty contractor bags (Home Depot) with you on to make this design a little more water and wind proof.

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