Wilderness Survival Shelters

Though wilderness survival shelters may prevent an animal attack, this is rare. They have one primary purpose, which is to keep your body temperature in its normal range. They do this by keeping you cool in the case of a hot environment. That usually just means shading you, unless you find a cool cave to spend time in.

A survival shelter in a cooler wilderness has to preserve your body heat. This is accomplished in one or more of four basic ways. First, by keeping you dry so you don’t lose heat through the evaporative process. Second, by insulating you from the ground or snow to limit conductive heat loss. Third, by blocking the wind which would otherwise carry away body heat. Finally, if the shelter space is small enough the air around you can be heated by your body.

With this basic function in mind, here are some suggestions for different types of wilderness survival shelters and a few tips for each.

Snow Cave

Snow Cave

The igloo is perhaps the best known of snow shelters, but it is too complicated and time-consuming to build as a survival shelter without previous experience. An easier one is the basic snow cave, which is dug into the snow on the side of a hill, with a sleeping bench carved out above an entry. The hole near the entry is referred to as a “cold well” and allows cooler air to collect so the warmer air stays near the sleeping area. Some tips:

  • If you can generate enough heat during the digging process, wear as little clothing as possible to keep from getting too wet.
  • Lay down a layer of plastic, dry grass, evergreen boughs or other barrier on the sleeping bench to insulate you from the snow.
  • If you will be heating the snow cave with a candle or stove, push a stick or ski pole through the top to create an exhaust hole.


There are several designs possible with a lean-to, but the basic idea is to lean sticks or poles against a top support or cross-beam (this can be a pole set between two trees), and cover it with overlapping tree branches, leaves, bark, and anything else that will keep out the wind and act as shingles to keep out the rain. For an illustration of an even simpler lean-to made with a poncho, see the page Survival Shelters. Some tips:

  • Be sure that you start the covering from the bottom and work your way up, so the roofing materials shed water like shingles.
  • Some evergreen roots can be found almost at the surface of the ground and can be used to tie sticks together. Experiment.
  • Make the lean-to small enough that your body can help heat it.
  • Have the entrance parallel to the wind if you have a fire in front, so smoke doesn’t get blown into or sucked back into the shelter.
  • Make a door that closes if you won’t be using a fire for heat. This can be made of sticks or a large piece of bark, or plastic.
  • Insulate yourself from the ground with leaves, grass, or evergreen boughs.

Rock Overhangs

Rock Overhangs
Overhanging rocks and rock ledges can keep the rain or snow off of you. They are also a good start for a better shelter. Lean small trees or sticks against them to create a more enclosed space. This then is like a cross between a cave and a lean-to. Some tips:

  • Note where the underside of the rock is stained to see where rainwater will drip (sometimes it flows to the underside of the rock), to avoid spots where you might get wet.
  • Insulate yourself from the ground.


Caves that are deep and wet are not the best shelters. On the other hand, in some areas there are many dry holes and rooms in sandstone cliffs. These are commonly called “shelter caves” and they live up to their name. Some tips:

  • Avoid caves with rodent nests and droppings. These are usually from pack rats and can carry disease.
  • Avoid caves with streams running in them, as the water volume can change while you sleep, possibly endangering you.
  • Be sure that there is adequate ventilation if you plan to have a fire for warmth.


tree shelter
Fallen trees are sometimes large enough to keep the rain off of you if you can get under them. Often they are held several feet off the ground by their branches. You can break away enough branches in one area to create a space to crawl under. Other branches can remain to be used for a roof. Lean more sticks against the tree as necessary to make a kind of lean-to, and add live tree branches, grass, large leaves, bark or other materials as “shingles.” Some tips:

  • Check carefully for ant colonies and other insects before crawling under a dead tree.
  • Put your weight on the tree to be sure it is stable before you set up camp under it.
  • A candle or stove might help heat the space, but this is not a good shelter to have a fire in.
  • Make a bed of dry leaves, grass or other materials to insulate yourself from the ground.

Tree Wells

In forests full of deep snow there is often a “hole” around the base of evergreen trees. Sometimes there is even a bit of dry ground, or at least shallow enough snow that you can dig down to the ground. These natural shelters, called “tree wells” or “tree pits” keep out the wind and often much of the snow. With the addition of some more branches to close in the gaps they can make a decent shelter.

  • Fires are a bad idea in these, since snow on the branches above can be loosened and fall in large quantities on you.
  • Try to stay as dry as possible while modifying a tree into a survival shelter.
  • Use evergreen branches, grass, leaves, a sleeping pad or other materials to keep yourself off the ground and snow.
  • When you need immediate shelter, these can be the fastest way to get out of the wind and cold. Just climb in, sit on something and hold your legs against your chest to conserve body heat.

Snow Trench

snowy trench
This is perhaps the simplest of the wilderness survival shelters made of snow. You just scrape a trench a couple feet deep in the snow, big enough to lay down in, and then you cover the top (leave a small opening to climb into). Some tips:

  • As with other snow shelters, it is important to provide yourself a way to stay off the snow, whether this is a mattress of dry grass, evergreen boughs, leaves or whatever is available.
  • If the snow is crusty you might be able to stomp out rectangular blocks that can then be lifted into place to form a roof over the trench.
  • Build a better shelter when daylight or better weather comes. This is one of the easiest wilderness survival shelters to build, but not one of the most comfortable.

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