My first piece of advice on how to build a shelter from natural materials is to look around for something man-made. In my last article, we talked about the use of a vehicle or vessel to keep us safe. But there are times when Mother Nature provides a hollow cave or natural covering.
This time around, I'm going to share some of the experiences I've had when Lady Luck is smiling down on someone else. There are times when we wish to build primitive shelters from scratch primarily with natural materials, but we aren't always successful in foraging for these.
Unless you're trained in thatching roofs, chances are your survival shelter is going to let water in when it rains. A plastic bag buried in your purse or pocket will go a long way towards providing a precious bit of waterproofing.
How to Build a Shelter with the Materials Around You
Building A Teepee
This lovely leaf teepee that we built in the Smoky Mountains looks to be the epitome of primitive shelter building yet hidden beneath its lush foliage is a trash bag covering the apex. Thankfully it didn’t rain but it was very comforting to know that if it did we would remain dry, even if it meant sitting upright and back to back. As the weather turned out to be dry I sometimes wish we had lain down on the trash bag instead as were eaten alive by chiggers on this expedition. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
In my experience, bindings made from roots or vines are rarely as robust as commercially manufactured strings, ropes, and cords. You may think that you don't have anything like that with you, but take a look at your clothes. Your clothing is your first line of defense in any survival situation and not just in the most literal sense– what are you wearing that you could adapt and use?
A little trick that Myke taught me is to replace my boot laces with 550 paracords and wrap a few extra lengths round for good measure. It's a pain in the backside if you ever have to travel through airport security but a lifesaver out in the bush. Even if you don't have 550 cord, your regular shoelaces will work wonders in tying the struts of your shelter together. As will fabric strips ripped from the bottom of a shirt or skirt. A single string of 550 cord cinched together the top of this teepee in the Smokies. Always be sure to retrieve your cord, natural or otherwise, when you move on.
Another useful tip, though glaringly obvious, is making sure your shelter is big enough for you to fit into.
A single person can crunch into a remarkably small place, albeit with some discomfort, but if you’re making a temporary home for more than one person or your whole family it’s a good idea to test it out size wise. As a mother, I’m always thinking things like, “Would my little boy cope with this? Would this type of shelter work if he was with us?”
This is Myke and I testing our shelter for size. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Using A Poncho For Shelter
One of my absolute favorite items of clothing because its multi-faceted nature is the military poncho, yet I had never even heard of one before I met my husband. These days I carry one in my car, my camping kit, my survival bag and we have several others littered around the house that our boy plays in. In addition to keeping you dry, a poncho has many potential uses in a survival situation; a rucksack, a raft, a tarp, a medical stretcher and a smokehouse, to name but a few. And they make quick and awesome survival shelters. You can string one up in whatever manner you fancy or if you don’t have enough cord to construct a ‘tent’ just lay one over any primitive shelter that you have made to act as extra waterproofing.
Here in Alaska, we strung one between two trees and then I filled the open sides with large leaves to help keep the heat in. When using a poncho in wet climes be sure to tie off the hood so you don’t get leaks. Conversely, when it’s scorching prop the hood open so it acts as a vent.
There, of course, might be times when you do have next to nothing on you or with you that you can use and you have to create a shelter from what you have around you. My least favorite is the debris shelter, but sometimes there is no choice. For those who don’t know, a debris shelter is created by basically scraping up old branches and leaves and piling them into a rudimentary shield against the elements. We used one once when we were caught in a sudden tropical storm in Dominica. Itchy, uncomfortable and wet.
Using old branches and logs has obvious risks, other things are also likely to be using them as a home – sometimes stinging insects and arachnids but I have also seen lethal poison dart frogs in old logs in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. I also once sat on a fer de lance in a fallen tree in the Peruvian Amazon. This snake kills more people in South America than any other. Not what you want as a bedfellow.
Building A Lean-t0
Another basic shelter to make when you’re too exhausted to do anything else or perhaps when the light is fading is the ‘lean-to’. I was making this one on a Lost Survivors shoot for Travel Channel as the sun was going down in the Appalachians in Kentucky. The main spine was an old tree trunk that had fallen and caught on another tree (not fallen to the ground) then I placed cut branches and leaves to form the back wall. It was another night on the forest floor, which is never ideal but the shelter blocked a harsh wind that was kicking up.
On a separate trip to Kentucky, we wove a kind of cocoon out of river cane. We stuck either end of the canes into the ground to create a series of arches and then wove thinner more supple pieces of cane between the struts to make the walls. You can use this technique with any kind of reed or wood that is pliable enough, willow for example.
In the close-up picture of me standing in front of it, you can see pretty flowers embedded in the walls. This wasn’t an attempt to create bucolic loveliness out in the wilds but rather an eye-saving mechanism, the cut cane was razor sharp and the flowers marked the dagger-like ends.
It is without a doubt better to sleep up off the floor if you can. Even a layer of cut branches on the ground will insulate you from the cold. Another very important reason to be up is so you are not in the path of creatures that could otherwise hurt or kill you. This is particularly true in tropical jungles and swamps.
My favorite shelter of all time was one we built on the edge of a beach in Aitutaki in the South Pacific. It was a platform protruding at one end from the top of some pandanus tree prop roots and supported at the other by tripods we made by lashing three sticks together. The roof was a separate structure, a bit like a carport, crafted from palm leaves.
Building A Platform Shelter
Pandanus trees are great for shelter making, they look a little like palm trees but have these mangrove style prop roots. It’s the roots that are special, they are both sturdy and bendy. We made the cross slats of the platform from these roots. Once they were covered in palm fronds, it was like sleeping in a bed. They bounce a little when you lay down. Wonderful!
The mosquitoes in Aitutaki were bad, the noise was like the whirring of a cheap hairdryer. All night long.
However, the view in the morning made life a little easier to bear.
The first time I visited the Amazon rainforest we constructed a more elaborate version of the Aitutaki platform shelter. Unlike in our South Sea haven Amazonian land animals like to bite you, sting you and eat you.
Quick Tip: Bringing Fire Into Your Shelter
Getting off the ground is an essential, not a luxury.
Fire is also vital for protection in the deep jungle. Though our platform was too high to feed a fire without having to climb down, repeatedly, to the forest floor.
A problem exacerbated that we had our boots off at night to dry out our feet and prevent jungle rot.
Mike came up with the ingenious solution of having the fire in the shelter with us!
We built another mini wood platform on our sleeping platform. Afterward, we daubed a layer of thick clay on top of it to prevent the fire from burning through. We had very few insect problems because it also acted as a smudge fire. A fair bit of the smoke was trapped in the shelter with us because of the roof. We didn’t wake to the same amazing view as in Aitutaki. Thanks to our choice of shelter we made it through the night without becoming dinner for a jaguar.
Watch this video by J&J acres on how to build a teepee:
There is no blueprint for shelter building. Terrain and circumstance will dictate the final structure. If I look back over the years and remember every single one that I’ve slept in, each one was different, each had its own set of quirks, foibles, discomforts, and itches. You rarely sleep well in a wilderness shelter but out in the wilds, it is always better to have one than not.
Do you trust in these methods of building a shelter? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2014 and has been updated for quality and relevancy.
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