Building an Emergency Survival Shelter

You’ve fallen out of a canoe and you only have the gear that you carry on your body (EDC or every day carry.)  All your gear went in the drink and your canoe went downstream with the current. The current temperature is 55 degrees, but it’s going down in the low 40’s tonight with a fifteen mph breeze. You’ve crawled out of the water on the bank with only the gear you have in your pocket:

-A pocket folding knife

The water is ridiculously cold and you’re shaking and near hypothermia.  You’re wearing a thick wool shirt, a cotton sweatshirt, a cotton undershirt, blue jeans, hiking boots, and that’s all you have.

If you remember the Survival Rule of Three’s you’ll know that shelter is high up on the survival priority list just below breathing. The reason for this is that if the weather goes bad you have roughly three hours to survive depending on the situation.  The idea in a survival situation is to keep your body core temperature at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit so you don’t overheat or suffer hypothermia.

They may not sound like much, but you’re actually in pretty good shape with the knife and firesteel. The first thing you need to do is dry out. Your cotton clothing will not keep you warm, so use your firesteel to get a fire going. You don’t need to do a lot of wood processing. Use birch bark and dead pine or fir branches for tinder and kindling. Once the fire is going start putting on the bigger stuff to get the fire built up higher.

Once the fire is well established hang your clothes around it to get them as dry as possible. While the fire is drying your clothes look around a little for shelter. Is there a cave or something else you could use as a natural shelter? If not you’ll need to build a shelter of your own.

Losing Heat

Since losing heat from your body is how you’ll typically die from exposure let’s take a quick look at how we lose it:

  1. Convection (blowing wind)
  2. Conduction (Sleeping on the cold ground)
  3. Radiation (Like heat leaving a woodstove)
  4. Evaporation (sweating)

Convection tells us we need to get out of the wind, especially if it’s cold outside.  When you put up your shelter make sure the back is to the wind to avoid the cold breeze all night long.  This will also make sure the smoke from your fire doesn’t smoke you out too.

Conduction is when your body is touch something and heat is being sapped away.  Sitting on a cold rock or lying down on the cold ground without something beneath you are  a couple of examples.

Radiation is when you’re losing heat to the atmosphere.  Covering up with a coat or blanket will help this.

Evaporation is when you sweat.  This can be dangerous especially in cold weather when the dampness will make you even more vulnerable to the cold air.

Now that we have an idea of what to look out for we can start to build a shelter that will keep us warm.

The Debris Hut

The debris hut is a great shelter and once it’s built properly you won’t need a fire to stay warm.  This shelter is made from all natural materials laying around in the forest and can be built without tools.  In technical terms it’s not that difficult to make, but if you’re working alone it’s about an eight hour investment of your time.  The good thing is once you’ve built this shelter you’ll have an awesome place to sleep that will keep you warm and dry even when it rains.



Another shelter you can build by hand without tools is the simple lean-to.  If you build this shelter you’ll need a fire to keep you warm.  In our survival scenario you have a firesteel, so you’ll be able to get a fire going and heat the interior so you can stay warm.Winter Shelter 2

Efficiency-wise these aren’t the best shelters, but you can build them fairly quick and the fire will help keep you warm. This shelter was built in just a few hours without tools.  It’s a little skimpy on the covering as I was running short on time; however, if you picture this shelter with twice to three times the fir boughs you’ll get an idea of what it should look like.

Check out this video on how to build an emergency lean-to:

How-to Build an Emergency Lean-To


Snow Shelter

There are different types of snow shelters you build.  It might seem odd to get into a shelter built of something that is frozen, but snow is a great insulator and you can survive an overnight just by digging a small snow cave.

I’ve built an igloo in the past and they are a lot of fun to build and sleep in.  I won’t go into detail here, but you can look up instructions on how to build them on Youtube.

Use your imagination when building a shelter and keep in mind the four ways we lose heat:  convection, conduction, evaporation, and radiation.  Understanding these concepts will help you to build a bullet-proof shelter in the cold allowing you to survive in any environment.

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor


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