How to Build an Emergency Shelter

Shelter is one of the basic elements of survival. Along with food or water, a good shelter is necessary to survive. Shelters have been constructed from nearly every material on the planet at one point or another in history. Some are huge castles made from stone, others are lightweight tents made from fabric or animal skins. All have three purposes, to keep the occupants safe, warm and dry. A good shelter can be constructed quickly from almost anything and almost anywhere.

how to build an outdoor shelter
Even a rough shelter of leaves and branches can help in an emergency outdoors


One of the best shelters available is your car. A car comes equipped with a solid roof and windows as well as heating and air conditioning. Provided of course you have fuel for it. If you are travelling on a snow or ice covered road and you become stranded by either sliding off the road, mechanical difficulty or road closures, try and stay in your vehicle. The car will keep you dry and stop the wind two of the biggest obstacles to staying warm and safe. If your car is not leaking fuel (or other flammable or noxious chemicals), and is off the road in a location where it will not be hit by oncoming traffic or swamped by drifting snow, stay in your vehicle.

Although it may get cold, a small candle and blanket will keep you warm until help arrives. If you are in an area facing a power blackout the heater in the car will help keep you warm, give light, and the radio will provide you with important information about what is happening, where to go and what to do.

Avoid idling in the car for too long in one spot or your garage as this will waste gasoline and the exhaust fumes can build up in the car causing suffocation to its occupants.

Your car will also offer good protection against wild animals such as bears or mountain lions which could be in the area. If you do encounter wild animals around your car, honk the horn to scare them away. A vehicle is much easier to spot than a person which will aid rescuers who may be looking for you.


If you are traveling extensively carry a small tent with you. It is very useful in an emergency situation for keeping you dry and warm. A tent will keep the rain and insects off and help to retain heat. A tent can be set-up quickly almost anywhere and takes up very little space in a backpack or trunk of your car.

emergency shelters outdoors
Small tents can be set up quickly and will keep you warm and dry.

The tent needs to be water repellent and big enough to accommodate yourself and any personal gear you need to keep dry. Everyone in your family should have access to a tent or carry one that is big enough to accommodate everyone and their gear. More people in a tent may be less comfortable but the extra people will provide body heat to help keep the inside of the tent warm and noise and scent of human will help keep wild animals away. Unfortunately, the lightweight fabric will not provide much resistance to bears or mountain lions who may try to enter your tent if they sense food is available.

Building A Shelter

If you become stranded and don’t have access to a car or tent then you will need to build or find a shelter. Search the area you are in for caves or overhanging rocks that will provide some shelter. Search caves to ensure there are no other occupants already (such as bears or bats). If the cave is clear, break off some branches to use as a bed and to cover the entrance. Do not build campfires in a cave as the fumes can cause suffocation or overwhelm you. Build any fires just outside the entrance of the cave so the smoke can blow away.

If there are no caves around, you will need to build a lean-to shelter or a snow shelter. The purpose of a shelter is to keep the rain, snow or wind out. A lean-to shelter is fun to build and is surprisingly warm.

Tie or wedge a branch (with no leaves on it) about 8′ long horizontally between two trees about 4′ to 6′ above the ground. Next lean branches about 8′ long on the horizontal pole. Place the cut end of the branch on the horizontal pole, tying them in place with vine or string where possible. Add layers of more branches in this manner to help build up the wind, rain, and snow resistance of your shelter. Place branches on the floor of the shelter to make a bed. The further you can get the bedding off the ground the warmer you will be. Finally, place branches on the other side of the horizontal pole to make a front to your shelter. Either enclose it completely or leave an opening to use as a door. Do not build fires inside the shelter in case the flames ignite the branches used to build the shelter. When properly constructed, the end of the shelter will resemble an “A “or “upside-down V” shape.

Evergreen trees such as pine, spruce or hemlock are best to use to cover the shelter. Try not to unduly damage trees when making a shelter. Be sure that you definitely need to construct your lean-to before getting started snapping branches or using valuable body energy to build it.

If you have a tarp with you, tie a horizontal branch between two trees about 4′ to 6′ above the ground. Then tie the tarp to the branch. Next pull a third of the tarp back about 4’and tie it to trees or place rocks inside the tarp to weight it down. Fold the next third of the tarp under the roof to create a floor in the shelter. Secure the floor end to trees or with rocks. Place branches on the ends of the shelter to enclose it. This simple shelter will be rain and wind proof and can be adjusted to tie shut by overhanging the end of the tarp attached to the pole so it can attach to the end on the ground. The end of this shelter will resemble a “triangle” or “>” shape depending how the tarp is hung.

how to build an emergency shelter
Snow can make a handy building material for winter shelters

If you are unable to find enough branches to build a lean-to shelter then build a snow shelter. Find an area where the snow is around 3′ deep and not drifting or blowing. Scrape out a hole or build a snow fort using the dug out snow for walls. Cover the walls with branches or if the snow is wet enough to pack then build roof over the hole. An igloo or snow cave can also be created depending on how much time you have. Place some branches over yourself in a snow cave or snow fort to create airspace should the walls collapse. The airspace will allow you a few moments of air and room to wiggle out in the event of a cave in. Line the floor with branches and dry leaves to keep you off the ground increasing warmth.

Do not light a campfire in snow caves to ensure the walls stay frozen. Even though the snow is cold, by making the walls thick enough to stop the wind a very warm and cozy snow shelter can be created almost anywhere. Try not to get too wet when working with the snow as it could become difficult to stay warm while drying off your wet clothes. If you want, keep a few snowballs ready in case some animals, Bigfoot, or the kids up the street come along.

Shelter is one of the basic essentials to survival. A shelter can be created from almost anything. Shelters can be built using pieces of plywood, cardboard, sheet metal, dirt, and branches will all work if necessary. Items such as plastic sheets, cushions from a sofa or old mattresses will also work in a pinch depending on the situation you are in. The most important aspects of a shelter are that it keeps you warm, dry, and safe. By experimenting with a few ideas you can be prepared to build a shelter quickly with as little effort as possible should the need arise.

Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson