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Back to Basics: Shelter


There are four basic priorities in any survival situation: food, fire, water and shelter. (Some people consider first aid as being a fifth, and signalling a sixth). How you prioritise these will depend on your environment at the time. For example, if you find yourself stranded near a cave with a river running alongside it, then shelter and water are not high on the list, but food and fire will be. On the other hand, if you are stranded in the middle of the desert, water and shelter will be more important than fire and food. I am sure you can see how things work.

In a situation where your vehicle has broken down, and you are stranded in the desolate middle of absolutely nowhere with no shade, and it is a million degrees centigrade, you may think that at least you have shelter in the form of the vehicle. But you may want to think again… If you sit in a vehicle (even with the windows open) in the middle of a car park on a sunny day, you will soon figure out why: you are basically in a metal box which is acting like an oven.

However, let’s assume your car has caught fire, or you are stranded somewhere and you need to make some sort of shelter. You’d first have to consider what a shelter does: It should provide protection from the elements.

It should retain heat or coolness. For example, in a desert, the simple act of scraping out a shallow depression and covering it with something will make your situation significantly more bearable. Th at is how many desert animals survive − they bury themselves in the sand, where it is much cooler.

It must be safe from natural hazards, such as dead overhanging branches, loose boulders, etc. It should be stable, and able to withstand prevailing weather conditions. It should offer some protection from wildlife.

Shelter Images

Natural Shelters

Before thinking about making a shelter, look around to see if there are any natural shelters you can use or adapt. Look for caves, rocky overhangs, hollow logs, fallen trees, etc. Be aware that some natural shelters may already have residents; the last thing you want is to be woken up late at night by a leopard returning home with its supper, or a snake hoping to share your warmth! So look for any indications that the shelter is being used, such as the animal’s smell, scent markings, or discarded food at the entrance.

The functionality of a natural shelter may be enhanced by building a protective wall in front of it, or by using branches or a tarpaulin to create more space.

Man-made Shelters

When presented with available materials, the design of a man-made shelter is limited only by one’s imagination. And it is surprising what one’s imagination can come up with. However, there are two basic forms of shelter: the Lean-to, and the Poncho tent.

The Lean-to is possibly the easiest of shelters to construct, and can be done in a matter of minutes. It consists simply of a piece of rope stretched between two trees, onto which the edge of a poncho, tarpaulin, plastic sheet, or space blanket is attached at an angle and anchored to the ground.

The Poncho tent is a slight variation on the lean-to, but involves hanging the sheet over the line to form two equal sides, which are then anchored to the ground to form a tent shape. One end of the tarp can be angled to the ground to seal off the shelter from the elements, as you would have in a normal tent.

Both of these designs are versatile, and can be rigged up in many configurations. If you don’t have string for the central support, simply wedge a branch between the forks of two trees and use that to hold up the tarp, and secure the base with rocks or pegs fashioned from twigs.

One-person Shelter

To make a fast one-person shelter, you’d need to secure a long pole (approximately one-and-a-half times your body length), to a tree at waist height, with the other end remaining on the ground. Lay the tarpaulin over the pole, with the same amount on either side. Tuck excess material inside the shelter to form a floor, and then peg the sides of the shelter to anchor it to the floor. Alternatively, you could use branches to fashion the shelter.

Various structures can then be built in front of the shelter to block it from the wind, or to act as a reflector for a fire.


Despite what you may see in books, branches don’t grow in ideal lengths and shapes which you can just pull down and join together like a jigsaw puzzle to make a shelter, so you might want to include a small saw or axe in your emergency kit. A length of cord and a lightweight tarp or space blanket are also essential throw-ins that you will be thankful for if the need arises.

The baseline? When you need shelter, use your imagination. Irrespective of what it looks like, a shelter is a shelter, providing it serves its purpose.