The moment you step into the backcountry is the moment that you need to start thinking about shelter. It’s one of the top priorities to get yourself comfortable and safe from the elements if you want to survive out there.
If you drive from the west coast to the east coast of the US, you’ll see countless home styles along the way. Even our houses have adapted to different environments because of the various forms of protection they offer.
While we won’t be building an adobe-style home or a New England mansion, our shelters need to reflect each specific bushcraft expedition’s environment and climate.
I will cover some of the best bushcraft and survival shelters for every environment you may find yourself in. Use this guide as a stepping stone to sheltering yourself and finding comfort within every environment.
Choosing the right kind of shelter
There’s a lot that goes into determining which shelter you need to build in the moment. At times it can be obvious, but sometimes different shelters will surprise you in their effectiveness in different environments.
Before building, consider these factors and plan out your build to get the best and safest night’s sleep.
Length of stay
How long are you going to be staying in this shelter? If it’s a long-term stay, you may not find any discounted rates, but you will find more appropriate styles.
It’s safe to say that you can withstand more discomfort for a short time. If you’re only staying in a shelter for a single night, you’ll likely be alright in a stick and leaf shelter that isn’t up to every building code in the county.
A more extended stay may require more comfort and amenities so you can stay sane and happy out there. When I talk about amenities in backcountry shelters, I mean space to sit up, stand, move around, heating, and long-term protection from the elements. You probably won’t get the jacuzzi tub with a big screen TV, but you can at least stay dry and warm. Weather
Have you looked at the weather yet? Once, twice, or how many times? Even though the weather changes in the blink of an eye, having a general understanding of what to expect is important.
If you’re headed into a rain-filled environment, you’ll want to think about bringing more supplies. Natural shelters are great, but it’s tough to keep all of the rain out without a tarp. Tarps are exceptional protection for a precipitation-filled expedition.
Is there a giant cold blast coming? I’ve heard the words “Polar Vortex” more this year than ever before. I know that when I go out and build my shelter, I will be facing cold nights. I want a shelter that can accommodate a fire or trap the most heat possible.
Finally, if you’re “lucky” enough to be stuck in the sun-filled desert or out on an island, you need to plan for sun-protection and heat. There are specific ways to help reduce heat while protecting yourself from possibly-deadly UV rays.
Time of year
Where I live, I know that the summer months come along with harsh afternoon storms in the mountains, while the winter is brutally cold and full of snow. I will build a different shelter in the fall than I would the spring, and in the summer than I would the winter.
The time of year can tell you a lot about the weather you should expect. If you live somewhere long enough, you can predict certain weather patterns just by the date. If you’re new to a place, getting outside is the best way to learn.
Sometimes, my partner, our dog, and I head out into the woods intentionally with nothing but a plan to return in the morning. When I do this by myself, a small lean-to is typically large enough to sleep comfortably at night. When I’m with my family, I need to adjust the shelter for the 5-human lengths that my dog somehow takes up in the night.
Some shelters are an excellent fit for going solo but fail to leave the space for more people. The larger the group, the larger the shelter needs to be. It’s important to have this in mind before starting your build.
Different shelters for different environments
I like to try out different shelters often when I go out into the backcountry. It builds my toolbelt up and helps me expand my skill set. It also gives me a feeling of what shelters work well in what environments and which ones don’t. Sometimes waking up soaking wet and cold is a great way, just not a fun one, to learn a lesson.
One of the easiest ways to find shelter out in the woods is to find something already there. You can find caves or tree hollows that will shelter you from the elements better than just about anything you can build. It feels like striking gold when you find the perfect spot.
I dream of finding deep cave systems that will house me for a night or two when I head out. There are, however, times that I actively avoid caves that I find. In the winter and early spring, I am fully aware of bear and large game activities. Their food sources are at a minimum, and they are looking for anything. Contrary to popular belief, bears aren’t full hibernators. They wake up.
Caves on the sides of mountains can also attract lightning in those stormy summer months I mentioned. They can deceive you and lead you to believe you are safe, but you end up in harm’s way. There are, however, great times and locations that you can use a natural shelter. It can be like finding a needle in a haystack, though.
- Rainy weather
- Deciduous forests with easy access to branches and debris
- Solo trips
A bushcraft expedition in any environment can benefit from a lean-to shelter. They do great at keeping you warm and dry. The only barrier is the materials you need. It’s highly favored by many survivalists for a good reason. It’s probably the best overall shelter that is the most versatile for different environments.
A lean-to is one of the most traditional shelters that give you a significant amount of protection out in the wild. It’s easy to build, doesn’t require a large number of resources, and can be set up quickly to protect you from a large number of dangers. You can make this a more permanent, long-term shelter or build it as a short-term solution.
If you have materials along with you, you can make a lean-to entirely waterproof. It’s a good option for rainy environments, even if you have nothing along with you. Leaves and sticks can build a warm and dry shelter that protects you on a short-term basis.
You can use a tarp, garbage bags, or a poncho to make a lean-to even more waterproof. There are no necessary materials to create an adequate shelter, though. You have everything you could want and need in the great outdoors.
How to Build a Lean-To Shelter:
The first step in building a lean-to is creating a ridgeline that will support the rest of the weight. The best way to do this is with a long, straight branch that can be fastened between two trees. If you can find two “Y” trees near each other, then that’s even better. Using basic lashing techniques, you can make a strong ridgeline to lean the rest of your structure up against.
Next, you need to collect long enough sticks to reach from the ground to the ridgeline at about a 45° angle. This setup allows enough space for you to sit up straight underneath the shelter. It gives you the room to be comfortable rather than having to crawl into bed at night. A steeper angle can shed rain and snow more effectively, so you need to know the weather.
Add a large number of branches to the main structure until you have few gaps. Next, you can start to add some smaller sticks and leaf debris. I love to use spruce and cedar branches for this step because of how well the needles cover space and close the gaps. The weight also holds everything down.
If you don’t have any coniferous branches available, you can use leaves and then lay sticks over the top to keep the leaves from blowing away. Now, you have a complete shelter in which you can rest easy for a night.
- Long term bushcraft scenarios
- Keeping warm with an interior fire
- Sheltering multiple people
Whenever I think of a teepee, I think of large leather hides plastered together to form a large canvas that Native Americans dwell inside of. They represent large, communal living spaces for families and tribal members. Most of all, I think about the fires that sit in the middle to keep families warm. It’s this that I love the most about the teepee.
Making a teepee isn’t as hard as it may seem at first, but it does take some skill and practice. If you put outside materials into the build, you’ll have something you could live in for years. Even a well-crafted natural teepee will stay standing for ages.
The key to the teepee is the cone shape that keeps an opening at the top for smoke to escape from. The shape of it naturally funnels the smoke up and out, so you don’t end up inhaling a dangerous amount of smoke. This is great for a warm shelter that holds a whole family.
How to Build a Tee Pee Shelter With Natural Materials:
The structural integrity of the teepee comes from the basic foundational work. Leaning a bunch of long sticks together will work, but maybe not for very long. You only need to start with three long main poles that are tied together at the top. By lashing three smaller sticks horizontally near the top of the teepee, you will further strengthen your base.
This “pyramid” will also support the remaining sticks that you lean together to form the structure. You can even lash more support sticks horizontally at the base of your structure if you want this teepee to last. Just like with a lean-to, lean a considerable number of branches to create the walls of your teepee.
The final step is adding the protective layers of debris to your walls. Layering leaves and other branches will help trap warmth and keep you dry. The more layers you add, the more effective your walls will be.
You can choose to leave the top of the teepee open to let smoke escape or close the structure entirely and have a fire near the entrance. If it is going to be rainy but warm, you may want to close the teepee. The fire will do an excellent job of drying the interior, but I don’t like an extra hole in my roof if it isn’t necessary.
- Deep winter warmth
- Solo use or multiple people
- Utilizing the snow to your advantage
The quinzee is the lesser-known winter snow shelter. While most people love the idea of building an igloo, it’s a ton of work and uses more energy than it’s worth. A quinzee uses similar techniques and is super easy to build. The ice that forms on the interior insulates well. I know ice is cold, but not when you are just using it in place of spray foam insulation.
The only thing about a quinzee that makes it difficult is that you need a whole lot of snow. I wouldn’t bother trying to build one if there aren’t at least two feet of snow on the ground. The more snow you have, the larger you can build the quinzee.
This is another shelter that you’ll want to be aware of the weather forecast for. If you’re hoping to stay in your quinzee for more than a night or two, check to make sure that temperatures are staying low enough not to melt away your shelter. Some areas of the world get vast amounts of snow, only to be in t-shirts and shorts a few days later.
How to Build a Quinzee Shelter:
If you have a shovel available, this is going to be a whole lot easier. If not, I hope you have suitable gloves. The first step of building a quinzee is to start piling snow, and then keep piling snow. You can pack it down a little as you go, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. The key is to mix the snow as you pile it on. This way, different layers of snow will form together rather than separate.
If you’re alone, you want to build a pile of snow that’s about 6-10 feet in diameter and 5-7 feet high. Remember that this won’t be the amount of space you get inside because the walls’ thickness takes two feet off the width and a foot from the height. Once you have a sufficient pile, let it sit for about an hour. This is called sintering when snow sits and hardens together.
The longer you sinter the quinzee, the better. It’s kind of like curing time for cement. It needs time to bond together and harden. While you are waiting, start gathering sticks that are about a foot long. The stick length will be as thick as your shelter is. A foot will hold the roof above your head and insulate well.
Take the sticks and place them deep in the snow all around your pile. This determines your walls’ thickness and lets you be more precise in the build than just guessing.
To start digging out your shelter, you need to find the entrance. The best spot for an entry is on the downhill side of the snow pile. Start shoveling, or scooping, making sure your door is large enough to get all the snow out. On the quinzee’s interior, you need to remove snow from all sides until you hit the ends of the sticks you placed outside.
Once the interior is carved out, you need to build sleeping platforms. These will help get you up off the cold ground. By creating trenches between the platforms, you give the cold air inside a place to make its quick exit from the quinzee.
You obviously won’t be having a fire in here, but you will stay plenty warm as your body dumps heat into the space around you.
- Keeping cool during the day and warm at night
- Solo use or multiple people
- Simple shelter if you have a shovel
A shelter for the desert needs to be done well. It can be a dangerous place, and the best desert shelter can protect you from all of the twists and turns the desert can throw at you.
The desert dugout shelter is a labor-intensive shelter that will do a great job protecting you from the two extremes of the desert. Many people forget how cold the desert can get at night, so you don’t want to be entirely exposed. You might not have to worry about getting wet, but UV rays can be just as dangerous.
This shelter makes use of the desert terrain and is mainly built from sand. It’s a huge bonus if you have a tarp with you. It can effectively trap heat as well as block it from ever coming in.
With a desert dugout, you are essentially burrowing yourself in the sand like an ostrich’s head and then covering yourself like last night’s leftovers. It’s surprisingly effective.
The right desert dugout needs to be positioned correctly. You want to be on the lookout for any desert-dwelling creatures that may already occupy the space. Don’t start digging next to a snake’s home. You also need to ensure you are outside of flash flood territory. This can not only destroy your shelter but take you with it.
Once you’ve found the right spot, you need to dig. You don’t need to dig a full six-foot grave. Stopping between one and two feet will suffice. This is enough to create your pocket of cool air protected by sand. The sand that you dig out can be used to build up walls that essentially make your “bed” deeper.
The next important task is to cover the dugout. If you have a tarp, then you’re all set. Otherwise, you may want to look for juniper branches and anything to create shade and help seal in heat at night.
If you’re using a tarp, you will love the double-roof method. This gives you additional protection from the sun and the heat. Try and leave a big gap in between your tarp layers, so there is more air to cool the heat the sun brings down. This way, it heats the area in between the tarps, rather than turning your shelter into a human-sized oven.
This completes the essential parts of a desert dugout. You want to fasten your covering so the wind doesn’t take it away in the night, and you might want a little bit of space to fit underneath and sit comfortably. Just because it’s the desert doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable.
There are so many different shelters that you can build in different environments.
You can look for the best shelter for the rain, the best shelter for the desert, or even the best shelter for the snow. What some consider to be the best might not work a couple of hundred miles away. It all depends on your environment.
A huge part of bushcraft is getting in touch with nature and understanding it. The closer you get to the Earth, the more you will understand how to work with it and keep yourself safe out there. Shelter building doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be fun and end up with a comfortable night out in the wild, in any environment.