3 ways to construct winter survival shelter

A shelter covered with bark in the snowThe author is working on the construction of a shelter covered with bark. Jim Baird

This story was originally featured on Field & Stream.

Shelter, fire, water, and food are the four pillars of survival – and when you run into trouble, you’ll want to prioritize them in that order too. However, there is some debate between protection and fire and which should come first. For example, if you accidentally dive into a secluded glacial river, start a fire before building a shelter. However, if you feel lost or stranded in cold weather, especially if you have inadequate clothing or no sleeping bag, it is best to combine both steps and build shelter with a fire in it or immediately next door.

Adding a fire to your shelter makes life a lot more comfortable, but it can create a fire hazard. Especially after prolonged use, the wood and debris used to build the shelter can dry out and catch fire. For the most part, you need to keep your fire small and building a sturdy stone stove is key. It’s also worth noting that shelters with a fireplace can get smoky. Reduce smoke by keeping the fire hot and flaming, by adding more wood when the fire starts to burn, and by making sure you have an adequate smoke hole built in.

[Related: Everything you need to know to start a fire]

Here I explain how to build some survival shelters that contain fire. They are similar in their basic construction: each is practical, sturdy, waterproof and, perhaps most importantly, quick to build.

1. How to build an A-frame shelter

As the name suggests, this small, stocky shelter is built in the shape of the letter A. The use of a rock wall for basic support and heat reflection from the fire makes this animal shelter a comfortable shelter for one or two people.

1. Start your frame. Take a long log and prop one end on a large rock while the other end is on the ground. This will be your ridge pole.

2. Find a place for your fire. Make a stone oven in front of the large rock and under the propped end.

3. Gather branches. Stack a deep bed of evergreen branches under the ridge pole from the fire.

4. Build the walls of your shelter. Cut logs about as thick as your arm and lean them against the ridge pole. Make sure you leave enough space near the fire to get in and out. As you cut, remember that logs that lean against the bottom of the ridge pole should be significantly shorter than those near the fire.

5. Add insulation. Cover the structure with evergreen branches

6. Put a roof on your shelter. Layer strips of birch bark over the branches as shingles and hold them in place by adding more trunks on top.


The large stone reflects the warmth of the fire back into this compact and well-insulated shelter. With little structure or dirt above the fire pit, this type of shelter is unlikely to catch fire.


This type of protection does not allow you to spread out vertically next to the fire, so all of the heat is on your head and your feet can get cold. Compensate for this by making the front of the shelter wider so you can curl up by the fire as the temperature drops.

2. How to build a rock wall

A slim shelter on a rock face.This sturdy shelter will keep a group warm and dry. Jim Baird

This shelter is excellent at blocking winds and drafts, making it a good choice – even for a group of up to six people. First a 2 foot high rectangular wooden wall is built against a rock wall and then logs are placed diagonally across it. After the structure has been wrapped in a large tarpaulin, wind can barely get in.

1. Choose a location. Find a rock wall and build 2 foot high rectangular log cabin style walls on top to create a 7 by 15 foot space.

2. Build a floor. Put a thick layer of evergreen branches as bedding.

3. Frame your roof. Place the logs over the rectangle at an angle of about 45 degrees and place them on the rock wall.

4. Find a place for your fire. Create a hearth by pressing a stone crescent moon against the rock wall in one corner.

5. Add a tarpaulin. Cover the entire structure with a large tarp and cut out a place for a chimney in a corner above the fireplace.

6. Make a door. Use a flap at one end of the tarpaulin to cover the doorway.

7. Make sure the tarpaulin stays in place. Place longer, arm-width logs on the outside of the tarp to hold it in place.

8. Build an air inlet. Help create a draft by building a small rock tunnel on the outside to allow airflow to the fire. This prevents the shelter from getting smoky once the shelter is sealed.

9. Secure your shelter. Shovel snow onto the lower flap of the tarpaulin around the outside of the shelter or secure it with stones.

  • Note: You can use snare wire or cordage to sew the tarpaulin into place on the components where it is needed for erection, e.g. B. around the chimney.

This shelter can accommodate five people and is very warm as it blocks the wind very well.


The prominent rock wall becomes very damp, which makes it an undesirable backrest. With just one fire, some people are closer to the heat than others. Compensate for this by making a chimney in both corners. Be aware, however, that this can result in a smokier environment.

3. How to build a lean-to with a bark roof

If you’re caught without a tarp, sourcing a large chunk of bark can make all the difference when your experience is combined with a dose of cold rain. This basic survival protection can be built from natural materials and is best reserved for warmer seasons or very sheltered locations.

1. Choose your seat. Find a protected area and attach a ridge pole horizontally between two supports, e.g. B. two trees or a tree and a ledge. Firmly secure the ridge pole with strong rope and prop it up by propping it up on additional vertical logs that are lashed to the trees on either side.

2. (Optional) Create a floor. If necessary, create a platform with logs to create a level sleeping area and cover it with a thick layer of tree branches.

3. Frame your roof. Remember to keep the open side facing away from the wind, and lean a row of arm-thick trunks on the ridge pole at a 45-degree angle to cover the sleeping platform.

4. Find some bark. Gently peel the bark from an ash, elm, birch, or spruce tree (ash or elm works best) until you have two large pieces of bark and place over the structure to create a natural waterproof roof.

  • Warning: removing the bark from a tree in this way will kill it. For the shelter shown earlier in this story, the bark of a cut ash tree was used, which is a near-perfect material for this application.
  • Note: If you are using birch or some type of bark that is curling, you will need to put extra logs on top to keep it flat.

5. Seal your shelter. Close both sides of the shelter with sticks, logs, dirt, branches, or snow.

6. Set up a stove. Leave the front open and place a fireplace on the floor in front of the ridge pole.

7. Create a door. Whenever possible, to trap heat and block wind, cover the front of the shelter with clear plastic if the fire goes outside the shelter.


Although it’s open at one end, this is surprisingly warm protection if the fire goes. It also uses natural materials and is especially helpful when you don’t have a tarpaulin or when you need to use your tarpaulin for some other application. This type of protection can also be built quickly, especially if you forego the bark roof and use a tarpaulin.


Since the shelter is open at one end, it offers little protection from headwinds. As mentioned earlier, you should carry a piece of clear plastic with you to reduce the severity of these problems. If you line the inside with a mylar emergency blanket, this heat will be further reflected and retained.

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