Building a Long-Term Wilderness Survival Shelter

If you end up out in the wilderness for an extended period of time, you’ll need more than a tent to stay in. Tents are fine when the weather is good, but they really don’t provide much insulation when the weather turns cold. Added to that, they are somewhat fragile, so the material will eventually dry out and tear.

The biggest need for any long-term shelter is to keep you warm. That’s easier to do if the shelter is built out of flame-resistant materials, so that your heating and cooking fire can be kept inside the shelter, rather than in front of the door, as you have to do with a tent. So, any wilderness survival shelter you build must take into account the need for a fireplace of some sort.

Basically, long-term survival shelters fall into two categories, prepared and emergency. There are other ways to categorize them, but this one serves our purposes rather well. Prepared survival shelters are built before the disaster strikes, giving you time to build the shelter, stock it with supplies and even take care of the little things like interior decorating. Emergency shelters are what you build if you have to bug out and don’t have anywhere else to go.

Design Considerations for Your Prepared Wilderness Survival Shelter

In an ideal world, we’d all have the time and resources necessary to build ourselves that ideal survival shelter in the wilderness somewhere, so that when disaster strikes, we’d have someplace to go. Of course, in that ideal world, we wouldn’t need a survival shelter, because there would be no disasters.

Since we don’t live in an ideal world, it’s a good idea to build a survival shelter, if you can. I say build one, rather than buy one, because you can save yourself a lot of money by doing it yourself. If you don’t know how, now is a good time to learn. You wouldn’t be a prepper if you were the type to whine about what you don’t know how to do. Some things to keep in mind when designing your survival shelter are:



You want to locate your survival shelter close enough to your home that you can get to it in a time of crisis, but far enough away that it won’t be affected by the crisis. If you live in a hurricane zone, make sure that your survival shelter is outside of the hurricane zone. You also want to avoid people as much as possible, so find an isolated piece of ground to buy. Just make sure you have access to your property as well as somewhere that you can get water from.

Available materials

Throughout history, mankind has built out of the material they have had available. That’s why you see construction as varied as igloos and adobe, wood frame and stone. Each people group develops a style of building that takes advantage of the natural materials they have available to them.

In addition to natural materials, think of scavengable materials as well. I saw some pictures of a great cabin built with an all glass wall, looking down across the valley. The glass wall was made of 30 or 40 windows that had been scavenged. None of them matched, but they made a nice collage and provided a great view.


This is a survival shelter, not a mansion. The bigger you make it, the harder it will be to heat. While living in a tiny space can be uncomfortable, think about what you really need. Your kids don’t each need their own bedroom. You don’t need a large living room. As part of the design process, figure out how you will use the space, getting input from the whole family (be careful about that, they may not understand).

The one thing you need plenty of space for is storage. However, that doesn’t need to be heated space, merely secure space. A shipping container makes a great storage space. Set it beside your cabin and you’ll have secure space for lots of supplies.


One of the most important elements of your survival shelter is insulation. The more insulation you have, the less heat you’ll need to produce. Many people skimp in this area and regret it later. Make sure you have adequate insulation all around, especially in the roof. If you can, build your shelter where you have trees or rock outcroppings for a wind break, as that will help keep your shelter warm as well.

Underground or above ground?


I wrote an article where I talked about underground bunkers. While I’m not in favor of underground bunkers, I am in favor of underground houses. The thing is, the earth makes a great insulator; keeping your shelter warm in the winter and cool in the summer. If you can manage to build your shelter as a south-facing underground home, you may be able to heat it primarily with solar heat. That greatly reduces your workload to heat your home.

Some of the most energy efficient shelters ever built are underground. During the westward expansion, across the Great Plains, many farmers built soddies. These were underground homes, where the back half of the home was underground and the front of it was built out of blocks of sod cut while breaking ground for farming. While they didn’t look like much, they kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer.


As much as possible, I’d recommend making your survival shelter an efficient structure in every sense of the word. Make use of every bit of space for something, building in storage to take advantage of unused space. Make it energy efficient as well, so that you don’t have to consume a lot of fuel heating it.

Speaking of energy, you’ll probably want to put in some sort of electrical power, either solar or wind. Take advantage of these technologies, as well as energy efficient lighting and other electronics, to get the most out of your survival retreat.

Another area that you want to build in efficiency, if you can, is with water. Put in rainwater collection on your roof, so that you have a constant source of water. Use your grey water for flushing toilets (or for the outhouse) or gardening. Water is one of your biggest survival needs, so you want to make sure that you don’t waste a drop.

Building Your Survival Shelter

The more of your shelter you can build yourself, the more money you can save. While it may be difficult to find time to work on it, this could become a great family team-building project, taking the time to teach the children valuable survival and construction skills. That way, you’re getting quality family time in, while you’re preparing a place for your family to survive, should the need occur.

Turning your survival shelter into a family project has other advantages as well. It can easily become your family’s weekend getaway, driving the hundred miles or so to work on your hideaway in the woods. That also helps you with OPSEC, as the kids can tell their friends that they’re going to the cabin in the woods, rather than telling them they’re going to their bug-out shelter.

At the same time, you’ll need to camp out, while working on the survival shelter. That provides an excellent opportunity to teach your children other important survival skills, such as making a fire, shooting a bow and tracking game.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment - As always, please let me know your opinion in the comments section below. It's your opportunity to share some tricks with the community!

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Added to cart!