Emergency Survival Shelters

I was watching a few episodes of the program “Fat Guys in the Woods,” just to see what it was like. The program is a bit humorous, with a survival instructor taking three overweight city boys out in the wild and teaching them basic survival skills for a week. The first night, they’ve got to come up with shelter and fire, before calling it quits for the night. The host and survival instructor plays up on that a bit, always stacking the deck against the guys, especially in fire making.

So, what’s so special about shelter that it becomes one of the first things that the Fat Guys in the Woods need to take care of? Basically, along with fire, shelter is what helps us to keep our body’s warmth in, so that we don’t suffer from hypothermia. Considering that hypothermia is the number one killer in the wild, anything to keep our body temperatures stable, suddenly becomes a very high priority on anyone’s survival list.

That’s why when we get to looking at surviving, shelter has to be pretty high on the list. This is true all year long, not just in the wintertime. Every year, people die of hypothermia in the Colorado Rockies, in the summertime. That’s because the temperature drops rapidly after the sun goes down, creating ideal conditions for hypothermia, even when the day has been warm.

We often have trouble with the idea of hypothermia in the summertime, although most of us accept the reality of it in the wintertime. But freezing temperatures aren’t required for hypothermia. All that’s required is temperatures that are cooler than our body temperature, along with some other conditions to help ensure that we radiate more heat than we produce. With the average healthy body temperature being 98.6oF, it doesn’t take much for us to find days that are cooler than our body temperature.

The other conditions I was referring to include such things as being wet, the presence of wind and low energy reserves in our body. Water, or a combination of water and wind, can make you lose body heat very quickly. They type of clothing one is wearing is a factor as well, as some types of cloth hold more water than others, making it possible for the clothing to drain off your body heat.

The worst possible clothing for this is a down jacket. Because down can hold so much water, it can make you lose your body heat as much as 300 times faster than standing there totally naked. Add a good brisk wind to that, making the water evaporate more rapidly, and your body temperature could drop faster than you could figure out what was happening. You could lose your cognitive ability and die, while you were trying to figure out what was causing you to be so cold.

So, How Does Shelter Help?

That may seem like an obvious question, but many people can’t answer it. We all assume that shelter helps us keep warm, because it is warm in the shelter. But a shelter isn’t necessarily warm. In fact, it’s only warm if we add heat to it. By itself, the shelter will be at the same temperature as the ambient air. But even then, it helps us to stay warmer.


The two main things a shelter has to do is block out the rain and block out the wind. In doing this, it helps eliminate the problem we just talked about, where wet clothing causes us to lose our body heat more rapidly. A roof over our heads, to keep us dry, and walls around us to block the wind, make a huge difference, even without heat.

Of course, we tend to heat our shelters, which is even better. So, it’s nice if a shelter can have some insulation value, allowing it to help with the process of keeping that heat inside. But even if it isn’t insulated, just being a barrier between the warmer air inside and the colder air outside helps.

So, we see that there are three things we want, in order to identify anything as a shelter. They are:

  • A roof to keep the rain off
  • Walls to block the wind
  • Insulation to keep warmth in

How well the shelter does those three things depends on the materials the shelter is made of, how much of those materials are used and how well it is constructed. You can have the best materials in the world, but if there are gaps between the pieces, then wind will come in or warmth will go out. Care must be taken in the construction of any shelter, so that it will accomplish those goals.

Another consideration for most shelters is having someplace for a fire. Granted, if you’re stranded on a deserted Pacific Island, with a year round temperature in the 80s, you probably aren’t going to need a fire. But in pretty much any other case, you’ll need a fire… at least in the wintertime.

Fire is mankind’s oldest means of heating their shelter. It’s also one of the easiest sources of heat to produce. In most places, it’s possible to find combustible materials to make a fire with, providing much needed warmth, as well as light and a means of cooking our food. But if you want to have that fire inside your shelter, it’s important that you prepare a place for it and a means for the smoke to escape, or that fire isn’t going to do you the least bit of good.

This usually means a fireplace, but a much easier solution is a fire pit with a smoke hole in the roof. This is what people did before fireplaces and is still done in some parts of the world today. A fire pit is easier to make and requires less material. So, even if the intent is to build a fireplace, a fire pit is a good starting point.

Where are You Going to Shelter?

When we talk about shelter in the prepping and survival community, we usually talk about wilderness survival shelters. But I’d like to look at things a little differently, simply because there will be more of us trying to survive in the city, than in the wilderness. Either way, the need for shelter is the same. The only real difference is what materials we have to work with.The general consensus in the prepping community is to bug in, rather than to bug out. That’s because staying at home provides you with shelter, as well as many other things you need. Even if your home is not set up for survival, there are many common things you probably have in your home ,which can be adapted to survival uses.

The other problem with bugging out is that living off the land is hard. Forget the romance of it, just finding enough food to keep you going is going to be a challenge; and if you’ve got your family with you, then that challenge gets all that much bigger.

So most preppers have adopted the idea of bugging in, with a backup plan to bug out into the wilderness if they are forced to leave their home. But, and again I say but, what’s to say that you have to bug out to the wild, if you have to leave your home? Could it be that you could bug out to somewhere else in the city, to another city or to a rural town? Would that be easier for you, increasing your chances of survival? If so, doesn’t it make more sense to bug out to the city, rather than bugging out to the country?

Start with What’s Already There

Regardless of where you are going to shelter, you want to start out with what is already there for you to use. Building a shelter can be difficult; but in many cases, there’s already something there that forms part of a shelter. If so, you might as well use it.

Many European cities were decimated during World War II, causing people to lose their homes and pretty much all they had. If we were to put modern preppers into that context, the conclusion most would make would be to bug out and go to the forest. But forests were dangerous; soldiers were there fighting. So most of them stayed in the city.


Even though homes and other buildings were often razed to the ground, the cellars were usually intact. So the people living in that building would move down to the cellar, taking advantage of that as available shelter. At times, they would have to modify the shelter by creating an entryway they could use or roofing the cellar over, but the basic shelter was there.

If we look around, we can often find something that can be used as the beginnings of a shelter, pretty much no matter where we are. That could be something that nature has provided or it could be something that is man-made; either way, it’s something that’s pre-existing and usable.

The country is littered with man-made structures that nobody uses. I don’t care where you go, you can find abandoned buildings mines, chimneys, bridges, grain cellars, root cellars and bomb shelters. It doesn’t  matter so much what it is, as whether it will still keep out the weather. If it will do that, you can use it as a shelter.

There is one thing that you have to be careful about, when looking at man-made structures. That is, you want to make sure that it is safe, before entering it Push on things and stamp on the floor. Do what you can to make sure that walls aren’t about ready to fall over and the floor ready to break under your weight. Time is hard on these structures, so you can’t just assume that they are safe to occupy.

The good news is that the building methods used by our ancestors usually produced strong structures. If something has survived until today, then it’s probably going to survive another 20 years or longer. This is especially true of anything made of stone or brick.

Nature also provides a myriad of different “structures” which can be modified for use as shelters. Erosion produces caves, overhanging embankments and rock outcroppings. These are all great starting places for creating a shelter.

Developing an Eye for Shelter

Travelers in the Old West developed an eye for spotting natural shelter. It was something that they did as they rode, looking at the country around them, to see what was there and how they could use it. Cowboys or miners traveling from place to place could often spot places from afar, which would provide shelter. They did this by watching the way the land folded and knowing something of the forces which would shape the land.


There are three major forces that shape the land we live in: volcanoes, earthquakes and erosion. Some regions of the country are more prone to volcanoes and earthquakes than others, but mostly we’re referring to the forces of earthquakes and volcanoes in the past. The two are what cause mountains; volcanoes by bringing up rock from inside the earth and earthquakes by the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates.

But it is erosion that creates the finer details of the landscape which will provide us with places that can be used for shelter. Erosion carves out caves, removing softer rock while leaving the hard rock there. It creates undercut banks as floodwaters charge down a canyon. It even exposes rock outcroppings as the soil above them is washed away through years of rain.

Caves and undercut banks can be hard to find and are often not visible until you are extremely close to them. You need to be looking for them or you won’t even see them. The easiest way to find a cave is to walk crosswise to a cliff face or hillside, watching the folds of the land and shadows. Look for something that just doesn’t look right, perhaps as if there is a gap which is preventing two adjacent surfaces from meeting correctly. Chances are, if there’s a cave, that will be where it is.

Keep in mind that the size of the cave’s entrance and the size of the room inside may have nothing to do with each other. A small entrance can open up into a large room inside or large entrance might not be very deep. You won’t know whether a cave you find will work for shelter until you explore a bit. As you explore, make sure that you look for signs of flooding and occupancy in the cave.

To develop an eye for natural shelter, one must develop an eye for spotting where water flows and has flown in the past. Some of that is quite obvious, because there is water there now. But other places, like canyons, might only have water intermittently, when there are hard rains.

We know that water always flows downhill, so the key to finding its marks is in looking for how it would go downhill. If you spend much time out in nature, that soon becomes almost instinctive to you, not just for seeking shelter, but also for avoiding flash floods. Then, as you are hiking, traveling or working, you see work that erosion has caused, and of that work, what can be used for shelter.

There is one important exception to shelter being created by erosion, and that is shelter created by trees. There are two ways in which trees can create shelter for you. One is through deadfalls. When trees die and fall or fall due to the underlying soil eroding from their roots, it leaves a space under the trunk and a wall made by the root mass. At times, several trees fall together, actually forming part of a roof and a couple of walls from their root masses. This is an excellent start to a shelter or a great improvised temporary shelter.


Deadfalls are easy to find, as the trunks of the trees run horizontally, rather than vertically. That makes them stand out in the forest. Often you’ll only see bits and pieces of the trunks between the other trees, but it will form a clear pattern that should be investigated when looking for potential shelter.

The other way that trees can create shelter is when they grow in thickets.Thickets are likely to occur anywhere that trees grow, especially in “new growth” areas of forests. In growing close together, the branches of the trees form some overhead protection from the rain and the trunks themselves can be the structure to provide for walls.

One nice thing about any natural shelter you can find is that it will be naturally camouflaged. So, any modifications you make should be done with the idea of maintaining that camouflage. That way, your shelter will help make it harder for others to find you and help protect you as well.

Man-made structures in the wild are usually quite obvious. The key is looking for straight lines. Nature has no straight lines, but just about everything that mankind builds does. Those lines may lose some of their straightness over the years, but they will still stand out as being straight.

Another part of looking for man-made structures in the wild is to look for unnatural looking hills. Through the centuries, man-made structures get covered up by nature. The process is similar to your lawn covering your sidewalk. It starts out slowly, but the grass starts creeping over the cement, sending out new roots, which grow new shoots. Bit by bit it extends its reach and if left alone long enough, the grass will totally cover the sidewalk.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Southern Mexico, in the states of Tabasco, Chiapas and Campeche. All three states were occupied by the Mayan people, especially Campeche. There, in Campeche, I’ve seen lots of farms, with hills standing out by themselves, or perhaps a row of hills standing out by themselves. But these hills are always square or rectangular. That’s because they are covering up pyramids built by the Mayans.

Work with What You Have


Rarely will you find a complete shelter, already waiting for you out in the wild, unless you find a cave or a man-made shelter that has been abandoned. Even then, you’ll likely have to do some work on it to make it more livable. Few things you find in nature are going to be readily usable as shelter, unless you do some work to make it more habitable.But that doesn’t mean that you have to go far in seeking materials to modify what you find and turn it into a usable shelter. As with finding the shelter in the first place, you need to work with what nature provides you.

Throughout history, mankind has used whatever materials were at hand to build our shelters. In some places, this meant building with wood, while in others stone was the material of choice. If that wasn’t available, then bricks of various types could be made. In the American Midwest, where trees, rocks and clay were scarce, they cut blocks of sod and stacked it to make shelters.The idea is to utilize whatever nature gives you. Don’t limit your thinking, just because you’ve always though in a particular way. Yes, a log cabin paints a nice picture in the mind, but it isn’t the only option available to you.

In urban areas, you’ll have an enormous selection of material to work with. If things are bad enough that you have to flee your home, then you can count on there being damaged homes, with scrap laying all around. While that scrap may not make attractive shelters, it will be much easier and faster to work with, than trying to use materials found in nature.

In many parts of the world, people build their homes from scrap materials found in the dumps or on the streets. Granted, these aren’t attractive homes, with nicely finished walls, running water and electricity, but they are shelters that protect them from the ravages of nature, most especially our major concerns of rain and wind. In a survival situation, we would be well served by such a shelter, rather than insisting on having something beautiful that properly portrays our social standing.

Plan for the Future

Building a shelter doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. Many people think in terms of building a something and then quitting. This leads to either a small shelter, which isn’t enough for their family’s needs or a shelter that is so large and complicated, that it never gets finished. But there’s a better plan.


If we look at the homes built during the westward expansion of the country, we can learn a great lesson about home building. That is, if we so choose, there’s no such thing as a “finished home.” I’ve been learning this lesson myself, since buying a home; as there is a never-ending list of projects we find that we want to do.

The idea is this: build a small, single-room shelter to start with, something that will house your family and get you out of the weather. But as you build, think in terms of future expansion. That might mean adding in an extra door or two, in order to have them in place when you are ready to add more rooms. Generally speaking, the hardest part of adding onto a log cabin or adobe home, is adding in a door.

Then, once you have your family established in the shelter and your basic survival needs are met, you can start working on making additions. Additional rooms
can be added to the sides, back and even the front, giving you a separate kitchen (in back), bedrooms (off one side) and a workshop (off the other side). Each addition is a separate project, but is part of making the home more livable.

This was very common during the years of the westward expansion. While there were a few people who actually had the money to build a home, most couldn’t. Unless they were willing to spend their entire lives, living in the cabin that they built, many would work to improve it. This actually became a sign of a family’s success and affluence. Those who could, were always making additions to their homes, enlarging them and making them better.

There is one other thing that can make adding to a home difficult; that’s the roof. The basic problem is in trying to attach the roofs from the additions to the original roof. The most common means of doing this was to use a gabled roof for the original cabin and shed type roofs for the additions. But that often led to low roofs in the additions.

The simple solution to this problem is to build the original part of the home with a high enough roof that when the additions are made, there is enough height under the eaves to add in the shed roofs of the additions, while still maintaining enough height to avoid banging heads on rafters. If the original part has a loft for sleeping, then you will most likely have enough roof height to accommodate the additions.

A Final Word on Heat

I mentioned fireplaces for heating earlier, but I want to go back to that for a minute. One of the biggest problems with a multi-room shelter, is in keeping all the rooms warm. Wealthy families in the past solved this problem by putting wood-burning stoves in each room. But not everyone could afford to do that. Many families only had one fireplace and that was in the main room of the home.


One possibility to help with this problem is to put in a fireplace with openings on both sides. If the original fireplace is installed on the back wall of the home (just for example, the same thing works on any wall) and built with a false back, then when a kitchen is added to the back of the home, the fireplace’s back can be removed, providing access to it from both sides.

Another option is to build the shelter using passive solar heating as much as possible. If you put in a rock floor and a south-facing window wall, you can easily generate quite a bit of heat from the sun. That heat will radiate from the floor into the room at night, helping keep the home warm.

I’ve seen underground homes which were totally heated in this manner. By building it underground, the owners were able to use the earth over and around the home as insulation. The only exposed wall was the south-facing one, which was their solar collecting wall. Surprisingly, the home was comfortably warm, all winter, even when they would leave it for a couple of days and they weren’t using the wood-burning stove.

Finally, I need to mention that we have become accustomed to living in homes which are kept to a “comfort zone” of only a few degrees. In a survival situation, we may not be able to accomplish that. Our ancestors didn’t keep their bedrooms that warm, but rather counted on using a bed warmer and piling their beds high with blankets to keep warm. They also slept clothed, in order to have that extra layer of insulation around their bodies. So, we might have to learn a few new habits to make up for our lack of central air and heating.

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

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