When building a shelter, there are a few general considerations to follow to make it as efficient as possible for survival.
Most importantly, keep it simple. Overthinking and creating a complicated shelter will not only require more time but take up valuable energy. A shelter should be just big enough to protect the body with as little headspace as possible adequately. A smaller shelter will maintain more warmth than a large shelter.
A shelter should be water and windproof to provide superior protection. A waterproof shelter is very difficult to create out of natural materials. The best resources for a waterproof shelter are the materials and tools you carry with you. This may be a tarp, large trash bags, an emergency shelter bag, and so forth. Any waterproof material will serve as wind protection as well.
The location of your shelter is an essential consideration as some locations may be dangerous. For times when the need for shelter is immediate, sheltering downwind of a ridge, boulder, or tree will significantly increase protection from the environmental extremes. No matter where you decided to take shelter, always check the area for possible hazards. Do not take shelter in the following areas:
- In an avalanche path or in a steep gully with snow and ice.
- In a dry desert stream that can experience flash flooding.
- Under a rock wall with falling rock or ice.
- Under dead trees or trees with dead hanging branches that can fall on to you or your shelter.
- Along a river bank or on a beach where temperatures are cooler, and water levels can raise.
- Narrow valleys or high mountain passes where the wind speeds are much higher.
- On a barren ridge or summit, especially in a thunderstorm.
For temporary and long term shelters, more thought should be given to wind direction and the proximity of usable materials, fuel sources, and water sources. If possible, build the shelter so that the entrance is 90 degrees to the wind. The wind will blow across the shelter entrance and not into the shelter, improving warmth within the shelter.
More energy will be required if materials and fuel sources are far away. Again, as little energy as possible should be expended to create and maintain a shelter. For water sources, nearby is preferable, but shelters built very close to streams or lakes will be colder. Sounds from a loud river can also mask the noises of rescue.
Many other natural materials can be used to supplement the shelter materials you have carried with you into the wilderness. Natural materials can include long branches, closely grouped trees, giant boulders, leafy branches, and patches of moss.
In specific terrains such as the desert, a glacier, snowfield, or the high alpine, natural materials are scarce. Dirt, mud, grass, and bushes can all be utilized to create short shelter walls. Snow shelters can be created entirely from snow, or in combination with a tarp, poles, and skis. Creativity and prior preparation will be the most valuable tool in these situations.
Different environments will require different considerations when building a survival shelter.
The following should be considered for hot environments:
- Larger, open shelters in the heat will probably be better than sticking to the rules of a small, wind and waterproof shelters. However, protection from the rain is still important, and temperatures can drop at night. This is what makes a desert shelter tricky.
- Shade is the most crucial aspect of the shelter. Consider building shelter in an already shaded area.
- Facilitate air movement through the shelter.
- Raising or lowering the shelter floor 12 inches (30.4 cm) from the ground will help reduce the temperature inside the shelter. However, do not expend a large amount of energy for this task.
- Build the shelter when temperatures are cooler.
- Protect the base of your shelter to prevent insects, snakes, and scorpions from entering. Raising the shelter floor will help with this too.
- If very windy with blowing dust, consider creating a small area that is more isolated from wind and air circulation. Create a wind barrier with a mound of dirt or rocks.
- A forested area provides more protection and materials. Do not overlook areas that can be used to create your shelter and reduce the amount of energy expended on construction. Examples include a downed tree, or digging into the snow under the lower branches of a tree to create a tree pit shelter. Keep in mind, tree wells can be dangerous and have killed many people.
- Snow, dirt, and branches can all be used along the shelter walls and shelter roof to provide more insulation. Remember, the small the shelter, the warmer it will be.
- Make a signal that is visible from the air or ground search. Shelters covered with snow or other natural materials are harder to see.
- Do not allow the inside of a snow shelter to become too warm. Snowmelt can make you wet and later freeze into ice, which is not a good insulator.