Natural Shelters – One of the Most Underrated Skills You Should Know

Natural shelters have been used over thousands of years and they varied greatly depending on location, for obvious reasons.  I would like to take the opportunity and share some of the ones that I have constructed and used over the years, and give my insight on what I think works well in my geographic location (NE USA).

The very first shelter I ever built, with regards to “Survival”, or spending numerous nights in the wilds, was a simple lean-to.  This type of shelter is depicted in a lot of resources when it comes to Survival, and I think I know why.  A lean-to is probably the most conducive when it comes to “calorie expenditure”.  It can be set up in relatively quick fashion, without wasting a lot of calories or resources.  I spent many of nights sleeping in this type of shelter, and it worked pretty well for what it was.  I still fancy this type of shelter even today, again, with some considerations.  The downside of a lean-to is any type of weather.  It will hold off a rain storm if built properly, but a driving rain can be a big hassle.  Add in a winter environment, and you will cut more wood than you want to.  So my conclusion is, if you need a quick shelter, of natural materials…and for short term, the lean-to is not a bad option at all.  Just remember to consider the weather and what you need it to do for you.


The second type of shelter I constructed was a simple “A-Frame” out of 6″ thick or less logs, which actually worked very well.  At first I used my tarp to cover the frame as my waterproofing.  After a few uses I proceeded to add debris to it to make it all natural.  The thickness you need to make it waterproof can be researched in many books, and watched on many videos.  I think the adage is somewhere between 12″-18″ thick.  Through experience, I found that that is not entirely true, though it is not a bad judgment either.  This particular thickness offers a lot of insulation as well as aiding in the waterproofing, and maybe that’s why it seems to be the norm when folks talk about it.  At any rate, I find that it is merely a bunch of regurgitated information, as much of it seems to be nowadays….no matter the subject.  As a good friend of mine often reminds me, “there is nothing new under the sun”, and I agree when it comes to skills of old.  Once you add your debris to the structure, it will condense, even just overnight.  These types of shelters need to be maintained over time and constantly tended to, at least if you want to stay warm and dry.  I found over the years and the many shelters I have built, that once you get a good thick layer on, and it condenses, either by time, moisture or both….that almost seals the deal, assuming you had enough material to begin with.  At the end of the day, is the finished version or thickness 12″-18″, well not in my case…but it always seemed to work well for me.  Through the rain or the cold, the shelters typically worked well! (sorry for no picture, it was years ago and probably even a couple of computers ago)

The next type of shelter I constructed was another debris-type shelter also known as a “Spider Shelter”.  This shelter wasn’t dissimilar to the A-Frame other than the fact it was more conical in shape and had a bit more debris on it.  All in all, they worked pretty similar.  The A-frame and spider shelters were very good in the cold weather, as they retained a lot more heat than the previously mentioned.  I used fired with both of these shelters, but to take fire out of the equation, they were both better than the lean-to in a cold-weather environment.  You would probably be surprised at how waterproof they can be.  (again no pictures due to being years ago, but I have a video series on this one if you would like to check it out. Find it here:

After the Spider Shelter I made quite a few different shelters of various styles.  One of the most impressive was the cabin my buddy Joe and I built.  This took quite a while, and yes, we used a chainsaw and such, as well as some timber spikes to hold most of the frame together.  I had plans for a thatched roof on this one to keep with tradition and being natural and all, but time was not on my side.  So a couple of cheap tarps from Home Depot is all it got.  One winter during hunting season we paid a visit to check up on it and found a note from a random “military guy” saying what a great job we had done and how he was impressed with the quality of work.  It was a humbling experience, and the cabin still stands today after 5-6 years or so.


One of the last shelters I helped make, and I say help…as one of my Woodsman School classes all built this together, was a Wigwam.  This shelter is pretty easy to construct by yourself, providing you have the right resources to do so.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of heavy work to complete either.  If you add a tarp to the mix…all the easier.  Over time I have added a wood stove and the tarp to make this shelter even better.  I have spent numerous nights in it, and so have students of mine.  It could use a little work nowadays, but it is still solid as far as the framework goes, even after a couple of years.

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So with regards to natural shelters, there are many different styles and types….each conducive to their own environment and functionality.  All of the above mentioned worked well for me over the years, and I would certainly try each of them out again depending on my needs.  If I had to pick a favorite, the cabin would have to be it, though the wigwam is a pretty close second!

So its easy to watch a video, or read the current hyped-up Survival book to find out what you need to do as far as shelter building…..but it is much more appropriate to go out and try them for yourself, and truly see what works for you.

“It is easy to build something that looks like a shelter, but does it keep you warm and dry, and offer a good nights sleep?” (Tim Smith JMBS)

4 thoughts on “Natural Shelters – One of the Most Underrated Skills You Should Know

  1. Another well written and very thought out blog. I think you have a lot more skills than most who pen “survival blogs” or the likes and the pictures that go with your blogs prove out you’ve done this in multiple ways at different times.
    I think I’m partial to the wigwam version. Keep the blogs coming as I’m enjoying this very much.


  2. Very nice Sarge. It has been my experience that people expend a lot of time, energy and calories building shelters. Efficient shelter building is an essential skill. Materials, calories and time are precious resources in a true emergency scenario. Only with experience and practice can one truly learn what emergency or semi-permanent shelter types work in their area. 🙂


  3. I agree with Chris, you have too go out and build it yourself, reading and watching videos only gives you the basic idea how to do it. The person making the video will edit out a lot of the problem they were faced with as they built the shelter (because of the length ofor themail video) . And they can’t cover ever issue or challenge you may come across.
    Experience is the Key,


  4. The proof is in the pudding, practice makes perfect & all that. As other fellas have said the only way to know what shelter best suits you & your environment is get out there & build it. You’ll learn from your mistakes & streamline your approach to save energy & resources in order to achieve an effective end result. For me a debris shelter works for me & my location as there is abundance of suitable material & the weather here dictates a high level of water resistance & warmth.
    Just loving these blogs Sarge, keep ’em coming


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