Whether you are going on a bushcraft trip for the week or are in a survival situation, you must consider three basic needs: food, water, and shelter. Once you have food and water settled (or before that, depending on your environment), you’ll need to worry about shelter. Creating bushcraft shelters is a core bushcraft skill and can help you stay warm and dry with minimal resources.
I have spent many years researching bushcraft and survival shelters, and reviewed the options with our team of experts. There are two main reasons to build a bushcraft shelter. For fun as a hobby or because you are in a survival situation.
In the latter case, not only do you want a shelter that’s easy to build, but it also has to work from a survival situation. Many shelters on the internet are elaborate and were built for fun. These require exerting a ton of effort – and they don’t offer much protection for the required work. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind why you are building a shelter.
Luckily, many on our team head out to the field and practice bushcraft at least once a month. They have over 10 years experience building shelters with minimal tools and living in them.
Bushcraft and survival shelters are incredibly variable. You cannot simply look at a bushcraft shelter plan and then build that shelter in your neck of the woods. It just won’t work. You need to consider your surroundings and use what you have on hand. We rarely builds the same shelter twice for this reason.
Therefore, on top of listing some shelter examples, we’ll also dive into how to use your surroundings to your advantage.
Tools for Making Bushcraft and Survival Shelters
Making a bushcraft shelter is easier if you have a few different tools. Of course, you can make a shelter with absolutely nothing, but many bushcrafters head into the field with these essential tools and gear.
For your first shelter, we recommend giving yourself all the help you need.
Some shelters do require specific tools. For instance, if you want to make a tarp shelter, you must bring a tarp from home. That isn’t something you can craft from some twigs and vines. (However, that’s precisely why we recommend a tarp as an essential piece of equipment you should keep in your bag.)
Here is a list of tools you should consider bringing when building a bushcraft shelter.
Having an camp style bushcraft axe makes processing wood much faster. Many quality outdoor shelters include processed wood of some kind, though you can throw up a quick shelter with just some sticks.
It is tough to chop through wood without an axe. You can even use the flat side of an axe as an improvised hammer. A hatchet also works, though it is smaller.
We noticed when we analyzed the gear list of the Alone TV show, that all winners chose to bring an Axe.
A good belt knife is essential for any trip into the woods. It should remain on your belt in case you lose your pack.
It can be used to start a fire and process fire wood. Building a shelter without at least a knife is very difficult.
Without a knife, if you are alone in the wilderness your changes of survival go way down. I recommend having a backup as well. In my experience a Swiss Army knife or survival multitool makes a great backup. As the saying goes, “two is one and one is none.”
You don’t have to have an auger. However, you will need one to drill holes into any wood. Most quick and improvised shelters don’t require any holes. For advanced shelters, an auger may be required.
Therefore, it largely depends on what shelter you’re building.
Augers are small and lightweight. Therefore, you can easily store one in a small satchel.
You’ll need some paracord for just about any shelter. Yes, you can use vines. However, vines aren’t always available, and putting together a shelter without tying tools is tough. Don’t assume masses of quality vines will be available.
Technically, any cordage will work. Paracord is highly recommended; you can break it down into smaller strands as necessary.
For accuracy’s sake, we recommend a folding saw. Don’t get a saw made of only handles and a sharp cord. These are hard to use and inaccurate, which ruins the point.
Like most tools, a folding saw isn’t essential for all shelters. You probably don’t need a folding saw if you’re just throwing a tarp or a hammock up. However, for those planning on building a tiny house out in the woods, some accuracy can make your job much easier.
If you’re boring a hole into anything soft, like cloth or wood, an awl will make your job much easier. You don’t need this tool to make very basic shelters. However, it can help if you’re making more complicated roofs.
Awls are light and easy to store. Therefore, they’re an easy tool to bring with you on your bushcraft trip.
Lots of shelters require the use of a tarp. A lightweight tarp can provide a waterproof cover that’s easy to set up and very portable. There is nothing better than a tarp and a few tent stakes when setting up a survival shelter. Make sure you also have one in your get home bag.
You can also use a tarp for many other purposes. For instance, it can collect rainwater or work as a ground cover underneath a more substantial shelter.
Check out some of my favorite tarps in our Best Bushcraft Tarp article.
Making Use of Your Surroundings
Part of bushcraft is making use of your surroundings. You can’t take a shelter someone else built and do the exact same thing. Your environment is going to be pretty different. To make the best shelter possible, it’s essential to use your surroundings to your advantage.
Here’s a list of factors to consider when planning your shelter.
Don’t build your shelter in a flood zone. Yes, you want to be close to water. However, you don’t want to be so close to the water that it seeps into your shelter after a heavy rain at night. Build at a higher elevation than the bumbling brook.
You should also look around for drainage basins. You don’t want to build your shelter where water tends to flow down the hill.
You also don’t want to build on uneven ground. You can dig into the side of a hill, which can be extremely helpful for controlling temperature. However, in most cases, you want the ground directly under your shelter to be pretty level.
If you build your shelter on a piece of land that isn’t flat, the rainwater may run into your shelter. If you can’t find a flat spot, you’ll either need to dig a drainage ditch or dig your shelter into the ground.
If you must build a shelter on sloped ground, a hammock is the best choice.
Some locations just aren’t safe for building a survival shelter. You don’t want to be near any dangerous trees, for instance. Is a tree likely to fall on your shelter if the wind picks up? While you can use trees as part of your shelter’s coverage, you don’t want that tree to fall on you while you sleep.
Dead trees are particularly vulnerable to falling. Even larger, dead branches on a tree can be dangerous.
Animal threats can also pose a danger, though they cannot always be avoided. Scout the area for signs of apparent predators. Animals can end up anywhere in the forest, of course, but they tend to hang out in specific locations. The last thing you want is to make your shelter near a wolf’s den.
Building near cliffs or falling rocks is another no-no. You don’t want to accidentally wander off a cliff in the middle of the night.
Your shelter should protect you from the wind. It is essential to assess where the wind is coming from to accomplish this. You also want to consider where to put your fire in relation to the wind. You don’t want to put your fire where the wind will blow embers and smoke into your shelter.
Preferably, the wind should be parallel to your shelter and fire. This will keep smoke from building up in your shelter and the cold wind off of you as well.
The materials you have available will vary a lot from area to area and season to season. Even in the same forest, the plants you have around you to use will vary considerably. You don’t want to collect materials far from your shelter. If you do, then you’ll expend a lot of extra energy.
To some extent, you want to choose a location surrounded by lots of materials you can use. However, this isn’t always possible. In the winter, materials can be harder to find, especially greenery. Sometimes, you may just have to work with what you have.
If you don’t have some of the necessary components for building a specific type of shelter, you’ll have to consider a different shelter type. That’s why we don’t recommend getting set on one particular shelter type. You never know what you’ll have in the field.
In many situations, you’ll be working in an area with trails. Even if you aren’t walking on actual, man-made trails, you’ll likely want to use game trails and natural openings on the forest floor. You don’t want to hike far off these trails and clearings (unless you’re trying to hide).
You also don’t want to build too close to a trail. You don’t want others potentially walking over your shelter, especially in a survival situation. You also don’t want to be too far from your resources, including water.
Therefore, distance is an important consideration.
Considering Your Needs
Not everyone will have the exact needs. If you’re only going to sleep in your shelter for a few nights, you can put up with being a bit uncomfortable. You also don’t want to spend tons of energy on a shelter that you aren’t going to use very much.
On the other hand, in an actual survival situation, you may be living in the woods for weeks. In this case, you can afford to spend more time and energy on your shelter. If you have a survival tent available, you may not need to even build a shelter.
You also need to consider how many people you have. The survival shelter may only need to be very small. If you’re staying in the woods with several others, it often makes sense to share your shelter. Kids may completely change the bushcraft shelter you plan on making, as they often require extra protection from the elements.
Your climate and the season will also affect your needs – and, therefore, your shelter. You may get away with a tiny shelter when it is warm. However, you’ll need substantial shelter if the temperature reaches below freezing.
Bushcraft and survival situations are different. You don’t need to worry about camouflage if you’re just enjoying a weekend in the woods. If you’re in an actual survival situation, camouflage may be essential.
You’ll also need to consider how much time you have right now. You may plan on staying there for a week or more. However, if the sun is going down in an hour, you need something you can throw together quickly. You can improve it later, but you need shelter before lying down for the night.
13 Types of Bushcraft and Survival Shelters
There are several different types of bushcraft shelters commonly used by hobbyists and professionals. However, I don’t recommend deciding on the exact shelter you should build before seeing the area. Not all shelters work everywhere. You need to consider your needs and available tools.
Don’t be afraid to improvise, either. You may find a specific landmark or material that may work great for a shelter. Use this list for inspiration, but don’t become set on any of these shelters.
1. Tarp Shelter
You can quickly throw up a shelter if you have a plastic tarp. This shelter provides enough protection without making permanent environmental changes or requiring a lot of time. Just tie each end of the tarp to a tree and clear out an area for sleeping.
- Requires no material collection
- Quick to build
- Suitable for larger groups
- Minimal protection
- Little to no insulation
2. Tent Shelter
While this is called a tent shelter, it isn’t an actual tent. Tents can be heavy, bulky, and not versatile. Therefore, we recommend throwing together this quick tarp tent instead. You’ll need to run a cord between two trees. Throw your tarp over this cord.
Then, use rocks or sticks to hold the bottoms on opposite sides. This creates a tent shape and provides some extra protection.
- Fast to build
- Requires minimal material collection
- Protection from the wind and rain
- Minimal insulation
- Open on two sides
If you have some larger branches, you can make a teepee using your tarp. Since you primarily use a tarp, you don’t need to collect many materials. However, getting the teepee to stand sturdy can be challenging, so plan on giving yourself plenty of time to practice.
The main idea is to create the structure of the teepee with larger sticks. You’ll need a few with forks at the top, and some cordage can also help you hold them together. Once the sticks are arranged, wrap the tarp around them. You can drop some extra waterproof materials around the top to prevent rain from leaking.
Alternatively, if the hole is larger, you can use it as a smoke hatch for a fire.
- Provides complete coverage
- Can support fire on the inside
- Can be utilized for larger groups
- Well-protected from the wind
- Requires being proactive
- Needs an extra-large tarp
4. Quick Teepee
In a pinch, you can make a teepee faster without any poles. You’ll need a tarp, cordage, and a large rock. First, fold the teepee into a triangular shape. Then, put a rock in the top point of the triangle. Tie the triangle and rock together; then tie part of the cord to a branch.
The tarp should be hanging from a branch. Anchor the bottom edges with rocks to keep the sides in place.
The main problem with this shelter is that it provides minimal protection. It also isn’t very permanent.
- Provides 360 protection
- Can be built quickly
- Little materials needed
- Can be tricker than other options
- Huge tarp needed
Finally, you can make this shelter without the use of a tarp. This shelter can be built with just some cordage and scavenged sticks. Simply tie a longer branch between two trees. Then, lean sticks against one side. You can put your fire in front of the shelter, and the sticks will reflect some heat.
This shelter doesn’t provide much protection, but many people can throw one up in an hour.
- Quick to make
- Can be easily upgraded into a long-term shelter
- Requires little protection
- Little to no wind protection – only from the rear
6. Debris Teepee
If you don’t have a tarp, you can throw up a teepee utilizing larger sticks and logs. You can make this shelter as large or small as you need. Larger shelters take more time. You also need many different sticks, which aren’t available everywhere.
Teepees can be pretty dangerous and unstable, as well. Because the branches are high, they are more vulnerable to the wind. Larger teepees also won’t trap much heat unless many bodies are inside.
- Straightforward to build
- Can be made larger or smaller
- Requires a lot of materials
- Not suitable for windy areas
- Doesn’t provide much insulation
- Cannot use fire to warm the shelter
7. Fallen Tree Lean-To
If you find a larger, fallen tree standing somewhat off the ground, you can use it to make a lean-to. Simply put, you can stack sticks on one side and leave the other side open. You can also throw a tarp over the tree, creating a tarp tent.
The only main problem is that fallen trees tend to be pretty unreliable. They can become rotten, which can lead to the lean-to falling down. It can be dangerous in many cases, as the fallen tree may break and fall on you.
Therefore, be sure to use a freshly fallen tree.
- Protects the environment
- Easy to adapt and build
- Can be made with many different materials
- Quick build
- Rotten logs can be troublesome
- Can take time to gather debris
8. A-Frame Shelter
At one level above a teepee, you have an A-frame. These shelters are lean-tos with two sides. They’re shaped like a tent, but you use smaller sticks on either side of your horizontal branch.
These shelters only provide minimum protection and can take quite a bit of work. They can be helpful if you’re working with minimum tools or know-how. However, many other shelters are better suited for survival and require similar work.
- Easy to build
- Requires many materials
- Very temporary
- Not very stable
- Minimum protection
You can use a hammock for areas where getting off the ground is helpful. There are many survival hammocks out there that are lightweight and easy to set up. They provide varying amounts of protection. Because hammocks get you off the ground, you’ll need extra insulation layers underneath you.
You can use your tarp to protect the top of the hammock. However, many hammocks can be zipped up and are completely waterproof. Therefore, this extra step isn’t always necessary.
The most versatile hammock I have found is the Haven Tents hammock. It comes with an insulated sleeping pad so using it in cold weather is not an issue like it is with most hammocks. It also has a rain fly that can be opened up like shown here or completely closed around the hammock.
There are many other advantages with this hammock including the lay flat design and it can be setup on the ground like a tent. See our full Haven Tent Review for more, and you can save 10% by using code “Survivalstoic” at checkout when you order from Haven Tents.
- Easy to set up
- No material collection required
- Off the ground
- Works on steep ground
- Requires extra preparation (you must have it with you)
- Varying amounts of protection depending on the hammock you choose
In colder climates, a different approach to shelter building is required. A quinzhee is a bit like an igloo. However, it is easier to construct and takes less time. You’ll need to pack the snow together into a firm dome.
First, you’ll need to lay the tarp on the snow and put something bulky in the middle (backpacks work great for this). Then, pile the snow on top of the tarp and gear. Pack the snow down until it is about two feet thick. Next, insert about four dozen 12” sticks around the dome.
Next, burrow into the side to retrieve your gear. Move the snow out of the inside while still leaving plenty of snow for the walls. Ensure the dome is uniform, as parts can collapse if they are too thin.
- Little materials required
- Insulates well
- Not very large
- Requires significant time and energy
- Only works in deep snow
11. Snow Cave
Snow caves are long-term shelters that are suitable for icy regions. These caves are built in a way that helps pull cold air away from the sleeping area. However, this shelter can also be dangerous. It can collapse and lead to gas build-ups, causing suffocation. Therefore, it’s important to dig them correctly.
You’ll want to dig into pretty thick, stable snow. A solid snow bank is preferred. Dig into the side of your chosen snow bank. The tunnel should slope down. This lower spot works as a “cold well,” which traps cold air. Then, dig up and create a shelf. Because heat rises, this is where the hot air will get trapped.
Dig a small hole into the ceiling that is around 6 inches. This hole provides ventilation. You can block the entrance with your pack for extra warmth collection. However, only do this after you dig the ventilation hole.
- Warmest shelter
- Provides lots of protection from the elements
- Long-term shelter
- Can be dangerous
- Requires precise instructions
12. Tarp Wedge
If you have a tarp but not that many suitable trees, you can create a simplified tarp shelter with only a single tree. If you utilize the wind correctly, the wedge can protect against the wind and the rain (to some extent).
To build this structure, attach the middle of one side of a tarp to your tree. You don’t want it very high – just enough to lay down comfortably under it. Next, attach the corners of the other end to the ground using heavy rocks or sticks. You can also tie the corners next to the tree for extra protection.
You can fold in the outside corner to create a floor if you have a larger tarp.
- Quick to build
- Little material collection required
- Protects from the wind and rain
- Buildable with only one tree
- Limited protection
13. The Burrito
In the right environment, you may not need much protection. Or you may not have the time or materials to throw together a complete shelter. In this case, you can make the burrito to help waterproof your sleeping situation and provide some extra protection.
The burrito is basically wrapping the tarp around yourself. If you have a sleeping bag, wool blankets, or an internal sleeping layer, you want the tarp to be on the outside. It provides a waterproof layer that could potentially save your life. Tuck in the edges of the tarp and lay on them to close up the tarp as well as possible. Leave the end by your head open for ventilation.
- Done in five minutes
- Waterproof protection
- Very little protection
- Dew and frost can develop inside the burrito
Improving Bushcraft Shelters
After you construct a basic shelter, you can improve it as you have the needs and time. We highly recommend improving a shelter’s insulation or protection qualities. You can do this in many ways, including adding more leaves, sticks, and debris around the walls. The thicker the side of your shelter, the more protected you will be. Of course, you don’t want to add so much debris that you cause a collapse. However, a thick layer of leaves can be surprisingly insulating.
Some shelters are more improvable than others. A simple tarp shelter may not be improvable, but lean-tos and similar shelters are. You can combine a lean-to with a tarp shelter for an extra-large shelter wholly closed on one side. Now is your chance to get creative.
You can also build a simple heating compartment for any shelter. Simply dig a hole in the ground and find two rocks. You want one rock to fit over the hole like a lid and another one that fits inside the hole. This hole doesn’t have to be bigger than a bowling ball. Use the rocks as a guide when digging to ensure they fit perfectly.
Next, you can heat up your pit stone (not the lid stone) in your fire. Transfer the hot rock to the pit in your shelter (a shovel is highly recommended) and cover the hole with your lid stone. The compartment will heat up quickly and radiate through the lid stone, providing a source of heat for several hours.
This method can create a surprisingly large amount of heat.
You can also add a bedding area to your shelter for added protection. Piling up leaves and sticks is a simple way to build a bed. However, we recommend using whatever you have on hand. Moss, pine needs, and similar materials also work great.
Place several layers of sticks on the bottom. You want to get a few inches off the ground, at least. You can use larger logs around the edges to hold in all the insulating materials. Make sure the logs are longer than you are tall, preferably. Then, pile insulating materials in the middle. You can even layer the bed with different types of material and sticks, providing a lot of insulation between you and the ground.
Be very cautious of materials that happen to stay wet, though. Don’t use fresh, green leaves. Dead grass works well, as it doesn’t hold any water. You do not want to sleep in a wet bed. You can always use large garbage bags to protect you from wet bedding.
The mattress will compress over time. However, you can add more insulating materials. As you continue to add things, the bed should get warmer.
Check out Mors Kochanski’s Bushcraft Book for some more great shelter ideas. In addition, there is a lot more to bushcraft and survival than just building a shelter.