Basic Shelter Building Principles: Survival shelter intro and ideas

Shelters change depending on where you build them, what building materials you have access to, how many people are with you, and more. What doesn’t change is the basic principles behind building these shelters.

Basic shelter building principles don’t change regardless of where you are. You should follow these guidelines when making a shelter:

    • Make it just large enough
    • Build it to be sturdy
    • Place it in a convenient location
    • Make it warm
    • Make sure it’s safe

Principles of Shelter Building

These principles are the basics that apply to all types of shelters. It doesn’t matter where it’s built, who’s building it or what you’re trying to protect yourself from.

Obviously, there are going to be differences in how you build a shelter depending on the materials that you have on hand or the type of climate that you’re trying to protect yourself from. The things that stay the same are why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.

If you follow these basic guidelines while building a shelter, you’ll be successful regardless of where you are:

Make it just large enough for the space that you require. Sticking to this principle is great for several reasons.

The primary advantage of small shelters is that they don’t require much to energy expenditure to keep warm. This is a huge advantage in most survival situations.

Even areas like deserts and tropical locations can get (comparatively) cold at night and may require some kind of heat to keep you comfortable.

If you have an unlimited amount of fuel for fires or you don’t need to keep yourself warm then feel free to build your shelter as large as you want. If you need to rely on a small amount of fuel for heat, or you only have body heat to warm your shelter, then the smaller the better!

Small shelters are also great because they require fewer materials to build and they’re easier to keep hidden if you need to.

Make it warm even if you’re not expecting it to be cold. Losing body heat is one of the fastest ways to die in a survival situation. People die every year to hypothermia in temperatures that aren’t all that cold.

You can keep a shelter warm in several ways, but the best options are those that are going to take less energy and less work on your part. These are by using the sun as a heat source and making sure you have plenty of insulation in your shelter to keep the heat from escaping.

One of the best heat sources is free and takes no effort on your part to take advantage of…the sun. When you’re building your shelter try to face the opening toward the rising sun. In North America, this means that you’re going to face your shelter toward the east or southeast depending on the season.

Insulation is even more important than using the sun to help heat your shelter, especially if you’re relying on your body heat to keep you warm. Insulation will keep the heat inside your shelter where you want it, and prevent it from escaping out of your shelter where you don’t want it.

Fill every space with material that will trap heat. This means blankets, leaves, packing material, old newspaper, etc. Anything that will hold the heat in as best as possible. When you think you have enough insulation in your shelter, I’d suggest to

Build your shelter to be sturdy enough to stand up to the elements. A weak shelter is only going to keep you warm and safe for as long as it is standing.

This is way less important for a shelter being built inside. In these cases, you’re probably trying to stay warm and relying on the exterior building to keep the elements off of you.

If you’re building outside, however, the strength of your shelter is going to be one of the most important aspects of the build!

Focus on establishing a solid foundation fr shelter. This means taking a little extra time to secure the bones of the structure together so as you build on it, it’s strong and doesn’t buckle.

Make sure your structure is going to stand up to the elements. You don’t want to have to get up in the middle of the night to reattach piles of insulating material that blew off as you slept.

Place it in a convenient location that is going to allow you access to the resources that you need. Be as close to water, food and fire-making materials as you can.

When you’re depending on your wits and a little luck to stay alive, you don’t want to have to walk all day long just to get a gallon of water back to your shelter. Then add in the time to gather fire-making materials and you’ve wasted a lot of time that you may not have had to waste.

By properly placing our shelter in a central area located close to all of the things you need, we can save a lot of time and energy. It seems like an obvious concept but sometimes those are the things that slip our minds first in a survival scenario.

Make sure it’s safe in the area that you choose for your shelter.

Don’t build in low areas that are prone to drainage or flooding. You don’t want to wake up to a flooded shelter or come back to find that it’s warmed up and melted the snow allowing water to drain into the area you were planning on sleeping.

Your shelter needs to be built on a firm footing or all of your hard work will be wasted. Try to keep it on high, dry ground and in an area that isn’t going to be susceptible to fire, high winds or falling objects.

The last part of making sure your shelter is safe is trying to stay away from dangerous animals and people. Easier said than done… To avoid people you can try to keep your shelter out of sight or build it in an area that people are less likely to wander through.

To avoid animals, try to stay away from things like watering holes and established animal paths. These are great for trapping, so position yourself close by, but not immediately next to them.

Insulation is the Backbone of Your Shelter

If you take just one thing away from this article, this should be it! Insulation is the key to you being able to stay warm in a survival situation.

Insulation is any material that contains decent amounts of dead air space. These materials help to keep warm air in and cold air out of your shelter.

Soft, fluffy materials are better insulators than dense materials. Things like feathers, animal fur and crumpled up newspaper all make good insulation materials.

The thicker the layer of insulation that you can get, the better. Using dark materials will help by absorbing the heat from the sun and can make your shelter more efficient.

One of the most important insulation techniques to keep in mind is raising your bedding off the ground. This prevents the direct transfer of your body heat into the ground.

Understanding Hypothermia

Hypothermia is one of the top killers of people in a survival situation. When the body’s core temperature drops to a point that is too low, its organs begin to function improperly.

One of the first things to go is our ability to reason and think clearly. As these symptoms get worse and we become more hypothermic it gets increasingly more difficult to realize that we are experiencing them. It’s a catch 22. This makes recognizing these symptoms incredibly important to those in a survival situation.

Shivering is the first symptoms that you’ll experience in yourself or others. This involuntary muscle movement is supposed to create more body heat.

As hypothermia symptoms increase, you will lose the ability to think clearly and make decisions. This can be identified by slurring, violent shivering, stumbling and finally unconsciousness and even death.

The best way to keep yourself from getting hypothermia is to never let yourself get cold in the first place. The most common ways that we lose body heat are through contact with cold wind, cold water, sweating, and contact with cold surfaces like concrete, steel and the earth. Being undernourished causes the body to lose its ability to heat itself as energy stores are depleted.

Your fitness level and clothing also play an important role in you being able to maintain your core temperature.

Once you start experiencing symptoms of hypothermia, you need to take immediate action to do something to change your situation. Start by getting inside a shelter as soon as you can.

If someone is becoming hypothermic and has wet clothing on they need to remove it immediately and replaced it with dry clothing. If there aren’t any dry clothes to wear, someone should lay with them in a blanket with bare skin to skin contact. This allows for their body heat to raise the core temp of the other person.

Serve them hot liquids or soup in order to quickly raise their body temperature. The best option is something with a high-calorie count to help replenish their lost energy stores.


Understanding basic shelter building principals will make you much more likely to survive in a harsh environment. Basic shelter building principals apply in all types of climates that you may be forced to survive in. As long as you keep these concepts in mind, you have a massive head start in getting out of a bad situation in one piece!

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