Building an Emergency Shelter With Whatever You Have

The key to building an emergency shelter is knowing how to improvise. Whatever the situation, whatever materials you have, if you need shelter from the elements, you’ll have to make do. Be efficient; every calorie spent is a calorie you’ll have to replace, so build your shelter using the least time and energy you can.

For the purposes of this series of articles, we’re assuming you’ll be on the move, and that your shelters are truly just for temporary, perhaps even one-night use. If you’re going to be in place for awhile, then the rules about minimalist construction are off, and you should make your situation more comfortable, which is good for morale.

Gather your materials

Whatever you have on hand might be useful, so let your imagination run for awhile before you begin construction.

A crashed plane might still be in good enough condition to sleep in. If it’s not, you may still be able to recover foam insulation from the seats, bits of carpet, or electrical wire (for binding and fastening). Don’t overlook the stitching material in the seat covers.

A parachute, canvas, tarp, or poncho make excellent cover for your shelter.

An overturned lifeboat, canoe, or kayak can be propped up on sticks or poles to provide a solid roof and shade.

Some sort of binding is usually helpful. If you don’t have to make your own rope you’re already way ahead of the game. Remember Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away? He spent weeks making enough rope to build his raft, and used up all the rope-making material on his island to do so. Stock plenty of paracord in your everyday carry bag and your bugout bag.

Types of emergency shelter

Generally, the parts of an emergency shelter are: Support structure or framework; cover; insulation, and floor. You can build quite a variety of emergency shelters with these basic parts.

Simple A-frame shelter built with sticks and boughs

Simple A-frame. This involves a framework of sticks, a cover, and insulation. Remember, keep it simple, keep it small. Make the tent two feet longer than your body height, and just tall enough to sit up inside. While this seems a waste of space, if it’s quite cold you’ll spend a good bit of time inside the shelter. (If you’re definitely spending only one night, make it shorter and it’ll be easier to heat).

If you don’t have some sort of man-made roofing cover, like a tarp, you’ll be using boughs of some sort. Install boughs from the ground up to the roof ridge, with the stem of the bough pointing up so the rain sheds properly. If the stems are pointing down, the leaf and branch structure will funnel the rain into rivulets that will drip through the roof. Each succeeding row of boughs lies atop the row below, so rain sheds on top of the boughs underneath, and drains all the way to the ground.

A lean-to shelter is simple and can be built quickly

Lean-to. A lean-to is the simplest way to give yourself rain cover. It provides little protection from wind, but it does have a number of advantages, the main one being that it’s very quick and easy to build. It also can work as a heat reflector, particularly if you happen to have a mylar blanket in your every day carry bag. You can line the inside of the lean-to with the mylar and reflect the heat of a fire.

Poncho shelter.

Poncho or canvas shade. Canvas makes an excellent roof over your head in case of rain, and also a wind-block that can be insulated with boughs or leaves for cold-weather applications. There are military-style ponchos with grommets at the edges that make it easy to tie it down as a shelter. Some have snaps that allow two or more ponchos to be connected for a larger shelter. Multi-duty items are always preferable, so I like the poncho better than the canvas.

Snow pit or snow bank. In areas with heavy snowfall, these make very comfortable shelters. Snow is an extremely effective insulator, and while direct contact sucks heat from your body, the air inside the shelter will easily maintain temperatures well above freezing. Just be sure to make a thick bed of boughs to keep you off the snow. In a wooded area, dig out your pit from around an evergreen tree such as spruce, fir, or cedar. NOTE: Shake the snow off the tree first! When digging into a snow bank, cut the ceiling in the shape of a barrel to keep it from collapsing. With either a pit or a bank, build your bed on a shelf: this allows the coldest air to sink, and you’ll sleep warmer.

Fire-building inside the shelter can be problematic if there’s a lot of smoke. If you can close the entrance with a tarp or poncho, a single candle will be enough — that and your body heat will maintain about 50 degrees (10 degrees C). Trust me; I’ve done it and been very cozy.

Igloo. This is a specialty shelter. It’s only recommended for extended stays or if there’s no other shelter available. It requires a specific type of snow; it must be firm enough to cut blocks and shape them for a good fit. I’m sure there are many methods of construction, but the one I’ve found easiest and quickest is as follows:

  1. Build a circular wall, raising the blocks in a running spiral course up to a dome, and place the “capstone” last, in the middle of the dome. The diameter of your igloo should be about 1.3 times your height, which allows room to build a shelf for your bed. If you’re 6 feet tall, that’s about 8 feet diameter. If there are two of you, make it 1.5 times your height for a double bed.
  2. If you have a partner, build from the inside while your partner feeds you the blocks. If you’re alone, prepare some blocks in advance and build from the inside until it’s about knee-high, then finish from the outside. If your blocks keep collapsing, leave a cutout in the wall so you can move in and out of the shelter during construction and stack each block while inside. You’ll have to “mortar” each block in place as you go. If necessary, build it as a cone instead of a spherical dome — this helps prevent collapse during construction. A dome is more efficient, but do what you must to get it done.
  3. Trim the blocks for a good fit, but if your blocks are brittle, don’t worry too much about small gaps as you go. You can fill them in later with loose snow. Once the dome is finished, warmth from the inside will melt the interior snow and refreeze it, cementing the blocks in place and strengthening the structure.
  4. Once the main dome is finished, if you haven’t already, cut out an entrance tall enough to crawl out on all fours.
  5. Just outside this hole, dig out a trench a few inches lower than the floor of your igloo. This allows cold air to sink out of your shelter and into the trench.
  6. Finally, build a barrel-dome over this trench. If you have a blanket, canvas, or poncho, loosely cover the entrance of the tunnel to stop wind, but allow a small amount of circulation for fresh air. If such a cover is not available, use snow blocks.
  7. It is critical to leave a vent near the top of the dome if you’ll be burning anything inside the igloo. It should be about the diameter of your thumb. A piece of pipe or rubber hose left in place is ideal, but you can just poke a hole with any available tool. If it begins to snow outside, be sure to maintain your vent periodically.

Once you know what you’re doing, and assuming you’re not fighting the elements or an injury, you should be able to build an igloo within an hour. But plan for two, just in case.

You can easily heat your igloo with little more than a candle. If no candle is available you can improvise a lamp with fat or oil and some sort of wick in any kind of pan. Remember not to sleep in contact with the snow; make a bed of boughs, blankets, or extra clothes.

A properly situated cave can be an excellent emergency shelter

Cave. A properly situated cave will save a great amount of construction time and will provide an effective heat reflector. Remember that stone is a massive heat sink, though, and you don’t want to lie in direct contact if at all possible. If the best you can find is an overhang, you’re still way ahead of the game — just prop a framework of branches or bamboo and get busy overlaying it with boughs or leaves.

Whatever shelter you build, remember that its function must meet your needs. It’s easy to get caught up in the construction process, perfecting things that are good enough already, and ignoring other important aspects of survival, like finding food and water… and getting home.

Also in this series:

Intro to Emergency Shelters

Basics of Emergency Shelters


2 thoughts on “Building an Emergency Shelter With Whatever You Have”

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