Learning how to build a survival shelter can save your life. Survival is about being practical, thorough, and pragmatic. It is often said that the more you carry in your head, the less you need to carry with you. Of course, there’s a reasonable limit to this saying, but it’s a good concept to keep in mind.
As we work our way through this article we’re going to look deep into the fundamentals to understand why this particular survival shelter deserves attention. While prepping and survival studies become more popular as hobbies, focus has tended to stray toward “fancy” ways to do things while the less flashy methods have slipped by the wayside. We will take a step the opposite direction.
I always encourage you to learn as much as possible and, by all means, practice fancy, flashy, fundamental, and simplistic survival skills! The more you know and practice the better your overall skills will evolve. Enjoy!
Note: Today we’re talking about how to build a survival shelter for a temperate climate survival, not arctic or desert survival. I encourage you to learn survival techniques for these climates as well, however it exceeds the scope of today’s article. In terms of learning to bug out, you should always possess as much knowledge as humanly possible.
Table of Contents
1. Survival Shelter Purpose
2. Survival Shelter Function
3. Finding a Survival Shelter That Meets Our Needs
4. How to Build a Debris Survival Shelter
5. How a Debris Shelter Works
6. Limitations of a Debris Shelter
7. Incorporating Debris With Other Shelters
The Purpose of a Survival Shelter
Survival, at its root, is about keeping your butt alive just long enough to get out or be rescued. We’re talking about pure survival here – not homesteading or bushcraft for the sake of enjoyment. Just raw man versus nature tooth-and-nail survival.
For that reason it’s important to remember that a survival shelter has one ultime purpose: to extend the amount of time you remain living and breathing.
To achieve this goal, there is really only one factor that a shelter must deliver on. A survival shelter must assist in retaining body heat. That’s all.
To do so, a good shelter will take advantage of these factors:
- Repelling wind.
- Repelling water.
- Trapping non-moving air.
Note: It could be argued that a survival shelter also serves the purpose of boosting morale and mental health.
From the perspective of raw survival our goal should be to achieve these three functions of shelter protection using the least amount of time and energy possible.
The Fundamentals of Survival Shelter Function
If we don’t overthink things, it’s really just that simple.
As we’ve already established, we need to come up with a way to achieve these functions of shelter in as little time as possible while spending as little energy as we can. When the temperatures are plunging, rain is looming, you’re tired and scared – simple is better!
So, how can we do this with a shelter?
Blocking wind is the job of a non-permeable membrane. This just means any material that can’t be penetrated by moving air.
Some examples of this would be a plastic bag, a tarp, or a piece of plywood. Of course, these aren’t always available (though they may be). Instead you can substitute a large quantity of something that is permeable.
If you build up a thick enough pile of, say, grass, reeds, or leaves it will become windproof at a certain thickness. The overlapping and interlocking pieces of debris eventually become windproof when piled up big enough.
Blocking water can also be done with a non-permeable membrane such as plastic, shingles, fiberglass – you name it. It’s not out of the question to think you might find something man made out in the wild that you could use in this way, but don’t count on it.
Instead, you may need to find something natural that can do the job. Layers of bark, thatched palm fronds, or a thick pile of refuse can all do that job.
Trapping non-moving air is, perhaps, the most important function of any shelter. To stay warm you need insulation, even if it’s wet.
To trap air and keep you warm you’ll need to come up with some natural insulation. This could be cotton, wool, or piles of torn up refuse.
The better your insulation material, the less of it you’ll need to achieve a survivable level of warmth.
Finding a Survival Shelter That Meets Our Needs
Okay so we’ve decided we need to build a shelter quickly, with readily available materials, with as little energy as possible which achieves all 3 of our needs we outlined above. That’s a pretty tall order!
When we go camping our tent blocks wind and rain while our sleeping bag uses modern insulation to trap non-moving air and keep us warm all night long. In a survival situation we need one simple shelter that can do all of these things simultaneously.
A-frame shelters with, say, a nicely waterproof thatched roof or overlapping boughs will do a great job of keeping out rain. Unfortunately, they won’t fully stop wind (one side must remain open) and they take a fair amount of time to construct. No good.
Log cabin style stacked wooden walls are extremely laborious and take forever. Plus, they usually do a poor job of blocking wind unless they’re properly insulated which, again, takes more time and energy.
Dug shelters can be great at shedding wind as you’re sheltered below ground. Using a simple roof could even be relatively quick to construct in the right areas. However, there is still a total lack of insulation which is a no-go.
Leaf Debris Shelters
A debris shelter happens to be simple, quick, and effective in almost any situation.
At its simplest a debris shelter uses leaf litter, pine needles, or other available ground clutter. This debris is then gathered into a large pile and your shelter is done!
Yes, it’s really that simple.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a lot more to understand so let’s do a deep dive into the debris shelter!
Among the advantages of a leaf debris shelter are:
- Very simple to build
- Very quick and efficient to build
- Easy to remember how to do
- Can be built in the majority of temperate biomes
- Shelter and insulation in one structure
- Easy to improve and build upon
How to Build a Debris Survival Shelter
By building up a thick enough pile of leaf litter or other ground clutter your goal is to create a windproof, waterproof pile of insulation. It checks off all three needs at once without any frills.
Locate a Good Area
You’re going to need a huge pile of debris so look for an area that has a ton of leaf litter, pine needles, or other plant matter you can gather up.
It’s worth looking around a little before you jump right into it because you’ll waste a lot of time if you start gathering debris and find yourself starved of material after a few hours of work.
Make a Rake
To gather up enough debris for your shelter you’ll want to maximize effort. Today we rake up yards with modern rakes which improves the speed and ease of gathering up clutter. Why not do the same thing in your survival situation?
Don’t overthink this!
I like to grab 3-4 sticks about the thickness of a finger. Usually I’ll put them between my fingers like Wolverine’s claws and start raking up debris. You can try to tie them together, use spacer bars, or otherwise improve the rake but don’t waste too much time on it.
All we want to do is slightly improve the speed with which we can gather debris.
Even a simple “rake” is surprisingly faster at gathering than just using your hands.
Pile Up Your Debris
Don’t worry about finding dry debris. Wet leaves, a few small sticks, some dead plants – it’s all good!
Really what we want here is a huge pile of debris.
Don’t try to rake debris all the way over to your pile. Instead, rake up dozens of little piles and then carry them over and drop them in one place.
I often tell people that once you think you have a big enough pile of debris, go triple it!
This shelter only works if you have a huge pile of debris. At a bare minimum you’ll need 12” of debris under you and around you on all sides once inside. That means you’ll need a pile that’s an absolute minimum of about 2’ x 2’ x 7’.
Ideally I would like to see you get a 4’ x 4’ x 7’ pile of debris in order to build up a thick enough cocoon of debris to survive.
Note: You don’t need to build anything around your pile – there’s no need for an skeleton of sticks or anything else. Literally just pile up the debris.
Nestle in to Your New Home
Now that you’ve made a leaf pile your kids would be proud of, all you have to do is dive inside!
Find the center of the pile and wiggle your way down inside. Try not to disturb the pile anymore than necessary – you want a good even covering!
Remember that you don’t want to lay directly on the ground, so be sure there is 12-24” of debris between you and the ground. Laying on the ground is a fast lane to hypothermia because it acts as a heat sink for drawing out body heat.
If possible you can make a little burrito out of a tarp, garbage bag, or other membrane. This helps to put a barrier between you and the leaves as well as adding an extra layer of wind and water resistance.
How a Debris Shelter Works
Have you ever made a pile of leaves in the fall, maybe around the yard? Perhaps you left that pile of leaves overnight and didn’t get to cleaning it up. Rain comes along, everything is soaked, yet you still have to clean up those leaves.
Even a moderate size pile of leaves remains dry inside in all but the most torrential of rains. When you manage to pile up a 3-4 foot thick pile it soon becomes nearly impenetrable to water.
The outer leaves saturate, mat down, and act like shingle protecting the rest of the pile.
Even if the leaves you’re using for your shelter are already wet, it’s no problem. As you rake, stack, and pile up your debris hut the leaves create dead air space around them, just the same way the insulation in your sleeping bag works.
Pile on 2-4’ of insulation and, even when wet, these leaves will help you retain body heat overnight without a problem!
Sure, it’s not glamorous and it’s no bamboo hut like Gilligan had… but it will greatly improve your odds of going home.
What to do After You Build a Debris Hut
Once you pile up that debris and get through the first night, it’s time to start improving.
I recommend continuing to build up more debris the next day. Add some sticks or layers of bark over the outside to help shed rain and hold down the leaves so they don’t blow away. Be careful not to pack heavy stuff on top though – compressing the leaves defeats the purpose and ruins the insulation.
Now that you have a survivable shelter in place you can move on to securing food and water.
After that, feel free to improve your shelter as elaborately as you want (though I would argue there are better uses of your time in a survival situation).
Our goal is to make it through the first night or two with this debris hut and then you can improve, change, and rebuild as you see fit.
Limitations of a Debris Shelter
- Can’t be built in some locations
- Dependant on large amounts of leaf or pine litter
- Must be built very large and thick to be highly effective
- Doesn’t provide shelter unless you’re buried inside it
- Leaves may be prone to being blown away
Of course, there are ways to work around most of these issues and choosing the right shelter for your location is always important. Take a moment to think before you dive right into building a shelter.
Incorporating Debris With Other Shelters
Maybe you’ve decided a shelter other than a debris hut is appropriate. However, you need additional insulation… what’s to be done?
Every survival shelter I can think of can be benefit from improved insulation. Just gather up a bunch of leaves and fill the inside (and outside) of any shelter with leaves for a boost in warmth, wind, and rain protection.
If you find yourself without appropriate clothing for the weather you might be able to use some leaves as well! Put on a jacket and stuff that baby to the brim with leaves! Zip up the jacket and you’re good to go.
It might not look good, smell good, or even feel that great but it’s the difference between living and dying. The extra trapped air and insulation provided by leaf debris can really help.
Not convinced? Ask any squirrel and they’ll show you their nests which are just leaf debris shelters in the tree!
Like anything in survival, the ultimate goal is to get back to safety. That’s why there’s never really a “best” shelter or “best” tactic. It’s all situational. Knowing how to build a survival shelter is essential prepper knowledge.
How practiced are you? What skills and concepts do you understand? Where are you geographically?
There are hundreds of considerations to mull over before you make any decisions. In the end, the best thing you can do is to learn, read, practice, and refine.
Take this article about the debris shelter with a grain of salt and apply it to what you already know. Use it in conjunction with other tactics, skills, and tricks you may know in order to effect successful survival in the wilderness.
Leaf debris shelters are uncomplicated and efficient shelters that will get you through a night or two in most situations. My goal here was to remind you of them or introduce you to them because I feel that the debris shelter, in all of its un-glamorous pragmatism, may be the most practical survival shelter out there.
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