How to Build a Long Term Survival Shelter

If you find yourself in a situation where you need shelter (night is coming, crazy weather, etc.) knowing how to build a long term survival shelter is a critical skill for any Prepper.  Shelters can be made from natural materials or a combination of natural materials and synthetic. Ponchos and tarps are great additions to your Prepper kit or bug out bag. Other lightweight additions for mastering shelter is to carry stakes and paracord in your pack as well.

Many survivalists will tell you to get a quick shelter up to keep you warm if you need to spend the night. This advice may suffice, but in our opinion any night in the woods deserves a serious shelter. If you know how to build a lean to shelter it will help, but how you outfit it can make all the difference in the world when the fire goes down and it gets seriously cold!


Survival Shelters Purpose 

A shelter is meant to protect you from the elements and assure that you are warm and comfortable.  Spending your time to build a flimsy shelter that doesn’t protect you from wind, rain, or other elements can be a waste of time and effort.  A simple lean to shelter is not enough protection for the average person. In a pinch, a night under a lean to shelter can work, but the sleep is rough.

If you make the bones of a lean to in 1 hour you can make a fortified A frame with a pine straw bottom in 2 hours. Well worth the effort! Building a shelter takes a bit of knowledge and research, but after running through this guide, you should be prepared to build a respectable shelter that is actually comfortable in no time.

Source: Building a Primitive Lean-To Shelter (youtube.com)


A Frame Shelter (Or Modify for a Lean To) in 7 Steps

1) The first step in building a long term survival shelter is finding an excellent location. Location is the foundation of any shelter and is important for both short and long term shelters. Look for a nice level area, on a high ground that is not too close to water. Also be aware of trees around you - are they alive?  If not, find a new location!  Dead trees do fall and branches break off.  These widow makers are not worth the risk, no matter how ideal the location may be.

Also consider the wildlife in the area. A quick walk around your campsite will give you an idea of what types of wildlife frequent the area or live nearby. An example would be finding a quality campsite that has tons of bear tracks, bones and bear scat throughout (very bad)! This is probably not the best place to camp unless you want an interaction with a bear.

Prepper Tip:

Consider building your shelter close to large boulders.  The rocks can absorb heat from your fire and even reflect it back into your shelter if built properly!

2) The next step in creating a long-term shelter, find a solid ridge pole. A ridge pole is the horizontal pole that will be lashed down to create the top of your shelter. The ridge pole should be straight and strong, about 3 inches in diameter. I like to trim my ridge pole of any knots or burs in case I use a tarp as well. This helps avoid punctures.  A solid Kukri Machete can help - see link.

3) After that we need to find a pair of trees to support the ridge pole. Look for two trees that offer you enough space to lay between and be comfortable. These need to be strong trees but not giants. Looping paracord around massive trees is a waste of line. Instead. I look for two trees that are anywhere from 7-10 inches in diameter.

4) Now lash the ridge pole to the trees to create that horizontal “ridge” between the trees. I like to use the method of square lashing (see below).


5) Next, seek out branches and saplings to build your A frame or lean to. Obviously, the benefits of the A frame are having more coverage but if you are in a sparsely wooded area you may need to settle for a lean to. Its never my first choice.

These branches will be lashed to your ridge pole or leaned and dug into the ground. Driving the poles into the ground then building debris up around them assures that you will have a sturdy and draft free shelter.

6) Once your poles are in place you can now start gathering debris to make your roof. This debris should be a good mix of pine needles, fallen leaves and even some mud to hold it altogether. Build from the ground up and add a couple smaller poles to the top of the debris to keep it in place. Finally use larger leaves, pine boughs or even tree bark to really waterproof the shelter. This video shows the bark method which is very effective.


7) At this point you need only build a bedding area that keeps you from touching the ground directly. This can be a simple pile of debris or you can use more wood to build that debris pile on. Place your sleeping bag on top and you will keep much of your heat instead of having it stolen away by the cold ground.


A Frame Shelter with Prepper Gear

Your long-term shelter doesn’t have to be made exclusively from natural materials. In fact, I would argue against it as your number one option. In an emergency situation you should look to build the best shelter while spending the least amount of time and effort.

Here are three items that you need to have in your pack always for shelter making.

With these three items you can make a long-term shelter in a matter of minutes. This is an enormous difference between the time it will take you to process materials for your natural shelter. Still, we are going to use nature to create this shelter.

The same consideration should go into finding that quality campsite location.

Prepper Tip:

Position your shelter so that your back / the wall is facing the wind.  Nothing worse than a constant cold breeze at night!

This time you are looking for a tree that grows out of the ground in a fork. This will be your anchor point for the high end of your shelter. You are merely going to find one of the loops on your poncho and pull it through the for of the tree. From here you will push the stake through that loop and it will lock one part of your poncho in place. The rest of the shelter is staking down the poncho in the fashion you like.

If you are looking to raise the roof of your shelter a bit you can use a pine cone or rock on the inside of your shelter and cinch that outside of the tent around it using some paracord. This will give you the ability to lift that roof using the cinched pine cone. Tie the cinch line off on a higher branch and you will have a considerable amount of space in your shelter.

Here is a great video showing a similar version of this shelter.


Preserving your Long Term Shelter 

If your emergency situation means you may spend an extended period in the shelter, you must treat it like a home. It needs maintenance. Start each day with a thorough examination and fortification of your shelter. For the bones of the shelter, make sure your saplings are strong and solid. These are the bones of your structure.

Next, you will want to look at the leaves, boughs or whatever else you use to weatherproof your structure. This part is going to take a serious beating from the elements. Rain and wind will slowly eat away at the effectiveness of your weather proofing. Finally, look over the bedding area. You need to have something that keeps you off the ground. The cold ground steals all your heat overnight.

For a tarp or poncho shelter you need to make sure your poncho is holding up under the pressure. Watch the seems on your loops and be prepared to sew them if you are depending on this method of shelter making for a long-term situation.

With a little knowledge, practice and maintenance, knowing how to build a long-term survival shelter can be easy. Take these base models and add to them. Customize them to make the ultimate survival shelter.