Exposure to the elements is one of the most immediate dangers in survival scenarios. Whether it’s unrelenting rain, searing heat, or bone-chilling cold, having a shelter to protect you can be the difference between life and death.

The forms of survival shelters are as diverse as the environments in which they are constructed, from caves to improvised structures made of sticks and leaves. In this article, we’ll discuss why we need shelters, what they look like, and how they can help you survive.

The Realities of Survival Shelters

Hollywood often portrays survival shelters as elaborate constructs, equipped with modern comforts, built in record time with nothing more than a multi-tool. The reality is much more modest: a shelter that keeps out most of the wind and a fair share of the rain can be considered a success.

If it keeps you alive through the night, it’s done its job.

Survival vs. Bushcraft

The terms “survival” and “bushcraft” are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences. Survival refers to managing to stay alive in an unforeseen and adverse situation, often with limited resources.

Bushcraft, on the other hand, is about intentionally living off the land with a small amount of equipment, using skills and knowledge to thrive rather than just survive. While the two can intersect, it’s important to understand the context in which you’re operating.

The Impact of Wind and Rain

Wind and rain can significantly increase the risk of hypothermia. Water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than air, and wind can amplify this effect. Therefore, any survival shelter must prioritize protection from these elements.

The Different Types of Survival Shelters

Now, let’s explore the different types of basic shelters that you can build or find, with a focus on improvising with minimal equipment.


Caves and rock overhangs can offer an immediate solution, but caution is essential. You might be intruding on the territory of animals, or face other dangers like potential lightning strikes in stormy weather. If you’re building a fire in a cave, place it at the back to guide smoke out through the entrance.

Natural Hollows

Natural hollows, though not ideal during heavy rain, can provide quick shelter from the wind. A rudimentary roof can convert a simple hollow into a reasonable shelter.

Rock Shelters

In rocky terrain, you can create a “Sangar,” a small, circular rock structure. It keeps the wind at bay and, if time and materials allow, a quick roof can be added.

Felled Tree Shelter

If you can cut down a small tree, you can make a shelter. Work from the trunk end, removing all the branches from the inside to form a tunnel-like shelter. Outer branches can be used for additional protection.

Windfall Shelter

A windfall shelter, made by collecting branches and covering them with plant matter, can be a simple solution requiring few or no tools. This shelter is easily built during autumn when materials are abundant.

Prioritize Survival

Remember, in survival situations, shelters must be quick and simple. Your energy and time are precious resources that need to be divided among numerous tasks, including finding food and water, determining direction, and maintaining safety.

These shelters are about meeting immediate needs. They’re not designed for long-term comfort or to blend seamlessly into the environment like bushcraft shelters. Survival is about staying alive, and your shelter is an important tool in achieving that.

Note: The windfall shelter illustrated in the photos is the same one featured in the related article, Combat Survival Training: Is There a Benefit to the Environment? In a real survival scenario, though, you wouldn’t need to make the shelter nearly as invisible.

Your survival depends on your resourcefulness, creativity, and the will to live. Understanding the essentials of shelter building can go a long way in enhancing your survival skills and improving your chances of making it out alive.

Stay safe, and remember: survival is a test of will, but it’s also about adapting and making the most out of the resources available.