Building Natural Shelters

Building Natural Shelters: A Comprehensive Bushcraft Guide

Bushcraft is a term used to describe wilderness survival skills, including hunting, tracking, fire-making, and shelter-building. Among these skills, building natural shelters is crucial for any outdoor enthusiast. Not only can they provide immediate protection from the elements, but they also help you to truly connect with nature.

Understanding the Importance of Shelter Building

Shelter-building is a foundational skill in bushcraft and survival. In unpredictable outdoor environments, a well-built shelter can mean the difference between life and death. It serves to protect you from adverse weather conditions, helps maintain body heat, and can even provide a safe place to store food and equipment.

The Principles of Natural Shelter Building

Constructing a natural shelter requires understanding some basic principles. There are three key factors that can determine the effectiveness of your shelter:


Choosing the right location is the foundation for any successful shelter. Consider these factors when selecting your spot: safety from natural hazards, proximity to water and food resources, and optimal exposure to sunlight.


Adequate insulation is essential for warmth. The right materials can prevent heat loss and protect against cold or damp ground.


Keeping dry is vital in many climates. Consider how rain, dew, or ground moisture might affect your shelter and use materials and designs that repel water.

Selecting the Right Natural Shelter Type

Depending on your environment, materials available, and the time you have, different types of shelters can be more suitable. Here are five types of natural shelters used in bushcraft:

The Lean-To

The lean-to is one of the simplest shelters. Typically, it involves leaning branches or poles against a tree trunk or a ridgepole.

The A-Frame

The A-frame is a step up in complexity and protection. It is created by forming a self-supporting peak, creating an ‘A’ shape, then covering this frame with branches, foliage, or other available materials.

The Debris Hut

A debris hut is an enclosed shelter that provides excellent insulation. It’s constructed using a sturdy frame, usually in an ‘A’ shape, which is then covered with leaves, grass, and branches.

The Quinzhee

The quinzhee is a snow shelter that is similar to an igloo but easier to build. It involves piling up snow into a large mound, allowing it to sinter, or harden, then hollowing it out.

The Wickiup

The wickiup is a conical shelter, often used by Native American tribes. It is constructed by arranging poles in a circular pattern and leaning them towards a central point. These are then covered with brush, grass, or other materials.

Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Lean-to Shelter

The lean-to is a great starting point for beginners. Here are the steps to build one:

1. Find a Suitable Location

Choose a spot with good drainage and solid trees or branches to serve as your main support.

2. Gather Materials

You’ll need a long branch for your ridgepole and smaller branches, leaves, and foliage for your walls and bedding.

3. Construct the Frame

Secure your ridgepole horizontally between two trees. Then lean your smaller branches against it at an angle.

4. Add Insulation

Cover the frame with leaves, moss, or grass to create a windbreak. Ensure the debris is at least a few inches thick for better insulation. Don’t forget to add a thick layer of foliage to the ground as well.

5. Waterproof Your Shelter

Depending on the weather conditions, waterproofing might be essential. Layer materials like bark or large leaves over the debris, always starting from the bottom and working your way up, similar to laying shingles on a roof.

Preserving Your Environment

While building natural shelters is an invaluable skill for outdoor enthusiasts, it’s important to respect the environment. Be mindful not to overharvest materials from any single area and avoid damaging living trees when possible. Always dismantle your shelter and return the area to its natural state when you leave.

Building Natural Shelters in Different Climates

Different climates and seasons require different shelter types and strategies.

Desert Conditions

In deserts, shelter from the sun is crucial. A simple sunshade or lean-to can help. Consider digging into the cool sand for a sleeping spot.

Cold Weather Conditions

In snowy environments, shelters like the quinzhee, snow cave, or an insulated lean-to with a fire reflector can keep you warm.

Wet Conditions

In wet environments, focus on building a raised platform for sleeping and ensuring a waterproof roof, like a debris hut or raised lean-to.

Common Mistakes in Shelter Building

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when building natural shelters:

Building Too Large

A larger shelter is harder to warm up. Keep your shelter just large enough to fit you comfortably.

Inadequate Insulation

Insulation is key to staying warm. Make sure to insulate both the ground and the walls of your shelter.

Poor Location Choice

Building in a low-lying, wet area, or under a dead tree, can lead to disaster. Always choose your location wisely.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How long does it take to build a natural shelter?

A: Depending on the type of shelter and materials available, it can take anywhere from 1 to 5 hours to build a natural shelter.

Q: What materials can I use for insulation?

A: Leaves, grass, moss, pine needles, and even snow can provide good insulation.

Q: Can I build a natural shelter in any environment?

A: While it’s possible to build a shelter in most environments, the type of shelter, and the materials used, will vary based on the surroundings.

Bottom Line

The art of building natural shelters is an essential survival skill for any outdoor enthusiast. It connects you to the environment, tests your resourcefulness, and most importantly, provides protection in the wilderness. Remember, the best shelter is the one that suits your environment, your resources, and the specific survival scenario you face.

Additional Resources

For further reading and learning, check out these resources:

  • Bushcraft USA Forum: A highly active forum where you can learn from experienced bushcrafters and share your own experiences.
    NOLS: The National Outdoor Leadership School offers courses in wilderness skills and leadership.
  • Sigma 3 Survival School: A survival training school offering a range of courses, including hands-on training in shelter building.
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