Practical Survival Skills 101 - Obtaining Shelter

Authors Note: For this edition of Practical Survival Skills, I want to make things more interactive, as I believe that this format is really beneficial for learning. During the “Mesoscale” discussion, I’ll ask the reader a series of questions that they should answer based on their location. If you don’t want to participate in the conversation, that’s perfectly fine! It’s simply an exercise to get you thinking about how to improvise under pressure.

The Survival Saw gives us three hours of exposure before we begin to succumb to the elements. 

This essay is going to largely fill the “mainstream” ideas of what constitutes a wilderness shelter, but I believe in simple, effective techniques, practiced towards perfection, and mental flexibility. Once you understand the concepts, it becomes easier to ‘improvise.’ This is critically important here, because it’s extremely difficult for me to write giving adequate consideration to all environments; it’s incumbent on you to learn your area, know its tendencies, and have the mental flexibility to survive.


Shelter can be loosely described as a place where your environment is not compromising your ability to survive. When we think of environmental dangers, we often consider the impacts of events, and their impacts.

For example:

  1. Heat - burns - heat stroke
  2. Cold - hypothermia - frostbite

This is the way of thinking that is presented to most people. However, I believe it’s paramount to look not at the environmental effects, but rather at our bodies’ reaction to them.

Thermal Affects - Microscale

In this first part, I want to discuss factors that are, by in large, controlled by you - your mode of dress and selection of equipment. Thermal injuries have common ground in that they are almost all environmental - that is to say, either:

  • Some external factor is depleting water from the body faster than it is replaced, or
  • The water in the body is crystallizing and causing cell membranes to rupture.

Even in the case of blistering, we see the presence of moisture and irritation - so, far and away, our most pressing concern is how water goes into and comes out of our bodies.

In a healthy human, these things are moderated by homeostasis, so it’s important to know that our main goal here is simply assisting our body in maintaining homeostasis. That is to say, keep your core temperature at 98 degrees, and your body properly hydrated. It cannot be understated that even in extremely cold environments, you need to be drinking a quart of water every hour. Drink before you become thirsty - not after.

Without going into the minutia, there is a 3-sided stool we can use to keep our body well-regulated:

  1. Physical Conditioning
  2. Proper Hydration and Diet
  3. Appropriate Attire

The first two speak for themselves, and the third is easy to misunderstand. Don’t think that because it came from an L.L. Bean catalog, it’s “appropriate." A secret from the homeless: A water-resistant jacket stuffed with newspaper is more “appropriate” than the designer sweater you can’t rely on to keep you warm all night. We can think of attire as a “microscale” environment - therefore, it’s important to remember the following about your attire:

  • Cotton Kills. Cotton soaks moisture and contains it nicely. Especially in the high desert or rainforest, where temperatures drop drastically, cotton has a tendency to soak up sweat and keep it close to your body.
  • Your base-layer clothing should be Capiline, polypropylene, or a spandex composite, which channel moisture away from your body. Midlayer clothing made from polyester has always worked well for me, as it doesn’t trap moisture and allows passage of heat. I can’t emphasize enough the utility of high-technology secondary midlayers, such as Polar-Tec for keeping the heat in. This, in conjunction with a good, water-resistant windbreaker, will go a long way with providing you warmth while you’re active.
  • Whenever you get into a situation, think about the risks of thermal injuries, and consider what you have at hand. Are your shoes inadequate for the conditions? Consider putting a plastic bag between a first and second layer to keep rain or snow out (but remember to let your feet dry out!) Are your clothes soaked? If so - build a fire and wait! Allow them to dry.
Thermal Affects - Mesoscale

The mesoscale perspective on thermal concerns is a detailed look at your surroundings.

This is something that you should practice all the time - it’s fun, informative, and can really help you bolster your ability to survive. While you’re out, ask yourself about your surroundings: Are you in a city, the suburbs, a forest, or a desert? What’s your elevation? What kinds of flora and fauna are found here? What kind of supplies can you scavenge? What types of weather conditions can be expected here?

For this hypothetical situation, a banking crisis has the urban areas in panic, the roads are clogged with parked cars, and I’ve been caught away from home with a friend during the chaos. Our objective is to get another 20 miles on foot the next day, and we’ve stopped to assess a site to hole up for the night. While we had our third line equipment in our respective vehicles, we were forced to abandon the vehicles and take just what we could carry.

One of the most critical rules of survival is letting nothing go to waste - knowing your surroundings can help turn a discarded beer can into a water filter. Knowing the types of wood around you can help determine their combustibility, and their suitability for things like cooking - no one wants to have to eat pitch-flavored squirrel meat in a pinch. It’s bad for morale.

This is where we need to start looking at things such as what materials you have on hand, site selection for your camp/fire/latrine - and begin assessing what materials you have at hand, as well as what the likely weather situation is going to be given the time of year and geographic location.

To begin with, a quick look at what’s going on:

What do you see?

Go to your window, and look out: reply with what you see and what you know about it. Spend a few minutes - is there litter? Can it be used? List all the objects you see - even if they seem to have no use.

Here are my observations:

  • It’s 33 degrees Fahrenheit
  • the dew point is 17 degrees F
  • the atmospheric pressure is 30.25” of mercury at 160‘ ASL (Above Sea Level)
  • the wind is from the East at 10kts with gusts up to 22kts.

Translation: Cold, dry, and sitting under high pressure (thin, wispy clouds overhead - more evidence of high pressure). Trees are a mix of deciduous and coniferous; the former are bare, the latter are evergreens.

Based on what you see for yourself, ask What are my concerns? and How will I shelter against them?

Next, a look at a suitable site:

Here is an easy acronym to use for your situational assessment, MAP-E:

  1. M = Materials available
  2. A = Assessment of Terrain
  3. P = Plan for Resources
  4. E = Execution

2. Materials Available

At present, while traveling on foot along the river, we were lucky enough to find an abandoned structure. It’s heavily overgrown and has lots of ivy and Douglas fir growing around it. In addition to broken concrete, there are numerous bricks buried all around. Ivy covers the ground. There is a recently discarded beer can - color hasn’t faded yet (and no, it’s not mine). This is more than enough to combine with the equipment I had with me to create our own Mesoscale environment.

Ask yourself, What can I use, and for what?

2. Assessment

At present, we’re 50 yards from the river, on a granite outcropping. There are railroad tracks to our north approximately 100 yards, a cove with sand on our east and west aspects, approximately 150 yards in either direction. The position we’re assessing is recessed into the ground, giving it a beneficial, low profile that will prevent silhouetting.

3. Plan

Here is a list of what I see, and what I’m going to use it for:

  • Trees
    • Evergreens: I’m going to cut two, 3” diameter Fir trees to make the frame of my shelter, and use the boughs for two types of insulation: One for the shelter itself, and one to insulate us from the ground. Fortunately, I’ve got a pocket chainsaw in my 2nd line kit:

  • Deciduous: I’m going to leave them alone, with the exception of one small, downed alder I‘ve found. They’re all hardwoods, such as cottonwood. Alder, hickory, or even hardwoods like wild cherry would work well for cooking, but these guys are green, underdeveloped and not going to do me much good this time of year.
  • Bricks
    • I’m going to use the bricks as a firebreak, and get them warm. Before bunking down, I’m going to dig a shallow hole and bury several of the bricks to warm the ground. Be careful doing this; they are tough to move when they’re hot. Bury them under about 3” of soil.
  • Ivy
    • I’m going to tear the leaves off, use them for insulation and take the long, thick cords, double them up, and use them for rope:

  • Beer Bottle
    • This is going to be packed with sand and charcoal in order to create a water filter.
  • Concrete
    • While waste, the concrete arises on either side of our shelter area, giving some ballistic protection, as well as concealment from the casual passerby.
  • River
    • The river can provide both water and a potential source of food. Our proximity to it is beneficial, but it will certainly attract others in an emergency.

In addition to this, it should be understood that a system of “Challenge and Password” is established, and if anyone leaves the immediate camp area, that they are either accompanied, or otherwise accounted for by a detailed outline of:

  1. What they’re doing
  2. How long they intend to be gone
  3. Who they’re taking

The military uses the acronym GOTWA: 

  • Going Where?
  • Others with me
  • Time I’ll be gone
  • What we’re doing
  • Actions on:
    • Contact with outsiders, you
    • Contact with outsiders, me

This is a simple, easy to understand procedure that will help prevent massive confusion in the event that other arrive to challenge you for your spot or resources.

Challenge and Password/Duress:

  • Challenge and password is a procedural word that whoever is “looking out” will use if he or she observes someone approaching. When the word is spoken, if it’s not replied, defensive posture should be taken immediately. The words should be made up, unrelated, and changed frequently.  If the approaching person replies with a different answer, you know you’ve been contacted by someone outside your party. Example:
    • Challenge word: Rock
    • Password: Thunder
    <li><em>Duress words </em>are words that are spoken in casual conversation to let others in your party know that something is wrong, but that you cannot react for fear of harm. Duress words should be simple, and uncommon, but not alarming. Further, they should be spoken in a sentence. For example, if your duress word is “Giraffe”… A party member returns with two people, and seems to be uneasy. After responding favorable to the Challenge and Password, your comrade returns saying, “I found water, but there were no giraffes.” Instantly, you should be clued in to the fact your partner is in distress, but the word itself means nothing to the people outside your party.</li>

4. Execution

This phase is going to sound very familiar to those who’ve read the Practical Survival Skills 101 - Fire Starting primer: Gather your materials and plan your structure - in this case, a small, A-frame shelter. If possible, now is the time to grab a quick bite to eat and drink some water, as assembling the materials is taxing.

So, here is a shot of our gathered materials. For the frame of the structure, we want to use lengths of about 3” and 1” in diameter:

Once we’ve got them ready, we take our main pole and use two standing trees in the middle of the abandoned structure to give us our ‘frame.’ This is the rear, which will be sealed by boughs - note the ivy used to secure the pieces in place:

Here is a view towards the front:

As we get more complete, the “wall” pieces will be angled to better hold the fir boughs in place. On the interior, another length will support a tarp that I keep in my backpack - this will allow the fir boughs to act as an air break, while giving some warmth-retaining properties as well as running off water.

Here is the beam before the tarp is hung, and before the Eastern wall is covered in boughs:

And a view of the shelter, completed - this is from the south side:

At this point, continue site improvement by adding boughs to the sides and ground for insulation. The sustenance of your fire and considerations regarding where you’re going to get food and water are in order.


This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our Input on the What Should I Do? Series feedback forum.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This is great stuff.  It’s got a darker, refugree tinge to it but who knows if you’ll be able to stay put even if you’ve made plans.  It’s the hard facts. 

Syd O,
Thanks for the kind words, I hope these will help people build the most primitive skills - like you said - refugee type survival skills.

With these as a baseline, it will b easier to handle ‘lesser’ emergencies with confidence. Thank you again sir.



Thanks for the great article. It takes me back to my Boyscout days when we practiced making emergency shelters. The only part of the article not clear to me is the placement of the tarp. Are you placing a secondary, interior ridge pole as a draping anchor for the tarp, then securing the ground sides of the tarp by tieing off or using weights (bricks)?

Note to others: A need for emergency shelter could arise due to many factors outside of civil unrest. Better to know how than not, right?

And better to have an emergency pack of some type with you, whether driving, biking, or hiking.

Thank you for the words - the Tarp is draped on the inside of the shelter along the main beam seen in the second, and third to last photographs. It is then anchored using paracord, and small, trenches are dug along its edges so that any precipitation isn’t going to saturate you when you need it the least - IE; laying down trying to conserve heat.

This even and the Water purification event were done together, and unfortunately, a dead battery in the camera made it so I couldn’t get all the photos I wanted.

Either way, I’d be happy to clarify anything that didn’t make it to the final product.

Also, feel free to post your observations of your surroundings as a part of this exercise. 
It will help to brain storm with others on what can be done within our environments.



[quote=Aaron Moyer]Also, feel free to post your observations of your surroundings as a part of this exercise. It will help to brain storm with others on what can be done within our environments.
Background: I am in the process of assembling a two-person emergency kit (backpack), a bug out bag, if you prefer. To make this as realistic as possible for today’s discussion, the current contents of this kit include:
A 2-person tent (backpacking size, ~4 lb.), one space blanket—the original-style heavy-duty version, 2 types of fire starters + small container of Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, Katadyn backpacker’s water filter kit, two 1/2-liter bottles of water, Sawvivor (folding survival saw), Cold Steel brand bowie knife, two 50’ lengths of 550 paracord, six MREs w/ heaters, 1-burner stove with about 4 hours of fuel (unleaded gasoline), 1-qt. stainless steel backpacker’s cook pot (inside is 6 Folgers Singles coffee packets, 6 tea bags, sugar), plastic utensils, small Zip-Loc bag w/ individual packaged anti-bacterial wipes, small basic first aid kit, Zip-Loc bag containing toilet paper, hand trowel for burying waste. In addition to this bag, my everyday carry knife is a Kershaw folding lock-blade knife with 4” blade.
And because this discussion is about obtaining shelter, my kit is sans tent.
Conditions at 3:30 p.m. (2-1/2 hours of useable daylight remaining): 37 degrees F with a projected low in the 20s, wind 5-10 mph, clear sky—the result of a high pressure system; no forecast of precipitation for the next 24 hours.
Looking out the windows on the rear of the house I see a natural drainage area, a V-shaped gully about 30’ deep. There are numerous hardwood (deciduous) trees, ranging in size from saplings to 12-18” in diameter, and small pines. There are several fallen trees that have branches not touching the ground (dry firewood). For ground insulating material there are fallen leaves and pine needles. There is a stack of rocks of various sizes and shapes.
The first order of business is building the shelter. I’ve selected level ground at the edge of the gully and will construct an A-shape shelter similar to Aaron’s. The rear of the shelter will face the prevailing wind. Using the Sawvivor, I select and cut an 8’ ridge pole and the side and rear poles. (Perpendicular to the side poles will be horizontal poles to aid in placing the cover). The front of the shelter will be mostly open. Using the paracord, I lash the poles together to form the frame of the shelter. Next are the pine boughs I’ve harvested using the bowie knife. Starting at the bottom of the shelter, I place the pine boughs in overlapping layers, laying the boughs as tightly as possible to block the wind. When the shelter is finished, I insulate the floor with about 6” of dry leaves and pine needles.
About 4 feet in front of the tent I build a fire ring, using the rocks. Also using rocks, I build a reflector placed on the opposite side of the fire ring from the shelter to reflect heat into the shelter. Next, I harvest as much dry firewood as I can find in the limited time remaining before darkness, hoping it will be enough to last the night. Useable daylight is almost gone.
I’ve prepared the gathered tender and small starter kindling and, using the cotton balls and fire starter, create fire. I build a medium-size fire, and the reflector provides enough heat in the shelter to keep from freezing. To conserve body heat, I wrap up in the space blanket.
Now that the essentials are in place, an MRE fills the belly and I’m ready to endure the night. If needed, I can drink heated water to assist in staying warm.
Pleasant dreams? I doubt it, but I’ll survive to greet the rising sun.

 It seems I registered two years and three weeks ago and must have forgotten about it. Are you maybe connected with Rewild Eugene? I had a lot of trouble getting logged on, but now this box popped up unexpectedly.
This looks like my kind of site with lots of interesting and recently pertinent info and may become my main site.

Here in Eugene, OR, the main type of shelter I’ve heard about is more basic, especially if just for one night. It’s intended for one person, but adaptable for more. It involves a ridgepole sloping to the ground, the ‘front’ end propped up by two branched sticks. Lots of smaller straight sticks are propped against that, with leaves and other debris piled on top, enough to make good insulation. I suspect if rain is expected, leaves already wet might be best, if available, because they’d form more of a mat to conduct the water away. In western Oregon, wet leaves are not usually hard to find, except in the ‘dead of summer’.

An alternative possibility I’ve noticed is evergreens, on the edge of a meadow, perhaps especially Douglas Fir and on the North side, where lower limbs tend to come down close to the ground, for a potential ridge pole.

I’ve never seen a “pocket chain saw” in stores, but I made one from a regular chain saw blade. But it makes a pretty wide cut, and only in one direction of pull.

[quote=Dan Robinson]Here in Eugene, OR, the main type of shelter I’ve heard about is more basic, especially if just for one night. It’s intended for one person, but adaptable for more. It involves a ridgepole sloping to the ground, the ‘front’ end propped up by two branched sticks. Lots of smaller straight sticks are propped against that, with leaves and other debris piled on top, enough to make good insulation. I suspect if rain is expected, leaves already wet might be best, if available, because they’d form more of a mat to conduct the water away. In western Oregon, wet leaves are not usually hard to find, except in the ‘dead of summer’.
An alternative possibility I’ve noticed is evergreens, on the edge of a meadow, perhaps especially Douglas Fir and on the North side, where lower limbs tend to come down close to the ground, for a potential ridge pole.
I like your design, Dan; easier than an A-frame on both ends. And as you’ve mentioned, sheltering under low growing branches is better than nothing. Perhaps in mountainous country one could locate a shelter formed by overlapping rocks. I suppose there are many possibilities.

Great stuff, Aaron.  Simple, to the point, and thorough (which seems to be the way you approach just about everything!).  The acronyms (MAP-E, etc.) are great since in a stress sitch we might not remember the various steps without some sort of mnemonic.
Thanks again for this!

Viva – Sager

Great work Aaron!

Dan Robinson
I’m in the Oregon Area as well - a couple of the main reasons I generally don’t do my shelters in the lean-to fashion is there is no way to bug out the back and they lack dry storage for equipment. That’s not to say they’re not useful, I use them every now and again - but generally only if I’m alone.

I haven’t heard of Rewild Eugene - I’m up in the Hood River area at present.
Thanks kindly for your contribution!  It’s good to get other ideas out for consideration.

Sager and Jager - gotta love the rhythm there.
Thanks kindly! 


Great job with the assessment - Another reason to think shelter in a “refugee” type situation is that tents drastically cut our situational awareness. They “trap” us, essentially, and can be a serious liability in a situation where we’re trying not to be cornered. 


Hey Aaron,
I just wanted to express my gratitude for your work in this series. I’ve learned a lot and really enjoy your writing.

Thanks buddy…Jeff

Do the situational awareness exercise!
Let’s “see what you see”, and determine what we can do with what we’ve got =)

Thank you for the kind words - it’s my pleasure and honor to contribute here.