How to Build a Primitive Long Term Survival Shelter

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If you are looking to stay in the bush for an extended period of time you are going to need a good shelter to protect you from the elements. Even short-term stays in the wild usually require some sort of shelter, even more so when the weather turns. 

In this article, we’ll highlight the main considerations regarding how to build a longer-term shelter. Emphasis will be on a few important factors:

  1. Types of Simple Survival Shelters
  2. Different types of Environments
  3. Site selection
  4. Supplies and Gear

We’ll also briefly explore some classic shelter options that can be used for both short-term and long-term situations.

How to Build a Long Term Bushcraft Survival Shelter

A long-term survival shelter is perhaps something that is difficult to classify, depending on your level of expertise and if you don’t mind a little bit of discomfort then you can pretty much use anything as a long-term survival shelter.

However, with that said there are certain structures that will last longer than others. Longer-term shelters being more durable, will require more tools, expertise and time to set up.

It simply would be unfeasible to start naming all the steps involved to build some of these complex structures, as they take many weeks to build if you check out the videos below.

Long Term A-Frame

The guys at TA Outdoors do a beautiful job in creating a throwback to a Viking Hut. To build something like this you are going to need to do some more prepping than just reading this article ;). The guys at TA Outdoors have been building structures for years and really know there stuff.

This long-term A-frame shelter will take several days if not weeks to build as it requires more precise beams, straight cut logs and enough bark to use for the roof. Great idea, but not entirely practical if you are just starting out in bushcraft or survival.

Long Term Mud Hut

If you haven’t already checked out the guys at Primitive Technology I would highly recommend it. His videos are mesmerizing. Seeing how he creates this structure from nothing is nothing short of impressive.

There are not many of us who can create a whole mud house from nothing. You would need some serious time on your hands not to mention some serious skills to make one of these. So, if we aren’t there yet, here are a few simple versions of survival shelters that may be more practical for the rest of us.

1. Types of Simple Survival Shelters

While there are a number of possible structural designs that can be used when building a long-term shelter, here are a few basic structures that are often used:

Simple Lean-to Shelter

A lean-to is a simple structure as you can see, though it can be easily expanded upon and made into a larger shelter, using natural material for the rood and sides or made into a A-frame type structure. Depending on the weather you can also use branches, moss, fern, and leaves on top of the lean-to to give you more protection.

The A Frame

An A-frame is similar to a lean to it however it is a stand-alone structure that needs more precision as you have to have it self supported rather than a lean-to which can “lean” on whatever is around. An A-frame you are also likely to need rope, unless you can make or find some twine or something to tie the structure together.

The Teepee

A Teepee is similar to an A-frame except that there is only one opening instead of two which provides greater warmth. Different versions of this exist depending on what materials are available.

You can use almost any debris that you find around the forest, whether that’s pine branches, bark or lots of small logs. If there are not many natural materials around, a tarp can always be used to wrap around your poles.

Tarp Shelter

A Tarp shelter is a simple and easy to set up alternative to a natural shelter. Though not as aesthetically pleasing and will not provide the same protection against the wind. You can, however, use a tarp with a lean-to or A-frame structure if you want something that is more durable and waterproof.

There are many variations and combinations of this and all of the above structures. Many of them will incorporate aspects of one design with another, as there are no rules, as it is simply a matter of what works.

2. Different Types of Environments

Shelter from the elements

Tropics

In warmer more tropical climates shelters can often be much more simple in their design with a more open concept as you do not need to protect yourself from the cold. Shelters here are more centered around creating a cover from the hot sun and tropical rains. While the structure of a shelter in the tropics will vary in comparison to temperate climate designs, many of the general considerations and site selection ideas are the same.  

In the tropics, shelters can be made from dead wood or bamboo and palm tree branches for the roof. A palm leaf roof, with latticework, can also be used and if layered can keep out heaveir monsoon rains. 

To this day, much of the world’s population in the Southern Hemisphere lives under palm-thatched roofs with bamboo beams, so it is definitely possible.

North

In the Nothern Hemisphere, however, where the climate is drier and cooler than the wet humid regions around the equator; here you won’t be building with bamboo or palm, but likely with fallen logs, small trees, moss and bark for building your long-term shelter. 

Building in these environments you will not need to worry about rain as much and will find conditions easier to start a fire and keep dry which will make some aspects of the shelter easier to build.

3. Site Selection

Planning

It’s a good idea to start with a plan. You are not building an emergency shelter and so there is no major time pressure. Nonetheless, it’s good to be organized so you can manage your time and resources with a solid game plan.  

Assuming that you are not going to be bringing a tent with you, and instead relying on natural materials, you will have to be resourceful and use whatever is around in the area where you are staying:

Before starting to build your shelter, it’s a good idea to take your time to find a good location. Finding a suitable site will have an impact on what you would plan on building, the design, material and also your day-to-day living.

Using Natural Terrain to your Advantage

Here are a few important things to look out for:

1. Large Stones and Rocks

Building a structure near a rock outcropping can be a great way to find partial protection from the elements. If you find a big enough cave or outcropping you might not even need to build anything as they can provide great protection against the sun, wind and rain.

natural shelter

When such rock formations are not available, even finding a spot with a few large stones can be helpful. They generally are cool and do a good job reflecting the intensity of the sun. Building your fire in front of such stones and placing them so they reflect the heat back at your dwelling can help to bring warmth into your shelter during the night.    

2. Building on High Ground

Building on high ground is usually recommended when you are facing wetter conditions like heavier rains, snow in winter and the spring thaw. Some degree of slope is important so that excess water can be channeled towards the ground away from your shelter.

Because a higher elevation provides sun exposure and warmer temperatures, this may be preferable in the winter months. One way to maximize solar exposure in your shelter is by positioning the entrance facing South-East.

3. Watch out for Wind

Another major consideration is figuring out what direction the wind is blowing. If you are in a very windy area, choosing a more sheltered location is essential. You can then orient your shelter so that you get as much protection as possible. 

Knowing where the wind is coming from allows you to plan where to place your fire pit. To prevent smoke from suffocating your shelter you are going to want to position it in a way so that you don’t get smoked out of your house and home!

4. Surrounding Trees, Support or Hazard?

Generally, you will want to choose a campsite with adequate tree coverage. This can offer protection from strong winds and rain and also provide shade in the summertime. Finding a few strong trees that are relatively close together is also a great help when building shelters like a lean-to or an A-frame as they can become great structural pillars. 

lean to shelter against tree

Building your shelter up under a tree canopy can however pose some possible hazards. You should always be on the lookout for dead-standing trees, any large snags that can be dangling high above, or precarious-looking trees. 

5. Building Materials 

It is also important to consider how available natural building materials are. What you build will likely be determined on what’s available. Dead standing or fallen trees are ideal for building a lean-to, A-frame or teepee.

These types of shelters will require longer pieces of wood so they will likely only be able to be built in a forest. Other materials like evergreen branches or things that you can find in the underbrush like ferns are also useful that can be used as roofing. Tree bark, leaves, twigs, and most forest floor plants can be used to place on top of your shelter to provide insulation and cover your roof.

6. Water source

If you are planning a longer-term shelter, the most important consideration is to make sure that clean water is available. It is recommended to set up camp near a good water source so that you do not need to walk far to get water for your cooking and washing.

7. Fuel

Another important factor is finding a site with a sufficient supply of fuel for your fire. That means finding an area that has lots of smaller pieces of dead dry wood around that can be used for your fire.

8. Access

Another factor to consider when looking to build a shelter is where are the local trails located. If you are getting re-supplied then you are going to want to be close to a trail so that you can have easy access. If you are in some sort of emergency knowing how accessible your location is will help you to prepare for any emergency scenario.

4. Supplies and Gear

Building a shelter requires planning ahead to ensure that you have enough food and the right equipment that you need in order to build your shelter. What you build will be determined on the types of tools that you have. If you do not have any then you could fashion some primitive tools to help you out.

Necessary Tools

Building a long-term shelter will be difficult unless you have the right tools. You might be thinking of doing it Tarzan style and just walk into the woods with a knife and just see what happens.

When it comes to longer-term shelters unless you are a natural Tarzan, you’ll want to be geared up with the proper bushcraft gear and tools

Some of the essential pieces of gear you are going to want to have with you are:

1. Bushcraft Knife
2. Bushcraft Saw
3. Bushcraft Axe

These three pieces of equipment will take you quite far and if you are roughing it then thats all you might need to start building your shelter.

Other pieces of gear you are going to want to have on hand especially if you are going to build more complex structures are some:

4. Paracord

which you can use to help tie up your A-frame or teepee, tie up a bear bag and a thousand other things.

5. Tarp

Tarps are great as they can provide a good impromptu setup while you get your main shelter going. Tarps can also be used on the floor of your shelter to help insulate you from the wet and cold ground. 

Wrapping it up

Building a long-term shelter can be as easy or as hard as you make it. A bit of planning and the right tools will go a long way.

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Bram Johnson
Hi, My Name is Bram, the Editor of Survival Artist. Here you will find all things Wilderness, Survival, & Primitive Living. I grew up in the backcountry and got hooked on the simple chop wood carry water lifestyle. If you know anything about me then you know you can find me either running up mountain trails or sipping coffee over a book of philosophy.