Options for Improvised Shelters & Surviving Extreme Weather

Building improvised shelters from the elements is not hard and having this skill can save your life. In extreme conditions, you can die within just a few hours if exposed to the elements. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to begin building your improvised shelter long before nightfall. It will almost certaintly take much, much longer than you think it will and once the sun goes down, temperatures will plummet, whether you are in the desert or in a snowy forest.

First, the simplest improvised shelter is your vehicle. It will provide both shade and shelter, depending on current weather conditions. If you are in the desert, the vehicle may become too hot during the day, and you may be better off sitting next to it for shade. You can remove a car seat and use it to keep you off the hot ground. In hot weather, ground level will be the hottest place, so try to get either a few inches above the ground (at least) or a few inches below. Dig a hole, build a seat above the ground or create a makeshift hammock.

Other improvised shelters could be of the natural variety, such as a cave, fallen tree, hollow log, rock overhang, or brush. Take advantage of these, but watch for animals who might be calling those places “home”.

If you do end up in a natural shelter during cold weather, you can add a layer of insulation by stuffing your clothes with dry grass, leaves, or even with the carpeting from your vehicle.  Just be sure that whatever you use is dry and insect free.

It’s vital to insulate yourself from the ground insisde your shelter. If it is cold, use leaves, grass, tree boughs, pine needles, or anything else you can think of to create a thick layer on the ground before you sit or lie down. The rule for staying warm is to put 2/3 of the insulation underneath you and 1/3 over you. If you are forced to sit in a confined area like a snow cave, do isometric exercises (tension exercises).  This will increase your body heat and help you stay warm. Believe it or not, even a snow cave is effective at protecting you from the elements.

Pay attention to where you find yourself stranded. Low areas like valleys can be colder in the winter.  It can be several degrees warmer if you just walk uphill a short distance, making for better chances of survival. It’s also possible that you will be located more quickly by rescuers if you are on a rise or hill, rather than down in a valley, especially if there is a lot of tree coverage.

If you are stranded with other people, share warmth; do not be afraid to huddle together. Plastic bags, plastic sheets, or space blankets do not breathe. If you wrap them about you too tightly, they will trap moisture. Do not wrap plastic about your head and over your face as it can suffocate you.

The most basic combination, if out in the wild, is simply having something at your back (a large boulder or tree trunk, for example), an insulated bed of leaves/pine needles/boughs, and a small fire. Not much of a shelter, but it will at least protect you from extreme cold and the fire will help ward off animals and insects.


Tree well shelter – This is a simple quick shelter that is easy to make.  First, find a thick sturdy tree in deep snow.  Conifers work best.

Then, dig a hole in the snow near the tree’s base using whatever you have available, including your hands.  Try to make the hole at least 4 feet deep.  The lower branches of the tree should form an overhead shelter when you are finished.

If the snow is not deep enough to form a roof, gather up branches and use them to make a roof.  Pile snow on top of the branches to complete the roof.

Use other branches, pine needles and leaves to create insulation in your shelter by lining the bottom, and perhaps the sides, with them. As you can see from the illustration, it’s important to insulate the ground before you sit or lie down.

When you lay down for the night, curl up in a fetal position, to preserve warmth. Working hard creating the tree well shelter should have warmed you up.  You will take that warmth with you into your shelter.  Be careful during the construction to not sweat too much or get wet.

Snow Caves – This improvised shelter can take a lot of effort to build, but it’s also one that utilizes the one thing you’re sure to have plenty of in very cold weather — snow!

Find a site on the lee, or downwind, side of a hill.  Snow caves can be created by digging into a snow bank or drift. This is where you’ll find the softest layer of snow, making the construction a little easier. Dig a compartment so that it is at least large enough inside for you to sit upright. Place your pack or a block of snow in front of the entrance hole.  Use evergreen boughs or other natural materials to insulate yourself from the ground and bring in extras to insulate your back.

You can use a candle or build a very small fire in a snow cave.  This requires a vent hole for adequate ventilation.  If you have a problem with dripping water, your fire may be too large. Smoothing the inside of the roof helps to stop dripping, the water will then run down the side to the bottom of the cave.

If you think people will be out looking for you, make the site as visible as possible from the ground and the air. Place clothing, sticks or stomp an unusual pattern in the snow.  When you are inside the cave, your ability to hear what is happening outside will be reduced to almost nothing.

A properly made snow cave can be 32 °F or warmer inside, even when outside temperatures are −40 °F.  Remember to stay dry while building your cave. If you start to sweat, it takes a long time to dry out and this can lead to hypothermia.

Tools for building improvised shelters

There are many things that you can carry with you to use to help build an improvised shelter, they include a knife, ax or hatchet, and 550 cord.  One of the handiest things that I have found is cable ties. They are great to use in building a framework for your shelter.

Other tools that will come in handy are a small shovel, tarps, and heavy work gloves,

Just remember that whatever kind of shelter you are building the main idea is to keep your body temperature as near normal as possible throughout your time in the shelter.

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