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Shelter Building

survival basics shelter building

Shelter Building Is A Critical Survival Skill To Master

When you find yourself in a survival scenario, you must assess your situation and make some tough decisions.  One of these decisions is how to spend your time.  Whether you plan to hike out of your situation or plan to stay put, you will need some kind of shelter, and this is where having shelter building skills are critical.  The Rule of Threes states that you may only survive three hours without warmth from fire or shelter.  If you didn’t bring a fire starter, then shelter may be your only option.  This is especially true if it is rainy.

Fire is another critical survival skill to master. Check out our firestarter necklaces and always be able to get a spark!

There are a few general rules for building a shelter.  These rules are the same whether you are building a platform shelter in the jungle or building a debris hut in the mountains.  There are also just a couple shelter designs that I use on a regular basis.  In this article, we will cover these basics so you can be ready to build a shelter in the wilderness.

Find a Location

Your location for your shelter is incredibly important.  I like to have two or three prime locations from which to choose before I make a commitment.  To accomplish this, I first focus on resources.  Where is the water and where are the building materials?  Once I establish this, I start getting more specific. 

You want to be close enough to water that you can easily walk there several times a day. However, you want to be at least 100 feet away to avoid insects, predators, and flooding.  You want to find a spot where the wind is minimal, so I like dense woods and like to be down off the top of any ridges. You should also consider the direction of the wind as the shelter needs to block most of the wind.

Finally, look for a flat, dry area.  There should be minimal rocks and plants on the ground, so you are not clearing the area for hours.  Before you lay out your design, clear anything that needs to be cleared.

Assess and Collect Resources

It is hard to put all of these steps in any particular order because the order will be a little different each time.  For example, part of assessing your resources is looking for natural structures which you can build upon.  This really should be done while you are looking for your location.  If you see a cave, a rock face, or a large downed tree, these can all be part of your shelter.  By using these structures, your shelter will be stronger, more windproof, and more waterproof.  It will also be a faster build.

While you are finding your location, you should also be looking for building materials.  I generally look for dead trees on the ground for poles and dead leaves or spruce boughs for insulation.  Once I have my location, I like to move at least half of my building supplies to the site so I can be over half-way done before I need to take a break. For example, I know I need one long ridge pole, at least six or seven shorter frame poles, and a good pile of insulation before I get started with the build on a lean-to. 

Assessing resources also means considering what you brought with you.  Tarps, emergency blankets, cordage, and cutting tools will all affect how you build your shelter.  That being said, I will teach you how to build an effective shelter without any of these tools.

Shelter Building Designs

There are just a few primary shelter designs that I use on a regular basis.  A good shelter is small to hold in body heat.  It is simple to keep your build time to a minimum.  All a good shelter needs to do is keep you dry, warm, and out of the sun and wind.  Once you learn the basics, you can always modify these designs to fit your exact situation. 

The lean-to shelter is one of the designs I use on a regular basis, especially if I have a fire.  One side of the lean-to is open so you can build a fire next to the shelter to stay warm.  The roof of the shelter should block the wind and rain if there is any.  It should also reflect heat back towards your body.

Start by finding two trees about eight feet apart with branches down as low as four feet from the ground.  Poles can be cut with a saw or camp knife, or you can break dead poles.  Just place the pole between two trees that are really close together.  Then walk forward pushing one end of the pole to break it at the appropriate length.

Place a 10-foot ridge pole across these two trees at about four or five feet off of the ground.  Then start placing frame poles about six or seven feet long against the ridge pole.  They should be leaning at about a 45-degree angle towards the side with the prevailing winds. 

At this point you can tie off poles for a more solid structure or you can add a tarp or emergency blanket for waterproofing if you have the materials.  If not, start adding insulation at the base of the roof and work your way up.  You will need at least one foot of insulation to block the wind and about four feet of insulation to make it waterproof.  You also need a couple feet of insulation inside the shelter to act as a bed.

If you have no fire, a debris hut is the way to go.  You will still need a long ridge pole, but your support poles will be shorter.  Start by attaching your ridge pole to two support poles about five feet long.  Next, build your bed with insulation.  Then you will want to add support poles of varying length down both sides at a 45-degree angle.  Finally, pile up four feet of insulation on top.  This design acts as a big natural sleeping bag to hold in body heat, so make it as small as possible.  You can use your pack for a door, or you can build one if you like.

If you find yourself lost in the woods and need to build a shelter, please remember these basics.  Keep your shelter simple and keep it small.  Be careful when selecting a location.  Drink lots of purified water and take breaks in the shade so you do not dehydrate while building.  I have been there before, and it is hard to build when both arms are cramping.  I suggest you practice the two designs we described here, so you are ready when the time comes.  Whether it is in the back yard or on your next camping trip, that practice could save your life. 

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Water Purification In The Wilderness

water purification

Water purification in the wilderness and on extended fishing trips is a critical skill to master. (It’s not the ONLY skill to master. Check out our handmade firestarter tools such as our firestarter necklaces and survival tinder balls).

It is commonly known that the more remote a fishing spot is, the more likely it is to be a good one.  When it is easy to get to a particular fishing location, that means more people will likely visit that spot.  This means fish will be spooked and concentrations will be smaller.  There is something to be said for hiking or boating to virgin waters for a prime fishing experience.

Hydration can be an issue when fishing remotely for several days.  There is a good chance you will be doing lots of hiking or paddling in the hot sun.  Wading also can wear you out and dehydrate you.  On trips like these, carrying drinking water is tough.  Water is heavy and can really weigh down your pack. 

The best solution is to purify water as you go.  Since you are on a fishing trip, you should be near a good-sized body of water.  However, drinking that water without purification could make you very sick.  In this article, we will cover ways to safely stay hydrated in the wild without carrying drinking water.

Why Hydrate?

The Survival Rule of Threes states that the average person can survive about three days without water under normal circumstances.  However, wilderness fishing trips are not normal circumstances.  You will be spending lots of time in the sun working hard to get to the right fishing spots.  This shortens your window.  You may only survive a day or two without water.

In addition, the side effects of dehydration kick in almost immediately.  You will notice that you become weaker and get winded easier.  You might be light-headed or dizzy, and headaches are common.  Then come cold sweats, dry mouth, and heart palpitations.  Your last warning sign is if you pass out or stop sweating. 

I have experienced severe dehydration several times, and it makes basic tasks very difficult. When I am fully hydrated, I can walk three or four miles with a heavy pack before I want a break.  When dehydrated, I may only make it a few hundred feet before I need to sit down or even lie down.  It just sucks all of the energy out of you, and it feels like your heart is going to beat out of your chest.  You should start regularly hydrating as soon as you start your adventure, and never wait until you are thirsty to drink.

Why Purify?

Most water sources in the wild will contain tainted water full of debris, bacteria, and other pathogens.  The warmer the water temperature is and the more stagnant it is, the more likely it is to make you sick.  Drinking this water can cause vomiting and diarrhea which would only dehydrate you faster.  The only time you should ever consider drinking tainted water is if you have already gone several days without water and have absolutely no way to purify it.  At this point, you just need to hydrate enough to survive a few more days. Many waterborne pathogens take a few days to really start affecting you. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule.  If you have clean chunks of ice to melt, it should be okay to drink.  You should avoid snow as it is 90% air and 10% water.  Springs are spots where water spews directly out of the ground after being purified by the earth itself.  This is safe to drink as long as it does not smell funny.  Mineral deposits are still possible in springs.  If you can set up a rainwater catchment system, it is safe to drink most rainwater.  Finally, there are plants like coconuts and watervines that can be safe sources of water.


By far the best option for purifying water is a filter.  Modern water filters eliminate 99.999% of all harmful pathogens.  You can use a straw style filter to save space in your pack.  Just be prepared to get on your belly to drink unless you have a container for water.  I prefer filter bottles as they allow me to fill up and then drink as I go until I fill up again. You can also get gravity fed filters with rubber bladders that hold several gallons of water.  These are ideal if you will be camping in the same spot for several days, or if you have a group of people using one filter.


One of the oldest methods for purifying water is to boil it over a heat source.  Chances are you will have a campfire or a camp stove of some kind, so boiling water just takes a few minutes.  We were once told that the water must boil for a long time to make it safe, but we now know you just need to bring it to a boil and then let it cool.  This does not remove debris, so filter as well if possible.

Iodine Tablets

I typically carry iodine tablets with me in the wild because it is common for my water filters to become clogged with debris.  Sometimes I can fix them, and sometimes I cannot.  If it rains, fire can be a problem as well.  This leaves plan C.  A vial of iodine tablets can purify about 25 bottles of water and will easily fit in any pocket.  Just drop two in a bottle of water, shake it up a few minutes later, and you can drink in 30 minutes.  You can use bleach to accomplish the same thing, but I prefer not to pack liquid chemicals-plus you have to be careful to make sure that your measurements are correct, or you could end up poisoning yourself.

Other Options

If none of the previously mentioned methods can be performed, you still have a few steps you can take.  None of these purification methods are ideal, but they are much better than doing nothing or not hydrating.  You can layer gravel, sand, and charcoal in a bottle to make your own water filter. Just tie some cloth over the opening at the bottom to remove debris.  You can set clear water out in the sun in plastic bottles for six or more hours to kill most pathogens with UV light.  You can also dig a proximity well next to a body of water and hope that the earth will filter out most of the pathogens. 

As you can see, hydration is something to take seriously.  If you or someone in your group becomes dehydrated, you could end up in a wilderness survival scenario instead of a fishing trip.  If you see signs of serious dehydration, try to call for help.  Sometimes an IV of fluids is the only way to bring someone back.  If this is not possible, sip lukewarm water in the shade and put a wet cloth around your neck.  Hopefully, this discussion will help you stay hydrated throughout your whole trip.

Water Purification Is Important But Must Be Approached Carefully

Please note that these are basic tips and advice regarding water purification. Please follow all local regulations and understand the affects that various chemical treatments can have on your health. Water purification isn’t something you can afford to get wrong.

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You can find out a TON of great information about backpacking trips in Michigan from Jim DuFresne’s classic book, Backpacking In Michigan (You can find it here) (Yes, it’s a classic).