How to Construct & Live In a Long Term Survival Shelter

Just because you take the time to learn something doesn’t mean you will ever have to use it. But, it’s better to know that not to know.

What if you get lost on a hike? Or, unrest breaks out, and you need to hit the woods. Or, you get cast on Survivor. Building a solid shelter outdoors is a win/win skill set.

We are exploring how to construct long term survival shelters and how actually to live in one.

What do you consider a long-term survival shelter?

We have three critical elements to survival. Food and water are easy; we are always thirsty or hungry, and most of the time, both.

But, we often take for granted that we have a roof over our head during those exact moments.

So, it makes sense that an average person may just bypass the need for the third element of survival – shelter. And how to actually manage to build one.

The Definition of a Long-Term Survival Shelter

The definition is pretty straightforward. A long-term survival shelter is one that is durable enough to withstand the weather and will keep you warm, dry, and relatively safe for at least a month.

Without the word, survival, a shelter is just any short-term haven that keeps a person safe from bad weather and danger.

How to Choose Where to Construct a Long-Term Survival Shelter

1. Location. Location. Location.

Flowing Creek
An accessible water source is critical

Don’t even consider building a fire, much less a shelter, without scoping out a safe location. You will waste time and energy building any refuge without determining certain things.

The most important being is it safe to live in long-term during the day, and a place where you can sleep peacefully at night. Well, as peaceful as the situation allows, you will need rest regardless of whether you’re surviving for fun or having to fight to live.

Water is Life

Water is single-handedly the most important part of surviving anything, including everyday life. A long-term survival shelter must be close to a water source even to be considered long-term.

You need to consider a few things about life’s nectar before even thinking about building.

  • You need a water source close enough that you aren’t wasting energy.
  • Keep in mind the terrain between your camp and the water source.
  • The ideal distance from a shelter to a water source is no more than 200 feet.
  • But don’t get too close. Rising water levels could flood your safe haven in a matter of minutes.

2. The Elements Could End it All

Dead Trees
Dead trees are useful for fuel, but dangerous near a shelter

If lack of water doesn’t get you, dangerous outdoor elements can. The threats are innumerable, but we have to find a way to plan for the unknown anyway.

  • Wind direction is not an easy thing to gauge, much less predict. But, you gotta try, because win can waft smoke into your shelter, which is dangerous, and even more annoying.
  • The wind can blow water and cold air into your shelter, too, which renders all of your efforts to keep in warm useless.
  • The foot of a cliff or hill looks enticing when trying to find a solid spot for a survival shelter. But, mudslides, rock slides, and other nasty debris are real danger zones.
  • One of the most considerable risks is flooding. Taking low ground is never a good idea. But, you probably know that.
  • Broken tree limbs have a name – window makers. Ice, wind, snow, etc., can cause a tree branch just to snap and take you out. It is why it is a great idea to avoid building a fire under a dead tree (much less a shelter). You’re taking a chance by just chilling under a not-dead tree.
  • Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Well, maybe just bears in North America. But mountain lions are a thing, too. The point is to understand the surrounding wildlife so you can respect their presence, and they don’t have to tolerate yours.

3. Come on, Baby Light My Fire

Camp fire

After animal attacks, a music lyric is required to break the panic. Because we aren’t panicking, we are planning.

  • You will need to keep warm. You will need to cook. You will need to boil water. You will need fire.
  • Close-by fuel sources are the best bet. It means being near firewood and other flammable materials – preferable walking distance and terrain that won’t zap your energy.
  • Level ground is ideal when building a long-term survival shelter and fire.
  • If you just can’t find level ground, you’ll need to dig some trenches or flatten the ground – neither are easy tasks.
  • Matches, lighters, and other modern fire starters are the ultimate get in an I-just-want-to-live situation. However, you will never replace knowing how to build a fire without one.

How to Build a Fire with Nothing

  • First, build a fireboard. It is the bottom piece where your coal is formed.
  • You will collect dry grass, leaves, and bark.
  • Use the materials to build a tinder nest.
  • You’ll carefully cut a V-shaped notch in your fireboard. You’re making a slight impression adjacent to the notch with a sturdy branch you will use to spin and create friction. The spindle should be around 2 feet long.
  • Use the dry bark to catch the embers from the friction between the bow drill or spindle and the fireboard by placing it underneath.
  • Start spinning, spinning, spinning. Keep the pressure on the board, start rolling the hand bow in your hands, and run them up and down the 2-foot branch. 
  • Keep spinning until you form an ember on the fireboard.
  • The ember will drop onto the bark if set up right after you tap the fireboard. 
  • Quickly transfer the lit bark to the readied tinder nest. 
  • Gently! blow on the glowing tinder to bring the fire to life.

4. Your Survival Needs Are Unique

Every survivor is different, with different needs and situations. You will need to consider yours before settling on a shelter design.

  • Is the shelter only for you, or is there more than one person taking cover? Pet?
  • How long do you have to build a long-term shelter? Is it an immediate thing, or do you have time to plan a safer one?
  • What are you bringing with you?
  • What is the weather like in your area? 
  • Do you need to build a fire inside or outside?
  • Ultimately, how long do you plan on living in the sanctuary?

Your Shelter, Your Design

Yes, survival shelters, even in a pinch, have different designs. But, keep in mind the questions you asked yourself because those answers will lead you to the best shelter option.


Antique illustration - camping in the woods under a large lean to - people under shelter with fire

Lean-tos are the most popular choice for long-term shelters because they are fast and straightforward. Also, lean-to’s don’t require you to exert much energy to build.

How to Build a Lean-to

  1. You require a strong foundation. It requires you to have or find two durable and thick poles. You will fix them six to eight feet apart.
  2. The next component is a thick piece of wood. You will use a rope to securely tie the sturdy branch across both poles so that they form a reverse U-shaped frame.
  3. Then, you will find and arrange dry, strong branches across the U-shaped frame. You will need to lean them at a 45 ° angle from the bottom. Secure the branches with a rope.
  4. The next step is to line up the walls with branches. Cover all of the gaps with additional dry thick leaves, solid branches, poles, shrubs, and other safe debris.
  5. Don’t forget to make yourself a soft place to sleep. Large leaves and fronds make for wonderful bedrolls in an emergency. You are going to need all of the rest you can muster likely.

Snow Cave

In all honesty, building a snow cave sounds fun if you’re in a climate that allows it. And, a snow day project like this gives you practice in case of an actual disaster.

A snow cave is one of the most dangerous shelters. Collapsed snow roofs will smother you.

However, if you experience deep and heavy snow in your area, staying warm and safe is the best option.

It might feel easy to construct, but it will require tons of energy.

How to Build a Snow Cave

  1. Dig tunnels in the sides of the packed snowbank.
  2. Keep on digging until you can create a platform to sleep. 
  3. You have to make sure that the platform is level and flat.
  4. Carefully make a 6-inch diameter hole in the roof. You need ensured ventilation. 


A snow cave and a quinzhee are two different shelters made by snow. A quinzhee is more like a simple igloo.

You’re going to exert a ton of energy building a quinzhee, but if you’re cold, you’re cold.

  1. You’re going to have to build your own snow mound. It must be smooth.
  2. The next step is to dig into the pile to create a tunneled entrance carefully.
  3. Keep digging to create a sleeping space. Keep in mind the thickness of the walls because the thicker they are, the better than insulation and the stability.
  4. Dig up the pile carefully to create a tunnel-like entrance and continue digging up to establish a space for you to rest. Be conscious of how thick you’re leaving your walls. Thick walls have better stability and offer more insulation.
  5. You will need to dig out a 6-inch diameter hole in the roof for ventilation.
  6. Snow zaps the human body of heat. A layer between you and the quinzhee helps you stay warm. Don’t forget to make you a snow-covering to sleep on.


A wickiup long-term survival shelter is an upgrade from a simple lean-to. And like with all upgrades, it comes at a price.

A wickiup will cost you energy and time to build. However, they make for a great long-term structure.

  1. You will gather as many branches as you of similar length and size.
  2. Next, lock them together so that they form a freestanding teepee-like frame. How large you want the shelter to be will determine how big you need to build the structure.
  3. Once the frame is made, use debris to cover the structure. – leaves, brush, shrubs, bushes, grass, and any other vegetation that will cover the wickiup.


How do you think indigenous people survived things like the plains, or mostly desert lands, and so? Teepees, at least some version of them, anyway.

It will take time and energy, but it is worth it if you’re trying to construct a long-term survival shelter.

  1. It might take you a little while, but you need to find three steady and tall beams. 
  2. You will tie them together at the tip-top.
  3. Next, you’ll need to arrange short sticks on those support beams you built to start creating the walls of your teepee.
  4. Gather as much vegetation as possible to cover your constructed teepee – leaves, brush, shrubs, bushes, grass, etc.


We mentioned that trees were actually dangerous monsters that tempt people with their shade. A ramada shelter is all about the shade without all the potential death.

How to Build a Ramada

  • You will need four long poles.
  • Next, arrange them in a square or rectangle shape.
  • Now enters four mores poles. You’ll attach them to the very top of the four poles you already arrested and form a square or rectangle shape.
  • You’ll fill in the top of your shelter using a bunch of smaller branches.
  • Add as many leaves and as much brush as you need to protect yourself from the dangerous sun.

Tarp Shelter

Survivor Season 3012, here we come! 

Or, if you’re a planner, you’ve already packed away a tarp in your emergency pack. 

If you haven’t, do so as soon as you’re done reading the entire post. Because they’re invaluable when trying to survive in the elements.

You can use a big old tarp to build any of the shelters we mentioned.

The Temptation of Existing Shelters

You’re running from something scary, or you’re lost as hell and need shelter. You see something that looks like it will work, but is it safe?


In an emergency, a cave looks like heaven on earth. And maybe, one night is doable. But as a long-term shelter, all sorts of things can go wrong super quickly.

The Dangers of Caves – hypothermia, accidental falling, flash flooding, falling rocks, and debris.

Overhanging Cliffs

Taking shelter from a storm or the sun under an overhang is OK most of the time. But, taking up long-term residence is not a solid plan. Natural formations have minds, and science, of their own.

The Dangers of Overhanging Cliffs – landslides, free-falling debris, water runoffs.

Massive Trees

Trees with canopies are acceptable temporary heaven from the elements. But, we’ve already talked about the fact that they aren’t as harmless as they look.

The Dangers of Massive Trees – broken and damaged limbs, dead limbs, lightning.

Adding Comforts to Your Long-Term Survival Shelters

If you’re going to live anywhere for an extended period, you want it as comfortable as possible. A survival shelter is no different.

1. Fireplace

Fireplaces only work in shelters with great ventilations, like teepees. But, if you can, building an indoor fireplace can be a lifesaver in an emergency.

Another danger to keep in mind when dealing with an indoor fireplace is making sure the flame doesn’t lick the vegetation covering your shelter and catch it all on fire. And, if you’ve used fresh and damp leaves and shrubs, the fire becomes less of a threat.

You can build a pretty nifty outdoor firepit, too. Just make sure it isn’t too close to your survival hideaway.

A Well-Stocked Shelter Is a Happy Shelter

Some of us have a bunker-ready pack stashed away for that cloudy day. Some of us don’t. Either way, some provisions will make survival easier and a long-term survival shelter way more comfortable.

  • Plenty of water and drinks
  • Ready-to-eat canned vegetables, meats, etc.
  • Clothing that will suit any possible weather or climate.
  • Equipment that will help with hunting and fishing
  • Tools such as hammers, axes, etc.
  • Light sources
  • A blanket and/or sleeping bag
  • Fully stocked first aid kit including extra prescription medication
  • Forks, spoons, knives
  • Personal hygiene products that include diapers and baby wipes for infants

More FAQs About Long-Term Survival

I live in a house with a stove and a grocery store a mile down the road. How do I scavenge for food in the woods?

Hunting wild game and fishing are straightforward enough. You either have the equipment and knowledge to it, or you don’t. 

But, scavenging is its own skillset. You have to know precisely what is safe to eat and not when it comes to berries, shrooms, roots, and other strange-looking plants.

I don’t feel good about lighting a fire inside my shelter. How do I keep a long-term survival shelter warm without indoor fire?

The neatest idea we found is heating rocks. People pay good money to have rock massages.

1. You place a heating rock near your outdoor fire for several hours. 
2. Dig a few holes inside of your shelter.
3. Place the collected rocks in the holes.
4. In most cases, a heating stone will keep a small survival shelter warm throughout the night.

How far should the bathroom be from my long-term survival shelter?

A bathroom in the woods should meet the same standards as a restroom at a festival.

It must be at least 100 feet from your water source and where you prepare food. You want drinking water, and the last thing you want to do is turn it into sewage.

You could construct a comfortable toilet if you’re out there long enough.

If I’ve properly scoped out a cavern and deemed it safe, should I set up a long-term survival shelter using the existing structure?

Sure, you can. A lot of survivalists even list it as a solid choice. 

Just some of us don’t want to be eaten in our sleep by a predator coming home to have babies.

Or a cave formation coming loose and puncturing the skull.

But, you’re allowed your choices and your consequences.

I found an awesome water source. How do I know what kind of fish and wildlife to expect?

Not all water sources are bountiful. However, you can research regions of the US and figure out what lives where you live. It helps because you will know what bait and hunting methods would best fit your survival in the wilds.

It is also a good idea to know what’s lurking out there so you can also prepare for predators. Even if an animal doesn’t intend on eating you, one good startle and you’re as good as gone.

Wolves and bears are the most common baddies that walk on four legs. But in reality, it is often the species that walks on two legs that are the problem.