Among your top concerns in any disaster scenario is finding a place to protect yourself and loved ones from the elements – a shelter where you can lay your head down for the night. A hurricane or earthquake may leave your home uninhabitable and evacuation may be mandatory. Or, a sudden storm may leave you stranded while hiking or traveling. No matter the reason, shelter is probably the most important of survival skills. A shelter can protect you from the sun, insects, wind, rain, snow, and extreme hot or cold temperatures. It can give you a feeling of security which will help you maintain your positive attitude during a crisis.

Some circumstances may require just a few hours of shelter and some several days. When the need arises, will you know what to do?

First, take an inventory of items you have on hand. Many items which would not normally be considered for use as part of a shelter, can save your life.

A vehicle that is safe, with no leaking gas or chance of moving, is always a top candidate for shelter. Rescue workers will be looking first for your vehicle if your family reports you missing during a road trip.

During a winter trip your challenge is to make your vehicle warm and to keep the cold winds from blowing in. If you are traveling with luggage, bring it into the car and begin to unpack. Soft sided luggage can be placed on the floor as another layer of insulation from the cold air below the car. Clothing can be used to layer either the floor of your shelter, or to add warmth. Layers of clothing should be loose fitting to trap air between layers, thus creating more insulation. Hard sided luggage and items not useful can be returned to the trunk.

In winter temperatures, heat is lost through the head, hands and feet so be sure your head is covered. If you don’t have a hat, wrap some of the clothing from your luggage around your head.

Next retrieve your auto kit. Mylar blankets are perfect to prevent cold winds from entering through openings around windows. Open the door. Wrap the blanket around all four sides of the door and close the door. Any wind trying to make its way inside will be trapped.

If you don’t have enough wool or wool/blend blankets for every seat in the car, move everyone into one seat. Your body heat trapped under the blanket will keep you warm. If possible to safely do so (make sure exhaust is clear of snow drifts and will not be a carbon monoxide threat), the engine of the car should be run for just ten minutes every hour to keep the inside of the car warm enough to avoid hypothermia.

Glow sticks and flashlights have many uses. They provide light and can also be a signal to rescuers. Remember, a moving light is more easily seen than a steady light.

Outdoor Shelters

If you are outside and need shelter, location is everything. Your shelter should be downwind and far enough away from the water to avoid insects and animals who may be using it. It should be on high ground to avoid the possibility of rock slides and avalanche and also to protect you from the dangers of flash floods. It should also be close to a site clear enough to build a small fire. Your location should be protected, but also easy to exit in case of a problem or to signal rescuers.

A good shelter should keep out rain, snow, sun and wind. Test your shelter by entering it and moving around. Look up to check for light coming through holes. If you see problems, you have more work to do.

The biggest mistake people make is constructing a shelter that is too large. Shelters should be large enough to lie down but not much larger. Constructing smaller shelters makes it easier to construct a sturdy one and also uses your resources to best advantage. A smaller shelter also traps body heat during a cold weather emergency.

In cold weather or when nights get cold (such as in spring or fall or at high elevations in the summer), the ground will draw down your body temperature quickly. Your shelter should allow you to place plenty of insulating material between your body and the ground.


Dead leaves, tarps, blankets, mylar blankets, newspaper and even the floor mats from the car can be used as ground insulation.

The entrance to any shelter should be kept small and low to keep the warm air from escaping and the wind from entering. You can build a windbreak to go in front of your entrance with sticks and boughs. A wind break should be far enough away to allow you to enter the shelter without disturbing it. Windbreaks can also be made to be pulled up against the shelter, acting like a door.

An  A-Frame Tent:

To make an A-frame tent you will need rope or sturdy branches and materials for a “roof”.  Begin by stretching a rope between two mature trees. If you do not have a rope, wedge a branch into a crook in a tree and the other end into a crook in another tree. Fold a tarp, plastic or blankets in half lengthwise and place the fold over the branch or rope. Anchor the tarp to the ground using heavy rocks or make stakes out of sturdy branches. If you are using a blanket, cover it with mylar blankets or tree boughs to make your shelter more weather proof.

A Lean-to:

The best place to build a lean-to is on the downwind side of a cliff, wall or stand of trees. Avoid gullies where pockets of cold air will collect.

A lean-to can be created by using tree boughs, weeds, bushes and sticks. A sturdy low hanging tree limb may be used as the main ridgepole if you do not have a sturdy rope. Layer sticks and boughs or anything you may not need for warmth, to provide a thick cover that can keep out the wind and offer weather protection as well. If the weather remains below freezing during the day, packed snow can be used to fill in any holes.

If you have skis available, you can use the ski poles to form the framework of your shelter. Plant the poles in the snow and using the traps on the poles secure the skis as your ridge pole. Now drape a tarp or pine boughs over your frame. Add packed snow around the base of the ski poles to keep them stable.

Snow Caves

A snow cave can be a great emergency shelter to build if you are stranded in deep snow. If the snow is not deep it is a better idea to make one of the other forms of shelter. The best place to make a snow cave is in a snow-bank or hillside. Begin by digging out a small room. Once your room is large enough for you to lay down you should build up the door to your shelter while keeping it low to the ground and just big enough for you to crawl in and out. If you have a small shovel this process should not take long. If you are without a shovel you can use any item sturdy enough to move snow, such as a snowshoe, a ski, tree bark, a cup, flashlight, hub cap, or even the side mirror from your car.

The ceiling of your cave should have a round arch, which will be stronger than a flat ceiling. Smooth out any bumps you have in your ceiling, it will harden in about 20-25 minutes. Any bumps in the ceiling provide places for condensation to collect and drip, getting you wet, a real disaster.

Place pine boughs or even pine needles as a layer of insulation between you and the ice floor. A mylar blanket is also a good choice. Do not use a cloth blanket on the floor unless it is wool or a fiber blend, as any other fabric will get wet and when wet will draw heat from your body. Wool is an insulator even when wet.

Building a fire or using a candle inside your cave is not a good idea. It is NEVER a good idea if you do not have a ventilation shaft in the roof of your cave. To make a shaft simply poke a stick through the roof near the side of the cave, at an angle. Keep it small. This will allow for air circulation.

Practicing these shelter-building techniques on an outing will provide a challenge, and valuable experience for a real emergency.


Of course it’s great to have all the latest outdoor gear for camping and hunting, but when disaster strikes, it does not always come at a convenient time, and may even happen unexpectedly on a quiet road during an unwelcome storm, when the car breaks down and there’s no cell phone coverage. Will you know what to do and how to do it?

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