How To Build a Survival Shelter – Knife Skills

When you are out in the wilderness, a shelter is vital for protecting you against the elements and getting a good nights sleep. It may be hard to see how you can build a sturdy shelter from nothing but nature but this article will show you the best ways of doing so – with only a knife.

Why is having a shelter so important?

The 5 basic survival needs

When you are out in the wild, there are a few things that you will need to stay alive, especially when the area is inhospitable. These are often referred to as the 5 basic needs of survival.

  1. Water – this is definitely the most important, and is your priority when you are out in the field. A man cannot survive more than a few days without water. Therefore it is essential that you locate water sources or find systems that can collect water for you.
  2. Shelter – next on your list of priorities will be your shelter. Whether you are out in the desert or lost in the Himalayas, you will require some kind of area where you will be protected from natural elements.
  3. Warmth – this might not seem to apply to all kinds of survival situations, but warmth is definitely a big one. As mammals, we are lucky enough to have our own thermoregulation systems, which keep our body at a temperature of about 37°C. However, a fire will always help, whether it is to heat you up, dry up your clothes, or cook your food.
  4. Food – you’ll definitely need something to eat if you’re going to be out there for some time. Hunting, building snares, gathering fruits and fishing are all great mean of building your food supply to ensure that you have enough energy to keep going.
  5. Direction – you’re lost in the wild. Now the question is: how do you get out of there? Well, this is the next important task on this list. You will need to find out where you are and where to go. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll have a compass or a map of the area with you. If not, well, there are many other ways of finding out your location from your surroundings, so don’t give up!

The importance of a shelter

A shelter is one of the 5 basic survival needs. This is because there is a considerable amount of things that it can do to keep you alive. A shelter can:

  • Protect you from wind, rain and snow.
  • Keep you out of a burning sun.
  • Defend you against wild animals.
  • Keep you warm and safe.
  • Be used as an all-purpose area for everyday tasks.
  • And many other things…

Types of Shelters

Natural shelters

These are the shelters that will already be there for the taking in the field. Caves, cliff overhangs, large hollow trees will make perfect shelters.

Just make sure a bear hasn’t had the same idea as you, or you might regret it!

Temporary shelters

These shelters are the once-off shelters that you’re probably not going to spend a lot of time in. They can either be made from natural materials or from a simple tarp or groundsheet, if you happen to have one on you.

These shelters are a great way to escape an element rapidly and efficiently.

Semi-permanent shelters

Semi-permanent shelters, as the name suggests, will be used to some time, but not as much as permanent shelters. They are not this kind of once-off thing. If you are out in the field for a few days, you’ll probably want to build a semi-permanent shelter.

These shelters often make use of natural elements, with or without cordage. As long as it can hold together for the duration of your stay, it’s great!

You also have the option of adding extra features such as a raised bed inside the shelter is you want a more comfortable sleep.

Permanent shelters

Permanent shelters are the shelters that you’re really going to spend some time working on, to make sure that it is comfortable, strong, reliable, and neat.

You’ll often want to involve some kind of cordage in a permanent shelter, just to make sure that it holds together longer.

You’ll probably also want to include features that you wouldn’t include in temporary shelters, such as a door, a kitchen or a raised bed, for added comfort.

Finding a Location

Choosing the best location for building your survival shelter will be dependent on how long you intend to be using it – needs for short-term shelter will differ from those required for long-term shelter.

When searching for immediate, short-term shelter, look for trees (especially fallen trees), rocky overhangs, and caves. Trees are an obvious source of shelter and have many useful parts for building shelter including the trunk – which can be used as a support, the branches – which can be used as framework, and foliage – which can be used as insulating material.

Rocky overhangs and caves make excellent areas to take cover but depending on your locale or the time of year, may not be an option. Don’t panic, whether you’re stranded in desert terrain or it’s the middle of winter, you can still put together an effective survival shelter.

In desert terrain with little to no trees, consider using the slope of the land to seek protection and the steep side of a dune for shelter – keep in mind that the gradual side indicates the direction the prevailing wind is coming from and therefore the steep side will provide natural refuge.

If it’s the middle of winter and all available building supplies are frozen or buried under snow, remember that snow will have the same insulating effect as a stick-built shelter. Additionally, always seek out shelter where the ground is dry. If it is raining, waterways may overflow their banks and ravines, and washes may form.

If you’re in it for the long haul, you will need to consider substantially more factors than sheltering for the short-term. When searching for long-term shelter, look for areas in proximity to water and food sources as well as civilization (if applicable), and for an area that provides adequate visibility for you to see what’s happening around you and for others to see you. In some case, staying hidden may be more beneficial to your survival.


It is important to choose wisely when finding material that will act as a cover for your shelter. Sticks or branches won’t keep out the wind well enough and will let the rain in between the gaps. The best way to make an outdoor cover is to make a large grass frame and thread sticks through the middle. Then find some dead leaves and fill up all the gaps in the sticks. Keep adding leaves until the cover is completely waterproof, then you can drape this over your frame. Remember to make the cover big enough to fill all the holes in your frame and so that it blocks the wind.


When it comes to knot tying, there are many ways in which you can accomplish the same task of tying two pieces of wood together. However, your sleep is dependent on these knots being strong enough to face the elements (or the resident bear trying to dismantle your shelter) and it is imperative that you use the correct methods.


To start off, we’ll tackle what’s called a lashing. When you are tying two larger-than-normal poles together, a regular knot won’t suffice in keeping them intact. In this case, you will need a bit more complex of a method called a lashing.  There are two types of lashings that you will need to know when making a shelter. The first is called the Square Lashing and the second is called the Shear Lashing.

Square Lashing

The square lashing is used primarily for connecting 2 poles/spars at a 90° angle and is pretty strong. To get the length of rope you’ll need, add up the diameter of the spars (in inches) and multiply by 3 feet. When you are lashing there are two types of turns, a wrap and a frap. A wrap is a turn made around two spars to hold them together while a frap is a turn made between the spars, tightening the rope in the wraps.

Here’s how to tie a square lashing:
  1. First, place the thinner ends of the spars perpendicular to one another, placing the intersection about 10 inches from the ends of the spars.
  2. Next, you will need to tie a clove hitch on the pole that is on the bottom and on the inside of the intersection. The clove hitch is made as follows:
    • One full turn over the spar
    • Another turn crossing the first turn creating an ‘X’ shape with the rope over the pole
    • A half turn, this time sliding under the ‘X’ shape
    • Finish with the trailing end leading in the same direction as the base end
  3. Move the clove hitch along the bottom pole until it touches the top pole at the intersection, then take the long end of the rope and bring it over the clove hitch and make a turn over the top pole to the opposite side of the intersection.
  4. Once the rope is on the opposite side of the spar intersection than the clove hitch, loop underneath the bottom pole and over the top pole.
  5. Then you can loop the rope under the bottom pole next to the clove hitch but close to the intersection.
  6. Then repeat steps 4 and 5 making sure your loop over the top pole is on the outside of the last turn and the loop under the bottom pole is on the inside. Repeat this until you have 3 sets of wraps.
  7. Once you have 3 sets, take the rope and make a full turn on the last loop over the top pole, but instead of ending up where you started, loop the rope in between the poles on the outside of the existing ropes. This is called a frap.
  8. Do 3 fraps making sure each frap is touching all parts of the wrap-turns
  9. When you have done the fraps, tie a clove hitch on the top pole and you’re finished.
Shear Lashing

A shear lashing is usually tied for making shear legs, which are useful for A-Frame shelters. The shear lashing is better than a square lashing for when you need to make an A-Frame as it does not allow the legs to change angle as much.

  1. Begin with the spars placed next to each other and tie a clove hitch about 1 foot from the end of the spar furthest away from you.
  2. Then do 3 wraps around both poles moving towards the short end of the poles.
  3. After the wraps, do 3 fraps between the poles and end with a clove hitch on the pole closest to you near the end of the pole.

Open Shelter or Lean-To

The benefits of an open shelter or lean-to are that it offers extra protection against the elements such as wind and rain, and can accommodate up to four people (for a typical lean-to, however they can be constructed as large as resources allow).

Depending on the supply of materials available, the construction can take anywhere from two to five hours. Start by looking for downed trees that have branches low enough to support the topmost point, known as the ridgepole. If you only locate one tree, use it as the ridgepole – lashing in place if necessary – but if you locate two downed trees near one another, lay a sturdy branch between them.

im Champion / Temporary wooden shelter on Lyndhurst Hill, New Forest, via Wikimedia Commons

Gather approximately five to six poles to lean against the ridgepole at roughly a 45-60 degree angle, enough to create a comfortable space to fit your team and gear underneath. This will serve as your grid. To create the grid frame, attach 5 to 6 poles across the frame. Weave flexible boughs between poles at right angles and then use bark or leafy branches to thatch the roof, starting from the bottom and moving upwards.

Use the grid to weave foliage to create a weather barrier.

You can add additional walls for further protection using the same method. Should you be lucky enough to have a tarp or mylar survival blanket, you can hang it from the opening to act as a curtain.


A teepee can stand alone or be built around the slender trunk of a tree. In some cases, it may be easier to use a slim tree as your center support, lashing poles around it to create a cone-shaped shelter, which will provide a sturdy frame, but also limit your interior space.

It’s up to you whether you choose to completely enclose the exterior and create an opening in the top for ventilation or keep the top secure from rain and leave an open doorway. Always make sure you account for ventilation, especially if you intend on building a small fire inside.

For stand alone teepees, start with three long straight poles and use a tripod lashing to join them. Try to locate a long pole with a Y-shaped joint at one end. This will provide the frame with stability as the next pole can rest within the Y-shape. To build the teepee, continually add pairs of similar sized poles and join them together at the top, leaving the base wide enough to curl up in and tall enough to sit comfortably.

Once the frame is constructed, fill in the gaps using whatever materials are available to you including leafy branches, vines, mud and grass. Work your way up from the bottom – as you would with roofing tiles – so that the rain will drip down the overlapping layers instead of into your teepee.

Improvised Shelters

These shelters are the quick, 10-minute shelters that don’t really require any specific kind of cordage. Use the elements around you as much as possible. A fallen tree will make a perfect ridgepole for your lean-to shelter! Using ground ‘duff’ (pine needles, twigs, branches) will often turn out to be a great insulating material for the walls of your shelter.

These shelters are really great is you need to get out of wind or snow, and don’t have anything on you. Just look around you and use the elements to your advantage!

A-Frame Shelters

The A-Frame shelter is constructed in much the same way as the lean-to, the only difference is that the ridgepole starts on the ground and extends up into tree, lashed at a height that allows enough space to sit underneath. In this way, two sides are constructed to create the A-frame shape, providing additional protection from weather or cold temperatures. For added warmth, locate your fire pit near the opening.

Making Rope

Braided rope, twisted rope, plaited rope, endless winding rope, kernmantle rope… there many types of ropes, and that’s only in the construction. There are a wide variety of rope materials, too: Hemp, cotton, jute, straw, polypropylene, nylon, just to name a few.

The use of ropes for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting, and climbing dates back to prehistoric times. It is likely that the earliest “ropes” were naturally occurring lengths of plant fibre, such as vines, followed soon by the first attempts at twisting and braiding these strands together to form the first proper ropes in the modern sense of the word. Impressions of cordage found on fired clay provide evidence of string and rope-making technology in Europe dating back 28,000 years. Fossilized fragments of “probably two-ply laid rope of about 7 mm diameter” were found in one of the caves at Lascaux, dating to approximately 15,000 BC.

Other natural fibers can be used to create rope (some being much stronger than grass), and this method will work equally as well with any other flexible material. Grass does tend to become brittle when dry which could weaken this rope, but even then it does maintain some strength. In moderate humidity weakness from drying should not become an issue at all.

Note that for best results, each of the two tails of the rope should be twisted an equal number of turns as they’re wound. That will ensure that the two coils wind around one another tightly and in a double helix pattern. If one side is twisted less than the other it will tend to stay straight, while the more twisted side coils around it like a spring.


I hope that you’ve learned a lot today. Essentially, remember that any kind of shelter is better than nothing when you are out in the field. Natural materials are abundant in most places, and you must learn to use them effectively to ensure your survival.

Now that you’ve built your shelter, here’s how to use your knife to light a fire.

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