This Instructable will walk you through building a simple A-frame shelter that will keep you warm and dry in nearly any climate. This shelter will also provide you with the peace of mind to rest comfortably through the night (without worrying about coyotes biting your face off while you sleep).
Most importantly, because you never know when or where you will need to survive, this shelter can be built without using any tools. That's right! You won't even need your pocket knife.
Step 1: How NOT to Build a Shelter
The biggest mistake most people make is not planning enough time to construct a decent shelter. A good rule of thumb it to estimate how long you think your shelter will take to build, and then double that number. This blue beast was my first attempt. Believe it or not, this sorry excuse for a tent took me almost two hours to build! (I know... pathetic.) It takes time to find a decent location that is level and has good drainage in case of rain. It also takes a lot of time to find and collect the materials you will need.
The next big mistake that people make is forgetting what a shelter is actually meant to do. I was surviving in the desert of Southern Utah during the winter months, and it was COLD. (See the snow in the background?) The main purpose of my shelter was to keep me warm at night. As you can see though, my sorry excuse for walls didn't even come to the ground, allowing all my body heat to escape.
My first night in the wild was a miserable experience and I vowed that the next day I would build a shelter that Ray Mears would be proud of.
So remember, when considering how NOT to build your shelter:
1. Don't plan enough time
2. Build something that doesn't do what you need it to
Step 2: Choosing a Site and Constructing Your Frame
Choosing a good site is essential when building your shelter. If at all possible, try to use the natural surroundings to base your shelter off of, limiting the amount of work you have to do. It is also important to make sure that your shelter is in a spot with good drainage. Don't build in a dry creek bed. Believe me, you will regret it when it starts raining. I was in the desert, so my options were limited. I selected this site hoping the tree would provide me with some natural shelter from wind and snow.
Construct your A-frame
The A-frame consists of the ridgepole (running along the top) and the two arms that will form the entrance to your shelter. It is important that you find strong branches, as they will support most of the weight of your shelter. I propped my ridgepole up in a tree because I wanted to be able to sit up inside my shelter, but it can be just as effective resting on the ground.
Spacing is important to consider at this point. You need to make sure your shelter will be long enough to cover you from head to toe. I recommend laying down and marking your length with sticks on the ground so you know exactly what your measurements are. The height of your ridgepole is also important. Smaller shelters do a better job of retaining your body heat, but you sacrifice maneuverability. Find a balance that works for you. I prefer to make mine just tall enough to sit up in.
If possible, find branches that fork at one end to use for your arms. This will allow you to rest your ridgepole in the fork without needing to tie it down. Because I wanted my shelter to be as solid as a rock, I sacrificed a shoelace to lash my A-frame together.
Add the Ribs
Ribs are the main branches that will support the walls of your A-frame. Again, these need to be strong in order to support the weight of your walls. I spaced my ribs from 6 to 12 inches apart along both walls of my shelter.
This is probably the most time consuming part of the build. My branches needed to be roughly uniform in length, and strong enough that they wouldn't break if I leaned up against them. Finding enough sticks that fit those requirements in the desert took me the better part of an hour. (It might have gone faster if I wasn't missing a shoelace!)
Step 3: Filling in and Thatching
This is the easy part of the process. To fill in the spaces between the ribs, just collect as many sticks, twigs, bushes, and branches as you can find. Pile them on! You don't have to worry about cave ins because you've selected rock solid ribs. Your filling will provide the necessary support for your thatching.
The purpose of thatching is to make your shelter resistant to the elements, whether they be rain, snow, or even wind. For thatching you can use leaves, moss, pine boughs... anything easily gathered and water resistant. I had limited options, so I used bark from juniper trees.
The idea here is bulk. Get as much thatching as you can in place without wasting too much energy. Not only will your thatching protect you from the elements, but it will provide insulation and trap your body heat inside the shelter.
Step 4: Finishing Touches and Enhancements
The final step I took in building my shelter was clean up work on the interior. This basically involved snapping off any branches or twigs that were sticking down that might have impaled an eye in the middle of the night. For larger sticks I used a rock to break them off. I also made an attempt to pile dirt up around the base of the interior so that the pieces of my wall wouldn't slide around and so that I would naturally settle into the middle of the space.
By this point the sun was setting and I had to try and find some dinner (see the pieces of my figure 4 deadfall trap by the door?.... Yeah, I didn't catch anything). I built my fire close enough to the door of my shelter so that I could catch the heat coming off of it, but not close enough that I would have to worry about catching my roof on fire. A nice mud wall on the far side of your fire will reflect incredible amounts of heat right into your shelter, even when your fire burns down.
If I had more time, there are several enhancements I would like to add to take this baby to the next level!
One enhancements I would like to make to my shelter would be to put down a nice layer of juniper bark on the floor. Believe it or not, you lose more body heat to the ground while sleeping than is lost to the air. I had a foam mat, so this step wasn't essential, but in a true survival situation it would be.
The next enhancement I would make to this shelter would be to pile mud up along the exterior. There was plenty of snow around and I could have mixed up a nice paste to give my shelter a solid, adobe-like exterior. This would make the walls practically weatherproof!
Lastly, I needed a long, sharp spear to lay beside me at night, pointed toward the door. That way if any wild animals came an poked their nose in, I could have taught them how rude it is to stop by uninvited... then I would have them join me for breakfast the next morning.