A-frame Survival Shelter




Introduction: A-frame Survival Shelter

In any survival situation, there are certain necessities that must be provided for; water, food, and fire are among the most essential. But if you ask anyone who has spent the night alone in the wild they can tell you, once the sun goes down, SHELTER is about all you care about. 

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

First, a few words on how NOT to build your 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

Choose a Site
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

Filling In
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

Finishing Up
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. 

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    4 years ago

    I really enjoyed your post and write-up about the A-frame. I appreciate that you were willing and able to add a "This is a bad idea" portion to your post. You probably helped a few folks right there. This is a legit nifty shelter, but I would suggest having tools and rope/string/twine with you. Great thing about string, twine, and paracord is that you can carry as much of it on your person at anytime anywhere, and there's no laws against it. Also, a good axe/hatchet or a machete would make an incredible difference in your construction speed and quality. I would recommend the axe or hatchet simply for the weight of the head let's you use it as a hammer, but you could always use another log set aside for that purpose if you needed to. Overall, great post! Keep it up!

    Alaskan Bev
    Alaskan Bev

    5 years ago

    I'm sure it goes without saying, but in many areas of the country it is completely illegal to take down any standing, live vegetation. In a true survival situation a court might allow a little leeway, but don't count on it. On open tundra with only knee-high bushes you'll be glad you brought a solid tarp, good sleeping bag, a closed-cell pad or two, and more good cordage than you'd expect to need. A waterproof bivy sack can be a veritable lifesaver. Along with your cotton balls and Vaseline (mix 'em up before leaving home; they need not be saturated), it helps to have a magnesium striker for starting your fire. If the striker doesn't come with a good steel blade be extra sure to have a good knife! If your striker gets wet it'll still work. Practice with it at home before trekking off into the distant back-country. Happy camping - or Happy Surviving!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    thanks for this..will really help out since homeless for two yrs


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Nice. very nice. TY for sharing.

    When I was younger, & more anti-everything, I would often go camping in BFE...for a shelter, I would dig a hole in the ground big enough for me to lay stretched out flat, by about 2.5 - 3.0 feet wide & about 6 inches deep....THEN, build a shelter like yours above that.

    This would keep me warm, give me room to sit up(and then some), and still be weather proof.

    Some of the things I NEVER left home without:

    a 5x7 tarp(or bigger)

    100 feet of 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch rope/string/twine

    A hatchet(always kept razor sharp)

    a fixed blade knife(minimum 6 inch blade/always razor sharp)

    Homemade fire starters(usually made of vaseline & cotton balls)

    Fire starters were stored/carried in a styrofoam egg carton(weatherproof)

    These are things I carried with me along with my "regular gear"

    I never had any worries about my survival...I was as prepared as a man could be...


    8 years ago on Introduction

    For warmth it is best to build a shelter with a flat ceiling that is very close to you when you are reclining. The idea is to trap body heat as close to your body as possible. An A frame allows heat to travel up and away from your body. Thick walls of brush and leaves and a thick roof covered by a tarp can save your life. An A frame works best in moderate or hot temperatures. Also the A frames are quicker to build against a tree if time is critical to the build.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Love it! You did a great job and yes, you don't need any tools for this.

    Next time try to have a "wall" build behind the fire to reflecting the heat in the shelter and see if you will feel better :). Also with one stop at $ store and can you get two space blanket and you can make the thinks more comfortable by covering the wall and one under your sleeping pad. I use in my SAR mission..... a "All Weather Emergency Survival Blanket" that I got from Freddy store and I love it.

    Good luck!


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the feedback! A wall behind my fire pit was the next thing on my list to put together. A friend built one for a similar shelter, and in below freezing weather had to sleep outside of his sleeping bag from being so warm. I stayed surprisingly warm even without it. Next time!


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Very good job describing this bush-skill. Thanks for showing the failed attempt and then describing the correction. Keeping my shoelaces on my feet is why I keep a paracord bracelet in my camping gear, you never know when you might need cordage. I also note that you said you thatched with yucca bark. If I am not mistaken, yucca bark is very fiberous. Could you have not snagged some of that fiber to use as the cordage to lash your A Frame. CowboyUp also makes a good point, with the fire wall behind the fire, and where I am in the South-East of the US I often use found wood to make this and dry the found wood at the same time for later burning.