How to build an emergency shelter if you’re lost in the woods


Emergency Situation: You’re out for what was supposed to be a day hike with a couple of fellow adults and a few Scouts. As evening approaches, you realize you’re not going to make it back to camp before dark. It would be dangerous to try to find your way, so you need to make shelter—fast. What do you do?

Solution: You are, presumably, familiar with the Boy Scout motto? Something about preparation? Anyway, that ship has sailed, and you’re now faced with a night out in the elements. On the plus side, you’ve got a few options for building emergency shelter.

Your first—and easiest—option is no shelter at all. If you had a sleeping bag properly rated for warmth, you could enjoy a brisk sleep under the stars. But we’re guessing your nice mummy bag is back at camp. Plus, sleeping out in the open is just so, well, boring. Not to mention soggy if it starts to rain. The next best option, then, is a quick-and-dirty tarp-tent—assuming you have a tarp (if you don’t, you may deserve to sleep outside).

First, run a sturdy rope between two tree trunks that are about eight to 10 feet apart. Secure it to both trunks, taut with no give. Place the tarp over the rope in an A-frame configuration; the rope serves as the peak of the roof. Pull the sides of the tarp down and away from the centerline, and then stake the corners. If you forgot to bring stakes, too, use sturdy sticks or rocks in their place. For more wind or rain protection, consider covering the openings at one or both ends with additional tarps, if available, or blankets. Keep in mind that anything unsecured may blow off in a storm.

If you have no tarp, build a basic lean-to in about 30 minutes using boughs and dead tree limbs. First, locate a stump or tree with a decent-size branch that’s about four feet from the ground. Next, gather fallen tree branches. The pieces should be long enough to run from your branch to the ground, at a reasonably wide angle. Starting right next to the trunk, lean the sticks against the branch, adjacent to one another. If you’ve got rope, you can tie them together and to the branch for added stability.

Once you have a roof/wall large enough to sleep under, place boughs on it to cover all spaces between branches. Live boughs are better than dead ones for preventing rain penetration, but don’t cut off any branches from a living tree unless it’s an absolute emergency.

If you really want to feel like a Marine, you can build a dugout or “trench” shelter. (Use this approach only as a last resort, life-or-death option, as it violates Leave No Trace principles.)

With a camp shovel or sturdy pot, dig a long, vertical pit 2 to 3 feet deep. It doesn’t need to be especially wide (think coffin-size), but it should be long enough for your body to fit comfortably. When it’s deep enough that you can lie in it and be completely below grade, line it with pine needles, dry leaves, or small boughs. Then, place live boughs across the opening so it is almost completely covered.

Because the “roof” will be flat and not pitched, it needs to be covered with multiple layers or you’ll get wet. Leave a small opening for your upper body, and then wriggle in feet- first. Pull additional boughs over you, leaving an opening for your face and head; otherwise it really will be a coffin. This shelter won’t be real comfortable, but by the time it’s finished you’ll be too exhausted to care.

Rest peacefully, unprepared Scouter.

JOSH PIVEN is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit his website at


  1. Any boughs used for the shelter roof should be placed with the top facing down, to best shed rain. This is the opposite of what is shown in the story’s picture.

  2. Saw a lot of shelters built by Scouts for their Wilderness Survival merit badge at Camp this summer. Can’t say I would have had much confidence in them really providing much shelter, but at least the Scouts got the basic idea.

  3. The biggest mistake folks make when building a survival shelter is they make some kind of rudimentary roof, then sleep on the cold ground. OOPS! Through conduction, you loose precious body heat about three times faster to the ground than to the air in your shelter. So, the way to solve this problem is to first build a bed of leaves, pine needles and boughs, then build a roof if you still have daylight. A leaf pile bed deep enough to insulate you from the ground, and still have some leaves to cover you, will require about 18 in. of leaves or needles. You can also use conifer boughs as a blanket. We’ve had WEBELOS, camping in 40 degree rainy fall weather, stay warm all night using these basic steps. Good camping!

  4. To aid those who might come looking for you in the night, do something to attract attention to your shelter — hang a bandana, some item of clothing, a hat, something on or near your brush-covered hideaway. If it blends in too well with the rest of the area, a searcher might overlook it (especially in the dark). If there is something out of the ordinary that shouldn’t be there, it will attract attention and could get you rescued sooner (even if you were fine and planned to hike out in daylight). It will also make searchers happier if you are found (because someone at camp or home was worried and called for help) so they don’t have to spend the whole night and part of the next day out in the field.

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  1. From the Scouting magazine archives: Building an emergency shelter

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