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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