Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

by Todd Walker

Which would you rather be cold or wet?

How about neither!

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

Shelter plays an important role in thermoregulation. As I peck at my keyboard, the outside temp is 50º with a  light rain. Enough exposure to these “mild” conditions without some type of shelter and a search and rescue mission turns into a recovery team.

A healthy individual can endure Mother Nature’s extreme elements for only a few hours. Even properly clothed, you won’t last long if you’re cold AND wet. In plain English, humans need shelter to survive.

Events can happen that force even non-outdoorsy types out of the warm, dry confines of home. Those of us who intentionally wander in the woods understand the importance of carrying some form of shelter.

The two categories for shelter discussed here are manufactured stuff (trash, tarps, etc.); and available natural resources (outside the tent thinking). Whether manmade or natural, your shelter should provide these basics:

  • Protection from the extreme elements – wind, rain, sun, cold
  • The ability to keep you warm and dry with only the clothes you’re wearing if necessary
  • A safe/secure location to rest, relax, and recuperate
  • A work space for tasks that will increase your survivability
  • Ease of erecting and transporting

Manufactured Material

The first rule of survival with or without shelter is… Do. Not. Panic. At least that’s what trained experts tell us. But that is exactly what most non-survivors do. The moment you realize you’re lost in the woods or on the backside of a disaster event is the most crucial time for survival. If you are not in imminent physical danger…

S.T.O.P. (Sit, Think, Observe, and Plan)

  1. Sit – And breathe. Take 20 minutes or as long as your situation affords to gather yourself. If lost in the wilderness, you can afford a 20 minute break to exit panic mode.
  2. Think – Your second thoughts are the ones that help you survive. Usually, first thoughts are to react instead of respond logically.
  3. Observe – What resources (skills and stuff) are available to effect your survival?
  4. Plan – Now that you’re cool, calm, and collected (sort of), make a logical plan to survive.

Shelter, water, fire, and food – in this order – should be your priority in most cases. Remember the Rule of Threes – 3 hours without shelter and you risk hypothermia and eventual death.

To ‘enjoy’ your unplanned vacation, shelter ranks above all other needs. Hopefully, you’re not caught without some form of shelter in your kit. Tarps, contractor trash bags, ponchos, emergency space blankets, tyvek house wrap, billboards, or oiled canvas are shelter options.

Tarp Shelters

If you plan ahead, shelter can be set up in 5 minutes or less. Attach one corner of a tarp to a tree with a bungee cord or rope and stake off the other three corners to the ground.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

4 tent stakes, a bungee cord and a tarp and you have…

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

The 5 Minute Shelter

Down and Dirty Tip: Toggles are survival tools that make quick work of setting up tarp shelter. Tie a loop of cordage to your ground stake, insert the loop through the eyelet of the tarp, and place a toggle stick through the loop to hold the corner securely.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

Down and dirty toggle tip

Lean-To Shelter

Run a ridge line with cordage and drape your tarp over the line. Secure the four corners and you have shelter.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

Lean-to tarp shelter

If you don’t have a ground pad to lay upon, pile leaves, debris, and pine boughs up to add an insulation layer between you and the ground. Heat transfers from hot to cold. Body heat is conducted from our warm body when in contact with cold ground.

USGI Poncho Shelter

A military poncho is a multi-use item. It can be used to protect from the elements while navigating and converts to a tarp shelter as well.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

Poncho and trekking poles

The eastern woodlands where I roam provide many trees for anchoring points for tarp shelters. I used DRG’s two hiking sticks, paracord, and stakes to convert my poncho into a shelter for demonstration purposes. This set up takes more time but is an option in areas with little to no trees.

If you get creative, you can build an Alpha Tent with your poncho.

But what if you find yourself in a situation without gear?

Natural Material

I know trash is not natural material, but don’t discount this survival resource. It’s a shame that people leave trash in the wilderness. Their wasteful ways can play into your favor when survival is on the line.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

I found this trashed hunting blind near my semi-permanent shelter with a 5 gallon bucket inside. 

You never know what you’ll find. On a walkabout to gather pine pitch today, I found an old truck bed in the woods behind my school.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

It’s seen better days but could serve as an emergency shelter.

Outside the tent thinking finds down and dirty shelter options.

Rocks, Ledges, and Caves

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

Rock outcropping

Be careful using ledges and rocks for shelter. Just like setting up shelter with manmade material, your location should be safe from falling objects and the risk of rising water and flash floods.

Keep in mind that ledges and caves are home to creepy crawlers and other animals. If a fire can be built, the smoke will help drive out scorpions, spiders and snakes. I don’t mind these critters until they snuggle into my bedroll.

I’m hesitant to list the typical survival shelters mentioned throughout the wilderness survival community. For instance, if you’ve got enough time, energy (calories), tools, and resources to build a debris hut, you’re probably not in a true survival scenario. You’re camping. They’re cool to build and will keep you warm and dry. However, they take a lot of time, resources, and calories – all of which are slim to none for most survivors.

Below is a shelter I built as my base camp for dirt time and practicing Doing the Stuff bushcraft skills. Could I use it as a survival shelter? Yes. But it’s taken about 20 man hours of hard work to build with sharp cutting tools, cordage, and many calories.

Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

Carrying 9 foot logs to build shelter is not the wisest use of calories for survival.

Semi- permanent shelters can’t be thrown together in a moments notice. My shelter was built for smoothing it, not roughing it. There will be no need to yield to senseless panic and die of exhaustion if we’ve learned the art of “smoothing it’ in the wilderness.

Survival shelters are temporary structure that provide insulation from wet, cold conditions to help you survival and be rescued. We’d like to hear your thoughts on survival shelters you’ve tested and used. Comments are always welcome!

Keep Doing the Stuff,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Doing the Stuff, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 26 Comments

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26 thoughts on “Think Outside the Tent for Shelter

  1. highdesertlivin

    I recently started carrying a 10’x10′ 4 mil plastic sheet in my bob. My intention for it is a shelter for my family and I. Dear old dad showed me a trick whereby you wrap a small stone in the plastic at the desired anchor point. You then utilize a overhand on a bite to make a lasso, clove hitch, girth hitch ect. Around the plastic and rock. No grommet necessary. My get home bag sports one of those exta heavy duty space blankets, my plan is something similar . Of course all bag’s sport 2 contractor bag’s, many option’s there as well. Enjoyed reading, thank’s. Oh my submission for a fighting loadout contest just got posted at Total survivalist libertarian rantfest. Kinda fun, check it out let me know what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beginning stage of my Survival hut, 23 degree’s during the day, -4 during the night, 57 degree’s inside hut during the night once finish constructing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awesome debris hut, brother! Looks just the right size to keep your body heat inside and warm. Your numbers are crazy good!

      Thanks for sharing!


  3. Cold can kill… I used to tell people that they had about 15 minutes in the ocean before they would not be able to use their hands for self-rescue. This is not true. With practice a person can get used to the cold and can last much much longer. (This kind of training is called cold-thermogensis.)

    I read somewhat about sailors in the North Sea surviving long periods in the water. It wasn’t the young, healthy guys that survived it was the older men with families. Somehow these men found super-human strength. They had something to live for. As John Lofty Wiseman says: “Don’t give up.” BUT you have to have something to live for.


    • highdesertlivin

      Caroline, I worked for outward bound for a summer. The situation you described is how outward bound came to be. As you stated about the families , It was also noted that worldly men, whose steel was tempered by difficult experiences in life. Tended to hold out much longer than those young inexperienced counterparts. As a result the merchant marines, had young men go through multiple week adventures. Structured and very challenging. They then noted a much higher survival rate following enacting this policy.


  4. GoneWithTheWind

    I like the article, it has some good info. I can’t disagree with anything in it. However I think we (survivalist. ultralight and even regular hikers and campers) are missing the boat on ths one. A tent is so superior to a tarp or a debris shelter that there is no comparison. What we should be doing is demanding the manufacturers make better lighter backpacking tents. I have slept in mosquito country without a tent and it sucks. I have slept on the ground under a tarp in a freezing blowng rain that turns to snow sometime in the night and it sucks. I have done the same thing with a lightweight (under 3 lbs) tent and it was downright pleasant by comparison. It’s good to know you can get by and survive with just a tarp or even without a tarp but my go to backpack has a small light two person tent in it. I wish it was lighter and took up less space and THAT is what we should be shooting for.


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  15. Preston/ Katcv's Edge Outdoor

    Juniper trees, red cedar, Willow trees are all natural shelter, with minimal work. weaving branches between, can make wind proof. Hope this Helps

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Preston/ Katcv's Edge Outdoor

    Cat tail leaves also can be woven to make shelter. Plus provide a healthy meal. A shirt can be hanged from the top to help with water resistance.


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  21. Hey, very nice wrote up. What size tarp did you use for your little 5 minute shelter?


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