How to find shelter in a cold weather survival situation

Posted by Leighton Taylor on

Just because you didn’t plan to be in a freezing cold situation without a tent definitely doesn’t mean you should be resigned to spending the night slowly turning into a frozen mass of shivering goosebumps. Your surrounding environment is full of answers and provisions to keep you from this ill fate, so look around and see what you can use to build yourself a shelter. If you are in luck, your cold survival situation has landed you in the woods where pine needles, leaves, and branches abound, but even if you didn’t end up in this insulating paradise, a little bit of extra information, and of course, hard work, can land you a perfectly cozy shelter for the night.

3 Types of Cold Weather Survival Shelters:

In extremely cold weather, there’s one cold, white, fluffy material that you seem to see everywhere--SNOW! So, what do we do with such abundance? We use it for insulation. There are several different types of shelters you can build from snow, the three most popular being:

  • a snow cave
  • a snow trench
  • or a debris shelter

Be forewarned: building any of these is going to take a lot of energy, so expect to sweat and to get damp from handling the snow and prepare accordingly. It’s also important to note that if you are using snow and especially ice, you’re going to need equipment like an ice saw, ax, and shovel.

Snow Cave

Of the three snow shelters listed above, the most effective kind of shelter you can build is the snow cave because snow is such a great insulator.

  1. To start, you'll need to find a snow drift that's around 3 meters deep. If you can't find one, you’re doomed to freeze to death. NO! None of that now, make like a snow plow and build a snow drift that is around 3 meters deep.
  2. You'll need to keep in mind while digging that the door of your cave should be lower than your sleeping platform because cold air goes down while heat rises. So, if your sleeping platform is higher than the door, the heat that you generate in your shelter will stay trapped with you. Ahhh, warm and toasty!
  3. Also, you’ll want to make sure that the roof is arched and smooth. This way you won’t hit your head every time you sit up, and any snow that melts will slide down the walls rather than providing you with an icy drip to keep you company throughout the night.  
  4. The most important feature of your snow cave is the ventilation holes (in your ceiling and door) to ensure that you have enough breathing air inside.

To see how a simple snow cave is built, check out the video below.


Snow Trench

If you don't have any equipment or are running out of time, a snow trench will do the trick.

  1. Dig a trench that's deep enough to provide you with more than adequate protection from the wind.
  2. Use the snow you're digging out to pack the windy side of your trench higher for additional protection.
  3. Once you're done digging, look around for dry materials such as pine boughs, grass, and moss to line the floor of your trench and give you insulation from the snow itself.

Debris Shelter

If your cold survival situation is lacking in that white stuff we call snow, a debris shelter is your shelter of choice. It may seem a little complicated, since it’s not so much digging and packing, so, if you begin to feel overwhelmed, put on your basket weaving helmet and repeat this mantra while rocking back and forth “Become a basket-weaver. Become a basket weaver. I am a basket weaver!”

  1. First, you'll need to find a thick pole that's at least as tall as you to be used as a ridgepole.
  2. Place one end resting on a tree, a stump, or a large boulder. (Remember back in geometry class when they said that it would be useful in real life? The ground and the tree, stump, or boulder are sides A and B of your triangle. The ridgepole is your hypotenuse.)
  3. Place two thick branches diagonally at the front end of the ridgepole (the one resting on the tree/boulder) and tie them all together where they touch with a rope or vine. (We’ve created another triangle again! Thanks geometry!)
  4. Basket-weaver mode begin: create a ribbed frame along the length of the ridgepole using thick branches. These branches will be placed more perpendicular to the ridgepole than parallel. Ensure that the space inside your shelter is wide enough for you to fit into and that you have an opening big enough to allow you to get in and out of your shelter.

Steps 1-4 give you the basic framework. There are huge gaps between your branches though, so we’re going to get into master basket-weaving mode now.

  1. Using smaller, thinner sticks, weave them across the ribbed frame in order to create a “net” that will prevent the debris from falling into your shelter.
  2. Once your net (or dare I say “weave”) is thick enough, you’ll want to work on insulating. Collect light, dry materials such as leaves, pine needles, grass, and twigs and pile them onto your frame.
  3. Make sure that your pile is at least 2 feet thick to increase the insulation value of your shelter, then, put some more branches on top of your debris pile because, really, wouldn’t it be sad if all of your insulation was slowly blown away during the night?

Shelter is finished! Now for a bed and a door:

  1. Using the same light, dry materials, create a bed for you to sleep in and prevent the cold from seeping through.
  2. Finally, collect one last pile of leaves and branches and place them at the entrance of your debris shelter, to be used as a "door" that blocks the cold from coming in and the heat from going out.

Tips for building a shelter:

  • Never use metal for shelter if you're in an extremely cold environment. The metal will function as a conductor, transferring heat away instead of helping trap it within.
  • Ventilation is crucial in an enclosed shelter, particularly if you're planning on making a fire inside it.
  • To keep the heat in, you'll need to block the entrance of your shelter. A "door' will also ensure that the wind stays out.
  • Make sure that the size of the shelter is only as large as you need it to be. Small shelters take less time to heat while large ones steals from your body heat.
  • Don't sleep directly on the ground so the cold won't seep through. Instead, create a "bed" made from grass, pine needles, moss, and other materials that provide insulation.
  • Hillsides are ideal spots for building a shelter as they protect you from the wind.
  • Avoid clearings in the mountains as they are vulnerable to avalanches.
Shelter Survival skills

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