Research Thursday: Wilderness Survival. 5 tips to make a top shelter!

Welcome back to Research Thursday!

I love research. As a writer this is a good thing. We research plane crashes, medieval medical treatments, and many other things. If anyone saw our internet history they’d be thoroughly disturbed. (Unless they were another writer or knew about our work in progress!)

The next three research posts are part of a series on wilderness survival, and linked to a nine part story I’ll be posting weekly as part of Sunday Scribbles from the 1st of July.

This week? Making Shelter and Fire.

Research for Writing Wilderness Survival Shelter and Fire

Note: I’m in no way a survival expert and none of these tips are tried and tested. If you happen to lose a limb trying to craft a spear or construct inadequate shelter and catch pneumonia whilst trying to survive in a hostile environment, the author takes no responsibility for it.

Shelter is one of the most important things to consider when stranded:

If you ever become stranded in the wild without a tent, finding or creating a shelter is one of your number one concerns. A shelter protects you from harm, provides somewhere to hide from creatures, and helps you endure all but the worst elements.

Tip 1: When it comes to choosing a location, safety first!

Start looking for shelter as soon as possible. The ideal location is a safe area, near a water source but not so close that your shelter is swarmed by insects or easily flooded. There should be suitable materials nearby to construct a shelter and enough flat ground for you to lay on.

Check the area for predators, snakes, or bugs. The area above it should be clear of any trees or rocks that might fall and crush your shelter, or trap you in a cave. Don’t camp next to poisonous plants either. When in doubt keep your distance. There’s no easy way to identify them! The idea is to survive, not get crushed, poisoned or eaten! Secluded, camouflaged locations work best.

Tip 2: Look for caves and natural formations:

Cave shelter wilderness survival post
A cave is an ideal natural shelter!

The best type of shelters are those naturally formed in the landscape. Caves, large trees with branches which curve towards the ground, overhanging rocks or large bushes with room to hide inside would all make a good shelter.

Tip 3: Head to higher, sheltered, ground:

  • Higher ground is often warmer, offers a better vantage point, and there’ll be less insects.

  • Camping in an open field is a bad idea. You’ll want a location that conceals you from danger and allows you to keep lookout.

  • By all means shelter under trees, but consider the coconut, and other natural hanging objects that could fall on you. Don’t take shelter underneath them.

Tip 4: If you can’t find it, build it!:

If there are no natural formations to use for shelter it’s possible to create one using sturdy branches, 6 bare and the rest covered in leaves. The ground must be soft enough to push them into. First, gather some ferns or foliage and place them on the floor for a mattress.

Once that’s done stick two branches into the ground leaning towards each other at one end of your shelter site, and three in the ground at the other end in a tripod shape. The top of the branches should cross each other so the final branch can be balanced on top of them.

How to build a wilderness shelter sketch
It was easier to sketch a diagram to help explain how to construct a shelter!

Make sure the branches are pushed well into the ground, and if you have any vines or rope you can tie the tops together to secure them. Reinforce the shelter with more branches, then lean leafy branches against it, leaving the end with two branches open as an entrance.

The leafy branches will help retain heat and shield you from sight. Find another large leafy branch to tug in front of the entrance once you’re settled in for the night, and enjoy the sound of crickets and other wildlife as it lulls you to sleep!

Shelter made of natural materials wilderness survival post
Another type of shelter, around a tree.

Tip 5: Consider the climate:

In this series I’ll focus on wilderness survival in a forest environment, because that’s the environment my story takes place in. If you’re stranded elsewhere, consider the climate. If you’re in the desert, your shelter should be designed to keep you cool rather than retain heat. Finding water should also be a priority to avoid dehydration.

Cold environments can be just as deadly. Low temperatures make it harder to concentrate and food will be harder to find. Choose a location that is sheltered from the wind, and build a small shelter as these retain body heat better.

Other considerations:

  • A smaller shelter will be more durable against windy weather conditions.

  • Do not engage large predators. Avoid them if you can.

  • Try to maintain moral. Sing songs around the camp fire. Tell each other stories. If you’re alone you might find survival harder, unless you’re an introvert!

Making fire:

I’ve covered lighting a fire without technology in a previous post, ‘How to light a candle in the middle ages,‘ but building a fire pit is something I’ve not explored before.

Fire Pit Wilderness survival research post

  • Choose a spot away from your shelter, so it doesn’t go up in flames.

  • Clear the area and dig a small pit. Surround it with stones to shelter the flames. The windier it is the deeper the pit should be.

  • Gather dry wood. Stack it in the middle of the pit and make a wooden tipi over the kindling.

  • If you don’t have a tinder box or magnifying glass, rub two sticks together to make a spark. Once you have a spark, blow on it near the wood until it lights.

  • Don’t look directly at the fire at night, it’ll make it harder to see your surroundings.

  • Don’t leave the fire unattended and extinguish it when you’re done to avoid forest fires.

Excerpt from upcoming story series:

‘Wait up!’ Flynn yelled, as he shoved aside a large branch. He winced when a thorn sliced his finger, and shoved it in his mouth just as Calix spun around to glare at him.

‘We need to find shelter before the sun sets. We’re not here for fun, you know.’

Flynn pointed at the sky, visible only through a small crack in the trees which sheltered the muddy ground from the sun. ‘I know, but the sun’s not that high. We’ve got time.’

‘Not if we have to build a shelter,’ Calix replied. He glanced around and pointed towards the top of a hill. ‘Up there’s good.’

Flynn sighed. ‘Do we have to walk? Can’t you use your magic?’

‘And risk attracting the kidnappers we just escaped from? No thanks.’


Calix glared at him. ‘Magic in emergencies only.’

‘Fine,’ Flynn replied. He kicked the dirt and yelped when his toe hit a concealed stone. ‘This sucks.’

scales divider copy

Thanks for reading!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest insight into the research behind my writing, and I’ve inspired some story ideas or provided some useful insights 🙂

Do you think you could make a shelter if you were stranded in the middle of nowhere? Have you built a shelter before? Let me know in the comments!

Past posts in the series:

How to Light a Candle in the Middle Ages.

Roses: What’s in a Colour?

Allergies: A History of Treatments.

Apprenticeships and Training.

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