Different environments require different types of shelters, but there are some basics that always apply. To begin with, it is important that you are able to sleep off the ground. Sleeping on the ground aggressively draws warmth out of your body, and should be avoided at all costs. In addition, you are more likely to have issues with insects, spiders, scorpions, and snakes if you are on the ground. The next essential item to remember is that you need some sort of overhead cover.
Most people don’t realize that the night sky also draws warmth out of your body if you do not have a barrier overhead. A third priority is to provide cover from the sun. Direct sun exposure can cause heat stroke, dehydration, and severe sun burns. Ideally, the roof should be at least somewhat waterproof. The rest of the design can be decided on a case-by-case basis, but you also need to pick a design that you can construct in a reasonable amount of time. If it gets dark and you are only half way done, there is really no point in wasting the calories.
Urban Bug Out Shelters
Let us start with urban survival. This is a very unique situation as your building materials and threats would be completely different from surviving outside of a major city. Your main objective is to stay hidden and give yourself somewhat of a protective barrier between yourself and other people. It is preferred that you not be seen constructing this shelter, so if you can find a safe area without building then that is the best route.
Here are a few options that are ready to use. Dumpsters actually make great shelters if you can get past the smell. You do have to be prepared for visitors looking for food. If needed, you can run cordage around the lid and tie it around your waist so people cannot get inside. It protects from rain, wind, animals, and other people and requires no construction.
The area underneath a small staircase can be a good option. Most people would not think to look there, and it is structured similar to a lean to. Any properties or parks that have thick vegetation can be a good option. Many times overgrown bushes will have a good space underneath, and the plant can keep you hidden, dry, and out of the wind.
I recall a time when my vehicle broke down in another city, and I was stranded until it was repaired. I didn’t have the money for a hotel, but I found what looked like a row of trees. It was actually a hidden creek bed that was lined on both sides with vegetation. I was able to spend two days in that area without seeing a single other person, and it was in the middle of the busiest part of the city.
If you need to construct a shelter, building a modified lean-to is the easiest solution. With one or two old mattresses, you can make a comfortable and somewhat insulated shelter. You can always use cardboard, but be warned that you may get visitors. If there are people scouring the area for supplies, they will likely check cardboard shelters. If you can hide your shelter behind some other debris, it is a good idea. When constructing a cardboard shelter, try to find some insulating materials like Styrofoam to keep you off the ground. If you can find wooden pallets and wrap them in plastic, they can make good materials for building a shelter. The biggest concern with constructing anything in an urban setting is finding a way to stay hidden.
There are some found shelter options that should be a last resort. These would be abandoned homes, abandoned cars, and entryways for businesses and apartment buildings. If you choose to use one of these as a shelter, then prepare to defend yourself. In most cases these shelters were abandoned because they were difficult to defend and naturally drew other people to them. People will be looking for resources like food and water in abandoned buildings, and will be digging through cars for supplies as well. I would likely never use one of these shelter options unless I had no other choice.
Rural Bug-Out Shelters
For rural settings, there are a few found shelter options that you can consider. The most obvious are caves or rock overhangs. While these are appealing to keep you out of the wind and rain, they may already have animals living in them. Thoroughly check for any fur, prints, or scat and move on if you think animals have been there.
Also, be very careful using fire in these shelters. When the heat from a fire warms up overhead rocks, they can break loose and crush somebody sleeping underneath. Despite all the negatives, it will work in a pinch. Another found option is a tree shelter. This is a natural shelter that you would use in deep snow. Many times, you will notice that the ground immediately around an evergreen tree will be snow-free and dry. In many cases, this area is already insulated with pine or spruce needles. If you tuck in underneath the overhanging branches, you get some protection above you and have a dry area to sleep. However, the wind will still whip through those branches, and rain would be a problem if the temperatures rise.
The lean-to is still the easiest option to construct. To build one you simply lash a ridge pole to two trees and then lean branches against it at a 45 degree angle. To further insulate you can pile leaves or spruce boughs on top, and you do the same underneath to create a bed. These take minimal time to set up and are fine to protect you from the wind and rain for a few days. If you have a fire, they do fine for most cold weather as well. From a distance they blend into the bush, and most people wouldn’t recognize it as a shelter until they are within about 50 yards. Quick and simple is the way to go when constructing a bug-out shelter.
If you need additional protection from the cold and don’t have a fire, then a debris hut is the way to go. With this design you make a bipod with two poles about four feet in length and then lay an eight foot ridge pole against it. You then lean branches on either side at a 45 degree angle. To finish it off, pile several feet of debris on top for a thick layer of insulation. You are basically creating a natural sleeping bag that will keep you warm using your own body heat. If you build it right, you will have just enough room to crawl in and shift around a bit. This shelter is even more hidden than a lean to, and many people would walk right by and never even notice it.
If you are in deep snow and have limited building materials, a snow cave may work best. This design is created by digging out an area to sleep inside a snow drift. You need a drift at least four feet deep. If you don’t have one you can pile additional snow on top to get your depth. Next, you need to find some six inch long sticks and insert them all over the drift. As you dig out your cave, you know to stop digging when you see the end of one of those sticks. The entrance needs to be just wide enough for you to crawl through, and there needs to be at least two levels inside. The bottom level is where the cold air will collect, and the top level is where you will sleep. Use your pack to block the entrance, and you will be completely out of the wind.
Preparation is always your best bet when bugging out, so taking supplies with you is a good idea. The most helpful shelter building materials you can put in your bag are a tarp and some paracord. There are dozens of ways to make a shelter out of a tarp, but the A-frame and the hammock are probably the fastest to construct and most popular. For an A-frame, you can run your cordage between two trees, drape the tarp over the cordage, and then tie the corners to rocks or stakes.
If you want a waterproof barrier underneath you, then make a smaller, lower A-frame and fold a section of the tarp underneath you. To make a hammock you would just bunch up each end of the tarp, tie cordage around the ends, and then tie the ends to two trees. It will keep you off the ground, and hammocks are always comfortable. Instead of a tarp, you may opt to bring an emergency blanket. These are basically smaller tarps but have a reflective surface on one side to reflect body heat back to you. I have one and use it constantly. It is large enough to build a suitable shelter in most situations. Be aware that tarps and emergency blankets stand out in any setting, so do not be surprised if curious animals or people start poking around.
If you want the most complete and easy options possible, a bivy tent or hammock tent may be the best way to go. A bivy tent is a small, one person tent that is designed for a pack. It does take up some space, so I would normally strap it on the outside of my pack. A bivy tent adds about 5 lbs to your pack weight, but it gives you a completely windproof and waterproof option. It also gives you a decent barrier from animals and people, but like a tent it will stand out in your environment.
Normally they are quick to set up and break down. A hammock tent consists of a hammock with a small cover or bug net over top. These also take up some space in your pack and add about 5 lbs to your pack weight. They keep you off the ground and comfortable, while still giving you protection from the elements. Both options do require you to spend a little money, but for some people they are worth every penny.
There are a few good reminders to make about any shelter. To get your body at least a few inches off the ground you can build a bed, pile up debris, or use a hammock. Fire placement is very important in regards to shelters. In many cases you would want to forgo fire entirely to avoid drawing attention to yourself, but sometimes it is needed. It is best to position your fire just outside of your shelter. If you feel you need to build a fire inside your shelter, make sure there is decent ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. You can also dig a Dakota fire pit to hide the flames from other people. Remember, stealth is the key.
If you decide that you will be remaining in an area for more than a few days, then you may want to either improve your shelter or build a new one. Most of the designs I have mentioned are only good for a few days at a time and are ideal for somebody on the move. Every bug out situation is a little different, and your shelter needs must be assessed. Be realistic about what you can accomplish when building and leave yourself time to do so.
Remember, we are not building the Taj Mahal. We just need to stay warm and dry for a little while. It is a good idea to practice some of these shelter designs in advance. Even something as simple as a tarp shelter can be frustrating if you have never done it before. The best suggestion I can give is to be as prepared as possible, and you will be ready to build when the time comes.