Skip to main content
Supported by Victorinox

Survival shelters

First suggested by Bushscout
Build shelters from natural and manmade materials. Which one will you prefer?

You will need

  • Tarpaulin
  • Tent pegs
  • Guy lines or rope
  • Poles
  • Buschcraft knives

Join the practical skills alliance

Bushscout are a national community of Scout Leaders who have a passion for teaching traditional and practical Scouting skills to other Scout Leaders. Subjects covered on training days include:
  • knife, axe and saw safety and skills
  • backwoods cooking
  • tarpology and tents
  • fire
  • kelly kettles and water purification
  • pioneering
  • crafts
  • game preparation
Learn more about Bushscout

Before you begin

  • If using knives, take the time to read and understand the Scout knife safety guidance.
  • Your tarps should be about three metres by three metres. It’s best if they have tying loops.
  • The guy lines or rope should be two or three metres long.
  • You’ll also need to do this activity somewhere you can access natural materials including sticks, bark, foliage, and leaf litter.
  • For further information and pictures check out the Victorinox shelter building guide.

Safety checklist

Use the Safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity.  Additional coronavirus-related controls to think about may include: 

  • Carry out the activity outside if possible – perhaps use a dining shelter or large tarpaulin if needed.
  • Make sure appropriate social distancing is maintained between individuals throughout the activity.
  • Ensure hands are cleaned before using any equipment and again straight afterward
  • Clean equipment between different users where possible.
  • Set up a hand cleaning station that you can use throughout the session.
  • Consider how you manage activities requiring close supervision – e.g. increased instruction, face coverings and extra cleaning?

Get stuck in

  1. Everyone should split into groups.
  2. Each group should build a shelter using natural materials.
  1. Once the group’s finished the shelter, everyone should take it in turns to try it out. Can they rest inside?
  2. Each group should build a shelter using a tarpaulin.
  1. Once the group’s finished the shelter, everyone should take it in turns to try it out. Can they rest inside?
  2. Everyone should come together and reflect on the activity. Which shelter did people prefer?

How to build a natural shelter

  1. Collect your natural materials. You’ll need: a long, straight, sturdy stick (taller than the person using the shelter); two tall sticks with a ‘Y’ shape at one end; two short sticks with a ‘Y’ shape at one end; lots of smaller straight sticks; big pieces of bark; lots of thin twigs; foliage; leaf litter.
  2. Take the long, straight, sturdy stick and hold it up to become a ridgepole (the horizontal pole that supports the roof of a tent). Use the tall sticks with ‘Y’ shapes at the end as forked supports to hold up the front of the ridgepole.
  1. Use the short sticks with ‘Y’ shapes at the ends as forked supports to hold up the back of the ridgepole. Again, the ridgepole should lock into the ‘Y’ shape and the forked supports should be at about a 60 degree angle.
  2. Clear the ground under the frame so it’s free from stones, sticks, and prickly plants.
  3. Lay in the shelter – you should fit under it without your feet touching the ridgepole. If you don’t fit, go back and adjust the shelter before you continue.
  4. Use a sharpened stick to dig holes in the ground and wedge the forked supports in place.
  5. Put straight sticks on the sides of the shelter to build walls that can support a covering. The walls should be a 60 degree angle, just like the frame. Trim the sticks to size so they don’t stick too far over the ridgepole.
  1. Check that the frame and walls are sturdy enough to hold the weight of the covering.
  2. Cover the shelter with big pieces of bark, thin twigs, and foliage.
  3. Cover the shelter with leaf litter – start from the bottom and build up towards the top.

How to build a tarpaulin shelter

  1. Lay out the tarpaulin and decide where the front of the shelter will be.
  1. Firmly peg the loops either side of the corner loop on the back two corners of the tarp. Take the corner flaps and tuck them in under the secured loops.
  1. Move the corner loop on the front left corner of the tarp 30cm to the right. Peg it down. Then repeat with the front right corner, pegging the corner loop 30cm to the left.
  1. Get the pole that will give your shelter height and rigidity. If you’ve got an adjustable pole, the height should be about three feet. If you’re using natural resources, choose wood that’s about two and a half centimetres in diameter (such as hazel).
  2. Put the pole under the first central loop in from the front entrance. If your tarp doesn’t have reinforced central ridge line loops, use strong tape to reinforce it so the pole doesn’t tear through.
  3. If the ground’s soft, make a pole foot to stabilise the pole and stop it sinking into the ground. Take a piece of wood and use the awl on a Swiss army knife (or the point of a strong knife blade) to dig a hole big enough for the pole to fit in.
  1. You should have a stable tent-like structure with a flap at the front. Take the two corners of the flap and pin them along the side using a guy line and peg.


This activity was all about developing skills and being independent. In a survival situation, shelters are essential. What do they protect people from? People might think about rain and wind, sun, or animals. Shelter is also important to keep people’s morale up – even if the miserable weather wasn’t deadly, shelter’s really important to keep everyone going. Would people prefer warmer individual shelters or slightly chillier shelters that have space for a group? There’s no one right answer, as long as people have considered the pros and cons of each option. In a survival situation, other people can be crucial.


All activities must be safely managed. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Do a risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Always get approval for the activity and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.

Heavy and awkward objects

Don’t lift or move heavy or awkward items without help. Break them down into smaller parts if possible.

Outdoor activities

You must have permission to use the location. Always check the weather forecast and inform parents and carers of any change in venue.

Poles and long objects

Be careful when moving poles or long items. Take care if the ends are sharp. Have appropriate supervision for this activity.

Sharp objects

Teach young people how to use sharp objects safely. Supervise them appropriately throughout. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people.