How To Build A Survival Debris Hut

The ‘Survival Rule of Three’ states that in inclement weather we can only expect to survive three hours without shelter.

It is because of this, that shelter is prioritized before water in most survival situations and is one of the first survival tasks that one would undertake in a true survival situation.

While there are multiple shelters that one can construct, the debris hut is probably one of the simplest to build often requiring no tools or cordage.

What is a Survival Debris Hut?

The best way to describe the debris hut is that it is a pile of leaves and other debris that is held back from crushing you by a ridgepole and a whole lot of sticks.

The debris hut is not unlike any other shelter except that it requires no cordage or tools and relies on leaves and forest debris to provide insulation.

Related: Emergency Shelters When You Are On The Move

How Does it Work?

There are three ways in which we can lose body heat, convection, conduction, and radiation.

  • Convection is where the body loses heat through the skin by way of cold air or water moving across it. When you feel the chill of a cold wind, that is convection stealing your heat.
  • Conduction happens when heat moves from a warmer object to a cooler object. Since the ground is cooler than we are our body heat is conducted into the Earth when we lay down on the ground without insulation between us and the dirt.
  • Radiation is the heat that radiates out of our body. If you look at a human through thermal imaging you can see that we radiate heat which warms the air around us.

The debris shelter serves to insulate us from the ground, keeps out the cold wind and water, and traps the heat that radiates from our bodies.


Where you put your shelter is arguably as important as the shelter itself because a great shelter in a bad location can negate all the advantages a good, insulated shelter can provide.

When selecting a shelter site look for the following:

  • Flat, dry, and level ground.
  • Plenty of shelter building materials.
  • The 5 W’s.

Related: 12 Things You Need to Know Before Choosing Your Bug Out Location

The Five W’s of Shelter Selection

Wind – Be aware of where the prevailing wind is blowing and orient your shelter, so the wind does not blow into your shelter.

Widow makers – Look up at the branches above you. Dead branches may break which can fall on your shelter causing severe injury or death.

Water  You need a source of water close by but not too close. The air temperature around water is often lower than areas further away and higher up.

Also, walk around the area and look for any evidence of water moving through your camp area. The last thing that you want is a river flowing through your shelter at 3 AM.

Wood – Fire is almost as important as shelter and fire requires wood to burn. Aside from fire you also will need wood for the shelter construction.

Wildlife – Avoid setting up near game trails or anywhere you find tracks or scat.

Building the Survival Debris Hut

To construct this shelter, you will need an area that has an ample supply of wood and dry leaves. For the insulation from the ground, it is also helpful to have access to evergreen boughs to lay down as a bed.

One point of note is that as with any shelter construction this is going to require a significant calorie expenditure. It will also take a lot more time than you think to construct so plan on starting several hours before the sun is due to set.

Step One – Now that you have a suitable location, you will need to set up a ridgepole. You will have to find something to lay one end of the ridge pole on which can be a fallen log, stump, or a fork in a tree. You may get lucky and find a fallen tree that is perfect.

The goal here is to have enough room to lay comfortably under with a bit of headroom. In this type of shelter, your body heat is going to heat the shelter so you will want to minimize the amount of air space inside.

Step Two – Figure out where your bed is going to be and then insulate the ground where you will be sleeping. Pile evergreen boughs at least 4 inches thick when compressed then test that you can still lay comfortably under the ridge pole.

I omitted the bed for the purposes of these photos as to not cause any undue harm to live trees in the collection of evergreen boughs.

Step Three – Lay sticks against the ridge pole tight together which will form the walls of the shelter.

Test out the shelter again before moving on.

Step Four – Gather all the leaves, sticks, boughs, and other forest debris you can find and begin piling it up on the shelter’s frame. Do not underestimate the volume of debris you are going to require.

The goal is about one foot of debris on your shelter but if the weather is colder the amount of debris needs to be at least two feet or more.

Step Five – When retiring to your shelter for the night the entrance needs to be filled in with some more debris but do not seal yourself in completely leave a little room for some airflow.

Some Things to Think About

  • This shelter design requires a lot of debris so think about this before selecting a site for your shelter.
  • It is a good idea to practice building a debris shelter before needing one in a real emergency.
  • Dry leaves are best, but the circumstances may not allow for this. Try not to use wet or green materials to insulate the inside of the shelter or as your bed save all the driest materials for the inside layers of insulation.
  • Be extremely cautious with having a fire near this type of shelter. Before you go to sleep at night fully extinguish all fires and do not use a candle or smoke inside the shelter. If the shelter catches fire escape is going to be exceptionally difficult.

Related: 3 Quick Shelters (The Last One is Invisible!)

Building one of these shelters takes a lot of time and calories.

While building one of these shelters can and will save your life in an emergency it is not anything that you should rely on, instead build and bring an emergency shelter kit with you every time that you head out into the woods.

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