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Clan of the Cave Turtle: Emergency Shelters 2
© 2006

As promised, this is number 2 of a series on emergency shelters. I'll cover a couple of simple shelters that are quick to erect and tear down.
If you haven't read the first article, you can read it now.
You need to be familiar with the shelters from this first article since these next ones "build" on the first ones.

Once again, I'm starting with the book by Mr. Daniel Beard, Shelters, Shacks and Shanties, first published in 1914. It relies on NO modern materials what-so-ever.

Mr. Beard always gave a name to his shelters, probably as an aid for young men to remember. This is no exception. These are all a variation on the LEAN-TO, and the TEEPEE.

The Adirondack (Lean-to)

The Adirondack shelter is a lean-to shelter, open in the front. Although it is popularly called the Adirondack camp, it pre-dates the time when the Adirondacks were first used as a fashionable resort. Daniel Boone was accustomed to make such a camp in the forests of Kentucky. The lean-to or Adirondack camp is easily made and very popular. Sometimes two of them are built facing each other with an open space between them for the camp fire. But the usual manner is to set up two uprights as in Figure 15, above, then lay a crosspiece through the crotches and rest poles against this crosspiece (Fig. 16).

Over these poles other poles are lashed horizontally and the roof thatched with browse, but here the tips of the browse must point down and be held in place by other poles on top of it. ("Browse": Young twigs, leaves, and tender shoots of plants and shrubs that animals eat.) Sometimes a log is put at the bottom of the slanting poles and sometimes more logs are placed as shown in Figs. 15 and 16, and the space between them floored with balsam or browse.

For a long time, I couldn't figure out why Mr. Beard put the log crossing in front of the opening or entry to this shelter. I never did when I was camping. Then I remembered that Mr. Beard's generation didn't have access to inflatable mattresses. This log is designed to keep the "browse" or small soft fir branches from being dragged out of the shelter when you go in and out during the day. It gives a set depth to the browse which acts as the ground sheet and mattress for the whole shelter. It is basically a bed frame without legs.

Mr. Beard even shows you what to use to go out and collect the browse...which can also be used as thatching. Younger children are great to use for this task. Just point out what you want them to collect, and let them loose. (Staying within eyesight or ear-shot, being careful parents. Let the family pooch monitor them too.) Using this "V-Shaped" stick, they can carry more without dropping half of it on the way back to the camp.

Modern Applications of the Adirondack Shelter

Today, the Adirondack shelter is still being built in National Parks, particularly in remote hiking areas, and in private camps, Scouting Camps, and private forest areas. They are cheap to build, easy to maintain, and serve their purpose well. With no running water or electricity, there is little to go wrong. Usually, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis in the wilderness parks. The following photos show modern construction materials used in a very old design...and it still works.

Note that these shelters shown above all have a raised floor (off the ground) and/or decking. The interior photo shows built-in wall-mounted bunk beds. Two improvements were made to make this more spacious than the original Adirondack Shelter: The back wall was added to be able to raise the roof; the short slanted roof added to the front to deflect more of the rain that could still be blown into the shelter.

This "modern Adirondack Shelter" would make a good start towards a more permanent shelter if you so desire. It will comfortably sleep 6 or more in the bunk beds, with more space available on the floor. With no electricity or running water, there is nothing to steal. Your only problem might be that homeless hobos may find it and move in without you knowing it. Hidden in a copse of dense trees and shrubs, this little shelter could save your life. If a building permit would be required, I would shoot for one for a shed, not a house. With no door, It's not legally a dwelling, but only the local building inspectors can tell you for certain. Usually, without a door, there is no fire hazard. (Cover it later with a piece of canvas or plastic, if necessary to keep out blowing rain. (Don‘t seal it completely, the fire needs oxygen too. Don‘t suffocate with a fire in a completely sealed room.)

In use, this type shelter lends itself to the addition of a tarpaulin stretched out from the front of the shelter, making a covered area for eating, playing, working, etc. However, keeping a fire under this tarp is NOT a good idea. Burning down the whole thing is not proper survival procedure. In areas of severe cold, the addition of a wood burning stove inside the "shed" would seem to be a good idea. The wood burning stove creates a good heat source; you can cook on it; and it uses less wood more efficiently than an open campfire. If permitting is questionable, add the wood burning stove after the inspectors leave. Follow all the safety instructions provided by the stove's manufacturer. I love wood burning stoves, but installed incorrectly, they can be dangerous. Be careful.

Adirondack Shelter Plans

Source: Tom

"These Adirondack lean-to shelter plans were originally created for the Greater Pittsburgh Council of the BSA … I have put the drawings up on the web in case others find them useful. Permission is granted to reproduce them for non-commercial use so long as proper attribution is maintained. If you do use them I would appreciate it if you let me know how the project turned out and also if possible send me a picture of the result."

The above site from Tom Strong has a series of good plans that will work if you are planning to build your own shelter. At least they will get you started in the right direction. As always, check with your local building code inspectors if you have to. If you can avoid them, do so. They are humorless people.

Lean-To Example

Source: Riverside Graphics

I found this photo on a web site entitled: Backcountry Skills: Lean To. This doesn't look too bad to me. What is that white stuff on the ground? It doesn't look familiar to this now-Florida resident.

He looks entirely too comfortable to be in a survival situation, doesn't he? This shelter was lashed together using parachute cording. His site explains exactly how he built this shelter.

Modern Adirondack

This modern Adirondack shelter is at a religious retreat and can hold up to 10 people using the wall-mounted bed frames. The reason these are so popular is that they cost (relatively) little to build and the roof is the only maintenance item of note. You will probably not be able to camouflage this building unless you have a tank-sized camouflage net and a lot of help setting it up.


I should point out that the open front of these shelters is not screened so you are at the mercy of mosquitoes all night. You could provide individual bug screens for every bed, or use some sort of cloth screening over the front – like a tent has. A zipper door is possible, but in my experience, most large tent-like zippers don't hold up well under a lot of use. Once the zipper is broken, in come the bugs. I hate to sleep all lathered up in bug repellant.

Citronella buckets come in all sizes and shapes, they provide excellent protection for any camping area. The average burning time for many is well in excess of 24 hours. I usually use at least two per campsite, so that I get protected no matter which direction the wind blows. The metal hanger can be used to suspend them off the ground. These are frequently on sale during the summer for very low prices.

The "Wick-up Shelter"

(Named by Mr. Beard)

If your camp is to be occupied for a week or so, it may be convenient to build the Wick-up Shelter as a dining room like the one in Figure 21. This is made with 6 uprights, two to hold the ridge pole, and two to hold the eves, and may be shingled over with browse, birch, elm, spruce or other bark. Shingle starting at the lowest edge (the eves) and work upward towards the ridge pole. Each piece should overlap the butts of the one below it. Keep in mind that stripping a tree of bark will get you in BIG trouble with Park Rangers.

About Figure 21: If you don't extend the roof's eves out a lot farther than the diagram, you are going to get wet when the wind blows the rain into the shelter. I have long been a fan of having a roll of clear plastic sheeting included in the bug-out vehicle kit. This could be a good place to use it.

A smaller version of this shelter is very highly recommended to cover a pile of firewood that you want to keep dry. This is a great project for kids. They can collect and thatch the roof easily because they can reach it. It keeps them busy with a productive shelter for the fire wood; and teaches them how to build it. To insure a water proof roof, cover it with clear plastic sheeting, or a poncho. NOTHING is more frustrating than getting a small fire going only to have wet wood put it out again. Been there, done that.

The Lean-to Shelter that the military teaches (Fig. 5-1) uses my old friend the poncho, a piece of rope, and two trees. It works, but is not very large or comfortable. It does, however, keep you dry (providing the wind doesn't blow the rain into the lean-to.)

To maintain a "stealth" condition, cover it with freshly cut brush or branches to break up the straight line of the rope and the sides of the poncho.


The straight line is a man-made invention. In the woods, if you want to spot something man-made, look for straight lines, no matter what the color. To avoid detection from potential enemies, use branches and limbs to keep the straight line invisible.

The figure 5-2 shows the next evolution in the poncho lean-to, using 2 ponchos snapped together. This is more of the "pup tent" type so very familiar to WWI and WWII veterans who hated these little tents. There is only room to sleep.


Figure 5-3 shows yet another improvement on the lean-to. Adding the two (or more) poles over the tent and tying it to the center of the ridge rope will help keep it from sagging in the rain and wind. It makes it stronger to hold up camouflage foliage also. Strong winds can tear down and blow away an unsupported shelter like the one in Fig. 5-1.

Whelen Lean-To Shelter

Source: Track of the

This company (among others) sells light weight pre-made lean-to shelter fabric that you can roll up and pack with you. You provide the poles on site. It resembles the more modern lean-to shelter shape now in service, only with fabric sides. You might consider this style if all that chopping and hacking is not to your taste or skill level. You still have to find and cut your own poles.

Ideal Lean-To

If I had an ideal for a lean-to shelter in mind, it would look a lot like this. There are natural trees holding up the ridge pole, so there is no danger of them blowing over. The roof is thatched with natural "browse" and if laid over a poncho or two (or plastic) it will be very dry. The small wall in front acts to reflect heat back into the shelter as well as act as a wind break on really bad days. On the last day of your camp, burn the logs in the wind break. To keep warm the browse on the floor should be 8-12 inches deep.

I would also stack medium sized stones in front of the fire by the wall to heat up and make the heat reflectivity of the wall better. Some of the hot stones can be taken inside the shelter for more warmth.

This is a good shelter. It could be better if both sides were thatched with browse to keep swirling wind and snow out. That's the word I was trying to remember…SNOW. The white stuff on the ground. It's been so long…

The Debris Hut

Another type of improvised lean-to.

The drawings here are self-explanatory. Almost every forest has either fallen or felled tree stumps. You can use them to your advantage by stealing ideas from our friend the beaver. Just pile the branches and stuff over the top, crawl in, and go to sleep. It would be a much dryer shelter if the bottom layer was your poncho. This is very close to being the ultimate "stealth shelter" since it will blend it very well with the surroundings, and has no straight lines. (Just pray that a novice hunter doesn't set a large trap at your door trying to trap a world record sized Beaver.)

To keep the stealth factor high, don't cut down any trees or branches unless it is absolutely essential. Cover the cut edges with mud to conceal the freshly cut edges (that will stick out like a sore thumb). Next day, scatter the brush back to where you got it. Pick up any traces of your presence in the area...and bug out again.