When I was 10 years old I began learning the art of survival, and the first skill I was ever taught was how to build a shelter. Now, it’s one of the first things I teach my students at Coyote Trails in southern Oregon. In a survival situation, shelter is your top priority, and for any outdoor enthusiast, knowing the ins and outs of how to craft a debris hut makes for one serious life insurance policy.

Imagine that you are camping in the mountains in early spring. The winter weather is finally breaking and you have set out for a weekend of hiking and exploration. On your first day you break from camp and set out into the woods for the day. All goes well until, on your way home, you realize that you are not on the right trail and that, in fact, you have no idea where you are.

Dark is only a few hours away and you can see that a thunderstorm is moving in as the temperatures drop into the low forties. Your risk of hypothermia has suddenly increased and you know that sleeping without shelter could easily be a death sentence. This is a potentially dangerous situation, but, if you can build a debris hut, you can ride out extreme weather in relative comfort. If you don’t, then prepare to find yourself flirting with hypothermia.

Shelter On The Fly

For most survival situations I recommend making a type of quickie shelter known as the debris hut. The beauty of the debris hut is in its simplicity and versatility. It is effective in almost any environment and can be made out of a wide array of materials. Essentially, the debris hut has three major components, a frame, debris, and a door. The frame is shaped like a three-sided pyramid with one long support structure, the ridgepole. This structure creates a dry, warm sleeping compartment, as well as a platform for the three or more feet of debris on top of the frame.

Debris is also stuffed inside the sleeping compartment and a door keeps the heat sealed in tight. The debris acts like the down in a regular sleeping bag. It creates pockets of dead air space that trap and store the heat from your body inside your shelter. The debris inside the shelter acts like a sleeping pad as well, adding comfort and protection from the cold ground. Dry, deciduous leaves are ideal for debris, but anything from pine and fur needles to newspaper will work. The key is that the material creates dead air space when it is piled on top of the frame.

Location, Location

However, before you actually build your shelter, you have to find a place to put it. Choosing a good location for your camp is extremely important and the task should be approached with a heightened sense of awareness and an eye for detail. You want an area that is high and dry, rich with debris, and devoid of any branches or trees that could fall on you and your shelter. Other things to watch out for include animal beds, which may contain ticks, wasps or ant nests, and plants like poison oak or poison ivy.

The Framework

After you have picked a shelter location, your first step will be to craft the framework for the shelter. The inner frame of the debris hut is made of three parts, the ridgepole and two forked sticks called Y-sticks. The ridgepole forms the long backbone of the debris hut. It should be made of sturdy wood and long enough to stand on end from your feet to the tips of your fingers with your hand raised above your head.

The forked end of the Y-sticks support the ridgepole and form the other two sides of the triangle. When placed on the ground, slightly farther apart than the width of your shoulders, they should be long enough to come together at about the height of your groin. When you combine these with your ridgepole they should form a sturdy three-sided pyramid with one long side. When this basic framework is finished, add vertical sticks, called ribs, closely together along the entire length of the ridgepole. The ribs should reach from the ground to the top of the ridgepole, and they should also follow the same angle as the Y-sticks.

Then, finish the frame by adding a layer of thin branches as lattice that will help to keep the debris from falling to the inside of your shelter. When the frame is finished, add debris to the inside as well as the outside.

Once you think you have enough debris keep going, and then keep going some more. Keep on adding debris until you have roughly three feet or more. The more debris you add, the warmer and drier you will be. Also, make sure that you lay more sticks on top of your shelter to keep the debris in place. Finally, you will need a door. This can be anything from a pile of leaves that you stuff into the entrance behind you to a beautiful matt woven from cattails or grasses.

Test Your Skills

It sounds simple, but do you think you could build one of these in the dark or in the hour before a blizzard rolls in? Maybe not, but with practice the debris hut will become a skill you can bet your life on. The best way to test your debris hut skills is to build a hut while camping in the wintertime. Bring along any supplies you might need in case your debris hut isn’t as well built as you hoped it would be, including a sleeping bag and a tent. I’ll leave you with an expert tip. For a really good night’s rest, tuck your pants into your socks so the ants don’t get in during the night.

For more information about week to year-long immersion courses, workshops and expert instruction, check out the Coyote Trails website at


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