Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How To Build An A-Frame Debris Shelter

In this step by step walk through, in accompany with my YouTube video on the subject, I show you how to build an A-Frame Debris Shelter.

The A-Frame Debris Shelter is a versatile design that can be utilized in the summer or winter months, in dry or wet conditions.  The shelter requires minimal tools if the proper steps are taken in site selection and debris gathering, making it a good option for someone caught unprepared to spend the night outdoors. However, with a few small pieces of equipment (such as rope, a good knife, and/or a small saw) one can make an extremely durable and weather resistant temporary shelter.

There are many variations on this design and no specific way is more correct than another. In a true survival situation the best method for building a shelter is whatever method expends the least amount of energy while sufficiently protecting you from exposure to the elements.  That may involve using the "Y" of a tree to rest the support beam, instead of building an "A" for the support beam to be tied to. Again, your preparedness beforehand (having rope, or other tools available) will likely dictate this.

This shelter is such a great option to have in your survival skill set because it is easy to build and can be adapted to suit a variety of conditions and situations (for example extra insulating layers of debris in winter).  There are many different environments you might face in various regions of the world, but nearly everyone of those will provide the natural debris necessary to create this shelter.

Below I have included the link to my video walk through of how to build an A-Frame debris shelter. You can use both the video and walk through here in conjunction with one another.

Site Selection
Selecting the proper site is important regardless of what type of shelter you are building.  Every situation will be different, but there are a few general rules to keep in mind.  

Avoid areas where any of the following may be an issue:
  • Areas that may pool run-off water, or be susceptible to flash floods.
  • Areas that may be more susceptible to frost (hollow bottoms).
  • Areas that animals may use as a primary route to water.
  • Any other unstable areas where dangers such as avalanches or rock slides could occur.
A few considerations to keep in mind:
  • Certain areas will get more sunlight during the day than others. (ie the North face of a hillside versus the South face.)
  • What direction is the wind blowing from primarily? Orient your shelter and fire accordingly.
  • Choose a camp as close to necessities as possible. Quick access to food, water, or debris in this case.
I chose an area where the wind was mostly blocked by a group of pines, and where I would be in the sun for as much of the day as possible. The area also had a significantly larger amount of debris than anywhere else in the vicinity.

Main Support Beam
You want to find a stout beam that will have the strength to support the structure. This beam needs to be strong enough to hold the weight of the roofing beams, and their debris.  If it is winter, consider that snow fall could also significantly increase the weight being held by the beam.  Wind will also be a factor.

I chose a dead fall tree that never actually fell to the ground. It was stopped by a neighboring pine, and the way that it fell caused it to curve.  I liked the curvature that it gave the beam, because it will make the process of adding the roofing beams easier.  The beam that you choose should optimally be a few feet longer than you are tall so that you can lay down in the shelter completely. But do not choose too long of a piece. The longer the beam, the larger the shelter will be, the more debris will be required, the more area will need to be heated by the fire... and so on.

The A Frame Beam
The beams you select to create the "A" should be of a similar size and strength as the main support beam. They too will hold a significant portion of the weight.  The length of your "A" beams will depend on your size and preference.  I like to be able to sit up and/or kneel at the entrance of my shelter. Therefore, I select the length of the "A" beams accordingly.

I chose a beam almost identical in size to the main support for my "A".

Connecting The "A"
This is also a very crucial step in the construction process.  Make sure you choose two beams that are long enough to allow you to fit in the shelter.  If you are cutting the two beams from one longer piece, always be on the safe side and cut them so they are longer than you think you will need. You can cut off the excess later.

Place the "A" beams in the approximate position that you want the opening to be.  Figure out what width you want at the base, and how/where the beams rest most securely on the ground.  Once you have found this, connect the beams IN THAT POSITION.  Attempting to connect the beams while laying down on the ground and not in the position they will ultimately be in will make more work for you, and will cause you to get a less secure connection between the two.

Securing The Main Support Beam
Once the "A" is tied off, grab your main support beam and rest it on the "A" temporarily.  Adjust the angle of the "A", watching what it does to the height of the shelter.  Remember to also consider the length you need to lay down in the shelter.  It is nice to have an over hang with any shelter, but that will compromise the integrity of the shelter's strength. I angle the "A" less than 90 degrees back towards the main support beam.

Once you have your frame in the place that you think will work best, fortify where the frames are resting on the ground. You can use rocks, logs, or you can dig a cavity in the ground for the frame to rest in as I did here. This is my preferred method.

Here I show the main support frame secured.  I secured the other two frames as well. For the support beam I dug an angled cavity about 8" deep and placed it in.  A rock or heavy log resting on top can also work.

Once you have secured all the frames, secure the main support frame to the "A" if you can. I used 550 para-cord as shown below.
No particular knot or method here.  Tie it tight enough to get a secure fit. If you can shake any of the frames loose or out of position once tied, you need to go back a step and secure the frames on the ground better.

Prepare The Ground
Before you start to place the roof beams on the frame, take a shovel, knife or whatever else you have available and churn up the earth will you will be laying. This will create air space which will make it easier to insulate later. We will cover this area with boughs, duff, and pine needles to increase insulation before sleeping gear is laid down.

Churn up the earth to create air space on the ground.

Mid Support Beam
This is required but I like to secure a frame about half way down the main beam. This will make stacking the larger roofing frames easier.  This helps keep the larger roofing beams closest to the "A" from falling over accidentally while building the shelter. This is especially helpful when working with wood that isn't straight, or if you are forced to build on uneven ground.

Stacking The Roof Beams
Now it is time to start placing the roofing beams.  You can start at whichever end you want.  Make sure the beams are long enough to extend above the support frame.  Use the approximate angle of the "A" so that your shelter doesn't change width along its length.  Also keep in mind that the steeper the angle the harder it will be to get a base layer of debris. 

Don't forget to remove any branches that might be sticking off the roof beams. It's not fun to bump into them at night!

Alternate the roofing beams on each side of the support frame and try to keep the spacing between each beam as minimal as possible.  Angle base your angle for each roof beam off of the "A" beam to keep things even.  As you get closer to the back of the shelter use smaller sticks, on a smaller angle.

Make sure to use good pieces as the roofing beams will also support weight.

Make sure that none of the pieces might bend and collapse once weight is on them.  Also check the angle to make sure things are even.

Prepare The Roof For Debris
The easiest way to prepare the roof for debris is to add sticks to increase the surface area.

Vine and sticks like this work well. If necessary you can weave the vine in between roofing beams, but this will take extra time and is not much more efficient than just evenly applying a layer on the roof.

Collecting And Placing Debris
Now it is time to start collecting debris. This is going to take some time and energy, but if you selected your camp site well hopefully your work and travel will be as minimal as possible.  Here I use a tarp and pile on debris, then carry the tarp back to the shelter.  You can just use the tarp to dump the debris on, but I like to get an even base layer first, working from the bottom up.

Its okay if there are some sticks, dirt or other miscellaneous debris included. A certain amount is inevitable.  Just make sure you don't pick up any snakes!

Use your hand to feel where the debris layer is light and add to it. Also be sure to pack it down as best as possible. Don't break your roof frames, but compact the debris a reasonable amount. This will retain heat more effectively.

Don't forget the top!

Inspecting The Base Layer
Now its time to check your work. Go under the shelter and look for daylight.  You will want to cover and add a layer to any thin areas.  Even though you will cover these later with the other layers of debris, it is important to do this because these areas will be more susceptible to heat loss and precipitation if left alone.

Look for daylight under the shelter.  Take a stick and run it through the opening so you can find the thin area outside and add debris to it.  If not heat will escape easier through these areas, and may also allow precipitation into the shelter.

That's it for part one. Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2!
Thanks for stopping by. Please be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and this Blog!


  1. I think you did a very good job on teaching me how to build an A-Frame debris Shelter. I have to make one for my Sci Tech 11 class. thank you very much!

    1. Glad to have helped! Feel free to reference me in class and be sure to check out my YouTube Channel!

  2. great video dude, going to give one of these a go! very informative and good humoured... enjoyed it!

  3. could you cove the roof with a tarp?