Category Archives: Shelter

The Survival Poncho and Tarp


Ponchos and Tarps

Lightweight tarps, ponchos, and poncho liners are critical must-haves for easy and effective temporary shelter. When I was climbing White Mountain a few years ago with two of my kids, the weather turned a little colder than what we had dressed for (I was in shorts in early Spring with snow still on the ground). In addition to water and my EDC, the only other item I packed for the quick 8-hour climb was a 25-year-old poncho liner and a Patagonia Houdini Jacket. If it wasn’t for that liner, it would have been much more difficult if not impossible to summit that day. The liner kept all three of us sheltered during breaks and was surprisingly warm and windproof. We simply huddled together near a rock outcropping and tucked the edges under our legs and bodies. The dark camouflage material soaked up the intermittent sun and seemed to easily shed the gale force winds blowing through valley all the way to the summit.

The “Ray-Way Tarp Book: How To Make A Tarp And Net-Tent, And Use Them In The Wilds” is a little overkill but is an excellent source of information related to tarps, their uses, and how to construct your own with lightweight materials. Be advised, the book can get expensive depending on availability (its popular among trail hikers looking to save an oz. for the AT or PCT). Link to AMZ.

Poncho. Common military ponchos are made of coated nylon and are waterproof. It can be used as a rain garment, ground cloth, or sleeping bag. It can also be used to make a shelter or tent. Two ponchos can be snapped together to make a two-person shelter. If possible, air-dry the poncho before folding it up. Ponchos can also be used as an expedient raft, hammock, or stretcher.

Back to basics for basic

Good livin’ in a two poncho shelter. US Army Photo

Ponchos and tarps are available in many styles, qualities, and features. US and German military ponchos are usually the best and least expensive. More expensive alternatives use breathable but waterproof materials. A simple waterproof layer with a strong backing, hood with draw string, and corner grommets is all you need. Large contractor grade plastic bags are an expedient alternative. Pack two or three.

Ponchos have many uses including rafts, stretchers and hammocks. See THIS post for detailed poncho raft instructions.

Best Sapper Competition 2010 Wisconsin Guard soldier a top finisher in 2013 Best Ranger Competition

Some materials degrade and waterproof coatings delaminate over time. How long depends on use and storage. Periodically inspect all water resistant equipment and replace or repair when needed.

Poncho Liner. The poncho liner is a lightweight padded panel about the same size and shape as the poncho. It can be attached to the poncho with its tie tapes and snap fasteners. It can also be used as a blanket. The liner can be hand-washed with warm soapy water. It should not be dry-cleaned.

Poncho Shelter

The poncho shelter, or tarp tent, is a reasonable shelter for most wet/semi-wet climates. This type of shelter does not provide any real insulating qualities or heat conservation. A poncho or tarp with grommetted corners (eyelets for tie down cord) works best but any sheet of waterproof material will work. Lay insulating bedding on the shelter site then string a stout length of cordage between two anchor points. This is called a ridge-line. The ridge-line should be about three feet off of the ground (approximate). If using a poncho, the hood must be “goose necked.” This is simply twisting the hood until it gathers into a tight bundle, closing the hole in the poncho for your head. Then tie the twisted bundle with any available cordage, (the drawstrings in the hood are good) so that it will not unwind.

Poncho Shelter

The poncho is draped over the ridge-line lengthwise, one half on one side, the other half on the other. The ridge-line is pulled up through the grommet, producing a loop that a small stick can inserted into. The tension on the stick (“cobbler peg”) will hold the poncho in place on the line and can be easily and quickly removed. A length of cordage can be tied to the hood of the poncho and secured to any over-head anchor point (branch or another ridge-line). This helps give the shelter sag relief during a hard rain or snow. Whittled out stakes can be driven through the grommets on the edges. This will draw the poncho down tight to the ground. If you need more room in the shelter, loops of cordage can be tied into the grommets (6-8 inches long). Stakes are driven through the loops, which raises the poncho edges off of the ground. If you are using a tarp, the corners can be twisted a few turns and cordage tied to the comers.

If Moderate to heavy rain is expected a trench six inches wide and six deep, should be dug. The trench should trace the shelter edges just at the dripline. Lead the trenches away from the shelter a few feet, preferably down hill. Drainage trenches are critical if you expect even moderate rain.

Poncho Lean-To

The poncho lean-to is another method that can be used in rains or heavy morning dew. The lean-to can be constructed from any large piece of sheet material (plastic, canvas, etc.) Natural insulation should be laid down for bedding. Two anchor points are selected and a ridge-line is tied about 3 feet off of the ground. The poncho is then secured to the ridge-line, with “cobblers pegs.” Stretch the poncho out to full length and stake it down to the ground. If the ground is rocky and you are unable to drive a stake, tie a 6-8 inch loop of cordage through the grommet. Place a stake through the loop, then lay the stake flat on the ground. Now place a large rock on top of the stake and the cordage.

Expedient poncho shelter. Photo by MC1 Roger Duncan.

A fence can be used for the ridge-line because this shelter can be entered from the sides. Of course the cobblers pegs cannot be used with the barbed wire, so it will need to be secured with cordage at the grommets. The shelter can be constructed without the ridge-line, by placing the edge of the poncho on a solid object (log, dirt mound, tailgate, etc.) and weighting down the comers with rocks.

Using a length of cordage, goose-neck the poncho hood and pull out the sag in the middle of the shelter. Attach the hood line to any close anchor point. If you don’t have an anchor point for the hood, two stout ridgepoles can be used. Cross the ridgepoles and lash them together with the hood line, then lean them out and away from the shelter. The pole’s weight will pull the sag out of the poncho. If the poles are stout enough and lean out at a steep enough angle from the shelter, they will weather most storm conditions.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.

Expedient Shelters

Photo by Michael Curtis

Photo by Michael Curtis

To Do Today:

  • PT – Cardio – Interval sprint – 40m x 5, 100m x 5, 400m x 5, max 1 min rest between each sprint // Strength – 2 sets of strict pull-ups to max, dips max reps, sit-ups max reps in 2 min, push-ups max reps in 2 min, flutterkicks x 50, burpees x 25.

Basic Expedient Shelter Characteristics

Any type of shelter, whether it is a permanent building, tentage, or an expedient shelter must  meet six basic criteria to be safe and effective. The characteristics are:

  • Protection From the Elements. The shelter must provide protection from rain, snow,
    wind, sun, etc.
  • Heat Retention. It must have some type of insulation to retain heat; thus preventing
    the waste of fuel.
  • Ventilation. Ventilation must be tested, especially if burning fuel for heat. This prevents the accumulation of carbon monoxide. Ventilation is also needed for carbon dioxide given off when breathing.
  • Drying. A drying area must be constructed or available to dry wet clothes.
  • Free from Natural Hazards. Shelters should not be built in areas of avalanche hazards,  under rock fall or “standing dead” trees have the potential to fall on your shelter.
  • Stable. Shelters must be constructed to withstand the pressures exerted by severe

Also, in a tactical or SERE situation:

  • Does the shelter provide concealment from enemy observation?
  • Does the shelter location maintain camouflaged escape routes?
  • Do you meet the requirements of BLISS?:

B – Blend in with Surroundings
L – Low silhouette

I – Irregular shape
S – Small
S – Secluded located

Natural Shelters

Natural shelters are usually the preferred types because they take less time and materials to construct. The following are examples of natural shelters that may be used with some modification:

  • Caves or Rock Overhangs. Can be modified by placing rocks, logs or branches across open sides.
  • Hollow Logs. Can be cleaned or dug out, then enhanced with ponchos, tarps, or parachutes hung across the openings.
  • Buildings. If the security situation permits, structures found in urban or rural environments should be considered (i.e. houses, sheds, barns, vehicles) during SERE/survival.

Hazards of Natural Shelters:

  • Animals. Natural shelters may already be inhabited (i.e. bears, coyotes, lions, rats, snakes, etc.) or guarded/used by domestic animals that could alert unfriendly humans.
  • Disease. From scat or decaying carcasses.
  • Lack of Ventilation. Natural shelters may not have adequate ventilation. Fires may be built inside for heating or cooking but may be uncomfortable or even dangerous because of smoke build up.
  • Gas Pockets. Many caves in a mountainous region may have natural gas pockets in them.
  • Instability. Natural shelters may appear stable, but in reality may be a trap waiting to collapse.

Construction of Shelters

If a natural structure is not available, the fabrication of an expedient shelter is limited only to your imagination. To maximize the shelter’s effectiveness, take into consideration the following prior to construction:

  • Group size.
  • Low silhouette and reduced living area dimensions for improved heat conservation.
  • Avoid exposed hill tops, valley floors, moist ground, and avalanche paths.
  • Create a thermal shelter by applying snow or debris, if available, to roof and sides of shelter.
  • Location of site to fire wood, water, and signaling, if necessary.
  • How much time and effort needed to build the shelter.
  • Can the shelter adequately protect you from the elements (sun , wind, rain, and snow). Plan on worst case scenario.
  • Are the tools available to build it. If not, can you make improvised tools?
  • Type and amount of materials available to build it.

Expedient Shelters

You are limited only by your imagination and materials available. The following man-made shelters can be constructed in almost any situation:

  • Poncho Shelter
  • Sapling Shelter
  • Lean-To
  • Double Lean-To
  • A-frame Shelter
  • Fallen Tree Bivouac

Poncho Shelter. This is one of the easiest shelters to construct. Materials needed for construction are cord and any water-repellent material (i.e. poncho, parachute, tarp). It should be one of the first types of shelter considered if planning a short stay in any one place.

  • Find the center of the water-repellent material by folding it in half along its long axis.
  • Suspend the center points of the two ends using cordage.
  • Stake the four corners down, with sticks or rocks.

Sapling Shelter. This type of shelter is constructed in an area where an abundance of saplings are growing. It is an excellent evasion shelter.

  • Find or clear an area so that you have two parallel rows of saplings at least 4ft long and approximately 1 ½ft to 2ft apart.
  • Bend the saplings together and tie them to form several hoops which will form the framework of the shelter.
  • Cover the hoop with a water-repellent covering.
  • The shelter then may be insulated with leaves, brush, snow, or boughs.
  • Close one end with debris. Hang material over the other end to form a door.

Lean-To. A lean-to is built in heavily forested areas. It requires a limited amount of cordage to construct. The lean-to is an effective shelter but offers only a minimal degree of protection from the elements.


  • Select a site with two trees (4-12” in diameter), spaced far enough apart that a man can lay down between them. Two sturdy poles can be substituted by inserting them into the ground the proper distance apart.
  • Cut a pole to support the roof. It should be at least 3-4” in diameter and long enough to extend 4-6” past both trees. Tie the pole horizontally between the two trees, approximately 1 meter off the deck.
  • Cut several long poles to be used as stringers. They are placed along the horizontal support bar approximately every 1 ½’ and laid on the ground. All stringers may be tied to or laid on the horizontal support bar. A short wall or rocks or logs may be constructed on the ground to lift the stringers off the ground, creating additional height and living room dimensions.
  • Cut several saplings and weave them horizontally between the stringers. Cover the roof with water-repellent and insulating material.

Double Lean-To. The double lean-to shelter is constructed for 2-5 individuals. It is constructed by making two lean-to’s and placing them together.

expedientshelterdoubleleantoA-Frame Shelter. Also known as a debris hut/shelter. An A-Frame shelter is constructed for 1-3 individuals. After the frame work is constructed, bough/tentage is interwoven onto the frame and snow, if available, is packed onto the outside for insulation.

expedient shelter a frameFallen Tree Bivouac. The fallen tree bivouac is an excellent shelter because most of the work has already been done.

expedient shelter fallen tree

  • Ensure the tree is stable prior to constructing.
  • Branches on the underside are cut away making a hollow underneath.
  • Place additional insulating material to the top and sides of the tree.
  • A small fire can be built outside of the shelter.

Reflector Walls. Heating a shelter requires a slow fire that produces lots of steady heat over a long period of time. A reflector wall should be constructed for all open ended shelters. A reflector wall is constructed with a flat rock or a stack of green logs propped behind the fire. A surprising amount of heat will bounce back from the fire into the shelter.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.