How to Build a Lean To Shelter (Building Step By Step)

Video survival lean to

In an emergency, finding shelter is more important than finding food.

You can last without food for quite a while, but not having shelter can quickly leave you hurt or sick.

Let’s take a look at the simplest, most popular emergency shelter: the lean to.

So, what is a lean to shelter?

A lean-to shelter is a simple, originally built structure that leans on an existing building or against another wall (or a tree/trees).

Most of the time, a lean to building falls in the survival gear category. It’s easy to build and you can get one built in just a few minutes even.

This type of survival shelter is specially designed to protect you from environmental elements on the spot.

They don’t have to be made of wood, though. They can also be made from locally available materials such as trash bags, a plastic sheet, poncho, or a tarp.

Why is a Lean-To Crucial?

A lean-to survival shelter can block the wind, protect you from insects, the sun, rain, hot and cold temperatures, and snow.

As I mentioned, in times of emergency, you will need shelter more than you will need food. They are also handy if you’re camping during the wet season since the structure can serve as a great storage place for firewood, keeping it nice and dry.

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What’s the Process of Building a Lean To Shelter?

There are several methods for making a lean to.

In one of the methods, you identify and use a single tree with a low hanging branch. While this method works effectively, finding the right tree can take a little bit of time.

Luckily, if that’s the case, you can also choose to use two trees – and it’s easy to source the rest of the materials you’ll need to complete the process.

Let’s discuss how to make a lean to shelter by building between two trees.

How To Video

Step 1: Choose an Ideal Site

The ideal location should be close to important resources like wood and water. However, you want to make sure it isn’t in a place that can put you in danger to things like falling branches, objects, strong winds, or animals.

Identify two trees and make sure the distance between them is nearly equal to your body length. If you’re having a hard time finding trees that far apart, just choose a pair of trees that are located no less than 4 feet together.

Make sure there’s enough space behind the trees for you to lay down with your feet at the lean to shelter’s back and your head at the front.

Check the Direction of the Wind

Remember, lean to shelters are not very strong in bad weather and can easily be blown by the wind. So, make sure your lean to house is facing against the direction of the wind. A simple method for checking the direction of the wind is by just feeling it.

With your eyes closed, turn your face until you feel the wind blowing. If this method doesn’t work, try to look for signs. Check the direction of water flow or the direction flags are blowing towards.

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Step 2: Figure Out the Materials You Need

Find out the number of materials you need. First, for your frame, you will need a diagonal pole and a strong piece of approximately six-inch wood. This will protrude around six inches at the sides of your chosen trees.

You will also need between 5 and 7 poles. Any pole you add to the back should be thinner than the diagonal pole. However, you should make sure that it’s long and sturdy enough. If you don’t have a tarp for the roof of your lean to shelter, you will need to use several pine boughs.

How do You make a Lean-To with Tarp?

To make leanto shelters with a tarp, you need to attach the tarp to the ground and reinforce it using a paracord in between the anchor points.

Make sure it lies on the windward side. A thirty-degree angle of your tarp offers eight feet of width and five feet of height under the shelter.

Collect smaller branches and Leaves

The small branches should be thinner than the backbone branch, albeit longer. When you have finally built your shelter, the smaller branches will model the side of the build. Make sure they extend from the backbone branch to the ground.

Collect lots of old leaves as these will act as the lean to survival shelter’s insulation. Also gather small branches and twigs. You’ll be placing these over the leaves to hold them in place.

Collect lots of branches and make sure they are the same size. You’ll stack these together to create a solid wall for the lean-to that’s free from any cracks and holes.

Clear the ground

Once you’ve collected everything you’ll need, proceed to clear and level the ground where you plan to make your shelter.

Step 3: Assemble the Lean-To

This step involves tying the backbone in place. You’ll need to add twine or rope to tie one end of the base branch to each tree. Make sure you tie the rope tightly to make it as secure as possible. Using your shoulder as support put one end of the base branch across the tree. It should lay approximately at the height of your shoulder.

Drape your twine around the end of the base branch and bend it to form a 90-degree angle. Proceed to drape it around the tree. Buckle the twine at 90 degrees and drape it around the branch once again. Repeat the process before finally draping it around the tree.

The twine should form a square that drapes around the branch and the tree. You want to repeat this process until the base branch is securely held in place. Do this with the other end of the branch. In the end, the base branch should form a straight line between the two trees.

How To Video

Line the Small Branches Close Together

Lean your smaller branches against the base branch to form a 45-degree angle from the ground. Continue adding smaller branches until you form a robust wall. At this point, the lean-to should be taking shape and starting to look like a small shelter. Remember to lean the branches close together to avoid any gaps in between which could allow rain or cold air inside. The idea is to make sure that there are no holes or gaps between the branches.

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Put the Leaves over the Branches

Add your leaves on top of the small branches to form a robust coating of leaves that covers the sides. The leaves come in handy to insulate and keep you warm. Where possible, wear gloves during the execution of this process. Once the process is complete, lay small branches and twigs over the leaves to hold them in place.

Test Your Lean To

At this point, you’ve got a roof over your head and can use the lean-to you just built as a shelter. Lay padding on the ground before laying down. You can also use a sleeping bag if you have any. Make sure you wear light layers of clothing to keep you warm. Remember, these shelters are often used as a temporary survival structure – especially in the wilderness. Still, they can protect you from extreme cold and rain.

Making Your Lean to Weatherproof

As you build your shelter, make sure and test it every step of the way to make sure its weatherproof. For instance, after fixing the base branch, figure out the direction of the wind. This will help you choose the best way to lay the roof poles to make sure the roof leans in the direction of the prevailing winds.

What this means is that; the opening of your lean-to shouldn’t be facing the wind. Where possible, fill in the open sides of your lean-to building to protect you from the elements. When your roof and side poles are built, you need to cover them to keep yourself dry.

You can cover them with pine boughs, leaves, grass, a tarp, pine needles, or a poncho. You can also use any other material capable of providing weatherproofing and insulation as an option.

How to Keep Warm in a Lean To

You will need to make a fire trench to keep you warm. Identify the right position of your fire trench by; lying down inside the structure on your side, stretch out your arm as far as you can reach without rolling. Mark the area where your hand touches. That’s where your fire trench should be.

You can dig it close to the lean-to structure’s opening. It should be located approximately three to four inches from the lean to. The fire trench should be close enough to keep you warm and far enough to ensure that you can’t roll over in the fire and get burned.

Preparing the Trench

Dig your trench and ensure its approximately a half or a third as long as your structure and approximately 8 inches deep. Once the trench is ready, you need to build a fire reflector at the rear side of the trench.

You can make it out of rocks or green pine branches. Stack together the rocks to form a 4-inch high wall. The wall should pass your shoulder when you lay down and approximately one inch from the rear edge of the trench.

If you choose to utilize green pine branches, you will need to place two places two poles in the ground about three inches from the rear side of the trench. Stack together green branches behind the poles to achieve a three-inch height above your shoulder when you lie down.

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Add more poles at the rear side of the wall to hold the branches in place. After digging the trench and building your reflector, gather your tinder bundle, firewood, and kindling. Collect anything you think will come in handy to help you light a fire and keep it burning for longer. You want to avoid a situation where you run out of firewood in the middle of the night when the cold is at its prime.

Make Your Lean To Comfortable to Sleep in

Chances are; there are some scattered leaves and twigs that fell during the building process. You want to remove them and clear the place to make it more comfortable to sleep in. remove everything from the ground other than the dirt.

Remember, sleeping on the ground can make your body lose lots of heat and you want to avoid this. The best thing you can do to prevent loss of body heat is to add something on the ground to insulate you from the dirt.

A thin layer of twigs and leaves may not be enough. Gather more moss or pine and scatter them across the bottom of the lean to. If you can find a heavy layer of pine needles or leaves the better. Your structure will now be ready for you at night.

Remember to:

  • Inspect the leaves you collect for bugs to avoid bites. You can either shake them off to remove any bugs or rake them off where possible.
  • Always have insect repellent especially when you go camping. This will come in handy to prevent mosquito bites
  • Always carry a tarp when you go camping. Leaves will work well if you don’t have a tarp. However, the tarp will be ideal when it comes to building a shelter or providing sufficient insulation. Further, it will help prevent bugs.
  • Have enough bedding when you are out on a camping trip. Remember, hypothermia can be a huge cause of concern during camping sessions especially when using a lean to shelter. If you live or will be camping in cold areas, remember to carry sufficient clothing and bedding.
  • Pack a plastic cloth to lie on the ground inside your shelter and dress in many layers of lightweight clothing.

Can You make a Lean-To Shelter Using Pallets?

Yes. Pallets are made from chemically treated wood. This may not be suitable for indoor use, but it will be ideal for outdoor use such as building a lean-to structure. Wrap the foundation of your pallet with plywood to form a flat floor surface for your shelter.


A lean to structure can provide much-needed shelter during an emergency or when you are stuck in the wilderness.

Knowing how to build a lean-to structure is critical for camping or outdoor enthusiasts. Always consider the direction of prevailing winds and ensure that you have a sufficient layer of roofing material to keep you dry, comfortable, and warm regardless of the weather condition.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>