So, Why Is Shelter so Important for Survival?

There are many important considerations for survival, among them the need for water and food, the need for security, and certainly a need for clean oxygen. But one of the most important survival requirements is shelter.

Many survival experts, not to mention survival websites like this one, spend an inordinate amount of time preaching preparedness when it comes to providing for shelter in emergency situations.

tarp shelter

But why is shelter so important for survival? Shelter is essential survival because exposure to the elements is one of the most dangerous and common killers outdoors. You can survive for weeks without food, days without water, but only a matter of hours when exposed to truly hostile conditions. Shelter is what will help protect you from inclement ambient conditions, and help your body thermoregulate.

There is much to consider when discussing the topic of shelter as a survival necessity, and in the remainder of this article will provide you with tips, advice and considerations on the topic.

Shelter is Near the Top of the Survival Needs Checklist

In a survival situation, lacking any survival necessity can kill you. Going without air, without water, without food, without medicine or without security could prove fatal.

Ask anybody who is about to die from a lack of one of those things, and they will inevitably tell you the thing they are lacking is the most important survival consideration! There is some merit to this point of view, but it is not grounded in the biological reality of sustaining life.

Human beings need all kinds of things on a micro-scale to survive biologically, things like vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and the like. But we are discussing things on the macro-scale.

When considering survival priorities on the macro-scale a distinct hierarchy emerges, and this hierarchy has brutally ordered itself according to biological imperative.

The math is clear: you can survive longer, in most circumstances, going entirely without certain necessities than you can others. But be sure to put shelter at the top of any survival list you may have or make in the future.

Some Needs are More Important than Others

For instance, air is absolutely the most vital consumable that we partake of every day. The vast majority of human beings can only survive a scant handful of minutes without oxygen. Going without oxygen results in unconsciousness and shortly thereafter death. In second place is shelter, the subject of this article.

Shelter is critical to provide for or assist with the body’s thermoregulation of its core temperature. Suffering from a lack of shelter is said to be suffering from exposure, and you can die from it.

Typically death from exposure is as a result of hypothermia, becoming too cold. This can happen in surprisingly warm places when a person is soaking wet, without shelter or fire, and exposed to stiff, constant breezes.

But, a lack of shelter can also doom a person in the sweltering heat of the desert from hyperthermia, becoming too hot.

But Others are Less Pressing, Though Still Important

If we continue on the path laid down by the hierarchy of survival needs immediately after shelter as a requirement for water, hydration. Water is disproportionately emphasized in survival literature because clean water is imperative both for hydration and remaining healthy.

Being forced to drink unhealthy water will gravely complicate an otherwise simple survival scenario. A person can only go a couple of days or perhaps a little bit longer without any water intake before expiring from dehydration, and they will likely be crippled well before that.

The last among the major survival requirements is food. Everyone likes food, and tends to obsess over it but the vast majority of people can easily survive a couple of weeks without it entirely, though the process will be miserable and they will be mentally and physically blunted.

But that is nonetheless a long time, comparatively, that a person is able to survive without it.

Shelters Provide What is Required to Withstand the Environment

Any shelter, including a temporary one, should provide you with what is required to withstand the local environment and its weather. Typically, we rely on shelters to help keep us warm by creating a space where a localized volume of air can be warmed to help keep our body temperature warm.

This smaller volume of air is colloquially known as a “microclimate”. The method by which a shelter accomplishes this varies, but is typically done by trapping heat emitted by our bodies or by fire.

Ultimately, in hotter weather, a shelter should help keep us cool by providing shade to block the incredibly powerful rays of the sun. Exposure to constant UV radiation damages our bodies and also greatly increases our temperature.

Blocking this radiation is essential for survival in hot, arid climates. The best hot weather shelters will be constructed in such a way as to trap a volume of cool, slightly moist air or facilitate cooling by favorable movements of air currents.

Shoulders should also help us battle weather conditions, particularly wind and rain. Wind will strip bodies, and also evacuate any localized pocket of warm air we have established. Rain soaks our bodies and clothes, forcing our body to shed heat drastically faster than it would otherwise.

But it is in tandem that these two conditions have a truly deadly effect: Being soaked to the skin and exposed to steady winds while in already cold air can freeze someone solid in a frighteningly short time.

A good shelter and a roaring fire might be the only thing that can save a person in that situation.

Shelters Don’t Need to Be Complicated

Generally speaking, the more advanced a shelter’s construction methodology, the better protection it will provide. For an easy example, compare the shelter value provided by a tent to that of a tipi to that of a modern stick-built home. No comparison, right?

You will notice that each of these farther along the technological tree provides better control over your personal environment.

That being said, a shelter does not have to be particularly complicated or technologically advanced to have value.

Even primitive shelters can do the trick and do it quickly in a survival situation and are capable of being constructed by one person in a short period of time using minimal tools and only natural materials that are on hand.

A primitive A-frame shelter or lean-to with a plastic tarp or emergency blanket as a reflector to help trap heat is an easy-to-make and effective shelter in most environments. A snow cave or simple igloo is likewise easy to fashion in cold environments.

Don’t get trapped in the way of thinking that you have to have a permanent or semi-permanent structure in order to take advantage of good shelter principles.

It might surprise you to learn that for a single survivor or two a smaller, simpler shelter might actually be compared to a larger and more elaborate one because then you will only have to heat a smaller volume of air in order to take advantage of the warmth that can provide.


The importance of shelter in a survival situation cannot be overstated, and the emphasis that is given by survival experts is completely merited. A lack of shelter in bad conditions can lead to death in as little as a few hours.

Exposure is one of Nature’s most lethal and common killers, and the only way you can fight back against it is by taking pains to ensure you will always have a way of providing shelter in any conditions and climate.

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1 thought on “So, Why Is Shelter so Important for Survival?”

  1. I was at 4494 ft, at the southern base of the Four Peaks in Arizona. Bedded down in the open under the stars covered in my sleeping bag and a 30 or 40 wool blanket on top to cut the wind.
    Calm and clear night changed, the forecast was wrong. First the wind came from the SSW, then the W and high wind gust from the N. Within hours over night cloud cover and a snow had blown in dusting the peaks and turning to a steady yet light rain were I was camped.
    I had packed up loose clothing and shoes, at first sign of the weather change, the cave I had stayed in two years earlier had collapsed. I had left the tarp home not knowing.
    Covered up completely in the wool blanket I survived the night warm as a bug, as the night progressed the blanket became soaked cutting of my oxygen and waking me.
    I left the next morning due to overcast and high chance of rain. The wind stayed with me all the way back to Texas. I would not have done well another night and wet clothing. Even the sleeping back was wet. Love the wool blanket, a survival blanket, or tarp could have extended my stay.


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