How to Build a Lean-To Cabin

How to Build a Lean-To CabinThe lean-to emergency shelter is considered a fast and efficient use of material. More elaborate lean-to designs can provide consistent protection for a longer period. All of the needed materials can be improvised, found in the area or along the trail. Lean-to shelters are typically used in warmer weather, when air circulation is wanted or material is scarce, but they can be adapted for any environment. The example can be used as a general guide, with the size and materials altered to fit the situation at hand.


Difficulty: Moderate


Things You’ll Need:
  • Knife
  • Two branches 1.5 to 2 inches thick and 4 feet long
  • One branch 5 feet long
  • Two 4-foot-long bindings
  • Eight or more 4- to 5-foot-long branches
  • Two 4-foot-long poles
  • 8 feet of binding strips for each pole
  • Growing, leafy branches or evergreens
  • Grass, mud, bark
Step 1
Locate two branches 1.5 to 2 inches thick and 4 feet long to be your support poles. Remove any growth or smaller branches. Use a knife to pare away one end of each branch. Sharpening them will make them easier to drive into the ground. Use a rock to pound each branch into the ground, 4 feet apart. If you lack a rock, use body weight and a twisting motion to force the branches into the soil.
Step 2
Select a branch 5 feet in length to form the crosspiece. If you are able to locate support poles with one forked end, the crosspiece can lay in the crotch of the forks for added strength. Cut two individual 4-foot-long bindings. These may be rope, vines or shoelaces. Lash the crosspiece to the support poles. Tie a binding around one support pole. Weave the free end over, under and around both the support pole and crosspiece and then tie off the loose end. Repeat on the other support pole.
Step 3
Gather 4- to 5-foot-long branches or pieces of fallen wood. Try to find at least eight. A larger number makes a more secure shelter. Space these evenly across what will become the back side of your shelter by leaning them against the crosspiece and pushing the far end of each into the ground. Where they enter the ground, they should roughly form a straight line that will be the back end of your shelter. The rest of the length should hang several inches over the crosspiece in front.


Step 1
Lash 4-foot-long poles horizontally across the leaning branches. Lash one near the tallest point and one midway down the back wall. Cut an 8-foot binding strip for each pole and bind each pole to the leaning branches. Tie the binding at one end of the pole and weave it over the pole, under a leaning branch, over the pole on the other side, then under the next leaning branch until you work your way across the length of the shelter. If you have extra binding, weave back in the opposite direction.
Step 2
Collect growing branches with leaves intact (or evergreens), single large leaves, large pieces of bark, dry grasses or mud. Push the branch ends up under your horizontal poles so that the leaves hang downward. Begin with the lower horizontal pole first, then fill the upper. The green leaves act like shingles. If you are using grasses, use a similar method, working in layers. Smaller branches or grasses may require more horizontal poles to anchor them.
Step 3
Use grass, mud and bark to fill in any holes. Mound dirt around the back wall edge 2 to 3 inches high. This makes the shelter more wind and water-resistant. The sides may be enclosed by attaching branches vertically to each side and filling the gaps in a similar manner as used for the back.

Tip: Face the opening of your shelter away from the wind, toward a large rock or uprooted tree, if such a protective barrier is nearby.

Article Written By Alice Moon

Alice Moon is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience. She was chosen as a Smithsonian Institute intern, working for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and has traveled throughout Asia. Moon holds a Bachelor of Science in political science from Ball State University.

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