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What’s the difference between a Survival Shelter and a Fairy House?

I first struck on the idea of building scale model survival shelters during my years teaching wilderness survival at one of the local colleges here in Colorado.

The classes were largely classroom-based, with a several-day/night field component toward the end of the semester, which I always treated as the ‘final exam’. The whole semester was spent learning the skills and gearing-up for a 3-day, self-imposed survival scenario.

Since we were campus/semi-suburban for most of our time together, practicing things like building shelters was a little more limited than what we might find at our fingertips in the wilderness. Enter: The Model Shelter.

The Devil’s in the Details‘ they say. Practicing your shelter skills on a small-scale means that you:

  • can build them in a fraction of the time
  • almost anywhere
  • practice your shelter principles, design, and location skills
  • make a lower impact
  • try a variety of structures in a short period of time
  • use few materials

This also makes a great activity for a classroom setting or if you have a young-person in your life who you’d like to get going on shelter and survival skills, without needing to get yourself to somewhere with a ton of natural resources.

The Challenge: Build a scale model of a survival shelter, incorporating easily-found local materials and the 4 main principles of shelter construction.

A model shelter built by three 8th graders during a 30-minute shelter challenge. Note the fire in front of the shelter. I thought that was a nice touch.

Shelter Principles

My approach to building (and teaching) shelter construction is this: What are the conditions/elements I’m dealing with? What sort of natural (or modern) materials do I have access to? Are there natural shelters I can take advantage of (like a fallen tree)? And how can I use the 4 main principles of shelter construction?

You’ll quickly learn that rarely are two shelters ever alike. Your shelter doesn’t need to have four walls, have a fancy name, or even be anything the world has ever seen before. (When you create a new style, feel free to name it after yourself.)

There are 4 Main Principles you should consider in every shelter you build (whether it’s a scrappy survival shelter for a single night or a permanent house for your family). Not all of these principles are always present, but consider the pros/cons to using them, considering your situation:

1 – Air Proofing

Blocking the wind may be more/less important depending on your conditions, but there’s no doubting that Convection (the movement of air/water past the body) steals precious body heat.

Block the wind using whatever you have: rocks, earth, logs, tarps, backpack, topography, trees…

2 – Water Proofing

Again, highly dependent on your conditions. My early shelter adventures were on the east coast and I have memories of waking in the night to patch leaky roofs during torrential rains. Relocating to Colorado, I (eventually) learned that during certain times of the year, it’s simply wasted energy to waterproof a primitive shelter – because it never rains.

But getting wet just plain sucks. In fact, it can kill you. So doing your diligence (and over-building) is highly advisable.

Regardless of the materials you’re using (tarp, bark, leaves…), stick to the common principles of Shingling. Water runs down. Begin at the bottom of the shelter and overlap each successive layer. Orient plant materials (like pine boughs or leaves/branches) upside-down, so they disperse water as it runs downward.

3 – Insulation

This is perhaps the single greatest principle to aim for in a spartan survival situation.

The thing that gives insulation its value (whether a down coat, the walls of your house, or a primitive shelter) is the dead air space. It’s a barrier between the temperature of your body (or house) and the ambient temperature outside. This goes for cold or hot conditions.

Insulate. Insulate. Insulate.

One of the simplest basic primitive (natural) shelters is what’s known as a ‘grass blanket‘. It’s a big ol’ pile of dried, dead grasses. Sort of like a loose haystack. Then you crawl inside. It’s amazing how warm it can be. The bigger the better. Add another (living) body, see below under radiation, and you’ll radically increase your comfort.

Insulation is also the principle that we struggle with the most here in the Rocky Mountain West. There just aren’t a lot of natural materials that provide the loft : practicality ratio. In the east, everyone raves about the ‘debris hut’, covered in a few feet of deciduous leaves (which we don’t have). You might say “What about pine needles?”. Typically they provide too much air space (don’t compress) to offer any sort of insulation.

You could use crumpled newspaper, or anything else that provides loft, in a pinch.

4 – Heat Source/Radiation

This includes the heat energy generated by anything: you, a friend, your dog, a fire, the sun, or some sort of fancy modern heat-generating device.

Fire is of course a fantastic source of heat energy. But it’s heat dissipates according to the inverse-cube law, meaning that for every distance you get away from it, the effects of its heat diminishes, cubed. (Heat = 1/d^3) So at 2 feet, the energy is 1/8. At 3 feet, it’s 1/27. And so on.

If you’re relying on fire as a heat source, it also means that you need to wake often enough to stoke your fire. And that you need to construct an appropriate shelter that you’re not going to burn down in the process of trying to survive.

Here’s a general fire rule:

The more open your shelter is, the larger your fire needs to be (and how much firewood you’ll need).

The more closed-in your shelter is, the smaller your fire needs to be (but smaller wood won’t burn as long before needing to be restoked).

Other heat sources:

Whether it’s just you, your main squeeze, your dog, or a total stranger, radiating that heat back to yourself is huge. (This is where reflective surfaces like mylar ‘space blankets’ can come in handy.) Consider the warmth that a rockface has absorbed in the sun all day and how it will be radiating it back out all night long.

This group went with more of a lean-to/wickiup style. Note their use of grasses and leaves. Also, the location is at the sheltered base of a tree, facing east.

Classic Shelter Examples

If we look at a few classic shelters, we can dissect them according to the shelter principles.

Debris Hut

  • Wind-proof: Yes
  • Water-proof/Shingling: Hopefully
  • Insulation: High
  • Fire: Definitely Not. (The only source of heat is your body.)


  • Wind-proof: Depends
  • Water-proof/Shingling: Can be.
  • Insulation: Low
  • Fire: Hell yes. (Inside.)

Modern Nylon Tent

  • Wind-proof: Yes
  • Water-proof/Shingling: Yes
  • Insulation: Nope (Although the layer between the tent and the rainfly might be considered a minimal layer.) The sleeping bag/quilt typically provides the insulation — which would be true of sleeping in a bag in any shelter, or even under the sky.
  • Fire: No way.

Note: Having a fire (or any source that creates carbon monoxide) in an enclosed shelter, like a modern tent, is never advisable. CO fumes are deadly.

I’d be happy to live in this one. Note the established fire ring and the ‘shadow stick’ (lower right corner), which can be used to establish a compass, clock (sundial), or calendar.

So what’s the difference…

A few weeks ago, I ran a multi-part survival skills program for the 8th-grade of a local private school that has a heavy outdoor focus. One of their activities was a 30-minute challenge to build a scale-model survival shelter, incorporating the shelter principles and what they could find. (Groups of 3-4.)

I was particularly struck by the attractiveness and natural essence that the students achieved. There was a miniature beauty to their survival shelters.

I thought “Wow, I’d totally live in that!”

‘Fairy Houses’ are a thing these days. (They also go back aways.) My understanding is that they’re an honoring of the ‘spirits’ that live among (and maybe oversee) our gardens, woods, and natural resources. In the pictures I’ve seen, there appears to be a high level of craftsmanship, time, and attention devoted to constructing them.

Sure, some materials won’t scale-up (like slabs of bark), but take a look at a picture of a Fairy House. Dissect it for the 4 principles of shelter construction. Shingling. Air-proofing. Insulation. Heat.

Are they there?

Go build one.