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  • Joe Ready

Urban Survival Shelters – Types of shelters and how to build them

Knowing how to build a survival shelter isn’t only important for when you’re stuck in the wilderness, it’s also really important when you’re trying to survive in an urban area!

Urban survival shelters may seem strange at first but they’re just as important as wilderness shelters.

Learning how to build furniture shelters, mattress shelters, debris huts, and maximize the effect of your clothing are all skills that can keep you alive in an urban survival scenario.

Survival shelters inside a city make sense for all kinds of reasons!

Why You Need a Shelter in an Urban Environment

Building a shelter inside an area that already has buildings everywhere may seem a little counter-intuitive at first. Why not just use the buildings that are already there?

We’re very accustomed to waking up to a warm house with running water knowing that this building will protect us from the elements and any criminals that may pass by, but this may not always be the case. People living in urban environments are not immune to the effects of disasters.

Throughout history, our cities and homes have been ravaged by floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and even war. It’s when these events strike that we need to be able to think on our feet and find shelter where we can.

Most of us also spend the vast majority of our time out of our houses at work or on the road. What do you do in those situations? Being stuck on the side of the road in your car, being forced to survive for several days in an abandoned building, or even getting stuck in a subway are all possibilities that we should be prepared for.

Sheltering Inside Buildings

Taking shelter inside a building is probably going to be one of your first thoughts. This makes sense for a number of reasons, the building is already built and requires little work on your part, it could have all kinds of insulating materials inside that you can use to stay warm and there could be other useful supplies inside.

There are some drawbacks with using a building as a shelter. These structures are going to probably attract other people doing trying to do the same thing as you and if the building is damaged it could be less effective as shelter and could even be a hazard itself.

Try to keep these things in mind if you’re sheltering inside a building.

Start by using the smallest sized room that you need. This will give you less area to heat. The room should have a way to close off access to it (like a door) for both security reasons and to trap heat inside.

Try to choose a room that doesn’t have any windows. Windows aren’t very good insulators (and will require some work on your part). They also pose a possible security risk.

If you have windows in the room that you’re using as shelter, try to add insulation over them. This will help trap heat inside and keep light from escaping, giving away your position to people passing by.

You can insulate the windows by putting up sheets, cloth, or trash bags over the windows. Then, fill them with crumpled newspaper, towels, sheets, or other materials to help insulate the room.

The rest is pretty self-explanatory, gather any insulating materials you can find and wrap you and your family inside (be sure to insulate yourselves from the floor as well). Huddling together will help keep everyone warm and can keep them calm in this stressful situation.

Try to leave the carpet and any window coverings in place unless you absolutely need to use them. They’re providing a basic level of insulation to the room that you don’t want to lose unless you have to.

If just wrapping yourselves in insulating material isn’t working, you can make any of the shelters below to add an extra layer of protection.

Types of Urban Shelters

Urban shelters are very similar to wilderness shelters. All of the basics of survival shelters still apply here when we’re looking for shelter in an urban environment.


I’m going to discuss using a dumpster as a shelter because it should be one of your last choices and I want to get it out of the way.

If you need immediate shelter and other forms of shelter aren’t available to you, then a dumpster can make a great shelter in a pinch. They’re normally made of relatively heavy metal which makes them resistant to the elements.

For all of its ease, a dumpster has quite a few drawbacks as well. The most obvious is the trash inside. Crawling into a dirty dumpster isn’t going to be pleasant and there could be any number of diseases inside. You’re also probably going to have insects and rodents in and around them making them even less appealing and more likely to get you sick.

Don’t get me wrong, if your options are freeze to death now or possibly get sick later you should always opt for possibly getting sick later on.

Cardboard Box Shelters

There is a lot that we can learn from the homeless. If you’ve ever been to a city, you’ve probably seen the homeless using cardboard as part or all of their makeshift shelters. The inside of cardboard is filled with dead air space. It makes the carboard itself very strong and keeps it’s weight down. It also makes cardboard one of the better free insulators that you can find inside a city.

Cardboard is also capable of protecting you from light rain and relatively strong winds as long as you weigh it down. If you add more insulation (like blankets, towels, styrofoam, or newspaper) you can make your shelter even better.

Try to keep your shelter just large enough you to crawl into once you’ve added insulation. This will make heating it with body heat much easier and effective.

Practical survival did a study where they built a small triangular shelter from a refrigerator box and then lined it with styrofoam. By crawling inside this small, well-insulated shelter, they were able to reach a steady internal temperature of 65 degrees while it was just 34.5 degrees outside using only body heat.

This is just more proof that the basic tenants of survival shelters work well.

Debris Huts

Most people think of sticks and leaves when they first think of a debris hut. This is one of the most basic wilderness shelters you can build and it’s incredibly effective. The good thing is it works just as well in a city.

In the wilderness, you would normally build a debris shelter by leaning strong sticks against a heavier ridge pole, then coving the whole thing in several feet of leaves and other debris that you gather from the ground. You can follow the same basic principals in a city substituting the leaves and debris for newspaper, carpet, blankets or any other insulating materials that you can find.

Mattress Shelters

Mattress shelters are a great way to stay warm in an urban area that I don’t see being discussed all that often.

The cocoon is an interesting idea that involves wrapping yourself in thin mattresses to help trap your body heat inside. For this to work, it’s important to use thinner mattresses that you’d typically find in camping areas or inside campers.

You simply lay down as many as you need and add in other insulating materials that you have on hand (pillows, blankets, etc.). Then just fold the mattresses over your body and cover your head. This leaves you completely encased in insulation and should provide you with a really warm and comfortable sleeping shelter.

You can also try something similar using carpet. Cut up a suitable size section of carpet, line it with insulating materials then roll it around your body.

The sandwich is best used when you have more traditional mattresses and box springs.

Start by padding the box spring with plenty of soft insulating materials. This forms the base of your bing.

Then, add insulating material around three of the sides of the box spring. Finally, you’re going to lay the mattress on top of your body.

Keep packing insulating material around your body until you’re warm. This is a good way to shelter multiple people as the combined heat from your bodies will keep your body very warm in very low temperatures.

The shack is a mattress shelter designed for a small group of people. It utilizes multiple box springs and mattresses to form an exterior that is packed with soft insulating material inside.

Start by placing one box spring against the wall in the corner of the room. Then lay a mattress on the floor next to the box spring. Finally, stand a second boxspring parallel to the first and against the mattress.

This gives you two walls formed by box springs, one wall made by the room itself and an opening on one side. Finish the shelter by covering the top with blankets or another mattress to trap in heat. Cover the entrance with blankets to make a door.

The inside of the shelter should be filled with blankets, pillows, or other insulating material that your group can sleep in. This traps all of your body heat inside and can be very effective.

Furniture Shelters

Depending on the type of building that you seek shelter in, you may not have access to all kinds of blankets, sheets and bedding material. The good thing is you don’t need any of that to make a shelter.

Use the same basic shelter building principals that we’ve been discussing above. Make sure you insulate the floor, use a smaller room with no windows if possible and get creative with insulating material.

Cardboard, carpet, couch cushions, drapes, etc. can all be used for insulation. Desks, couches,  filing cabinets, and office furniture can be used to construct the structure of your shelter.

Using the Exterior of Buildings as Shelter

Using the outside of buildings as shelter can be very effective if you can’t gain access to the inside.

Maybe the inside is inhabited and they won’t let you in, or it could just be locked and you’re not able to get in. The building may even be partially destroyed, forcing you to seek shelter in the wreckage.

Remember, when your life is in danger, you need sometimes need to make a decision that may be “unlawful”. How you handle it is up to you but I personally am going to do whatever it takes to gain access to a building if my life depends on it.

Start by finding an area that is out of the wind and rain if possible. Up against the building in an alleyway for example. Being right up against the wall has the added benefit of letting you get some of the radiated heat off of the building after the sun goes down.

If there are areas of the building (like hot water pipes, etc.) that are warmer for some reason, then this a great place to take shelter.

Something as simple as a cardboard box can provide protection from the rain. Keep your head as warm and insulated as possible.

Just because you’re outside, doesn’t mean that you don’t need insulation on the ground. You can usually find all kinds of trash and other materials around buildings in the city that may be useful.

Buildings with external stairs make a good place to find outside shelter. If you find a stairwell out of the wind and elements you could be almost as good as if you were inside a building. Be creative with a shelter and insulation.

External shelters for groups may be necessary following a large scale disaster. If others don’t have the knowledge to help themselves, you may be called upon to help them. We have to make sure you and your family are taken care of first, but we should also do our best to pass on the knowledge that we have and help others.

A good way to set up a simple shelter for a group is to build a circular lean-to style shelter with a large fire in the middle. The lean-to structure will reflect the heat back into the center of the shelter and it can be increased as needed to accommodate as many people as needed.

Vehicle Shelters

Getting stranded in a vehicle, or using one as shelter, has some unique advantages and challenges that you need to consider. These mostly revolve around conserving the resources associated with the vehicle.

Vehicles are a pretty good shelter right from the start. Begin by turning the vehicle off if it’s running. Try to conserve heat by keeping the windows and doors closed as much as possible.

If the engine runs, you should only run it when you need to. Conserving fuel for as long as possible is the name of the game. If it’s cold, you want to try to bundle up in clothing and blankets as much as possible before you ever start the car.

When you’re running the engine make sure that the exhaust isn’t blocked and try not to sleep with the vehicle running. You want to make sure that you’re not allowing poisonous gasses inside.

Long term vehicle shelters are a little different than just taking shelter in a broken-down vehicle for a couple of hours. If this is going to be a long term shelter, then you’re going to want to improve the insulation the vehicle provides.

Start by insulating the floor as best as possible. Then insulate the windshield and other windows as best as you can. It may be difficult, but if you’re creative with the materials that you have, you should be able to hold it in place.

Being wrapped in a metal box is nice because it keeps rain, snow, and wind off of you. The downside is that it conducts heat away from you very quickly. That’s what we’re trying to stop.


Your clothing is always going to be your first line of defense in any survival situation, in fact, it’s what keeps you alive on a daily basis. With that in mind, we’re going to cover a few tips that you can use to make your clothing even more effective.

The clothing that you begin with is going to be based on your level of preparedness. If you’re prepared then you’re probably going to start in a better place than someone who doesn’t dress based on the weather.

Dressing in layers is one of the best ways to start out at an advantage. Layering allows you to adjust your clothing as needed.

The best advantage of layering comes when it’s cold. By layering you can add dead air space in between each layer, making the insulation provided by your clothing much more effective.

You can utilize this theory to add insulation to your clothes in a survival situation. Stuffing your jacket, shirt or pants with crumpled newspaper will add dead air and increases the insulation provided.

The same can be said for any other material that you may find as you’re traveling or building your shelter. Add dead air space and you’ll be warmer.

Improvising a raincoat can be done by simply putting a trash bag over your clothes. Cut a hole for your head and arms and you’ll be most of the way to getting yourself waterproof.

Making sure your head is warm is one of the most important aspects of survival. The body can lose a huge amount of heat through the head. Make sure you cover your head as well as you can and as soon as you can in cold weather.

Making sure your feet are warm is also important. You can lose a lot of heat from your feet since they’re in direct contact with the ground. Insulating your shoes as much as you can make a big difference.

You can try a couple of tricks to help keep your feet warm. Add newspaper to your shoes or even cutting cardboard to fit inside the bottom of your shoes will help a little.

One of the best ways is to make sure you start with good footwear to begin with. Be ready for an emergency and you’ll be much better off when one happens.


Just because there are buildings, cars and other structures in an urban environment doesn’t mean that you don’t still need to know how to build a shelter. Learning to build an urban survival shelter can mean the difference between life and death. Keep yourself insulated and out of the elements and you’ll be able to survive even the harshest weather in an urban environment.


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