Building a Debris Hut

If you were ever forced to bug out and survive in the middle of winter, knowing how to stay warm and dry in chilling rain or subfreezing temps is a must.

And what if you had to do that without bedding, fire, or a blanket. Would you still be able to stay warm and dry?

Since my brother was in town for the Thanksgiving holiday we decided to see how one of my favorite survival shelters — a debris hut — would fare on an overnight in some cold weather.

The evening we did the test was going to be in the low 20s (Fahrenheit) so it was a great night to test the shelter out: Will a debris hut keep me warm on subfreezing temps without the need of a fire or sleeping bag?

My results are at the end of this post.

But first, a little more about the debris hut and how you can build your own…

Debris Hut History

The basic purpose of a debris hut is to provide a cocoon of insulation and warmth — much like a sleeping bag.

I actually learned this shelter from its inventor, Tom Brown Jr. in one of his survival classes years ago and since that time I’ve had the opportunity to test it on multiple occasions in the Spring, Summer and Fall — comfortably sleeping without the need of a sleeping bag or a fire to stay warm and dry.

However, I’ve never tried this out in colder temps below freezing. So this cold-weather test is a long time coming for me.

The great advantage of this shelter over, say, a lean-to or other shelter is if built right, it doesn’t require you to have a sleeping bag, blanket, or a fire. It is built to be entirely self-sufficient as an insulator and shelter from the elements.

If you live in the Northeast like I do, or another area with lots of debris/woods, this shelter is an excellent one to have in your mental toolkit.

How to Build a Debris Hut

Building a debris hut is actually a fairly simple process. If you live in an area with woods and debris then you’ll have everything you need to build one of these shelters. The key is, you should be able to find all your materials off of the ground.

In other words you want dead materials.

You don’t want to start cutting down perfectly live trees for this not to mention that being a waste of energy.

Here’s the process:

Step 1: Find an area with lots of debris. As I mentioned before, this shelter is ideal for an area that naturally has a bunch of debris and woods. While this can be built in less than ideal locations, it will be well…less than ideal and take longer to build. Leaves, long grasses, pine-needles, and so on are all excellent for use with this type of shelter.

You’ll even find a good amount of debris under a thin layer of snow:

Step 2: Find a ridge pole almost twice as long as you are high. The straighter the better, however even a crooked one like this will be effective.
Step 3: Prop up the ridge pole. Using two “Y” shaped sticks, the next step is prop up the ridge pole so it sits about crotch height. Be sure you use sturdy sticks (at minimum the size of your wrist) that aren’t brittle or rotting.

It helps to lie under the ridge pole to make sure that there is a descent amount of head and shoulder room to move a little bit at night.

Step 4: Build the framework - Next, using sticks anywhere from two-finger to wrist thickness, create “ribbing” perpendicular along the entire length of the ridge pole.

Step 5: Add “stick debris” to the structure - In this step you want to gather a bunch of stick debris and place it all over the structure.

Step 6: Place debris over the shelter - Gather a whole bunch of debris like leaves, pine needles, long grass etc and pile it on top of and in the shelter.
Step 7: Create a thick bedding - After filling the cavity with debris, climb into the shelter and flatten out the debris on the shelter floor. Repeat this at least 3 times to make a thick comfortable, insulative bedding.
Step 8: Plug up the shelter - When you’re ready to retire for the night, pull in a bunch of leaves with you into the shelter, surrounding yourself with leaves (if it’s really cold) and plugging the entrance — effectively creating a cocoon of leaves.

My Test Results and Observations

Was I able to get through the night without a sleeping bag in 20 degree weather?


I actually made it most of the night without the need for anything extra. I hit the sack around 9PM and slept soundly until around 3am. I must have moved too much during the night because the leaves I had on top of me had eventually fallen off and so there was a gap of air above me that was starting chill me.

At that point I grabbed the sleeping bag and slept through the rest of the night.

Would I have been able to survive the night without the bag?

Yes. However it would’ve been uncomfortable.

The issue was I did not have enough leaves on top of the shelter to really contain and hold the heat radiating from my body. There were plenty of leaves below and beside me since my back, bottom and sides were nice and warm. Above me was the issue.

I’m going to try this shelter when we get some colder weather again (right now it’s pretty mild). For the next time though I’ll need to make sure I put twice as much leaves on top.

It’s important that the colder it is, the more debris you have over the shelter. Ideally, from the top of the ridge pole, you want at least one arm’s-length of debris covering it for these colder temps.

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