Lean-to Shelter Construction

Lean-to Shelter Construction
by Glen Monaghan

One question that we frequently hear at our classes is, “What size should my lean-to shelter be?”

Our general outlook on ANY shelter is to minimize the time and energy expenditure for building and using it as much as can be safely and practically done. A smaller shelter is quicker and easier to build than is a larger shelter. This is especially true when precipitation and/or low temperatures call for more robust construction. Furthermore, body heat and/or a smaller fire works better with a smaller lean-to, so it takes less effort to stay comfortable than in a larger shelter.A larger lean-to, with greater volume and longer distances between the fire and your body or roof, requires a significantly larger fire (and so gathering more firewood) than you would need for equivalent warmth with a smaller lean-to. If you make a larger lean-to but then scoot all the way to the back of it in order to minimize overhead air gap and improve reflective radiant heating off the back wall, you also have to scoot farther out of your warm sleeping spot every time you have to tend the fire, losing more body heat and further disturbing your already disrupted sleep. Then, you have to scoot back and rearrange your now-cooled bedding. A larger shelter will also require you to gather a lot more firewood if you have any hope of keeping your “lean-to mansion” warm. Not having to gather that extra quantity of wood needed for an oversized shelter is a real plus in ANY situation, whether it’s survival or recreational camping.LOWER IS BETTER
We advocate making a shelter as small as possible. The rule of thumb that I typically give is, “Make the cross beam (ridge pole) closer to knee high than waist high.” With a suitable mattress (layer of debris) for insulation from the ground, actually making it knee high probably won’t provide quite enough overhead clearance, while waist high is way overkill. However, that guideline is based on the assumption that you are primarily interested in building an efficient shelter for sleeping.


If it’s important to you to have a space where you can sit upright in your lean-to yet be protected from precipitation, you would probably need to make the ridge even higher than waist high. Try one and see… you need to have the ridge high enough to sit upright without hunching over (unless your back is much better than mine), yet with enough overhang in front of you to keep you out of the rain or snow. Plus, if you want to have a fire when you are sitting near the front like that, then you have a problem. Either you have to put your “sitting fire” too far back for use when sleeping, or you have to keep it very small so as not to cook yourself while sitting, but then build it up a fair bit to stay warm when sleeping closer to the back of the shelter, burning more wood all night. And the large open space in the shelter behind you makes your back feel noticeably cool when sitting in a large lean-to.

So, if I found myself in a situation where I really needed or wanted to sit up in wet weather (such as to burn out a bowl, make cordage, carve trap triggers, etc.), I’d definitely consider making a small sleeping shelter initially, and then come up with some sort of adjoining extension sized specifically for sitting and working. Even better than making it, locate a suitable ready-made sitting/working site, like beneath a fir tree where you can have a ready made roof (the fir boughs), ground pad (several inches of old needles that have fallen), and a backrest (the trunk). It’s quicker and easier to add a windbreak (if needed) to such a ready-made waterproof roof than it is to make a waterproof lean-to that is big enough to sit under.DON’T MAKE THIS MISTAKE….
Another common mistake is that people think that they want to sit up in their shelter so they can cook and eat at the fire they build there. Remember, food preparation, cooking, and eating should be done well away from your sleeping area. Any food and clothes that smell of blood, guts, food, or cooking should also be stored away from your sleeping area as well. This is to discourage night time visits by critters such as raccoons or predators that may smell the food and try to get it from your shelter while you are sleeping. You really don’t want wild animals in your shelter fighting with each other (or you) for your food.These recommendations are guidelines to give you a starting point. The only way to really know how big or small to make a lean-to that is right for YOU is to build several in a variety of conditions to see what works best for you.


Build a lean-to, meant primarily for sleeping, closer to knee high than waist high.” This will…

  • Minimize time and energy expenditure in building a shelter
  • Make it quicker and easier to build than a larger shelter
  • Allow more effective use of body heat and/or a smaller fire for keeping warm.
  • A larger shelter, with its greater volume and longer distances between fire and body/roof, needs more heat for equivalent warmth.
  • Using a larger fire with a larger shelter means gathering a lot more firewood than needed for a smaller fire with a smaller shelter.
  • A smaller shelter requires less time, less work, less fire wood, and will “feel” more cozy and secure.
  • Consider having separate shelters for sleeping and sitting/working, and don’t prepare food, cook, or eat in your sleeping shelter.