How to Make a Survival Shelter From Leaves and Debris With Your Kids

Do you and your kids love survival shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivorman?

Have you ever slept outdoors in a tent, lean-to or teepee you built yourself?

Want to share an experience like that with your kids?

Even if you have little or no experience in the great outdoors, you can help your kids learn some basic survival skills and enjoy some creative fun together!

It’s easy—we’ll practice with a toy model first.

In this article I’ll show you how to make a fun outdoor shelter out of leaves and debris, and share an important survival skill with your kids without them even knowing it.

How to make a fun outdoor survival shelter out of leaves and debris, and share an important survival skill with your kids without them even knowing it.

Why Teach Your Kids How to Make a Shelter?

A shelter is the first thing to consider if you’re ever lost in the great outdoors. In fact, if you get lost, you should make some kind of shelter first—before finding food or even water.

A debris hut is an easy-to-make outdoor shelter that can shield you from the elements like rain and wind, help you stay in one place and make it easier for searchers to rescue you.

Even if you don’t need to make a shelter for survival, it’s a pretty cool thing to know how to do and it’s lots of fun to build together with your kids.

A debris hut is a simple shelter that can be built by anyone—especially young children. They can be constructed without sawing, cutting or knot-tying, and still provide cover during an emergency outdoor situation. They can also just be a fun outdoor hideaway.

debris hut

A debris hut keeps you safer in the wilderness. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

Would you like to teach your family a life-saving skill? Would you like to make it entertaining, interesting, and most of all, fun?

By creating a shelter as a family, you can help your kids learn to innovate and create with what’s available. Even better, you can work as a team to create a shelter and see what you can rig up together.

Machoturtle posted this leaf shelter on Instructables. Looks like these kids are having fun!

instructables leaf hut

By any name—a survival shelter, a debris hut or a wilderness bunker—this project is full of fun and adventure! Screenshot from

To learn how to make a simple shelter without the scary details—and stakes—of an actual “survival” scenario, first show your kids how to make a small-scale structure at home using toys and role-play.

Watch this video to see a debris hut built from start to finish (time-lapse).

Then head outside to the great outdoors to create a full-sized version. Your kids will beg to sleep overnight in their survival shelter. Family overnight adventure, anyone?

Part One: Build a Model Mini-Shelter

Start by making a small model shelter with your kids. That way, you’ll have an idea of what you will be creating outside. This will make it much easier when it’s time to make the real thing!

You Will Need

  • A few small (2-3″ [5-8 cm] high) toys or action figures.
  • Things to use as branches: twigs, straws or pencils (leave a few of these full size, and cut several others into different sizes)
  • Something to be the stump or fallen tree: toilet paper roll, pepper grinder or large thimble… even a cupcake or Fig Newton will work
  • Something to use for the leaves or debris: shredded paper, cut-up index cards or cotton balls

Preparation Time

5 minutes

Activity Time

10 minutes +


Indoors, on a table or easy workspace

#1: Create a Story

Lots of fun play involves a storyline, right? Isn’t that why video games spend a lot of time developing stories?

So create a story for your mini-survival scenario. Lay out all of the items, including your small toys or action figures. Engage your child as you create a story together about how they got lost or stuck in the wilderness.

Note: Vary the story depending on the age and interests of your child. You don’t want to make them afraid to spend time outdoors! Leave out some of the story details and let your child fill in the blanks.

Tiger decided to go on an adventure to ___________ and got lost along the way. He was __________ and, before he knew it, _________. He had to make camp outside.

You can also speak to the toy to create a scenario:

“Hi Tiger! Did you have a nice sleep in the toy chest last night? I wonder what it would be like to make our own special place to sleep. Can you see anything on the table that you might be able to use to make a nice sleeping spot?”

making miniature hut

Make a miniature debris hut for a toy first. Create a story for the toy to teach survival skills without being scary. Image by vastateparksstaff. Uploaded by Albert Herring via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s another scenario:

Captain Courage was saving the planet from ________, when he crashed in ___________. Rescuers from ________ will not arrive until morning, and he’ll need to make a place to sleep. “Captain Courage, this is mission control. We received your message that you crashed on the planet and your tent is destroyed. Is there anything you can find to make a place to sleep while you wait for the rescue ship?”

Use the story you made up to talk to your kids about a real-life situation where you may need to build a shelter. “You may be hiking or camping and get separated from your group, just like Tiger did, and need to make a warm place to stay until someone finds you…”

#2: Assess Resources and Gather Materials

Have the toys (guided by your kids) look around the wilderness where they’re lost to see what kinds of things might be available to use for a shelter. Resist the urge to do everything yourself. It’s important for kids to learn what they’d do in a risky situation by themselves.

Perhaps you can work on one shelter, while your child works on another. Then you can compare notes.


Gather materials from around your house to make your mini survival hut.

As your child plays around with the materials, ask some questions:

  • “If Tiger is lying on the table, will he feel comfortable? What could you use to make him feel better? I wonder if he needs to have something over him in case it starts raining…”
  • “Captain, we don’t know what kinds of creatures are on that planet. Can you take precautions before you sleep? What materials will make the best structure so you can stay safe and keep out wild animals?”

Enjoy playing out the parts. And don’t worry about getting sidetracked by any funny jokes and subplots that come up. That’s part of the adventure. Show your child how much fun it can be to experiment and try to make things with what you have.

Part of the experience is seeing what doesn’t work as much as what does, so don’t be afraid to let the kids fail.

One of the best ways to prepare for survival is to build a strong, happy child who is confident about innovating and taking on new challenges. Playing and enjoying your time together will do just that, and you’ll have a fun memory of this experience!

#3: Build a Model Shelter for Your Toy

The basic structure is simple. Place one end of a long piece—either a pencil or stick—on the table. The other side should rest against the top of your “stump” or “fallen tree.”

hut framework

Set up the framework of the debris hut.

Place smaller pieces of different lengths against the sides. Then, cover them with “debris” like shredded paper.

Here are photos of two model shelters that made nice sleeping spots for the two toys. One was a debris hut:

toy tiger checks hut

Tiger checks out Captain Courage’s hut.

Here’s another design that worked just as well. This one looked more like a Native American wickiup. This is what happened after we experimented and played with different materials.

different hut design

Although it was a different design, this structure worked too!

Try multiple styles for your hut design. As long as you have the basic structure on the bottom, the rest is up to you and your kids.

Have a contest to see which of your kids makes the strongest hut. Test it by bringing over a fan to act as the wind or put a larger toy on top of it and see if it holds.

Hint: For the model construction, twigs are easier to use. This is especially true for younger hands creating the models, because twigs catch and hold each other well. If you have older kids who need more of a challenge, use slippery straws.

Part Two: Create a Real Debris Shelter Outdoors

Now that you’ve created a mini-shelter for practice, head outside with your kids to a place that has branches, twigs and leaves. That way, you can build a shelter together for real!

You Will Need

An open area—yard, park or wilderness area—that has debris such as branches, leaves or brush

Preparation Time

5 minutes—just enough time to find the right outdoor space

Activity Time

30 minutes +



#1: Find a Space

Start by exploring the outdoor space. If you go to a park or wildness area, there is more likely to be an abundance of natural materials.

If you decide to build a shelter in your yard, make sure that you have plenty of materials so you can recreate a wilderness space.

Start gathering twigs and leaves a few weeks before, or ask your neighbors if they’d let you and your kids rake their leaves in exchange for letting you take them when you’re done.

kids in pile of leaves

You’ll need lots of leaves to cover your hut. Go to a forest or collect leaves from all the neighbors. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Once you’ve scouted out and agreed on the space, bring your story outside. You and your child should make the decisions together, so ask a few questions like:

  • “Hmmm. Where do you think Tiger would sleep to stay dry if water came rushing though here?”
  • “If we needed to set up a shelter like Captain Courage did, what would we have to think about?”
  • “What would happen if a storm came in? Is the area we are using protected?”
  • “Which trees look strong and healthy? Which ones might have branches that will fall?”

#2: Build Your Shelter

When you’ve figured out where to build your shelter, review how you built a model debris hut at home and gather resources. Participate in the process with your child, especially to ensure safety, without totally taking over the project.

Let your child lead as much of the project as he or she can. And keep it fun.

This video offers some extra tips to keep in mind when you build your shelter.

Find a good branch to be the “spine,” perhaps 6 inches (15 cm) around. Fit the top end into a notch in a tree, on top of a stump or another good spot that will hold it in place.

find long branch

Find a long branch for the spine. Lean one end against a tree or rock. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

Hint: If you want to cushion the ground with debris like leaves, grass, etc., to use as a bed, kick it into a pile underneath the spine before you put up the other branches.

Next, build up the sides with smaller branches. Don’t worry that there will be space between them. Just get the branches close enough together that they’ll be strong and hold up piled leaves or other debris.

Here’s what a debris hut looks like before covering it. Notice the space left near the tree where the roof is higher. That’s where the doorway will be.

making hut spine

Lean the branches on both sides of the spine, keeping them close together so leaves won’t fall through. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

And here’s the really fun part! Cover the entire structure (except the doorway) with leaves and debris you find around the site of your shelter. Make sure the structure is completely covered so that the leaves will insulate the structure and keep the inhabitant(s) warm and dry.

Go inside and check for light coming through. Those are the spots that need to be covered more.

cover spine with leaves and debris

Cover with leaves and debris and your shelter is complete. Do you see the doorway on the right? Image source Wikimedia Commons.

Tada! A completed shelter.

Play with your kids in and around the structure and bask in the accomplishment of having built it together. Crawl inside your outdoor shelter and see what it’s like.

Be sure to take a few pictures to share because your kids will surely be talking about your debris hut for a while. They may even beg to sleep in it overnight.

Note: If you constructed this in a public area, take down the shelter once you’ve finished with it so others don’t trip over your perfectly camouflaged survival structure.

Some Final Thoughts

I hope you had fun building an outdoor shelter with your family. This hut can be anything you want it to be: a Hobbit hut, space station, a club house or anything your kids can dream up using their imaginations.

It also helps make them comfortable with trying new things and creating with whatever’s at hand.

Building an outdoor shelter is a fun adventure to have with your kids. But most importantly, it’s a way to teach them a time-honored skill that will keep them warm if they are ever separated in the woods.

What do you think? Have you ever built a survival structure outdoors with your kids? Or did you ever do something like this when you were a kid? I’d like to hear about it! Please leave a comment or photo below.

Image from iStockPhoto.

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About the Author, Mark Dorr

Leading expeditions, working internationally, piloting airplanes, and teaching are some of Mark Dorr’s accomplishments so far. However, his greatest achievement and supreme enjoyment is having a family. Other posts by »

  • Jennifer Ballard

    Thanks, Mark! What a cool thing to make. I just know my boys will want sleep outside overnight in theirs! C’mon leaves…DROP!

  • MarkDorr

    Great, Jennifer! There’s not much that’s better than kids enjoying the outdoors and learning something in the process. ‘Hope your leaf and plant debris supply starts building soon!

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