We’ve seen this iconic shelter style on so many television shows. From Survivor to Survivorman, people seem to be obsessed with the simple architectural stylings of the lean-to. But is this just a “camera friendly” shelter that only belongs on TV? Or is there more to it than meets the eye?
What Does “Lean-To” Mean?
For most of my life, I’ve always assumed that the word “lean-to” was a Native American name. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I looked it up, and I was certainly surprised. Lean-to isn’t a First Nations word at all – in fact, it’s Old English! In hind sight, it made sense. It’s a leaning shelter with “lean” in the name, and the word dates back to the 14thor 15thcentury. The word refers to some kind of shanty that is propped up against another structure. Folks were leaning up sticks or boards against rock walls or their medieval hovels to create storage space or livestock cover. Today, we see this structure most commonly built as a survival shelter, propped up against two trees or a vertical rock outcrop.
Building this classic backwoods shelter starts by choosing a good location with strong structural supports.If these supports are two trees, you’ll need a sturdy beam to run between them. If the support is a boulder or similar rocky feature, you can simply lay the rib sticks up against it. The lean-to made with two trees will typically have one side completely open, while the lean-to propped against something will offer much more weather protection and warmth. Both can be useful, under the right circumstances.
The open style of lean-to is not as cozy as we might imagine, since it’s only protecting you from one side. This can be comfortable, if you’re burning a large fire nearby and the prevailing wind is blocked. Just keep in mind that it offers little insulation and is at the mercy of shifting winds. I prefer to use these open types of lean-to for storage or a wind block, more than a sleeping shelter. The kind of lean-tos that are built against a solid support surface are much more weather resistant and better suited for sleeping quarters.
When setting up a lean-to with tree supports, choose a very sturdy beam to run between the trees. This should be a long pole that is thick enough to handle a lot of weight. Hardwood is typically your best choice, and it should be at least as big around as your arm or leg. I’ve seen these poles snap in half with enough pressure, so don’t cut corners or use rotten poles. It needs to be strong enough that it won’t break under the shelter’s weight. In addition to the two trees that are vertical supports, I like to hold the beam in position with a pair of forked poles, roughly 6 feet tall.
These hold the beam up and pin it against two trees. When forked poles can’t be found, you could also lash your beam to the trees with strong rope. You’ll want to set this structure up with the open side facing away from the prevailing wind, or at least parallel to the wind. Test everything for strength before you continue the build. Your beam and supports need to hold up the weight of the ribs, the roof covering and the added weight of rain or snow.
I’ll hang on the beam in the middle with my full body weight, listening carefully for cracking sounds. And another word of caution, you may be tempted to build a free standing lean-to with tripods or by driving posts into the ground. Don’t do it! The one-sided weight of a lean-to makes it more like a dead fall trap than a shelter.
Add The Ribs
Once the support has been chosen from rocky features or built from poles, it’s time for you to add the rib sticks. The ribs can be nice straight sapling poles that you have cut from the surrounding area (when available), or the ribs can be broken from dead branches lying around. You’ll place your rib pieces against the beam or rock face, spacing them a few inches apart and on an angle that sheds the rain. A good balance point is a 45 degree angle for the ribs.
When standing up taller, they won’t offer as much covered ground underneath the shelter, and if the angle is too low- you’ll have two problems. More of the roof weight will be on the support beam (when building that style), which makes the structure more hazardous. Secondly, your roofing will not shed water as effectively (read here: more drips).
In rainier climates, you can place the ribs at an angle steeper than 45 degrees, when using loose roof coverings such as vegetation. Whichever angle you choose, just make sure that you place the ribs close enough to each other that your roof covering leaves or other vegetation won’t fall through.
Top It All Off
With the ribs set up, it’s time to cover your makeshift roof. Begin to pile on a mound of any available vegetation – including leaves, pine needles, grasses, ferns or other debris. You can also use thick sheets of moss (where available) or freshly cut brush and tree boughs. It makes no difference if the material is wet or dry, so long as it is thick enough to shed the rain and divert the wind. And even though the pitch of a thick lean-to roof will naturally divert water, you can add some flat bark slabs to the exterior to act like shingles.
This provides even better water resistance and it can help to prevent high winds from stripping away your vegetation. In very windy areas, a cage-like layer of twigs and branches can also prevent the wind from ripping away your leaves and vegetation.
Choose Some Flooring
To get you off the bare, cold ground and away from the dampness of the soil, try a layer of vegetation underneath your lean-to. This can make a much drier and more comfortable floor, and even pass for bedding in a pinch. Things that naturally lie flat are ideal, such as grass stalks and pine needles, but any vegetation will work. Bark slabs can also be used here, and thick ones offer some good insulation. Their corky exterior has a lot of dead air space in the bark tissues, which offers a durable (albeit crunchy) flooring material.