How To Build A Wickiup Survival Shelter

​Whether you call it a wickiup, wigwam, or wetu, they all refer to the same thing, a semi-permanent dwelling used by certain First Nations and Native American tribes. These domed buildings are still used today for ceremonial purposes and are commonly found in the Great Basin, Plateau, Plains, and California culture. A wickiup is usually constructed using saplings driven into the ground with the ends bent and tied together to form a dome. The structure is then covered with big overlapping mats of woven bark or of rushes that are then tied to the saplings.



​The dome shape of a wickiup makes it the ideal shelter for all sorts of environmental conditions. The materials used in a wickiup vary from culture to culture, depending on the available material in the location. Typical materials include brush, bark, mats, reeds, hides, or even cloth. Compared to a tipi, a wickiup takes longer to construct and the frame of the structure is also not portable.

​Western Wickiups

​Wickiup from the west varies in size, shape, and materials. The Acjachemen people of California built their shelter using willow branches that are covered with mats, tule leaves, or brush. These are temporary shelters usually built for emergencies such as inclement weather. If a shelter reached its usability, it is burned and a new one erected in its place.

A typical wickiup or wigwam measures 15 to 20 feet in diameter and is popular because of its ease in construction and maintenance.

​Building a Wickiup

Survival Shelter

1.Perfect spot

Look for a good spot to build your wickiup, ideally somewhere flat, level, and on firm ground. If you're building a wickiup in winter, make sure you choose a spot where you're protected from the wind and somewhere you have easy access to raw materials. An opening in the middle of a forest is ideal for building a wickiup.

2.Find saplings

Using an axe, start chopping down saplings for the frame of the wickiup. Around 3 or 4 saplings with a height of 15 to 20 feet should be enough. The beams will serve as the foundation of the wickiup so they need to be pretty strong and solid. Remove small branches and leaves on the sapling before you tie them up together.

3.Initial structure

Tie the saplings 2 to 3 feet from the top so you have enough space. Traditional tying material is usually some form of root but if you have a piece of paracord that could also work. A couple of twists and turns on each of the beam should be enough to hold them in place, just make sure the knots are tight and secure.

​4.Adding more

​Depending on the size of the wickiup you are building, you can add more saplings into the first 3 or 4 beams you started with. The general rule is the more beams you have, the stronger and sturdier your wickiup will be. If you are in a location with easy access to materials, you can certainly build your wickiup using a lot more beams.

Survival Shelter

​5.Make it strong

You can also use fallen or rotten logs to add more cover to your structure. You don't have to tie them to your first few beams; these will only serve to fill in the gaps in between the beams and to make the structure even more solid and windproof. Leave out an open segment in your shelter for the entrance.

6.Filling in the gaps

Using smaller branches, you can start weaving them through the beams and the logs. If it's available, use branches that are around 3 to 5 feet long. These will fill in the gaps even more and secure the logs that aren't tied to your structure in place. A useful tip when cutting branches for your shelter, select ones that can be bent easily. With your knife, cut them right where the branch bends and the knife should slice through it pretty neatly. It will save you time from hacking at the branches and you'll know which ones you can use to weave through the logs because they're usually easier to bend.


​Continue adding logs and branches into your structure until you have a more robust and stable shelter. You want to make sure there are as few gaps as possible in your shelter so you don't lose a lot of heat, a fact especially true during the colder months of the year. For waterproofing, you can use cattails that are bunched up together and secured in place by tying them into the logs. Remember, though, that cattails are extremely flammable so if you plan to have a fire going inside your shelter, make sure you have enough logs and saplings to protect cattails from the open flames and possible sparks that fly off. The cattails should be the last one you apply to your shelter.

Survival Shelter

8.Final straw

​Bundle the cattails or other foliage you may have, tie them at one end and secure them by tying them on the structure of your shelter. To save time, you can sharpen a branch to a point and skewer your cattails or branches through and secure the branches in one go unto your shelter by tying it in place or weighing it down with a few logs. You can fill in the gaps by inserting more leaves until you don't see any light poking through from the inside of the shelter.

Modern and Practical Usage

​For modern use, wickiups are constructed for ceremonial purposes. But learning to build one is a great skill to have especially when you live somewhere out of the way and prone to extreme weather changes. Knowing how to build one can mean the difference between life and death. A wickiup can also be a great alternative to using a tent when you go camping. It's fairly easy to construct using whatever material is close by. All you need is Survival Tools such as an axe and a knife.

Although traditional, wickiups are also a great shelter to build during cold months. The natural material in its construction is an even more effective method of keeping heat in than any tent.