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Five W's Shelter Checklist

The top five critical features of a good campsite

Survivorman Les Stroud

The "Five W's" is an easy way to remember the 5 most important factors involved with choosing a good shelter location in the bush. First heard from Survivorman Les Stroud, they are...


Disclaimer: While I first heard this list from Les Stroud, I personally have written the following explanations and am not copying nor attributing the following text to him, so don't sue me!


First of all, you probably need wood to build a shelter unless there is a cave and you definitely need wood for fire fuel. Wood can also be great for fashioning new tools including spears, containers, utensils, etc. Ensure you have a good supply of wood around your location before setting up camp.


Obviously, it would be foolhardy to set up a shelter location without a known water source nearby, unless you have no choice. If there is no water source nearby you will have to abandon that shelter location very quickly and move to find water. Don't set up camp in the first place if there is no water around!

There are many ways to find and gather water in the wild, and they are discussed in detail on the "Water" page.


Take note of the weather. Don't take this lightly. The NUMBER ONE cause of death in the outdoors is exposure, usually to cold, wet and/or windy weather.

"Is it hot or cold?" This will affect what type of shelter you need. In a hot environment you may not need much shelter at all. In a cold one you will need a thoroughly insulated shelter that will block wind and hold in heat from your body and fire.

"Does it look like rain is coming?" If so, put in extra effort to make your shelter water-tight. If it is clear skies and you're in a desert, rain cover will not be very important like it would in a jungle. Also, don't make yourself a target for lightning if it could be around, stay away from big metal objects and off the tops of hills and mountains.

In a survival situation you are usually either dealing with weather, or preparing for weather. Try to predict the weather ahead of time so you're not all of a sudden caught out in it rushing to improve your shelter.


Widowmakers usually refer to dead trees that could likely fall on you suddenly. Don't ever make your camp under or near a big dead tree that hasn't fallen!

I would also include in this category things like big rocks that could fall on you, for example if you're in a cave and you heat it up too quickly it can cause the rock to crack and possibly fall on you. Also, boulders that could roll down a hill, and even avalanches all qualify as "widowmakers" in my book. After all, they are inanimate objects that can kill you. Even live trees in high wind areas such as hill tops are unsafe.

Just take a moment to look around at the surrounding structures and see if any are likely to move before you call a location a good camp spot.


Willies generally refers to any critters that could be problematic, especially snakes and other poisonous creatures like spiders and scorpions, though I would include all dangerous or troublesome animals in this category for completeness.

Snakes, bees, hornets, bats, ants, mosquitoes, ticks, crocodilians, big cats, bears, other predators and more... ensure your camp is protected from them as best as possible. Make a raised platform in places where creatures like snakes and ants roam the ground, such as a jungle. Don't make your camp in places that look like good snake habitats, such as places with holes in the earth or intricate rocky or root-covered ledges.

Some bugs and creepy crawlers will be more of a nuisance than dangerous, but even this can become dangerous if they prevent you from getting good sleep or lower your morale. We want to be as comfortable in the bush as possible. A good fire will usually keep away these pesky insects. Some insects can actually be dangerous, like ants and disease carrying mosquitoes.

In locations where large predators could be around, have a weapon at your side just in case, like a large spear carved out of wood, or tie your knife to a long thick stick. Build your camp with only one opening so if a predator comes around you will not be surprised from behind. "Camp security" comes into play where truly dangerous animals could be around like lions and jaguars, but that is a whole 'nother subject unto itself. But of course, ALWAYS have a fire!

Remember to go through the "5 W's" shelter checklist when inspecting a potential campsite to avoid hardship down the road. For information on constructing wilderness shelters check out the Shelter page.

Read about the "Five C's of Survival"

Please Leave A Comment!

Comments (6)

As someone who has been hit by a falling tree and had a vertebra fractured...listen to #4!

Didn't camp under the tree but feel at night. Knowing a tree is coming down and knowing where it's coming down in the dark are two different things.

22nd October 2015 7:43pm
Vanessa Bell
Great post! This is easy to remember and will surely take note!
2nd February 2015 12:02pm
Bill Zimmerly
I think Les called them "Wiglies" rather than "Willies."
22nd December 2014 7:27am
You may be right, I may have changed it to "willies" to include all dangerous animals. After all, you can't really refer to a lion as a "wigly", but you can refer to it as "the bogeyman".
22nd December 2014 8:20am
especially snakes and other poisonous creatures like spiders and scorpions

Should read

especially snakes and other venomous creatures like spiders and scorpions

As avoiding poisonous "willies" is as easy as not eating them.

24th November 2014 5:13pm
Jade Harris
Good information to remember.
12th October 2013 2:05pm

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