Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How to Survive a Shipwreck

On Dry Land: Shelter and Water
This lean-to shelter is easy to build and provides good protection from the elements.
This lean-to shelter is easy to build and provides good protection from the elements.
HSW 2008

If you're fortunate enough to drift to an island, you'll have more opportunities for food, shelter and water. The first thing you should do, aside from kissing the sand beneath your feet in gratitude, is set up shelter. If you're weak, don't spend too much time searching for the perfect spot -- you can improve your shelter after you rest. Look around the island for any washed-up garbage -- almost everything can be of use.

If your life raft has survived the trip ashore, use it as a temporary shelter. It will keep you off the ground, away from scorpions and snakes, and protect you from the sun and rain. If you ditched your raft and swam to the island, you'll need to build your own shelter.

Chances are there are palm trees and maybe even bamboo on the island. Palm fronds are excellent for providing cover, and bamboo is one of the strongest woods you can find for your frame. Don't get too fancy -- start with a simple lean-to:

  • Place two "Y"-shaped branches into the sand about a foot down and 6 feet apart.
  • Take a long branch and place it between the forks as a ridgepole.
  • Place more sticks from the ridgepole to the ground to frame your roof.
  • Lash everything together with rope or vine.
  • Fill the roof area with dead palm fronds, then top with green ones.

Don't sleep directly on the ground. Instead, line the floor with more palm fronds, which will insulate you and help keep you dry. You can also add walls to block the wind. (More detailed information on shelters can be found in How to Build a Shelter.)

HSW 2008.

Now that you have your shelter, you need to collect fresh water. Never drink ocean water -- the salt will dehydrate you. The easiest way to collect water is by building a solar still. You'll need some kind of clear plastic sheeting and a container to collect water.

  • Find an area that gets sunlight for most of the day.
  • Dig a bowl-shaped hole about 3 feet across and 2 feet deep.
  • Place the container in the center of the hole.
  • Surround the container with as much greenery as you can.
  • Completely cover the hole with plastic and weigh the sides with rocks and sand.
  • Place a rock in the center of the sheet, so it hangs down about 18 inches, directly over the container, to form an inverted cone.
  • Add more sand and rocks on the edges for stability.

The moisture from the greenery will react with the heat of the sun to form condensation on the plastic. This water runs down the center of the sheet and into your container. (This is just one method for collecting water. More information can be found at How to Find Water in the Wild.)­


In the next section, we'll look at finding food and making fire.