Speedy Shelter


  • 1

    Here are some of the materials you can use

    • 16 bamboo plant stakes or wooden dowels (about 3 ft. [30 cm] long) (found at garden centers and hardware stores)
    • binder clips
    • 4 cardboard sheets (8.5 x 11 in. [22 x 28 cm]) 
    • duct tape 
    • 3 garbage bags (33–42-gal. [125–160-L]) 
    • scissors 
    • string (optional)
  • 2

    Prepare ahead of time

    • Have paper and a pencil ready to write down ideas and sketches as you design.
    • Cut open the garbage bags so you have large plastic sheets.
    • Think about different things people use as shelters. (Buildings, tents, trailers)
    • Think about how shapes are used in different buildings and structures. 
    • TIP: Inventors think about everyday things, such as shapes, in new ways and see interesting possibilities of using them.
  • 3

    Think about the challenge

    • Who might use an emergency shelter? (Adventurers, hikers, homeless people, people affected by a natural disaster)
    • How will you make a sturdy shelter? 
    • How will you make your shelter so it’s easy to move, build, and take apart in an emergency?
    • TIP: During the design phase structural engineers think about different forces that can cause stress, or tension, on a structure. These include natural forces, such as wind or earthquakes, and modern environmental forces, such as traffic and people. 
    • TIP: If you want to make your shelter easy to handle, try creating a portable shelter by making it small in size and light in weight. This will make it is easier and faster to put up and take down.
  • 4

    Think about and write down your ideas

    • What parts does your shelter need? (Connectors, cover, frame)
    • What shape will make a sturdy frame?
    • Will you make a floor for your shelter? Why might you need a floor?
    • What size will you make your shelter?
    • How will you make it big enough to fit a person inside? 
    • TIP: Engineers give a lot of thought to the shapes they build with. Some shapes, such as cubes, squares, and pyramids, distribute force like the weight of a roof to different parts of a frame. Other shapes, such as triangles, domes, and arches, spread the force to nearly every part of the frame.
  • 5

    Look at the materials

    • What material will you use to build the emergency shelter that will help protect a person?
    • What will you use to connect the poles to build the frame?
    • How will you attach the cover to the frame?
    • What will you use for the floor (if you use one)? 
    • How could you make your structure portable?
  • 6

    Design the frame

    • Decide what size you will make your shelter. Remember, a person has to fit inside. 
    • If you are building a floor, make it to fit in the shelter.
    • TIP: If you build a floor out of the four sheets of cardboard, leave a small space between each sheet as you tape them together. This way, you can fold the floor up so it’s easy to carry around.
  • 7

    Design the frame (continued)

    • Decide what length poles you will need.
    • Think about how you will make the poles longer.
    • Connect the poles so they are the length you need.
    • TIP: If you need to connect your poles to fit, leave a small space between them before taping them together. Then you will be able to bend them to make corners or you can fold them up to pack them away.
  • 8

    Build the frame 

    • Decide what shape you will make your shelter.
    • Think about the shape and size of the base of your shelter.
    • Build the base.
    • TIP: Triangles and domes are particularly strong shapes because they spread the force to nearly every part of a frame. 
    • TIP: Engineers understand the importance of building a solid foundation, or a wide base, for a tall structure to sit on. If the base is too small or if it is not well anchored, the structure can tip over.
  • 9

    Build the frame (continued)

    • Assemble the sides of the frame.
    • Connect the poles securely.
    • TIP: If your frame seems wobbly, turn square sides or floors into triangles. Triangles are strong because all three sides carry some of the load. In a square only two sides support the load.
  • 10

    Build the frame (continued)

    • Decide how you are going to connect the sides.
    • Choose your materials and connect the sides.
    • TIP: If the frame tilts or twists, try connecting each part to one or more other parts or strengthen and reinforce the corners with cardboard.
  • 11

    Attach the shelter to the ground

    • Think about how you will secure the shelter to the ground. 
    • Secure it to the ground. 
    • TIP: If a shelter is securely attached to the ground, it has a better chance of not blowing away. A person might use boulders, branches, or sticks to attach a shelter to the ground outside.
  • 12

    Cover your frame

    • Drape the cover over your frame.
    • Secure it to the frame.
    • TIP: If the roof collapses the frame, it’s because the plastic roof is pushing down on top of the frame. Strengthen the frame with triangular braces or corner braces and then test it by pushing down gently on the top of the frame.
  • 13

    Test your shelter

    • Climb in carefully.
    • Take cover!
    • TIP: If the plastic slides off the frame, try taping two or three plastic sheets together before draping the cover over the frame. Once you have the plastic cover in place, secure it with tape or string.
  • 14

    Did you know?

    • Eye in the Sky
      Firefighters who battle wildfires have a dangerous job. And they know it, so one thing they carry with them when they go to battle a wildfire is a fire shelter. A fire shelter has an outer layer of a special kind of aluminum foil that helps reflect heat away from the shelter. Then there is another inner layer of foil with a layer of air in between to provide protection. In an emergency, all the firefighter has to do is grab two plastic handles and shake the shelter open—just like a pop-up tent.

      Although the fire shelter has limitations, the Forest Service says it has saved over 300 firefighters who have been trapped in fires since 1977.
  • 15

    Try this next!

    • Build a backpack shelter. Design a shelter that is small enough to fit in your backpack.
    • Pack it up. Design a container for packing away all the shelter pieces. Remember, it needs to be easy to carry!