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For many of us, the memories of building woodland dens and forts are childhood–defining moments. It’s part of who we were and what we’ve grown up to be. Reminding us of adventures and explorations into lands unknown and sites unseen, feelings that are often hard to re-capture as adults.
For some, dependent on lifestyle and location, the opportunity to do such things may never have been possible, but that doesn’t stop the ideas and the drive you have to find activities that help you connect with your children and enjoy life as a family.
Whether this desire to get your kids back to nature comes from a sense of nostalgia, an interest in bushcraft and survival skills, or simply a way to get your children off their screens and into the great outdoors, building camps in the woods is a positive nature activity that will stay with your children their whole lives.
In our Ultimate Guide we’ll cover everything (and we do mean everything) you need to know about making forest forts and woodland dens with your kids. From how to plan your activity to fit your location and time, to what types of camp you can make, all the way through to some EPIC tips on how to take your fort to the next level.
So let’s take a look at the first step and then we’ll walk you through how to make a forest fort cool enough to make even a wood elf jealous.
First off, when are you going to build the camp? What’s it going to be used for and how often are you going to use it?
The answers to these questions are going to help you define the scope and scale of your project.
If you’re lucky enough to live near some woods and have easy access to them then you can invest in something more elaborate or long term – something that you build up over time and the kids and their friends can use as an ongoing club house. But if you’re only out for a day and need to put something together in an hour, then the scope of your fort needs to reflect this.
What type of woods or forest are you going to be building it in?
Do you know if they have any guidelines or rules you should be adhering to? For instance in some woodlands and campsites they don’t like structures being left up overnight, whilst in other wilder environments it really doesn’t matter.
What resources do you have available? What tools are your children allowed to use, and how much are you going to help them?
Saws, hatchets and knives are obviously very useful for cutting old branches to size and stripping leaves, but we all vary in terms of what equipment we have, what we allow our children to use (dependent of course on age and exposure) and under what level of supervision.
One thing you must make sure you have to hand…
A journal or scrapbook! If you’re going to all this effort to build the most amazing forts with your kids, then make sure you have somewhere to help them hold on to those memories.
Every child needs a record of their exploits – a journal of their summer adventures. Our Epic Summer Journal (on Amazon) encourages kids to log their adventures and take note of their explorations. From building up a collection, to creating rubbings and sketches, there’s room for all types of discoveries!
Finding the perfect location
The following are all the things that should be taken into consideration when building a forest fort, no matter how long you have available.
- An area near the edge of the forest is ideal, preferably free of plants and underbrush. You should also have enough open space around it to sit outside, cook or play.
- Look for ground that is flat and even – avoid slopes, otherwise your build will literally be an uphill battle, and dips in the ground can easily collect water if it rains.
- Thick overhead foliage can make great initial coverage against the rain.
- But make sure you check for any potential hazards like dead tree branches or loose rock ledges above.
- Avoid wet, swampy ground and stay a good distance away from the water’s edge as flooding could become an issue as well as the presence of animals and insects.
- Use a compass to make sure your doorway is facing south. That way you’ll make the most of the sun throughout the day.
- The area nearby should have plenty of dead-wood and old branches lying around otherwise you’ll be carrying old logs for miles and this’ll quickly suck the fun out of the day for the kids after a few repeat trips.
- Keep an eye out for natural features such as fallen trees, boulders and low hanging branches as they can be great starting points for the build. More on this in the next section.
- And don’t forget to check the weather before you go!
Identifying what type of den to build
As mentioned above, when you’re choosing an area to make your camp, there are certain features in the trees and woods that will provide opportunities for different types of den to be built.
In this section we’ll be looking at the top 3 main types of forest fort or bushcraft shelter that can be built using scavenged woodland materials. We’ll start with the easiest, working our way up to a more complex structure. The idea being that you should be able to walk into any wood and easily identify what type of den is best suited for your needs (time etc) and for the area you’re in.
By far the easiest den to build, the lean-to provides surprisingly good cover from the elements with relatively little work required. If you find the right tree(s) to base it on, and with a little adult help to get your little ones started (and of course to carry any particularly large branches!), you’ll have this up within an hour.
A great starter fort, it can look quite impressive for such a simple shelter and it’s perfect for creating a wind deflector that you and the family can sit behind, enjoying a picnic in the woods or sitting around a campfire.
What you need to look out for:
- Two trees that are around two meters apart, with a few low branches that are about a meter off the ground.
- You’re going to need to find a branch long enough that you can suspend it between the two trees (like a ridge), using the lower tree branches to support it.
- Smaller branches will be leaned against this ‘ridge pole’, shielding you from the elements – so ideally the line between the two trees should be perpendicular to the direction of the wind.
- Very easy to build.
- Perfect for if you don’t have much time.
- It’s a great foundation for build a much larger camp if you’re looking to come back to it another time.
- In its simplest state it has no sides, so although it provides a great wind shield, it’s not made for holding in heat.
- Although, depending on the age of your children, if you have a campfire setup in front, it does make for a great heat reflector.
- It’s open to the elements on three sides so if the wind changes direction you could get a face-full of rain on a blustery day.
A two–sided, wedge–shaped hut, its name comes from the shape formed at the front of the shelter. The A-frame starts feeling a lot more fort–like than a Lean-to, and gives a real sense of having a woodland den to hide out in.
And with only one tree needed to prop your ridge pole against, it can be even easier to find a good starting spot for an A-frame than a Lean-to, but it does need a little more work in terms of finding and placing the branches for the sides.
What you need to look out for:
- One tree that has a low branch around 1.5 meters off the ground.
- And a long sturdy branch that will form your ridge pole. One end is placed in the nook of the lowest tree branch and the other end on the floor at roughly a 45° angle.
- Plus smaller branches to place against the sides of your fort.
- Location friendly. It’s very easy to find a spot to build it in.
- A stable structure that will likely last a while if put together well.
- It provides great shelter and can be made to retain heat even on a windy day.
- There are a number of variations that can be built, making it really versatile in terms of size and space.
- It’s a bit more fiddly than a Lean-to, as branches need to be cut/snapped to varying sizes and then overlapped on the ridge pole
- And it can take a little longer to source and place material due to having two sides rather than just one.
3. WIKI-UP or TIPI (AKA Teepee)
Essentially a cone–shaped framework with a circular footprint and no ridge pole – it’s one of the most iconographic camp types around. Tell me this isn’t the fort you always think of when someone mentions building one, eh?
With variations of this type of shelter found across the globe in many different cultures, from hide-covered teepees, to squatter huts like wikiups and wigwams. Although they can be quite a complicated den to build, there are a number of ways to simplify it if time is limited.
What you need to look out for:
For a freestanding Wickiup you need a clear, flat area to make your camp.
- 3 sturdy, long branches to create your basic frame.
- Plus a good supply of additional long branches to lay against it.
- And you’ll need to bring some cordage with you to tie off the top of the frame.
- An alternative variation is to find a tree that you can use as a central pole and then build your structure around that. With the right branches (nice and forked at the top) you shouldn’t need any cord.
- The straighter the tree the better, with branches no lower than where your poles will converge and a trunk that’s not too large as otherwise you’ll reduce the room you have inside.
- Location friendly. You can put this up almost anywhere.
- Very cool! Your kids will love you forever if you can get this bad boy up!
- And it literally is very cool! It’s great for creating a shaded area for the kids on a sunny day.
- It can be made into decent (semi) permanent structure if you put the time into it.
- Perfect for using as a club house and sitting around in as a group.
- There are a number of variations that can be built, making it quite versatile in terms of size and placement.
- It’s time intensive and requires a good bit of coordination and effort to build – especially the first part.
- All the branches need to be of a decent length.
- It definitely requires more involvement from an adult.
- If it’s not secured, high winds can cause it to become unstable. Meaning that if you’re going to build this kind of fort as a long term base for/with your kids, you need to make sure you put it together as best you can.
If you’ve a bit of experience at making forts and want to take your dens to the next level, why not try your hand at making a Super Shelter! Take a look at this video by Survival Lilly for some great fort building inspiration.
Building your shelter
Ok, you’ve done your planning, you’ve found the perfect spot in the woods… and now it’s time to get your hands dirty!
- The best setup is to find two trees that are around two meters apart, with low branches starting around a meter off the ground.
- If it’s a nice calm day you may want to just pick the best trees you find, but if there’s a bit of wind, then ideally your trees should run perpendicular to it, so that you get a nice wind–free shelter.
- Find a sturdy looking branch slightly wider than the gap between your two trees and place it between them, balanced and/or wedged at the point where the low hanging branches join to the main trunk. This forms your ‘ridge’ or ‘cross’ pole.
- Kids seem to be magnetically drawn to large branches and for some reason love lugging them around woods, so this should be the first part of their foraging mission – just be prepared to help them drag it back to basecamp 🙂
- If you’re after for a bit more stability or a more permanent structure then you should ideally look to lash the ridge pole to the trunks with cord.
- If you can only find one tree to suspend your ridge pole from, another option is to look for a loose sturdy branch, just over a meter long, with a Y shaped section near the top (where a smaller branch stems from the main length).
- This can then be hammered into the ground (using a heavier log) and used, instead of another tree, to support the ridge pole in the fork.
- If you’re feeling a bit flash you could of course use two sticks with forks in and not worry about using a tree at all! That way you can literally set this den up anywhere – just make sure your support sticks are sturdy and well secured in the ground.
- Now comes your second foray into the underbrush. You’re after a good bunch of sticks and old branches around one and half meters in length.
- They need to be stacked up against the ridge pole at a 45° angle to the ground on one side. This forms your rear wall. Coverage can be as solid or as lightweight as you want it to be.
- Ideally, you would then get smaller branches and weave them horizontally in and out of the vertical ones, creating a mesh like barrier. Then cover it all with a layer of whatever grasses, leaves and fronds you can lay your hands on.
At this point, if time and energy are short you can call it a day in terms of ‘structure’ and head on over to the section below on ‘Home Comforts’.
For additional protection against the elements, roaming spies or elven archers, you can finish your camp off by blocking up the sides of the lean-to with any leftover branches and foliage.
TOP TIP 1
If you’re likely to come back to the camp again, imagine how cool it would be to create another one of these structures at a right angle to the first one. A few more visits and you’d be halfway to a Super Fort!
TOP TIP 2
OR, if you’ve got time, you can put branches on both sides, to create more of a tunnel. Maybe you could make the lean-to on your first visit and put the other side on next time? This then starts to turn it into the next structure, an A-frame…
Before we run through the steps needed to make this fort, let’s take a look at the build variations it can come in:
- A Lean-to conversion (as mentioned above) – it has a wall of branches placed on both sides of the ridge pole, makes a very cool ‘tent’ shape that can fit quite a few children and gives them access at both ends.
- Centrally supported by a tree – the easiest to find a spot for and to build, it has slightly less room than the Lean-to conversion as one end of the ridge pole is on the ground.
- A fallen tree, stump or large boulder also make a great place to rest your ridge pole.
- Debris hut – more of a bushcraft, survival–type shelter, the A-frame shape is made by two branches with forks being placed together at the front and then then ridge pole being rested on top, where they cross-over. Gravity then holds it all together rather than a central tree branch or stump that it rests on.
- It’s also normally made very low to the ground and fits only one person, which is a great technique for holding in warmth but not so good for making a fort that kids can play in – unless of course they make one each – which’d be really cool for playing base invasions!
Here we’ll be looking specifically at how to make the version that’s supported by a tree (No.2), as it can easily be adapted if needed.
- Start by finding a tree in the desired location that has its lower branches around 1.5 meters off the ground.
- They can be about a meter off the ground if you have smaller children and don’t mind having a lower opening.
- And of course you can go for a higher opening, just bear in mind that all of the sticks you’ll be looking for will need to be a lot longer.
- Now find a long sturdy branch that you can use as your ridge pole. If you want a nice deep camp, then try and find a good long branch. Or if you’re going for a more shallow affair, then a shorter branch will do.
- Place your ridge pole in the nook between the tree trunk and the point where the low hanging branch joins the tree, then leave it trailing onto the ground in the direction you want your den to be.
- If you have cordage handy then this is a good point to lash both parts together. For young children in particular it might be a good idea to secure it so that if it’s knocked it doesn’t fall down.
- Now comes the wall building part. As per the Lean-to, you’re looking for smaller branches that can be laid against both sides of the ridge pole (like ribs) at roughly a 45° angle. The thing to bear in mind here is that you’re going to need long ones at the top, getting smaller as you move towards the bottom end.
- It might be easier to start at the bottom end first, as the branches are able to rest against each other as you go up the ridge pole.
- The end result should be a wedge–shaped fort that has an entry point at the tallest end, in-between the tree trunk and your A-frame.
At this point you can make a call on how finished you want to make the exterior. Ideally you’d want to layer smaller branches, grasses and leaves onto it, but you can just as easily skip to the section below on ‘home comforts’ to add a few more personalised touches.
Don’t forget, natural shelters like this are quite hard to see at a distance (cool!) so make sure you hang a bright marker or flag on top of it when your kids are playing. And then maybe remove it when you leave so that it stays covert…
3. WIKI-UP or TIPI (AKA Teepee)
As mentioned, this type of fort can come in a number of variations, the main ones being the two mentioned – a freestanding structure, and one that is built around a central column like a tree. We’ll be running through the steps needed to make the freestanding structure as it’s a little more complicated and easily adapted to the other styles.
Do bear in mind though, that depending on how tall your children are and how many you want to fit inside it, you can make the build much easier by lowering the overall structure and creating a shorter framework. Meaning it’s much easier to put the initial frame together and it keeps the branches to a size that are more manageable for your kids.
- Find a good flat area for your camp to be made. Ideally it will be quite wide and clear of woodland debris.
- The main framework is made from three tall, straight (and sturdy) branches of around the same length. Once you’ve sourced them, prop them against each other in a tripod shape and lash together at the point where they cross over.
- This can be made easier by finding branches that fork near the top.
- And it’s almost definitely something the adult will need to do as it’s quite a struggle balancing everything. Though of course, getting the children to help in holding the branches in place will be invaluable.
- Again, tailor the height and width of the structure to your requirements.
- Now lay more branches of the same length around the structure between the gaps created by the tripod frame. The more you have the sturdier it will be.
- But don’t forget to leave a gap for your doorway!
- Finish by adding thinner, leafy branches, plus any forest debris you find to help fill in any gaps.
- If you end up with quite a light, loose covering, it’s a good idea to lay more branches over it so that it doesn’t blow away.
There’s no point putting all that effort into a fort if you don’t add a bit of personality to it. Make sure you don’t forget to write the name of your camp on a plaque and hang it near the doorway. A ‘wipe your feet’ sign is always good as well!
Bunting looks great on the outside as it helps you identify the camp from a distance (when you’re running around the woods like lunatics!). Just make sure you remember to take it home with you when you go. 😊
Waterproofing and insulation
If you’re wanting to make the fort more of an all weather affair, then it’s a good idea to get a bit more insulation onto it.
To do this you want to add a thick layer of debris, leaves, twigs, brush or grasses onto the outside. Start at the bottom and work your way up the side of the shelter. Then weigh it all down with a few more well placed branches so that it doesn’t blow away.
The thicker this covering is the more likely it is to keep heat in and rain out!
Making a floor
Depending on what kind of coverage you have on the floor of your shelter you may want to build this up a bit.
By adding a layer of leaves and grasses across the floor you’ll make the whole den a lot comfier – and if you get it around 4 inches thick (compressed) it’ll serve as great insulation against the cold ground.
Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for any logs and boulders, as they make great woodland benches and chairs. If you find a decent tree stump you could always mould your camp around it and use it as a table!
MAKING YOUR FORT EPIC!
Well.. where do we start… There’s a lot you can do to your fort to make it truly EPIC. Here are a few ideas to get you going:
- Make additional structures over a number of visits to create a mini fort village.
- Then join them together with some low level walls to keep out wild orcs, wolves and goblins. To do this you’ll need to create two sets of vertical slots for your wall of branches to sit within:
- Find four branches about a foot higher than the size of your proposed wall.
- Now hammer a set of two of them into the ground at each end of where you want your wall to be. Each pair should have a fist-sized gap between them.
- Now find a bunch of straight branches that you can pile up in between these two pairs of wooden slots.
- Why not create a geocache at your camp and leave a log book in it? That way, if anyone comes to visit they can leave small treasures inside your cache along with secret messages! Take a look at what these guys have done. (Great camp by the way)!
- A simple tarp hung from the front of your woodland hideout can create a fast and easy doorway.
- And for that next level touch, why not dig a moat around your camp? You can then lash together a few solid branches and use them as a drawbridge to your fort. Making it highly defensible against intruders!
Safety Tips and Respect for Nature
Take a look at The Eden Project’s Den Commandments and Safe Play tips – we think they’ve got it spot on!
The Den Commandments
- Respect the environment!
- Please don’t damage the den site; true denmasters leave no trace.
- Always tidy up after yourself. Please don’t drop litter, especially if you use manmade materials.
- Look after living trees and plants: they take years to grow and seconds to destroy.
- Check whose land you are planning to build on: you don’t want to be chased off halfway through and you don’t want to upset the neighbours.
- Don’t steal from other peoples’ dens!
Safe play tips
- To enjoy den making you need to stay safe, so this bit is really just about not doing anything stupid.
- There isn’t a ‘right’ place to build a den, but there are definitely a few wrong places: derelict buildings, cliff edges, swamps… you get the picture.
- We aren’t saying that an adult should be there all the time but a grown-up should know what’s going on and where!
- Keep your den lightweight, so that if it falls in, it won’t do too much damage to any den builders inside.
- If you are going to dig into the ground, don’t go very deep.
So that’s it folks, you should have everything you need to go out and build epic woodland dens and forest forts with the kids. Weather withstanding of course. 😉
Good luck and let us know how you get on.
The Epic Adventures Team!