Basic Survival Shelters

Whether you’re hunting or hiking, you should always be prepared to spend the night outdoors with little more than the clothes on your back.

Photo by Adobe Stock/James

When we were young, a friend and I spent several days in the deep woods, having fun, taking our time getting from Point A to Point B. Between us, we had one Bowie knife, some matches, denim jackets, boots, slouch hats, outerwear and underwear, and nothing else.

Bud and I had been raised in the woods and were in no hurry. We had time to try things we’d read about or dreamed up around the campfire. We wove blanket mats of sword fern and cedar boughs, slept damp (but warm) on a bed of duff under fir and cedar trees, and ate whatever moved slowly. We discovered it’s not difficult to get along in the wilderness, if you learn from the adaptable hunter-gatherers who came before. Being in the wilderness alone, wet, cold, and hungry isn’t a good situation, but you can take command by finding shelter immediately.

Location, Location

For reasons obvious to anyone who’s laid out a bedroll by an anthill, site selection for an emergency shelter is best done by daylight. The spot should be free of poisonous reptiles, insects, and plants. Ideally, it will offer protection from large animals, sliding or falling rocks, and dead trees, avalanche, or flood. Avoid locating a temporary shelter in dry watercourses, or places where rain is likely to run downhill or collect in a low spot. In winter, find a site protected from wind and near a fuel supply. In summer, look for a site with a breeze that’ll keep insects away and, if near running water, provide food. Build your shelter with the entrance facing away from the prevailing wind, and place any fire pits on the lee side of the shelter. 

When choosing a site, you should also consider natural formations that provide some semblance of shelter, such as caves, rocky crevices, clumps of bushes, small depressions, large rocks on leeward sides of hills, large trees with low-hanging limbs, and fallen trees with thick branches or heavy trunks. Pick a site that offers material to make the type of shelter you need for your individual situation, considering the tools (if any) you have to build it. A good shelter can give a feeling of well-being, and that can help maintain your will to survive.

“Emergency” implies you need shelter quickly and you don’t have much to work with. Some sort of windbreak and roof are essential. Getting out of the wind can save you from hypothermia. Keeping dry is crucial, because of water’s heat-robbing quality. Even burrowing into the snow greatly increases your odds of survival; digging a cave in a snowbank is even better. If you have an hour or so of daylight to prepare shelter in the woods, you may even have time to get comfortable.

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