Basic Survival Shelters
By Fred Demara
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.
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.
Bark and evergreen boughs will keep wind and water from penetrating aboveground shelters. From top to bottom: photos by Adobe Stock/ Kozorog; Flickr/Frank Douwes; Flickr/U.S. Army Alaska, respectively.
Dig In, But Not Deep
If you’re in the woods and darkness has fallen, make a deer bed of moss, leaves, ferns, grasses, or evergreen boughs into which you can crawl. A deer bed — a shallow depression or trench not much wider than shoulder-width — will suffice for a night. Whether you’re in snow, woods, or desert sand, you can build a deer bed by digging down just deeply enough that you can roll over. Make the depression as wide as your torso, with additional shallow extensions for your buttocks and shoulders. According to U.S. Department of Defense studies, up to 80 percent of the body’s heat loss can be lost into the ground while at rest. So, line the deer bed with about 6 inches of grass, leaves, ferns, or evergreen boughs, as dry as you can find them — and more is better.
Line in-ground shelters with leaf-and-bough beds, and top them with a tarp or sticks covered in grass and soil for insulation and waterproofing. Illustrations courtesy of U.S. Army Survival Manual, 2006
Next, weave a cover for your trench from sticks or boughs. If dry weather is certain, a blanket woven from several layers of fern, reeds, or grass may suffice to keep the wind off. If rain threatens, make the cover with a slight peak on one side to shed water, and then cover it with additional thatch of leaves, boughs, or duff (partly decomposed organic matter from the forest floor). If your situation is snowy, build a shallow bough roof that will support a good layer of snow, and fashion a way to block the entrance. Build small, because body heat can contribute significantly to your comfort in a cozy space.
Fast and Temporary
I’ve gleaned the following ideas for simple survival shelters from military manuals. Think outside the box and consider how to adapt them to any specific situation you may find yourself in.
A hasty shelter the size of a large coffin can be quickly dug into snow, soil, or sand, and covered with whatever is at hand. The only tool required is a digging stick or a sharp rock, or just your hands if you’re building a shade shelter in sand. First, scoop down to form “walls”; alternatively, if digging is too difficult, scrape into a low preexisting wall of rocks or earth. Next, overlay this with a framework of sticks, and overlay the framework with foliage or grass, and, finally, cap it with soil, sand, or snow. Add an improvised door, and such a shelter will stave off the wind and cold, or protect you from heat and sun if that’s your problem.
I like to think of Huckleberry Finn or Robinson Crusoe using this next style of temporary shelter. Like these fictional characters, you’ll begin by taking stock of what’s available. Look for green evergreen boughs and leafy hardwood limbs that you can break by hand and are flexible enough for weaving and layering. Just in case you get interrupted or lose daylight while building this shelter, I recommend that you first make a simple deer bed.
To assemble this more substantial above-ground shelter, begin by gathering three forked sticks and stacking them vertically to form a tripod. You can also use additional forked sticks; just make sure to form a cone shape with a circular base. Intertwine the forked sticks at the top to overcome a lack of lashing material. Or, you can improvise lashing material with yucca or buffalo grass leaves, strongly fibrous bark, or the roots of mallow and other sinewy plants. Gravity will play a big part in holding your shelter together, so don’t make it too steep — although the steeper it is, the better it’ll shed water.
Once you have the shelter’s “bones” stacked in place, weave the flexible green boughs through them horizontally — in effect, building an inverted basket. Leave an entrance, but no bigger than you need to squeeze inside. Now the structure is complete, but not wind- or waterproof. You’ll need a thatch overlay. So, starting at the bottom, weave a thick layer of evergreen boughs, stems up, into the framework you’ve created. Continue placing overlapping layers all the way up the sides of the frame, to the top. Assuming the structure you’ve built is strong enough to support the weight, the more cover you add, the better your emergency shelter will be.
If you don’t have access to evergreen boughs or fern fronds, scout your surroundings for alternatives. Europeans have thatched their cottages with large handfuls of reeds or grass for centuries. You can also slide both forearms under large swatches of duff from the forest floor to obtain “tiles” of leaves or needles to overlay your hut. Bark from dead trees, especially large, rotten evergreen logs, can often be removed in newspaper-sized sheets. A small, heavy door can be built in the same way.
The material you use to insulate the shelter will settle, so pile it as deep as you think the framework will hold. You can’t have too much cover, so long as the structure presents no danger of collapse. The same principle applies to the amount of dry bedding inside. A simple blanket of interwoven fern fronds or fine evergreen boughs will make a big difference to your comfort level overnight.
Fred Demara is a survival expert with decades of experience in the field. This is excerpted from his book Building Bare-Handed Survival Shelters, available below.
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