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Seeking shelter should be your first priority in almost any survival situation. But if you are caught in the wild with nothing, would you know how to make a survival shelter? You will after reading this.
While the human body can, in extreme circumstances, survive three days without water and three weeks without food, it can only survive three hours without shelter in bad conditions, or even just a few minutes in freezing water.
It is the role of whatever shelter you can improvise with your survival skills to protect you from the elements, extreme temperatures, and help you survive beyond those three hours.
But before we dig into the sticks, palms, and leaves of survival shelters, what is the first line of defense against extreme temperatures? It’s what you’re wearing right now.
Before building a shelter though it is important to remember that your first line of defense from the elements is your clothing, which you should select carefully when heading outdoors into potentially hostile environments and unpredictable weather.
It is entirely possible that you will be dressed completely inappropriately for a survival situation when it arises. Perhaps you will need to rush out of your home in your pyjamas or underwear with nothing but a bug out bag or get stranded in the woods on your way back from a fancy meal with your significant other while wearing a dinner suit.
In these situations, it is important to ensure you have a change of clothes as well as equipment such as space blankets, blizzard bags or alternative shelter types in your bug out bag or car kit.
Let’s start with your shoes. While these might not traditionally be considered in the topic of survival shelters, they do indeed protect your feet from the elements, and keeping your feet healthy is very important, especially if you have to self-extract from an emergency or in very cold conditions and want to protect yourself from frostbite.
Warm, protective footwear – Boots or shoes which do not protect you from moisture or which are too tight for example will very soon lead to frostbite in your toes, and footwear which is not breathable and traps moisture against your skin in damp and humid conditions can lead to or exacerbate conditions such as trench foot and fungal infections. Additionally, appropriate footwear helps you walk or run on uneven or sharp surfaces and protect your feet from broken glass, debris and other dangers you might encounter in an emergency.
This doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive pair of boots is necessary just a comfortable pair of shoes that will keep your feet dry and warm and which won’t give you blisters if you need to do a lot of walking. If you can afford to go to the lengths of putting a strong pair of good boots aside for your kit that would be even better. To help your feet stay comfortable and warm in boots in cold conditions, a couple of pairs of thick socks will need to be in your kit alongside any normal socks you might choose to pack.
Survival clothing – Just as with your shoes you need to make sure the clothes you pack are comfortable and that they will keep you warm and dry. For this reason, take clothes that are not too tight and are not prone to cause chafing, so breathable, quick drying, hard wearing materials are best.
In cold environments, remember this saying; “if you’re wet you’re dead”.
If you get soaked, even if the cold weather is not extreme, it can be fatal. The moisture will wick the heat from your body and send you into hypothermia. And it’s not only rain that can cause this. You can get wet enough with sweat to cause your core temperature to drop.
To help regulate your temperature and stay warm and dry in cold environments, as well as cool in hot environments, it is best to layer your clothing in a way that you are carrying several light layers. This could be a couple of t-shirts and thin jumpers, which would be warmer and lighter than carrying one very heavy jumper.
Waterproof clothing – Waterproof clothing can help keep you dry as long as you don’t get too sweaty underneath it. It can also effectively protect you from wind which can reduce the temperature you feel by one-degree for every mile per hour it blows.
This type of clothing can be expensive if you go for high-end breathable materials like Gore-Tex, which is a fantastic fabric, but it might be hard to justify the expense if they are going to spend most of their time in a bug out bag or a car’s emergency kit.
To save money and space in a small bug out bag or the emergency kit you keep in your car consider a waterproof poncho. It is hard to go wrong with a waterproof military poncho. Not only will it always provide good breathability and keep you dry, as well as regulate your temperature, but it can also cover your equipment and be used as a makeshift shelter for a really lightweight kit.
While you might have appropriate clothing as the first line of defense against severe temperatures, whether it is hot or cold, you should know how to create a survival shelter.
A survival shelter is a more substantial way to seek shelter for warmth, as well as a dry place to sleep at night or to provide shade in hot weather.
Relying on man-made shelter options that may be part of your bug out strategy but it isn’t always wise as you might not have any shelter accessible to you when the worst happens. Tents, tarps, and bivi bags all provide quick and easy shelter solutions, but it is easy to lose your kit or to not have it with you in the event of an emergency.
So let’s take a look at what we can do for shelter when we have nothing.
We all know how to use tents and tarps, but when we are in the wild with nothing but our bare hands, how do we make a survival shelter? Long before the invention of the internet, survival kits, or digital technology, many cultures thrived on constructing their own homes, shelters, and huts. All for different purposes whether it be sleeping, community meetings or religious purposes.
In fact, there are tribes of people that still, to this day, live in shelters made with nothing but their bare hands and things found in the natural environment around them.
Now we’re not saying you have to be someone like that famous Primitive Technology guy, and make an aesthetic town from sticks, but knowing how to build some basic, architecturally strong survival shelters will greatly increase your chances of survival in the wild.
So let’s take a look at these different shelters you can improvise from natural materials you might find nearby.
While you are moving around, staying warm is relatively simple but getting adequate sleep and rest in a survival situation is important too. On top of that, when you eventually get tired, you want to ensure you are able to rest without exposure to weather. Without that survival shelter, you could expose yourself to a greater risk to your health than just being lock in the wild, such as developing hypothermia.
In a given situation, if you don’t have a survival kit, you won’t have that synthetic insulation provided by a sleeping bag or blankets. This means you would have to look elsewhere for that insulation. In temperate woodland environments, you can use leaves as a way to insulate temperature, wherein your body acts as a heater and you capture that heat.
A pile of leaves will keep you warm in an emergency – Simply crawling into a mound of dry leaves will be enough to keep you warm in extreme circumstances and dry grass is even better. To do this, you would need to insulate yourself thoroughly from the ground so your body heat isn’t conducted away from you into the cold ground. Sure, this won’t be as comfortable as modern sleeping bags and blankets but it would save your life if you are suffering from cold weather.
You will need a lot of leaves and/or grass though as the insulative material you collect and build your shelter with must surround you at least to the depth of your arm.
A shelter with a little more structure and architecture than a simple leaf hut is a survival shelter built using an A-frame base.
If you are going on a survival wilderness course or any other outdoors knowledge school, making an A-frame hut will be one of the most common skills you will learn. It is very easy to use as a small survival shelter setup, and can be magnified to create a much larger shelter for a family or group of people.
As a boy scout, I remember up quite a lot of these shelters just as a race. They’re that easy to do.
How to build A-frame shelter – There are two important parts to an a-frame shelter, without them you simply can’t build it. First, you need a strong spine branch. This will be either a thick or sturdy branch that will be longer than the length of your body. It will be what you lay under, essentially acting as the roof of your shelter.
The other part is a stand for the head of the shelter. This can be a variety of things, but primarily, two sturdy pieces of wood would be bound together at the top making an “A” shape. The fork that opens at the top of the a-frame is where the top of the spine branch will sit.
To bind the two branches together to form the frame, you can use bark skin peeled from fresh branches. The fresher and greener the bark, the more flexibility it has and the less it is likely to break. You can also use alternative roping such as vine, or rope weeds.
Once you have the base skeleton set up, what you can do next to have a stronger shelter is add ‘rafters’ from the ground up to the ridge pole to support the debris, leaves, twigs and other material you will thatch your shelter with. These rafters must be sturdy enough to support the weight of the thatching.
Once the rafters are placed, there should only be just enough room for you to squeeze into the shelter, if it is too large not only will it take more time and energy to build but there will be too much space inside it. Having too much space if you are on your own is not a good idea, as you need to heat the space with your body. If the space in the shelter is too big, it won’t retain the heat inside the shelter.
You must thatch it at least to the depth of your arm to insulate it properly and to make sure rain doesn’t get through. You should also make sure your rafters don’t extend up above the level of the thatching otherwise rain will run down them and drench you.
In extremely cold conditions your shelter may require small survival fire to keep you warm enough in cold conditions. This type of shelter is also a way to survive outdoors for if you need to survive for longer than just an emergency survival period.
A large lean-to built with a steeply pitched roof made of sturdy logs and thatched with pine boughs, an internal raised bed also insulated with pine boughs to keep you off the ground, and a long log fire were the go-to shelters of the North American and Canadian foresters and pioneers.
With this sort of set up, you could survive and do so in a relatively comfortable manner in extremely cold temperatures.
These shelters are large and labor intensive to build but are absolute lifesavers in wilderness survival scenarios. However, the fire must be maintained properly though even if it means losing out on a bit of sleep to keep it going.
The roof must be pitched steeply to shed snow and sleet, otherwise, the shelter might collapse and crush you. The inside of the rood also acts as a very effective reflector for the heat of your fire and will direct that heat back towards you rather than letting it dissipate out the back of the shelter.
How to build a lean-to shelter – To start, it is ideal to locate two trees that are at least your body length apart. Of course, you can choose to build a much wider one as most of the sizing will come down to how many people you are with.
Remember how we used an a-frame to set up the last shelter (a-frame shelter)? Well, the exact same is done with a lean-to shelter, only you need to do it twice. You could also choose to use forked trees or trees with sturdy branch joins if you are able to locate them. This is to support a middle beam so that you can lay an angled wall onto it. Once the wall is done, you can build in the sides so that you don’t have cold air flowing through the sides. This would be covered with palms, bush, leaves or whatever other foliage is located in your area to stop wind flow gaps and leaking spots.
The firewall forces heat to be reflected into the lean-to. This can simply be done by creating a wall where you drive four equal length stakes into the ground creating a rectangle box and then lay green logs or branches into that box. This will act as a shield wall. Having a campfire in front of that will ensure that the heat will travel into the lean-to.
Shelter is important whether you are in cold or hot environments. When you are in hot climates, it is easy to forget that shelter is important as while heat might not kill you quite as quickly as extreme cold, heat stroke can cause severe symptoms, and if it isn’t addressed, can kill very quickly. Even sunburn can be extremely debilitating and lead to severe shock, and in extreme cases, without treatment, can be fatal.
As well as the direct effects of extreme heat, you have three days of survival without water before things go bad. When it’s hot, and you don’t have shelter, those three days can be drastically reduced.
Shelter in hot environments means shelter from the sun. Indigenous cultures in the US, and Australia, made shelters called wickiups (the Australian Indigenous shelter was called a ‘humpy’). These rounded shelters had a variety of functions that made them great structures. Architecturally they were designed to withstand cold nights, provide shelter from the heat during the day with the cool earth, were waterproof, and were often made large enough that a family could sit around a fireplace situated in the middle of the wickiup.
Making a wickiup – These simple dome shaped survival shelters are easy to make, and a simple wickiup can be erected in a matter of a few hours, so long as you have some good thatching materials nearby.
Basically, the foundation of the wickiup (the most important part) is done in two ways. Either sharpened tree rods are driven into the ground and are bent towards the top and tied together with weeds, fresh bark or natural vine rope. Using juvenile green wood is best as it will be able to bend without breaking, thus allowing you to create a more ‘domed’ shape for the wickiup.
Flexible horizontal pieces can be woven between the uprights which strengthen the frame so that it can hold excess foliage to keep the weather out and the warmth in.
I hope you enjoyed this post on traditional survival shelter methods. These shelters just go to show that you don’t need materials to survive in the wild, and in fact, you can, if you have to, survive in the wild without anything.
Of course, as you become more advanced with your bushcraft skills, you might learn new ways to create tools and other things that you would need to help your wilderness survival circumstances.
All of these methods are ones used by traditional natives from varying countries. When it comes to survival, there is still much we can learn about how to live off the land, and not just survive, but live with only using natural resources.