by Todd Walker
Which would you rather be cold or wet?
How about neither!
Shelter plays an important role in thermoregulation. As I peck at my keyboard, the outside temp is 50º with a light rain. Enough exposure to these “mild” conditions without some type of shelter and a search and rescue mission turns into a recovery team.
A healthy individual can endure Mother Nature’s extreme elements for only a few hours. Even properly clothed, you won’t last long if you’re cold AND wet. In plain English, humans need shelter to survive.
Events can happen that force even non-outdoorsy types out of the warm, dry confines of home. Those of us who intentionally wander in the woods understand the importance of carrying some form of shelter.
The two categories for shelter discussed here are manufactured stuff (trash, tarps, etc.); and available natural resources (outside the tent thinking). Whether manmade or natural, your shelter should provide these basics:
- Protection from the extreme elements – wind, rain, sun, cold
- The ability to keep you warm and dry with only the clothes you’re wearing if necessary
- A safe/secure location to rest, relax, and recuperate
- A work space for tasks that will increase your survivability
- Ease of erecting and transporting
The first rule of survival with or without shelter is… Do. Not. Panic. At least that’s what trained experts tell us. But that is exactly what most non-survivors do. The moment you realize you’re lost in the woods or on the backside of a disaster event is the most crucial time for survival. If you are not in imminent physical danger…
S.T.O.P. (Sit, Think, Observe, and Plan)
- Sit – And breathe. Take 20 minutes or as long as your situation affords to gather yourself. If lost in the wilderness, you can afford a 20 minute break to exit panic mode.
- Think – Your second thoughts are the ones that help you survive. Usually, first thoughts are to react instead of respond logically.
- Observe – What resources (skills and stuff) are available to effect your survival?
- Plan – Now that you’re cool, calm, and collected (sort of), make a logical plan to survive.
Shelter, water, fire, and food – in this order – should be your priority in most cases. Remember the Rule of Threes – 3 hours without shelter and you risk hypothermia and eventual death.
To ‘enjoy’ your unplanned vacation, shelter ranks above all other needs. Hopefully, you’re not caught without some form of shelter in your kit. Tarps, contractor trash bags, ponchos, emergency space blankets, tyvek house wrap, billboards, or oiled canvas are shelter options.
If you plan ahead, shelter can be set up in 5 minutes or less. Attach one corner of a tarp to a tree with a bungee cord or rope and stake off the other three corners to the ground.
Down and Dirty Tip: Toggles are survival tools that make quick work of setting up tarp shelter. Tie a loop of cordage to your ground stake, insert the loop through the eyelet of the tarp, and place a toggle stick through the loop to hold the corner securely.
Run a ridge line with cordage and drape your tarp over the line. Secure the four corners and you have shelter.
If you don’t have a ground pad to lay upon, pile leaves, debris, and pine boughs up to add an insulation layer between you and the ground. Heat transfers from hot to cold. Body heat is conducted from our warm body when in contact with cold ground.
USGI Poncho Shelter
A military poncho is a multi-use item. It can be used to protect from the elements while navigating and converts to a tarp shelter as well.
The eastern woodlands where I roam provide many trees for anchoring points for tarp shelters. I used DRG’s two hiking sticks, paracord, and stakes to convert my poncho into a shelter for demonstration purposes. This set up takes more time but is an option in areas with little to no trees.
If you get creative, you can build an Alpha Tent with your poncho.
But what if you find yourself in a situation without gear?
I know trash is not natural material, but don’t discount this survival resource. It’s a shame that people leave trash in the wilderness. Their wasteful ways can play into your favor when survival is on the line.
You never know what you’ll find. On a walkabout to gather pine pitch today, I found an old truck bed in the woods behind my school.
Outside the tent thinking finds down and dirty shelter options.
Rocks, Ledges, and Caves
Be careful using ledges and rocks for shelter. Just like setting up shelter with manmade material, your location should be safe from falling objects and the risk of rising water and flash floods.
Keep in mind that ledges and caves are home to creepy crawlers and other animals. If a fire can be built, the smoke will help drive out scorpions, spiders and snakes. I don’t mind these critters until they snuggle into my bedroll.
I’m hesitant to list the typical survival shelters mentioned throughout the wilderness survival community. For instance, if you’ve got enough time, energy (calories), tools, and resources to build a debris hut, you’re probably not in a true survival scenario. You’re camping. They’re cool to build and will keep you warm and dry. However, they take a lot of time, resources, and calories – all of which are slim to none for most survivors.
Below is a shelter I built as my base camp for dirt time and practicing Doing the Stuff bushcraft skills. Could I use it as a survival shelter? Yes. But it’s taken about 20 man hours of hard work to build with sharp cutting tools, cordage, and many calories.
Semi- permanent shelters can’t be thrown together in a moments notice. My shelter was built for smoothing it, not roughing it. There will be no need to yield to senseless panic and die of exhaustion if we’ve learned the art of “smoothing it’ in the wilderness.
Survival shelters are temporary structure that provide insulation from wet, cold conditions to help you survival and be rescued. We’d like to hear your thoughts on survival shelters you’ve tested and used. Comments are always welcome!
Keep Doing the Stuff,
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