On a recent weekend camping trip with my oldest son, we decided to practice a primitive survival skill that is rapidly becoming a lost art in America, making a shelter using only those items that we could find in the woods. Although I don’t have any statistics to back up my assertion, I’d guess that fewer than one percent of all Americans have ever spent the night in the woods without the aid of a tent, camper, or RV.
We’d both done this before but decided to do it again. I wanted the added experience that comes from practice, from trial and error, from experimenting with different types shelters and available resources. My son, on the other hand, likes to do it just for fun.
We were fortunate to have relatively good weather for our weekend. The highs were in a mid-40’s F. The nighttime lows were around 25F. During the day it was windy with gusts up to 30 mph, but at least it was sunny. During the evening, the winds died down a bit. It was clear and we could see thousands of stars. That also means that there is no cloud cover to hold in the heat so the temperatures generally fall precipitously when the sun dips down below the horizon. Oh, and it was damp.
I thought I’d share some thoughts or “lessons learned” from our weekend.
Smaller is Better
A survival shelter is a functional structure designed for survival. It doesn’t have to big and fancy. It doesn’t have to look like the Swiss Family Robinson created it as a precursor to their arboreal mansion. No, it simply needs to keep you warm and dry.
A smaller structure offers advantages to a larger one. First, smaller shelters require fewer resources to make and that means you’ll burn fewer calories putting it together. This is vitally important if you are in a true survival situation and you aren’t sure from where your next meal will come.
Another advantage of a smaller shelter is that it is far better for retaining heat. Without a fire, the only source of heat you have is that which your body gives off. A smaller shelter helps to hold that warmth. Even with a fire smaller shelters are more easily heated.
For a simple slanted A-Frame shelter, the inside space should only be about a foot broader and higher than you. If your shoulders are 30 inches, the insider of your shelter should be around 42 inches across at your shoulders and get more narrow toward your feet.
Remember: smaller means less work and more warmth.
Consider the Elements
The old real estate axiom “The three most important things in real estate are location, location, location.” holds true for erecting survival shelters, too.
Before rushing into building a shelter, spend a few minutes scouting for a good location. Ideally your location will be close to a source of water and a have a plentiful supply of easily collected firewood. But there is more to selecting a location than that.
A good location will make use of naturally occurring formations. The downwind side of a downed tree, the side of a relatively large dirt mound, or the side of a large rock all make for a good start to a shelter. Add some support sticks, leaves, and boughs to create a good shelter.
Be mindful of the prevailing winds when consider a location. Orient your shelter so that the door does not face into the wind. Avoid building a shelter right in the middle of a field if you expect rain or winds. Don’t build your shelter in a low-lying area or too close to the water’s edge as unexpected rain could flood your shelter.
Get Off the Ground
An air temperature of 75F makes for a pleasantly warm day. However, 75F in the swimming pool is not fun for long. Liquids and solids (like pool water or the earth) can steal your heat away much more efficiently than the air. That’s why it’s important to get off the ground in your shelter if possible.
Use evergreen boughs or layers of straw as a bedding. This will help insulate you from the cold damp ground and keep a heat loss in that direction to a minimum. Additionally the bedding will act as a pad and make your night a bit more comfortable.
On this trip, I tried something that I hadn’t tried before. I skipped making a bedding for me and opted to use an Emergency Blanket as a barrier between me and the ground. I reasoned that if it reflected 90% of the heat back to me, I would have minimal loss to the earth. So, I wrapped myself up in the blanket and went to sleep. As the night wore on, I got chilled. The blanket provided a descent water barrier between me and the ground, but it didn’t help protect me from the cold ground. It’s better than nothing but I’d recommend evergreen boughs if you have them.
Leave Ample Time
Making a survival shelter takes time. Gathering the requisite supplies putting them together will probably take longer than you think.
If you find yourself unexpectedly lost in the woods for the night, don’t continue to search for your way out until it gets too dark to see well. That will make erecting a shelter more difficult. Accept your situation. Recognize that you are going to spend the night in the woods, and begin making your shelter before that sun goes down.
Pace yourself. Don’t work so hard or fast that you sweat. As Les Stroud of Survivorman fame is fond of saying “If you sweat, you die.” Work at a good, steady pace and remove layers of clothing to regulate your core body temperature. A shirt drenched in sweat will freeze at night making for an uncomfortable experience at best.
Don’t go into the woods unprepared. Know the terrain of where you’re going to hike or camp ahead of time. Familiarize yourself with a topographical map before setting foot in the woods. Let someone else know where you’re going and when to expect your return. If you get injured or lost and don’t return as expected, they can notify the authorities and send help. That may just prevent an unexpected night in the wilderness altogether.
Bring your survival kit with you so you’ll be prepared for most any situation. A good kit will have ways to start a fire, to navigate through the woods, to signal or call for help, for capturing and preparing potential food sources, for purifying water, etc.
Learn survival skills and practice them before you actually need them. They may just save your life.