Few people bother putting a tent in their bug out bag. They’re just too bulky. About the most you’ll find them bringing along is a tarp, some paracord, a small roll of duct tape and maybe a rain poncho. You can do a lot with that, but you can do even more if you start by using what nature provides.
Of course, you may not even have that, if you’re caught out in the wilderness and suddenly find yourself needing to survive. I have carried survival kits in the woods for years, and the only thing I’ve ever had that remotely resembles a shelter is a rain poncho. Other than that, I’ve depended on what I can find in nature. It’s just not practical to carry shelter around with you in such a case.
But shelter is one of the most important survival priorities; as shelter is one of the three ingredients necessary for maintaining your body heat (the other two are insulation, such as clothing, and a heat source, such as fire). Pretty much any survival instructor will tell you that building a shelter is one of your top priorities when setting up camp. As temperatures drop during the night, you’ll find your need for that shelter increasing.
The solution for most people is to build a shelter out of naturally occurring materials. I’ve built enough of these through the years to learn one very important point. That is, you’re going to be better off starting out with what nature provides you and then building onto it, than you will be starting from scratch and scavenging the materials you need to build a shelter. This is especially true in a long-term survival situation.
So the key is having an eye for recognizing what will serve as shelter. This isn’t hard to develop, as shelter is only supposed to provide protection from two things: rain and wind. As you cast your eye across the landscape around you, you’ll want to be watching for things which already do that.
Probably the best natural shelter you can find is a cave. The big problem is finding one. Most caves are not that obvious, unless you are really looking for them. Entryways are often partially overgrown with plant life and the interior can be much bigger than what the doorway indicates. Many caves look like nothing more than a hole in the ground, but can open up into subterranean chambers or even lakes.
Be careful when entering any cave, as wildlife may be using it as a home. While most animals are afraid of the scent of man, you really don’t want to put that to the test with a bear, mountain lion or pack of wolves. Check the cave thoroughly, using a powerful flashlight to illuminate all the nooks and crannies.
Mine shafts (man-made caves) work for shelter too, but are more dangerous than a naturally-occurring cave. Not only do they have the risk of being home to a variety of animals, but many old mines are in risk of collapse. So if you are going to use a mine shaft as a temporary shelter, check the structural integrity of the supporting timbers and stay near the entrance.
Rock outcroppings can be amazing places, providing places where one rock leans against another, providing a partial shelter. Or you might find a place where two standing rocks provide a space in-between, which can easily be roofed over to create a shelter. Don’t just look at what you see, but also at what you can do with what nature provides.
Many caves, especially those in canyons, start out as nothing more than an undercut embankment. Water rushing down the canyon scoops out a hollow of softer material, leaving the denser material above. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado has caves like this, which are big enough to house entire villages.
The problem with undercut embankments is that they could turn into a trap in the case of flash flooding. So you want to take a good look around, looking for signs of flooding, before occupying one. If the water channel is right at your feet, you probably don’t want to use this for a shelter in the midst of a storm. But in many cases, the water will have carved the channel several feet lower, making these into ideal, safe retreats.
A Cliff Face or Hill
Even if that embankment doesn’t have an undercut section, it might still provide you with some shelter, at least from the wind. It all depends on where the wind is coming from, compared with where you are trying to set up your camp. If the cliff face or hill provides you with a shield from the wind, it could be a good starting place for creating your shelter.
Generally speaking, shelters like this need to be combined with other elements to be effective. While it might block the wind, it might be useless for blocking the rain. However, a thicket of trees, right up against the cliff face could provide protection from the rain.
Of course, you could use the cliff face as a reflector for your fire and built a lean-to or other shelter facing it. In this way, you would be taking advantage of the shelter that the cliff face offers, even though it isn’t complete shelter. Be ready to improvise, using whatever you have available to you.
A Thicket of Trees
You’d be surprised how well trees can protect you from the wind and rain. The interlocking branches of the foliage canopy can, at times, block out just about all the rain. Likewise, the combination of branches and underbrush can block pretty much all the wind. Additional protection can be contrived by cutting branches and using them to fill in spots which don’t provide enough protection.
The trick here is finding the right combination of trees, along with a small open space for you to set up camp. But there are many such places, often right off the trail, if you keep your eyes open to look for them.
A Large Pine Tree
One large pine tree can provide an ideal shelter, all by itself. Pines are unique, amongst all the varieties of trees, in that their branches grow straight out the sides of the tree. As the branch grows, its weight causes it to dip towards the ground. So, in the case of a large tree, the branches that are brushing the ground will start our three or four feet above the ground.
You might have to clear out some of the dead branches, which are still attached to the trunk of the tree, near the base. These branches will have died off, due to the lack of sunlight reaching them. You might also want to add additional protection around the shelter, by piling cut branches, debris from the forest floor or even snow, filling in any gaps in the protection the branches offer.
Once inside, you will be well protected from any rain or wind. The dense needles of the tree will stop pretty much any rain, leaving you dry. Just be sure to keep your fire small and to clear an area for it. The dry pine needles on the floor of your shelter will burn easily.
An Uprooted Tree
An uprooted tree can work much like a cliff face, blocking off wind, especially if it is a large tree. If the tree is recently fallen, it might still have enough foliage on it, that you could find shelter in the gap between the root mass and the branches.
Finally, don’t forget that man has been building structures all across this land for a few centuries now. I’ve seen stone walls and chimneys in places where there seems to be no reason for their existence. Many of those structures are abandoned, but would still provide shelter or work as the starting point for building a shelter.