A Shelter can be Critical to Wilderness Survival. But What Can You do When Time Isn’t on Your Side?
Critical needs for effective winter survival make a short list. Fire, water, food and shelter. While fire and water may be the most important, shelter is just as important when the weather is cold and wet or blowing snow and sleet. Unfortunately, time can be against us especially if we’re surprised by darkness or the sudden onset of a storm or blizzard.
Carrying a small tarp or tube tent can make quick work of a shelter, but in many survival situations people find themselves a bit unequipped especially when it comes to materials for a shelter. Even a couple of small, pocket-size space blankets can give you great material to make an improvised shelter waterproof when spread over the trunk of a deadfall or branches forming a shelter area. That’s where nature can help but you have to know how and where to look.
Traditional Shelter Structures
If you step back from some of the more complex shelters you can build, you can begin to see how some of the shapes and structures come together.
A lean-to typically has a long and high ridge pole spanning an area to support other branches, logs or a tarp to provide protection from the wind, rain and snow. It’s the classic design for wilderness survival and a long fire in front with a reflector behind the fire provides significant heat to the lean-to. Look for trees broken over to the ground with sufficient height to build a decent size lean-to.
An A-frame shelter can be quickly constructed if you can find a long branch or log closer to the ground.
This will provide the support pole for sticks, branches or a tarp to create a small, tented area. This design lacks the ability to build a large fire to reflect into the shelter, but if the weather isn’t frigid it can be put together fairly quickly. It also requires less materials than a larger lean-to and works well for one person. If you’re not traveling alone, you’ll be better off with a lean-to that can accommodate others and extra hands to find and assemble a shelter always helps.
Both examples need a support pole or beam suspended safely overhead to become the foundation for the shelter. Fortunately, nature often provides this structure and building a shelter with this found resource can happen fairly quickly.
1. Naturally Obvious
It doesn’t take an eagle eye to see the possibilities of a tree in this position. The bow of the trunk presents a perfect top-beam to support long branches on one side to make a lean-to or both sides to create a good-sized A-frame. If the branches are spaced tightly, the surrounding leaf litter can make quick work of a roof that will protect you against snow or sleet, and bark from the surrounding trees can allow you to shingle the shelter against rain.
If using bark for shingles, start at the bottom across the shelter base and layer the other pieces of bark against the bottom layers and continue as you work your way up. Make sure the grain of the bark is facing downward so rain runs off from one shingle of bark to the next.
2. A Natural Shelter Do-It-Yourself Kit
It may look like a hodge-podge of dead wood, but nature can sometimes collect many of the materials you need to start a shelter in one place. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a tangle of sturdy trunks and branches, take a minute to think about how you could use the site and the found materials to improvise your shelter.
This is another way that nature can provide you with an instant shelter that will protect you from the snow and sleet and some degree of protection from rain. Pine needles do a good job of capturing snow and the ground beneath will be relatively clear. You could also lean tree branches against the pine trunk to further enhance the shelter.
You also see dense pine trees with branches growing close to the ground. If you spread the boughs and look at the base of the tree you may be surprised to see dry ground around the trunk. The denser the pine and the branches, the better the instant protection. In any case something as simple as that space blanket can keep the rain off, but if you’re lucky you’ll be able to find leaves, pine boughs or bark to keep the rain away.
If you cut away a few low hanging branches you can build a fire that will provide some heat. Don’t build it too close or you’ll melt the snow or set the tree on fire, but close enough to feel the heat. You might have to clear some snow from the ground for your fire, but not near as much as you would have to clear for a full lean-to in the open. The idea and the value of this type of natural shelter is the dry ground. That’s hard to find in winter but there are other alternatives.
4. The pine grove
A dense grove of pines can also provide you with the benefit of dry ground. You may have to construct some level of shelter for a windbreak, but you’ve saved yourself the effort of digging out a hundred pounds of wet snow to get to something resembling bare ground.
A few carefully selected pine boughs will give you further insulation on the bare ground, and a fire will provide the warmth. One thing you may want to do is at least brush any pine needles away from your fire area. They’re quite flammable and few of us like the idea of waking up with our pants on fire. No lie.
5. Large deadfalls
A large tree, whether it be a pine or deciduous, will often create a natural canopy over an area of ground if it has been toppled. Here again, you’re looking for that precious bare ground that says it may stay that way over a period of time. You could carefully clear some branches for a fire to provide some heat, but the same rules apply to proximity of the fire and avoiding too much snow-melt.
6. The root cavity of large Uprooted trees
When a large tree falls from the roots it will often leave a cavity in the ground with the root structure almost acting as a slanted roof. Think of it as a natural lean-to. It can be a good spot to stop and stay out of the rain for a while or with a little work, can make a shelter area overnight.
Caves are nature’s natural penthouse. But be careful in there. There may be some animals around you who like that cave as much as you do and some of them may have bigger teeth.
Hopefully it’s a shallow cave that you can look into but deep enough to protect you from the elements. Caves are also perfect environments for capturing and reflecting the heat of a fire. Build the fire as large as you want, but close to the entrance of the cave so the smoke can vent and thank your lucky stars that you found a cave.
8. Rock canyons
In some parts of North America there are small, rock canyons. They can be narrow in parts and both snow and wind have a hard time getting deep into them. You can stockpile firewood and build a significant fire to stay warm. If you’re concerned about animals using your canyon as a pathway at night, build fires on either side of you in the canyon but make sure they’re small enough to jump over if you need to.
9. Rock overhangs
Think of this as a cave wanna-be. It’s a natural depression in a cliff-face that provides an overhang. It’s not as protected as a cave, but it can shelter you from rain, snow and the wind depending on wind direction. It’s also another environment that works to catch and reflect heat from a fire. With any luck the wind won’t shift, and you’ll make it through the day or night.
10. Large Boulders
You don’t have to be in mountainous country to find large boulders. They show up often in places that make no sense for a large rock to occur. These nomadic rocks are called “eratics.” They were carried to various and surprising places by glaciers during the last ice-age and as the ice melted these large boulders were left behind. Some are as large as a bus.
You could also use the cliff wall to support branches and improve this location as a shelter. Build any fire off to the side and the boulder will still do a good job of reflecting and holding some heat.
Why You Should Seriously Think About Natural Shelters
Most survival situations come as a surprise. In fact, it takes many people a bit of time to admit or recognize that they are in a survival situation in the wilderness. The result is that unintended consequences descend. Nightfall is the usual determining factor for action, but night can happen fast.
The Fingers on the Horizon Rule
If you find yourself without a clock and am not sure about when sunset will happen, your fingers will tell the tale. Hold your arm straight out and bend your fingers so they are flat and facing you. Each finger you can put between the bottom rim of the sun and the edge of the horizon represents 15 minutes. Four fingers give you an hour before sunset and that’s a good indicator that you should be seriously thinking about a fire and shelter. You’ll have a good 15 minutes of twilight and maybe another 15 minutes of dim twilight, but you still need to move quickly. That’s why taking advantage of what nature has to offer as a foundation for a quick shelter is a good idea.
While We’re at It
If you’re heading out into the wild it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead a bit. We’ve already mentioned space blankets, but even a poncho can make a shelter waterproof. A small tarp and a short length of rope wouldn’t hurt either. Then again, we always seem to think nothing’s going to happen and why bother. Sometimes it takes a survival experience or two to change our way of thinking.
Fire is your priority
Even without a shelter, you’ll probably find that a fire will keep you going. That assumes no precipitation is in the forecast. A fire will also give you a bit of a chance to continue to gather wood or other materials in the dark and if you’ve accumulated enough, build your shelter by the light of your fire. Unless you were lucky enough to find that cave.
A Quick Word on the Upside-Down Fire
The Norwegians get the credit for this one. As a people and a culture accustomed to snow, the Norwegians learned long ago that a fire could be built on snow or icy ground if it was built with the largest logs at the bottom and succeeding layers gradually getting smaller as they built towards the top.
It’s the opposite of traditional fire construction and it works.
Once the fire is going it can be fed with larger logs like a conventional fire because the logs at the bottom will continue to provide an insulating layer from the snow and ice.
With Luck You Won’t Have to Face This
Wilderness survival may sound like an adventure but it’s anything but fun. Hopefully some of these ideas will give you a chance to ponder some new possibilities. For those of us who have had these experiences and survived it’s not because we’re smart, but maybe a bit lucky and had the opportunity to look around and thank nature for what it provided. Then again, it’s still a good idea to have that space blanket in your back pocket.