Conditions were dark, cool, stormy, dirty and very wet. The four other guys with me were crammed together under tarps between two natural rock walls. But, we made it through the night.
This example from the Colorado Rockies illustrates some basic points about improvising your own shelter. We considered our situation, made use of the natural area, rigged the rest of the shelter from materials we had or scrounged and conserved energy to stay warm.
In a previous article, we discussed the first steps in sheltering and how to shelter for a very short time.
On the other hand, maybe it’s looking like you need to stay longer or be in more severe environmental conditions. Here are some options.
If you get caught out in snow, you can take an evergreen that’s providing some protection from wind and make an even better shelter with branches on the floor to keep you dry and, if they’re soft enough, maybe even cushion you.
You can even make a shelter by digging out deep snow around a tree and setting up a roof of branches above you. It’s called a “tree pit snow shelter”. However, here’s a very important safety note that many people don’t realize, and you won’t find this in many survival manuals:
Exceptional caution should be exercised when approaching an evergreen in deep snow. Certain conditions can cause what’s known as a “tree well” and can be lethal, trapping you in a space that’s near the tree. A person drops into this void and about 90% of the time can’t get out without help, becoming another “SIS” incident: Snow Immersion Suffocation.
This is important for skiers to remember, too. Staying on groomed areas greatly reduces your chance of an SIS. The site Deep Snow Safety has additional information on this topic.
Even if you don’t have a good tree situation handy, you can simply dig a trench in the snow, two feet longer and wider than your body and two feet deep. Put boughs or other material on the floor to insulate it. It’s not the Hilton, but it gets you out of the wind.
You can cover the top with strong blocks of snow set in an inverted “V” to form a roof. Or, lay branches across the top to build a roof frame followed by piling a foot of snow on top. Close up most of the “doorway” and leave a little room for ventilation. This is not the most efficient shelter because cold will settle in as your warmth rises and leaks out. But, it’s better than no shelter.
You could also make a snow cave. Probably the best way to learn about that is to take a quick course in winter survival. Structural collapse and oxygen issues mean you should learn from an expert in real life and not just by reading it in an article.
Place large pieces of bark or wood against a fallen tree in an area that looks like it will have a chance of staying dry. Lay grass or leaves on the ground for a bed.
A kind of lean-to made of natural materials called a “debris hut” can be fashioned from wood and plant parts found in many climates. I made lots of these as a kid, so they’re not hard to make, and can work in a variety of weather conditions.
Basically, to make a hut, lean a pole at an angle against something that will hold it like a stump or in the notch where a strong branch goes into a tree trunk. Or, secure a branch between two trees and make more of a lean-to.
Either way, lay other poles along the side(s), securing them as you can by interweaving, tying, pushing into the ground, or firmly placing together. Finish by covering with bark, moss, cloth, palm leaves – whatever might shed water. I’ve also had some success packing snow against the sides.
Any vehicle that does not present a danger to safety is a great option. It’s already constructed and can be modified to fit your needs. Plus, you can use materials in it.
For example, you might make a car into shelter as James Glanton and Christine McIntee did to save four children in December, 2013. Their four-wheel-drive slipped off the road and left them in the Nevada mountains in below zero temps. Burning a tire and moving hot stones into the vehicle, their self-reliance saved the four children with them.
Simply setting up anything that blocks the sun and, possibly, harsh wind will help you last longer in the desert or plains. Cloth, boards, brush, cardboard – anything. Lean it against something, suspend it with rope, brush, or anything you can place to hold it up.
One of the easiest methods: tie lines to four corners of a cloth and suspend it between two natural features, from the end of your car, or similar locations.
Another easy solution is to set a stick vertically, putting a tarp on it, and holding down the edges with rocks. Cord can be used to make this more secure. It is quick, effective, can be adjusted for breezes, and can be taken down easily.
A trench in the desert ground, covered with a poncho, tarp or brush, can help keep you cool and out of the sun. On a personal note, remember to keep an eye out for other creatures who think this looks like a good place to stay as well.
Remember to always think about how things can change. Don’t camp in the middle of a dry river bed or near a shore where a tide could rise, for instance.
As a final note, taking care of your equipment is important. However, sometimes, people will not even want to use their things because they’re new or expensive. For instance, some of the people I taught at survival school resisting using their knives because they were expensive and they “didn’t want to hurt them”.
That night we weathered in the Rockies, I threw in any of my stuff with the rest of the guys to keep our spot relatively dry. Yep, when I got home several days later, I had a serious cleaning job to do. But, don’t you have equipment to use it? Use what you need to stay healthy and safe.
Mark Dorr 2013, All Rights Reserved