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When you find yourself in a survival scenario, you must assess your situation and make some tough decisions. One of these decisions is how to spend your time. Whether you plan to hike out of your situation or plan to stay put, you will need some kind of shelter, and this is where having shelter building skills are critical. The Rule of Threes states that you may only survive three hours without warmth from fire or shelter. If you didn’t bring a fire starter, then shelter may be your only option. This is especially true if it is rainy.
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There are a few general rules for building a shelter. These rules are the same whether you are building a platform shelter in the jungle or building a debris hut in the mountains. There are also just a couple shelter designs that I use on a regular basis. In this article, we will cover these basics so you can be ready to build a shelter in the wilderness.
Your location for your shelter is incredibly important. I like to have two or three prime locations from which to choose before I make a commitment. To accomplish this, I first focus on resources. Where is the water and where are the building materials? Once I establish this, I start getting more specific.
You want to be close enough to water that you can easily walk there several times a day. However, you want to be at least 100 feet away to avoid insects, predators, and flooding. You want to find a spot where the wind is minimal, so I like dense woods and like to be down off the top of any ridges. You should also consider the direction of the wind as the shelter needs to block most of the wind.
Finally, look for a flat, dry area. There should be minimal rocks and plants on the ground, so you are not clearing the area for hours. Before you lay out your design, clear anything that needs to be cleared.
It is hard to put all of these steps in any particular order because the order will be a little different each time. For example, part of assessing your resources is looking for natural structures which you can build upon. This really should be done while you are looking for your location. If you see a cave, a rock face, or a large downed tree, these can all be part of your shelter. By using these structures, your shelter will be stronger, more windproof, and more waterproof. It will also be a faster build.
While you are finding your location, you should also be looking for building materials. I generally look for dead trees on the ground for poles and dead leaves or spruce boughs for insulation. Once I have my location, I like to move at least half of my building supplies to the site so I can be over half-way done before I need to take a break. For example, I know I need one long ridge pole, at least six or seven shorter frame poles, and a good pile of insulation before I get started with the build on a lean-to.
Assessing resources also means considering what you brought with you. Tarps, emergency blankets, cordage, and cutting tools will all affect how you build your shelter. That being said, I will teach you how to build an effective shelter without any of these tools.
There are just a few primary shelter designs that I use on a regular basis. A good shelter is small to hold in body heat. It is simple to keep your build time to a minimum. All a good shelter needs to do is keep you dry, warm, and out of the sun and wind. Once you learn the basics, you can always modify these designs to fit your exact situation.
The lean-to shelter is one of the designs I use on a regular basis, especially if I have a fire. One side of the lean-to is open so you can build a fire next to the shelter to stay warm. The roof of the shelter should block the wind and rain if there is any. It should also reflect heat back towards your body.
Start by finding two trees about eight feet apart with branches down as low as four feet from the ground. Poles can be cut with a saw or camp knife, or you can break dead poles. Just place the pole between two trees that are really close together. Then walk forward pushing one end of the pole to break it at the appropriate length.
Place a 10-foot ridge pole across these two trees at about four or five feet off of the ground. Then start placing frame poles about six or seven feet long against the ridge pole. They should be leaning at about a 45-degree angle towards the side with the prevailing winds.
At this point you can tie off poles for a more solid structure or you can add a tarp or emergency blanket for waterproofing if you have the materials. If not, start adding insulation at the base of the roof and work your way up. You will need at least one foot of insulation to block the wind and about four feet of insulation to make it waterproof. You also need a couple feet of insulation inside the shelter to act as a bed.
If you have no fire, a debris hut is the way to go. You will still need a long ridge pole, but your support poles will be shorter. Start by attaching your ridge pole to two support poles about five feet long. Next, build your bed with insulation. Then you will want to add support poles of varying length down both sides at a 45-degree angle. Finally, pile up four feet of insulation on top. This design acts as a big natural sleeping bag to hold in body heat, so make it as small as possible. You can use your pack for a door, or you can build one if you like.
If you find yourself lost in the woods and need to build a shelter, please remember these basics. Keep your shelter simple and keep it small. Be careful when selecting a location. Drink lots of purified water and take breaks in the shade so you do not dehydrate while building. I have been there before, and it is hard to build when both arms are cramping. I suggest you practice the two designs we described here, so you are ready when the time comes. Whether it is in the back yard or on your next camping trip, that practice could save your life.