Natural Survival Shelters Part 2: Constructing Natural Shelters
In the last issue on Natural Shelters, we covered simple shelters that can easily be located and utilized without requiring tool or any actual building. In this article, I’ll cover shelters that can be constructed using common tools you may be carrying on your person during a hunt, fishing expedition, hike or while out shooting for the day. These tools are usually small fixed blades and multi-tools. Fixed blades are common if you are out hunting or fishing and although there is no real chopping power in small fixed blades there are ways to make a smaller blades perform big tasks.
A Debris Hut is a shelter that is easy to make but requires some work. Most of the construction could be done with your hands and a decent pair of gloves for protection against splinters and thorns. One tool that is very small and lightweight is the Swiss Army Knife or SAK, for short. An SAK is often considered standard gear for many outdoorsmen such as hikers, hunters, and fishermen. It has a great wood saw that is perfect for cutting tree boughs in the construction of a Debris Hut.
Build it by placing one end of a long ridgepole on top of a sturdy base. Secure the ridgepole (pole running the length of the shelter) by anchoring it to a tree at about waist height. Prop large sticks along both sides of the ridgepole to create an “A” frame shaped ribbing effect. Ensure the framework is wide enough to accommodate your body and steep enough to shed moisture. Place finer sticks and brush crosswise on the framework. These form a latticework that will keep the insulating material (grass, pine needles, and leaves) from falling through the framework into the sleeping area. Add light weight, dry, soft debris over the framework until the insulating material is at least two feet thick–the thicker the better. Place a two foot layer of insulating material such as pine needles, dry leaves or grasses, inside the shelter. At the entrance, pile insulating material that you can drag towards you once inside the shelter to close the entrance. You can use a backpack if you have one. Finally, add shingling material or branches on top of the debris layer to prevent the insulating material on top from blowing away in heavy winds.
The desert landscape is arid. Less water means less vegetation and overall growth. This makes locating shelter materials harder to find but not impossible and knowing what to look for is of the utmost importance. First and foremost it is important to get out of the sun. The sun will dehydrate and exhaust you. Let’s focus on shelters that offer the most shade possible with the least amount of work. Juniper trees are common in south western deserts and offer a place of refuge from the desert heat. If you are near a stream or river, Willow trees can be found and offer great resources for shelter building materials. Use any cutting tool such as a saw from a Multi-Tool or SAK to cut away branches from a fallen or overgrown tree to clear an area to comfortably spend the night. You can also make a desert debris hut similar to what you would in the forest, if materials are readily available. Dry grass makes good insulation against the heat and cold of the desert floor in the summer and winter. The ground temperature in the desert can soar up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The bark from Juniper trees is another option for use as overhead thatching and ground insulation in a desert debris hut. If enough bark is gathered, it makes a lofty bed. When gathering shelter materials, stay on the look out for snakes and scorpions that may be hidden in dry grasses and rocky terrain.
In the tropics, it can be hard to find natural shelters but there is an abundance of materials that can be used to construct a shelter. Beneath the jungle canopy night falls quickly and it is important to start building a shelter early. Having spent a few nights in the jungle myself, sleeping up off the forest floor away from ants and other insects is vital.
Life in the jungle without a machete is pretty miserable to say the least. If you happen to be hiking in the jungle with a machete, a pole bed can be constructed. This can take anywhere from 1-3 hours to construct it correctly and safely. You will need four Y-shaped trees for the foundation. Stick them in the ground about waist high and arrange them in 4 corners like bed posts making sure to space them a little wider than the width of your shoulders. Do not use dry brittle wood as they can crack or break when supporting your weight. The same trees can be used to create horizontal support poles. Next, cut two support poles which will rest directly on the Y-shaped posts, one for the head end and one for the foot end. These serve as the support bars for the longer poles which will run parallel to your body. The last step in constructing the framework is to cut approximately 6 longer poles usually about 6-feet long (depending on how tall you are). Lay them across the two support bars from head to foot. With the exception of the four Y-shaped posts, wrist-thick saplings are all that is needed to support your weight. Use palm branches and any type of leaves as your mattress. This is your bed.
Finally, lash a long, thin stick overhead from one end of the bed to the other which will act as the support for the waterproof material you will need to place over you. Palm fronds will serve well as your overhead protection against the rain. They must be woven together and layered to be effective. A poncho would be the easiest way to waterproof this type of shelter.
The dangers of constructing shelters in the tropics range from wasps, hornets, bees, snakes, and anything that may occupy the area in which you wish to make your new home. In the jungle, I have seen people chop into branches and get attacked by irate hornets. I myself have made this mistake chopping into a small sapling for shelter material without first looking up and was showered with fire ants from a nest above. I wasn’t the only one that week but it only takes one incident to make you aware of this danger. The same is true with snakes in trees above. Always look up and give the tree a shake before attempting to cut it down.
If you conclude that no natural shelter can be found and it is time to build a shelter, one must consider the time, effort, and the available of tools and materials needed to properly construct a shelter. Survival expert John “Lofty” Wiseman teaches when constructing a shelter it is important to build it right the first time. What seems like a shortcut may ultimately take more time in the long run so it is important to do it right the first time. Your life may depend on it!