Story and Photos by Reuben Bolieu
It is often written in many books and shown in many survival videos, that one should search for a camp site that faces south, if you are in North America. However, if you are lost without a compass or do not posses any navigation skills, getting out of the rain, wind or snow matters more.
Wilderness areas around the world may offer a variety of natural shelters that can be used with little or no construction at all. The most common are fallen trees, caves and rock overhangs. But there are shelters which are more involved.
Here are some survival 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 – usually small fixed blades and multi-tools.
One tool that is very small and lightweight is the Swiss Army Knife (SAK, for short). A 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 and other small rounds in the construction of many different types of shelters.
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).
Build your debris hut by placing one end of a long ridgepole (pole running the length of the shelter) on top of a sturdy base. Secure the ridgepole by anchoring it to a tree at about waist height and 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.
Then, 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. Then, 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 also use a backpack as your enclosure, 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. Long, weighty poles will also serve well for this.
The desert landscape is arid. Less water means less vegetation and overall growth. This makes locating shelter materials harder, but not impossible. Knowing what to look for is of the utmost importance. First and foremost, it is important to get out of the sun because it 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, clearing 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, during 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 lookout for snakes and scorpions that may be hidden in dry grasses and rocky terrain.
In a jungle environment, there is an abundance of materials that can be used to construct a shelter. Night falls quickly beneath the jungle canopy and it is important to start building a shelter early.
Having spent many nights in the jungles of Venezuela, Peru, Thailand, and the Philippines, sleeping up off the forest floor, and as far away from ants and other insects as possible, is vital to survival. This is also true in the Southern parts of the United States.
Life in the jungle without a machete or long blade is pretty miserable, to say the least. If you happen to be hiking in the jungle, take a machete, with which a pole bed can be easily constructed and can take anywhere from 2-6 hours to construct correctly and safely.
While there are variations of this type of shelter, this is how I’ve done it.
I want to start by saying, safety first. 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 have made the mistake of 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.
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 it can crack or break when supporting your weight. You can use the same trees, you’ve already harvested, 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, so make it your own!
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. Although, a poncho would be the easiest way to waterproof this type of shelter, palm fronds will serve well as your overhead protection against the rain, but they must be woven together and layered to be effective.
If you find yourself lost in the wild and decide it’s time to build a shelter, one must consider the time, effort, available tools and materials needed to properly construct it.
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!” K&G
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Adventurer, writer, photographer, gear designer and survival instructor for Randall’s Adventure & Training, Reuben has spent most of his life hiking and backpacking through the wildernesses of the world. He has traveled abroad in extreme environments, from Alaska to the desert heat of Egypt – as well as the humid conditions of Southeast Asia and South America. He continues studying primitive survival techniques, construction and uses of knives and edged tools from places such as: South America, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, and numerous countries in the South Pacific and Scandinavia. Reuben has published many articles on survival, knife and tool use, woodcraft, shelters, and remains a lifetime student of survival.
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