By Kyt Lyn Walken
Mishaps can happen, anytime, anywhere. As Outdoor lovers, we are deeply aware of that.
Awareness is the first step in dealing with hardships in life. Without having a specific consciousness of the situation, we dull our common sense.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with some basic tips to manage the situation in the best way, taking advantage of what you have.
If it is going to happen..
Building an emergency shelter in the Great Outdoors is certainly an extreme solution to an extreme condition.
It could be due to several reasons:
- finding yourself without signal
- finding yourself without an accurate map of the area
- finding yourself with no reference points – especially with dense fog or in an unfamiliar place
- running out of batteries for your cell phone, GPS, ..
- being stranded after a fall, or from severe dehydration, etc.
Undoubtedly the above mentioned are out of the ordinary, but they are more than a remote possibility when you spend regular time in the great outdoors. Newspapers are daily plenty of such stories.
Having the proper gear is surely the first step, but being prepared is essential too!
Mastering survival and bushcraft skills, in fact, can literally save your life, if you know how, why and where to put them into use.
If you attended any courses, refreshing abilities should be part of your regular routine in the backwoods. It is all about “doing your homework”, as I learned from Dave Canterbury from Pathfinder School.
Starting a fire, beginning from gathering the right tinder, setting a tarp, potabilizing water and so on are the very core of any survival activity you may need to rely on one day.
Practicing them on a regular basis provides you more self confidence and, in the very same way, it sharpens your craftmanship, elevating your manual skill to the next level readying you for a real situation.
No more simulations: real mishaps will be tougher than you may expect, especially if you are experiencing physical and mental fatigue, thirst, hunger, lack of sleep and so on.
In the unfortunate situation of finding yourself stranded, you need to know what to do and where to do that.
Common sense should always pave the way in order to fix situations.
Nonetheless, everything starts with a correct risk analysis, related to:
- the type of activity you are going to face
- the area you will do that
- the awareness about your performances, starting from an honest analysis of your body – and mind strength and athleticism
- weather conditions and expected temperature range
- an assessment of food and water supplies you need to carry with you
Remember that a lot of disasters can be avoided with a correct plan.
Without a proper assessment, any minor hardship could rapidly turn into a traumatic event.
Therefore, accuracy and foresight should be your best companions in the important phase of setting up your backpack.
What to carry in your backpack to make a natural shelter
The gear we carry in our backpack always makes a substantial difference.
Don't underrate some items just because you never had the chance to use them: every piece of our equipment should be in the backpack because it has one (or even more!) purposes.
By saying that, you need very common tools to set an improvised shelter, in the unfortunate situation that your tarp is gone for several reasons.
Simple objects, such as a few meters of paracord, a Swiss army knife can be indispensable support in an emergency condition.
Anyway, as we will soon see, we can replace them with some creativity and craftmanship.
“Use what you have” should be our motto. You can see that in the pictures.
Good gear, well maintained and tested, does surely represent a bonus. But skills, knowledge and perseverance are what mark the success of our actions.
Why to make a natural shelter
Simple as it is, sleeping outside means to face several threats:
- the risk of hypothermia
- the presence of night predators
- the presence of insects
- the risk of being injured with dead widows trees
(just to name a few).
A natural shelter, instead, does not only offer a comfortable way to spend the night out, but it also protects us from the elements, from animals while giving us the nice sensation of not being completely helpless.
In a few words, it give us protection, hope and warmth. In a survival situation, this means a lot to boost your morale.
Where to make a natural shelter
As already stressed, make common sense and knowledge lead your actions.
Stay away from flash flood areas, natural depressions and humid spots.
Employ your tracking skills to look for a location free of animal tracks: caves, for example, can be the den of predators.
Go for a place looking to south, preferably with a natural coverage offered by big boulders or fallen trees. As you can see from the photos, I opted out to take advantage from erratic boulders, or, I just simply went for a open area, with no risks of falling trees.
Look also for natural resources: being close to a stream, in fact, can provide you a supply of water to filter and potabilize, and a wooden area offers you not only material for your fire, but also branches to use to set up your natural shelter.
Be cautious about grabbing resources from a medium/long distance. To avoid becoming exhausted take what you need in your immediate area.
How to make a natural shelter
Once you’ve selected the best spot you better start to think how to set up your shelter considering your weight, height and gear you have. Be careful not to make it too big or too tiny: it should contain you and your backpack without being too skimpy.
Start to work on it when you have daylight and don't rush yourself in creating a building: you actually don't need a long-term shelter. You need something which really works for you and your situation, considering also weather conditions, remaining daylight hours, temperature and, last but not least, your level of fatigue.
Building a shelter, in fact, will cost you a lot in terms of energies and, therefore, calories.
Use what you have
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”
As illustrated in the photographs, a solid emergency shelter must look towards the South, and take advantage of the elements already existing in the area in order to make your work as less demanding as possible.
A large erratic boulder, for example, extremely common throughout mountainous areas, can serve as an ideal wall. Here I opted out to create a lean-to improvised shelter taking advantage of this large, rocky wall.
Fallen tree branches provide me the proper coverage for the opposite side of the shelter. All the better if they are fairly straight and can be aligned together to help retain warmth.
Setting a natural shelter step by step
“Improvisation means coming to the situation without rigid expectations or preconceptions. The key to improvisation is motion — you keep going forward, fearful or not, living from moment to moment. That’s how life is.”
- Bobby McFerrin
Once I cleared the surrounding soil of debris, I actually started, using my knife – but you can just use your hands and knees too. Wear gloves and create a sort of rack of straight branches, put side by side to leave no spaces. In this manner you will have the wall done.
I also covered one end with other branches, in order to set up a barrier and thus avoid the dispersion of heat.
At the opposite end, calculating the space needed to access my shelter, I set up a deflector (held together by several turns of paracord) that would allow me to make the most of the heat, and the relative benefit, obtained from making – and maintaining the fire.
Furthermore, you can also set an improvised mattress made of fallen leaves and soft debris. Having a roomy trash bag will help you to easily collect them.
Ultimately, I cover the shelter with moss and few ferns (to avoid spoors intoxication). In other occasions, as you can notice, I went for dead leaves (chestnuts and beeches).
“The most useful virtues, for one who walked on, were flexibility and a willingness to improvise.”
- Rachel Hartman
Improvise, adapt and overcome is exactly what a tough situation always requires you to do.
A natural shelter isn't supposed to be the best long term solution.
Never let yourself down by the absence of a tent or a tarp in your back pack..
Your skills, your attitude and your tenacity could let you achieve even biggest successes when it comes not only to spend the night out, but also to save your life.
About the author: Kyt Lyn Walken is the official European representative and instructor for Hull's Tracking School (Virginia, USA), and she is a certified Wildlife Conservation Ranger for C.R.O.W. (Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide). She has been an outdoors and tracking enthusiast since childhood.
Kyt currently lives and works in Europe while often traveling overseas.