Survival Basics
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Wilderness Survival Shelter


How to build an effective bushcraft shelter in any environment



Shelter is one of the four essential survival priorities.

Shelter becomes especially important in extreme environments, such as the harsh cold where shelter is needed to hold in warmth and block wind, or the harsh heat where it is needed to provide shade.

Shelter is also important in the jungle, where you need to get dry and sleep off the ground where snakes and insects roam. In certain locations, it will be essential in the protection from dangerous predators.

The type of shelter that best suits your needs will vary on the environment. In a long term living situation, your shelter should be in a secure location with convenient access to your major needs, mainly water, food, and fire wood.

Sleep is essential to bushcraft living. Sleep deprivation causes a loss of mental faculties and clarity, and leads to poor decision making, which is especially dangerous in the wild. You need an effective shelter that protects you from the elements and is comfortable enough to get some good sleep.

And besides, bushcrafting is all about enjoying your time in the wild!

Basics



You want your camp to be close to a water source, but if too close, you may be pestered by many insects. The noise of running water can hide other sounds like those of a dangerous animal.

Don't make you shelter on a hilltop, where it is prone to wind and lightning. Cold air sinks, so stay away from valley bottoms and the like if coldness is a concern. Ensure your camp site has no risk of flooding and is safe from widowmakers(big dead trees), falling rocks, and avalanches.

Some places are prone to flash flooding, especially mountainous regions, in which a virtual wall of water can drown a completely dry area in just minutes, with no prior warning. So stay off low areas and away from dry stream beds.

Give yourself plenty of time to establish a good shelter for the night, at least a couple hours before nightfall. The last thing you want to happen is get caught out at night without a shelter, especially in the cold. Nor do you want to rush about at the last minute trying to throw something together. Often times, panicking and rushing causes one to make mistakes and get injured.

Wind chill increases body heat loss significantly, so take this into account and be certain your shelter blocks the wind in cold environments. Also, in cold places you do not want to sleep directly on the ground, or you will lose significant body heat through conduction, the ground will literally absorb your heat. Ensure you lay on some type of insulation, like pine needles, foliage, fluffy bark, plant matter, unused clothes, etc. or are on a raised platform.

Ensure that your shelter has ventilation, air needs to cycle through. Without ventilation you will be breathing the same air over and over, which can cause carbon dioxide poisoning, musky humid air, and/or trapped smoke. Preferably make two holes, one near the bottom of the shelter and one near the top. In snow shelters the ventilation holes should be checked regularly to ensure they have not become clogged with snow.

There is a great, easy to remember method for checking the basics of a good shelter location called the "5 W's".


Trees



Big fallen down trees can make great shelters, especially evergreens. Break, cut, or move the branches that are directly under the fallen tree and put them on the side, so there is a space for you to reside in.

Ensure that the fallen tree is secured and will not fall on top of you. If the base of the fallen tree is still sitting on a stump, this provides a good space to camp under, so long as it doesn't fall off the stump or collapse! If it is a small tree, the danger of it crushing you is far less, if at all. This is similar to an A-frame shelter.

Some trees provide a dense, low canopy of leaves and branches that can be sufficient enough for a good shelter in mild environments. Occasionally you may find a big tree that is hollow inside, which makes great shelter.


Caves



Caves can make great shelters!

Approach any cave you find with caution, animals like to reside in them. Make loud noises as you approach, so as not to suddenly startle a predator when you enter. Throw sticks and stones into the cave from a distance and listen for animal noises. Smaller animals like snakes and rats will also likely be found living in a cave. A good fire will usually drive them out, so leave open an escape route.

Sometimes caves will even have a fresh water source, especially when running deep into a hillside. There may be a stream in the cave or water may seep through the rocks from above.

Always check for rockfall before sheltering up in a cave. Some caves drop chunks of rock regularly, others never do. You will notice signs of recently broken rocks on the floor and sharp cracks in the ceiling in a dangerous cave, do not take shelter there. When burning fire in a cave, heat it up slowly, quickly changing temperatures can cause the rock to crack and fall.

When sheltering in a cave, it is useful to put the fire in the cave instead of near the entrance. This provides more warmth and the smoke will travel to the ceiling and out the entrance. If you have a fire at the entrance of the cave, a lot of heat will be lost and smoke may blow in where you are breathing. In a shallow cave, put the fire at the back.


Snow Shelter



Snow can be a great material for winter shelter. It provides excellent insulation and windbreak.

You can take heavy snow and build it up into walls, try to compact it. You can stack on top a lot of conifer (evergreen) branches for a roof, and add on top of that a thin layer of snow for extra insulation. Check the roof regularly and remove excessive snowfall, otherwise the roof could collapse with heavy snow on it.

Where there is heavy snow, there may be a large pocket of air under a big conifer tree near the trunk where the snowfall did not reach. If you can find one it is a good start to a winter shelter, with windbreaks on all sides and an insulated roof overhead.

Check on the leeward side of evergreen trees as that side will be more protected from wind and less susceptible to snowfall. You may need to add more branches and pine boughs for better coverage.

Snowfall creates space under evergreen tree


space under evergreen tree from snowfall

If you can find a large drift or mound of snow, you can dig deep into it, a few feet below the surface, and create a type of snow cave which is great for insulation and protection from the wind.

Sculpt the top of the cave in a parabola (curved) shape, this gives extra strength to prevent the snow from collapsing. Dig a lower level next to where you will be resting for the cold to sink down into. Make a couple holes for air ventilation.

It's best to dig with some type of implement, or at least a thick stick, but you may be able to dig with your hands as long as they are well covered by gloves.

Snow cave


snow cave

If you have a proper implement and the snow is right, you can cut it into blocks and stack them, this is how igloos are made. Any long narrow item may work for cutting the snow, something like a machete or saw is ideal.

The ideal snow for making blocks will support a man's weight without making much impression, but be soft enough to penetrate with a probe. Make the blocks about 6 inches thick, this will provide good insulation yet allow some sun to penetrate and warm the shelter.

Igloos can be tricky to construct without experience, but an easier method involves stacking snow blocks on top of each other, but only about 2/3 overlapping the block below it. This way the structure starts to close in at the top without the trouble of having to angle the blocks inward for that classic smooth dome look.

Easy igloo construction


easy technique for building an igloo

When stacking snow blocks center each one over the middle of the joint below, like laying bricks. Fill any cracks with snow. It is usually easiest to build the whole structure first and then dig out an entrance. Don't make the entrance facing into the wind. Make several ventilation holes, but not facing the wind. Smooth out the inside to prevent drip points. The smaller the winter shelter, the warmer it will be inside due to trapped body heat.

If you can get a small fire inside that is great, but too hot and it will melt the structure! A traditional Eskimo method is using a "kudlik", a small oil lamp consisting of animal fat in a dish with a wick, usually made of grass seed cotton or fabric. It is similar to a candle when burning, but can be many times hotter.

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Check out the bushcraft guide SAS Survival Handbook

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