Natural Survival Shelters
By Reuben Bolieu
We have all seen the headlines before “Hiker Lost in the Wild.” Although dramatic this is an all too common occurrence. Spending a night out in the wilderness could be a great experience if planned but even the best laid plans can go astray. Vehicle malfunctions and equipment failure are two common reasons for an unexpected night out. People get lost in the wilds for a number of reasons. We may all have had that feeling at one time or another of a sudden loss of orientation. It doesn’t take much before the feeling of panic strikes. More than wild animals and the boogeyman, there is nothing more dangerous than the environment. The truth is most people who perish in the wilderness do so from exposure. Weather can quickly change and what starts out as a clear sunny day can easily end up a long, cold, snowy night: an experience I know all too well. Here are a few simple but useful tips to help maximize your chances of enduring an unexpected night in the wild.
Most mountain ranges offer a variety of natural shelters of which the most common are fallen trees, caves, and rock overhangs. 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 and without a compass or do not posses any navigation skills, getting out of the rain, wind or snow matters more.
Large trees with low-hanging limbs and fallen trees with thick branches such as Spruce, Pine, and Juniper can easily be used as natural shelters. It doesn’t take any work to hunker down under their large branches. In the rain and snow one can generally stay drier near the base of the tree. This is more visible when snow is on the ground as there is usually an area void of snow and moisture. Take advantage of thin branches, and pine needles as they make excellent bedding and insulation. A hollowed out log can make a suitable shelter if you are not claustrophobic. Fill the hollowed out log with as much debris as you can for insulation and some degree of comfort. In the winter snow, all the same shelters can be used but more emphasis needs to be put on ground insulation since you will lose most of your body heat to the cold ground beneath you.
Don’t overlook large rocks on leeward hillsides as they can offer great relief against the wind. Boulders can sometimes be found arranged in a way that offer protection on 3 out of 4 sides plus overhead. Your first line of defense against the elements is your clothing. Clothing provides much needed insulation from the heat and cold so don’t remove any. This rule applies to all environments.
Juniper Trees are found in some deserts, and if they can be located they offer a great deal of shade. However don’t expect to hunker down under a Juniper tree, or any tree for that matter, and expect to stay bone dry in the rain. A tree will offer shade from the sun and protection from wind.
Rock shelters, in my opinion, are the best natural shelter that one could hope for in an emergency. They are often well shaded keeping you out of the direct desert sun and offer maximum protection from the wind and rain. If you can find a rock shelter that is tall enough to sit up in and long enough to lay down flat with your legs straight, you are off to a good start. Keep in mind that selecting a larger cave will make it harder to keep warm (in the cold months) than a smaller one. However, in a survival situation, sometimes our options are limited!
Creating a fire inside these types of rock shelters can be dangerous. One must warm up the small area slowly as to not wake up the angry rock gods and cause them the chip off and crush you while you sleep. Any natural shelter could be enhanced by building a small rock wall in front of a cave or rock overhang to cut down on wind and improve overall mental security. The dangers of rocky, desert locations are scorpions and snakes so remember this when moving rocks around. It is better to first move them with a big stick or your shoe before reaching for them with your hands. In the summer months flash floods can be killers. Even though the desert may be dry for the moment, there could be a storm miles away in higher elevations that can cause floods. Take note of natural looking drainage areas that can flooded out.
There are not many places that offer the same convenience of a quick easy cave shelter or hollowed out tree in the tropics. While hunkering down under a tree with large leafy branches is not a problem- bugs are! I am particularly speaking of the king of the jungle the mighty ant. I should say the mighty ant and her millions of ant cousins and creepy crawlers nearby that can make a peaceful night’s sleep nearly impossible. Your best bet is to pull some materials together that may be strewn across the jungle floor to make a Hooch type of shelter.
To make a Hooch shelter, find a large tree with large high protruding roots tall enough to cover your back and sides. These types of trees are common in the jungles of South America and Asia. It is important to get as close into the tree trunk as possible directly under the canopy for extra protection from the heavy jungle rains. The focus here is to get off the floor and out of reach from insects, more so than staying dry. This is arguably the one exception where keeping away from bugs takes priority over staying dry. The jungle can get cold at certain times of the year but the heat seems to prevail so hypothermia is usually not an issue. Make a sleeping platform from logs to get yourself off the ground and keep you dry if water starts to gather beneath you. Cover the platform with as much leafy green vegetation as you can for padding. Next, find as many long sticks/poles as you can and lean them up against the base of the tree at a steep enough angle to cover the platform and to help shed rain once it is covered with branches. For the final step, add palm branches found on the ground and any other type of debris that can be collected and used as thatching. Without a mosquito net mud can be used to cover your exposed skin.
The outdoors can be a very unforgiving place it not respected. If an unexpected night becomes your reality and you have no choice but to spend the night out in the wilds, give yourself enough time to search for a shelter. Safety regarding animals and bugs is a huge factor when selecting a camp site for the night. The next issue will cover how to build simple shelters for use in a Wooded Forest, Desert, and the Tropics!