Survival Shelter Basics
Shelter is perhaps the most important survival priority, second only to bodily injury. Adequate shelter will prevent hypothermia – the reduction of the body’s core temperature. And hypothermia or exposure is what claims the lives of many, probably most, of those who perish in the wilderness.
There are a few basic considerations when creating a shelter. If possible, select a site that is neither high nor low. High areas are often exposed to strong winds, and low areas tend to be where cold air will settle during the night. Don’t forget to look up and check for dead trees and limbs. Falling trees injure or kill more people than you may think. Avoid animal trails. There’s no sense having your sleep interrupted by foraging animals. Check for insect activity, particularly ants, hornets and wasps. Also avoid dry (or wet) creek beds. These areas can be flooded without warning.
The ground will account for a significant loss of your body’s heat when lying on it. Always make a 12"-15" bed of dry grass, boughs, leaves or pine needles when preparing to sleep. A few heavy-duty garbage bags stuffed with dry material of this type can also be used as a mattress, pillow or blanket.
A major factor in preventing the loss of your body’s heat is staying dry. Moisture conducts heat more rapidly than dry air and will result in accelerated heat loss. Proper clothing is your first layer of shelter. Thankfully, there is a wide selection of waterproof, breathable apparel available that will keep you warm and dry throughout the worst weather. Remember the old adage – cotton kills. Well, actually, it absorbs and retains moisture, accelerating heat loss. Even if it doesn’t kill, it’s miserable trying to make your way home with soaking wet jeans that seem to weigh ten pounds.
In addition to your clothing, you’ll want to have something that will help you weather a cold and possibly wet night. An emergency blanket like the AMK Heatsheet Survival Blanket is the minimum shelter all adventurers (especially young ones) should have. The Heatsheet is a completely reengineered version of the old mylar survival blanket that most people are familiar with and addresses many of its shortcomings. To use, just wrap it around and under you. The blanket reflects your body heat, is waterproof and is bright orange on one side for extra visibility. It also fits in your pocket, and it’s lightweight and inexpensive. There’s really no excuse to be in the outdoors without one.
Bivvy sacks are the next step up from the emergency blanket. They envelop the user with heat reflecting material, providing additional protection and warmth. Some are built sturdily enough to use as an ultra-light, warm weather sleeping bag. The AMK Heatsheet Emergency Bivvy uses the same material as their survival blankets, provides 360-degree protection, is about the size of your fist and weighs only 3.8 ounces.
Multi-layered, all-weather blankets provide additional cold weather protection and have grommets, which allow them to be easily used as a tarp. These have somewhat more bulk than the smaller survival blankets, but they have the advantage of practical, everyday usability. They can be used for many purposes, from picnic blankets to rain ponchos to tarps.
In a desert environment, remember that it’s hottest at ground level. If you can dig a bed 12"-18" below the surface, you’ll stay cooler during the day. With the reflective side up, an emergency blanket can be used to create shade and further reduce the effects of the sun.
The advantages of carrying shelter materials are speed and predictability. By having what you need at hand, you can be safe and sound in as little as 20 minutes. Such time savings can be imperative if it’s late in the day. Don’t forget to also carry some paracord and a knife or saw for making stakes and ridgepoles.
You can, of course, improvise a shelter from natural materials if you know how and have the time. Look to nature for help. Rock overhangs, caves and overturned trees are classic starting points. Add and intertwine fallen limbs, vines, evergreen boughs, bark or anything else that’s handy to form a lean-to or an A-frame shelter. Always remember to keep your shelter small so that your body heat stays contained.
If you are lost, a shelter will not only provide protection from the elements but will also improve your state of mind. Everyone needs a base of operation, a place to rest and a sense of home, especially in a dire situation.