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Shelter comes in many forms and has only to meet your needs at the time. It may be that you have found a cave, overhang or some other form of natural shelter that just needs a small amount of work to make it suitable for your requirements; more likely is that you will have to construct a shelter from scratch.
When some people think of a survival shelter their minds eye visualises a multi-floored architectural masterpiece complete with veranda, running water and a full set of hand-crafted bamboo furniture; all this being achieved in a whisker over 20 minutes with a Swiss army knife. Under the circumstances it would not be entirely unfair to ‘pigeon hole’ these individuals as optimists (amongst other things).
Unfortunately, it is with some trepidation and a heavy heart that I must bring sad news in the form of a very different story. As a general guide, if your shelter keeps out much of the wind, a good proportion of the rain and you have survived the night you have done a reasonable job.
The Difference Between Survival and Bushcraft
We are all guilty of using the word “survival” when going out and managing in the wilderness with a small amount of equipment but it is very important to be able to differentiate between survival and bushcraft as these are two very different subjects. Survival is really just that. You will be plunged unexpectedly into an hostile environment, possibly injured with little or no equipment and have to keep yourself alive.
In this situation your largest problem by far is likely to be a mental one. If you have bushcraft skills these will be of great use and help the situation immensely. The things that will be the most difficult to survive without are a sense of humour, a determination to get back to civilisation and a strong will to live no matter what happens; these come from within and need no additional tools.
Bushcraft on the other hand is somewhat different, in that you will have chosen to go into an area voluntarily; you will have researched the area and know what to expect. You will have taken with you a small amount of equipment, the correct clothing to survive and should always be in a position to leave the area at any time; this removes the mental anguish that can become such a large problem. That is not to say bushcraft is easy, far from it, the knowledge required is vast to be barely proficient; it’s just different.
The Wind and Rain
Before we go on to the different types of shelter, a short word on wind and rain. Cold is debilitating, not only physically but mentally; if you get wet and it is windy you will be in serious trouble. Water extracts heat from the body 25 times faster than air, and the wind-chill factor can increase this loss many times.
We can now look at the different types of basic shelter bearing in mind our possible lack of equipment.
Caves and rock overhangs may provide a quick and simple solution to your problem but remember that they may be the home of something else: large cats, bears, bats, scorpions, spiders and snakes are all possible tenants. If the weather is likely to produce electrical storms, be mindful that it can track down wet fissures to where you may be. Building a fire in a cave is best done at the back so the smoke tracks along the roof and out of the cave. If you build it in the entrance it is likely that the wind will blow the smoke inside the cave.
These occur almost everywhere and even a small hollow will offer some protection from the wind. With a little work a roof may be fashioned to give a reasonable shelter in a very short time. A shelter in a hollow would not be the first choice if it looked like heavy rain.
In rocky areas a simple shelter referred to as a “Sangar” can be made by collecting rocks and building a small, circular structure about three feet high; this will keep the wind off and if time/materials allow, a roof can be fashioned quite quickly.
Felled Tree Shelter
If you have the means to cut through the trunk of a small tree, a shelter can easily be made. This works best with coniferous trees although any tree will suffice. Locate a straight tree around six metres tall, partially cut through the trunk about a metre from the base and push it over into the wind. Work from the trunk end taking off all the branches from the inside, forming a tunnel about two and a half metres long. Put these branches on the outside and also block-off one side of the trunk entrance. Cut additional branches from other trees for additional outer protection. If it is likely to rain, cut off all outer branches that point upwards as the rain will track down and into the shelter; thatch accordingly to make as watertight as possible.
In heavy snow a natural depression will form around the base of coniferous trees. This, with a little work, can be made into a reasonable shelter.
You can make a surprisingly simple shelter with few or no tools by collecting branches, making a frame and covering it with ferns, turf, grass, leaves etc. This type of shelter is easily and quickly constructed in autumn when the materials are plentiful.
There are many other shelter designs but the majority of these need more equipment and therefore fall more into bushcraft territory. Survival shelters need to be quick and simple as this will be only one of your tasks; finding food, water, direction and generally keeping yourself safe all become top priority and very time-consuming.
The windfall shelter in the photos is the same shelter as in the related article Combat Survival Training: Is There a Benefit to the Environment? that you may find interesting; the only difference is that you would not go the trouble of making it almost invisible. The shelter is made from materials that were on the ground and have only been trimmed with an axe to save time.