In my last article on the joy of shelter building I concentrated on the times when we used a vehicle or vessel to keep us safe from the elements or when mother nature herself provided a cave or hollow or other such natural covering.
This time around I’m going to share a little on some of the experiences I’ve had when Lady Luck is smiling on some one else, times when we’ve had to build shelters from scratch primarily with natural materials.
The first piece of advice I’d give when you’re about to build a shelter from natural materials is look around for something manmade!
Unless you’re trained in the artisan skill of thatching roofs the chances are if it rains your leaf shingles are going to let in water. A plastic bag buried in your purse or pocket will go a long way towards providing a precious bit of waterproofing.
Building A Teepee:
This lovely leaf teepee that we built in the Smoky Mountains looks to be the opitome of primitive shelter building yet hidden beneath its lush foliage is a trash bag covering the apex. Thankfully it didn’t rain but it was very comforting to know that if it did we would remain dry, even if it meant sitting upright and back to back. As the weather turned out to be dry I sometimes wish we had lain down on the trash bag instead as were eaten alive by chiggers on this expedition. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
In my experience, bindings made from roots or vines are rarely as robust as commercially manufactured strings, ropes and cords. You may think that you don’t have anything like that with you but take a look at your clothes. Your clothing is your first line of defense in any survival situation and not just in the most literal sense, what are you wearing that you could adapt and use?
A little trick that Myke taught me is to replace my boot laces with 550 para cord and wrap a few extra lengths round for good measure. It’s a pain in the backside if you ever have to travel through airport security but a lifesaver out in the bush. Even if you don’t have 550 cord, your regular shoe laces will work wonders for tying the struts together of your shelter. As will fabric strips ripped from the bottom of a shirt or skirt. A single string of 550 cord cinched together the top of this teepee in the Smokies. Always be sure to retrieve your cord, natural or otherwise, when you move on. (But this isn’t the only reason to keep 550 cord handy! Click here to see more of its uses)
Teepee building with 550 cord. Picture courtesy Discovery Channel.
Another useful tip, though glaringly obvious, is make sure your shelter is big enough for you to fit into.
A single person can crunch into a remarkably small place, albeit with some discomfort, but if you’re making a temporary home for more than one person or your whole family it’s a good idea to test it out size wise. As a mother I’m always thinking things like, “Would my little boy cope with this? Would this type of shelter work if he was with us?”
This is Myke and I testing our shelter for size. Well that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Teepee testing for two! Picture courtesy Discovery Channel.
Using A Poncho For Shelter:
One of my absolute favorite items of clothing because its multi-faceted nature is the military poncho, yet I had never even heard of one before I met my husband. These days I carry one in my car, my camping kit, my survival bag and we have several others littered around the house that our boy plays in. In addition to keeping you dry, a poncho has many potential uses in a survival situation; a rucksack, a raft, a tarp, a medical stretcher and a smoke house to name but a few. And they make quick and efficient shelters. You can string one up in whatever manner you fancy or if you don’t have enough cord to construct a ‘tent’ just lay one over any primitive shelter that you have made to act as extra waterproofing.
Here in Alaska we strung one between two trees and then I filled the open sides with large leaves to help keep the heat in. When using a poncho in wet climes be sure to tie off the hood so you don’t get leaks. Conversely, when it’s scorching prop the hood open so it acts as a vent.
Poncho shelter, Alaska. Picture courtesy Discovery Channel.
There of course might be times when you do have next to nothing on you or with you that you can use and you have to create a shelter from what you have around you. My least favorite is the debris shelter, but sometimes there is no choice. For those who don’t know, a debris shelter is created by basically scraping up old branches and leaves and piling them into a rudimentary shield against the elements. We used one once when we were caught in a sudden tropical storm in Dominica. Itchy, uncomfortable and wet.
Using old branches and logs has obvious risks, other things are also likely to be using them as a home – sometimes stinging insects and arachnids but I have also seen lethal poison dart frogs in old logs in the Osa Peninsular in Costa Rica and I once sat on a fer de lance in a fallen tree in the Peruvian Amazon. This snake kills more people in South America than any other. Not what you want as a bedfellow.
Building A Lean t0:
Another basic shelter to make when you’re too exhausted to do anything else or perhaps when the light is fading, is the ‘lean to’. I was making this one on a Lost Survivors shoot for Travel Channel as the sun was going down in Appalachians in Kentucky. The main spine was an old tree trunk that had fallen and caught on another tree (not fallen to the ground) then I placed cut branches and leaves to form the back wall. It was another night on the forest floor, which is never ideal but the shelter blocked a harsh wind that was kicking up.
Appalachian ‘lean to’. Picture courtesy of Travel Channel
On a separate trip to Kentucky we wove a kind of cocoon out of river cane. We stuck either end of the canes into the ground to create a series of arches and then wove thinner more supple pieces of cane between the struts to make the walls. You can use this technique with any kind of reed or wood that is pliable enough, willow for example.
Kentucky cocoon. Picture courtesy of Discovery Channel.
In the close up picture of me standing in front of it you can see pretty flowers embedded in the walls. This wasn’t an attempt to create bucolic loveliness out in the wilds but rather an eye saving mechanism, the cut cane was razor sharp and the flowers marked the dagger-like ends.
Flowery eye protectors. Picture courtesy of Discovery Channel.
It is without a shadow of doubt better to sleep up off the floor if you can. Even a layer of cut branches on the ground will insulate you from the cold and wet if you can’t actually elevate yourself. Another very important reason to be up is so you are not in the path of creatures that could otherwise hurt or kill you. This is particularly true in tropical jungles and swamps.
My favorite shelter of all time was one we built on the edge of a beach in Aitutaki in the South Pacific. It was a platform protruding at one end from the top of some pandanus tree prop roots and supported at the other by tripods we made by lashing three sticks together. The roof was a separate structure, a bit like a carport, crafted from palm leaves.
Pandanus shelter, Aitutaki. Picture courtesy of Discovery Channel.
Building A Platform Shelter:
Pandanus trees are great for shelter making, they look a little like palm trees but have these mangrove style prop roots. It’s the roots that are special, they are both sturdy and bendy. We made the cross slats of the platform from these roots and once they were covered in palm fronds it was like sleeping in a bed, they bounced a little when you laid down. Wonderful!
Pandanus shelter, close up, Aitutaki. Picture courtesy of Discovery Channel.
The mosquitoes in Aitutaki were bad, the noise was like the whirring of a cheap hairdryer. All night long.
However the view in the morning made life a little easier to bear.
Room with a view, Aitutaki. Picture courtesy Discovery Channel.
The first time I visited the Amazon rainforest we constructed a more elaborate version of the Aitutaki platform shelter. Unlike in our South Sea haven Amazonian land animals like to bite you, sting you and eat you.
Quick Tip: Bringing FIre Into Your Shelter:
Getting off the ground is an essential not a luxury.
Fire is also vital for protection in the deep jungle but our platform was too high to feed a fire without having to climb down, repeatedly, to the forest floor.
A problem exacerbated by the fact that we had our boots off at night to dry out our feet and prevent jungle rot.
Myke came up with the ingenious solution of having the fire in the shelter with us!
Amazon fire shelter. Picture courtesy Discovery Channel.
We built another, mini, wood platform on our sleeping platform and then daubed a layer of thick clay on top of it to prevent the fire burning through. We had very few insect problems because it also acted as a smudge fire as a fair bit of the smoke was trapped in the shelter with us because of the roof. We didn’t wake to same amazing view as in Aitutaki but thanks to our choice of shelter, complete with in-house fire place, we made it through the night without becoming dinner for a jaguar.
Fireplace, Amazon. Picture courtesy Discovery Channel.
There is no blue print for shelter building. Terrain and circumstance will dictate the final structure.
If I look back over the years and remember every single one that I’ve slept in, each one was different, each had it’s own set of quirks, foibles, discomforts and itches.
You rarely sleep well in a wilderness shelter but out in the wilds it is always better to have one than not.