Injury takes priority no matter what situation you find yourself in. Of the three essentials to survival i.e. water, shelter and food, the highest priority will be determined by the immediate situation. If you are lost, caught off guard by a severe storm, approaching nightfall and soaking wet, shelter will likely be the first priority.
Shelters can be divided into three basic categories:
• Permanent shelters like cabins are only briefly mentioned because their construction is outside the scope of this article. (Refer to the Felling Trees Article - Video and Building With Natural Resources Video for specific details on this topic.)
• Semi- permanent shelters should be small yet provide enough room to eat, sleep, sit and stand.
• Temporary shelters should be very small, quick to build and provide a warm dry place to spend the night when you are on the move.
After a semi-permanent shelter has been established, it would be highly advisable to build a permanent shelter. Assuming you're planning to stay put for a couple months or more, building a cabin will make life much more comfortable, safe and convenient. Depending on its size, a basic cabin can be constructed in one or two weeks. Ideally, this should be done before it's needed but the risk of discovery and drawing potentially unwanted attention is greatly increased.
The advantage to a natural cave in a rock formation is that you can simply move in. However, they are generally claustrophobic, cold, damp, poorly ventilated and dark. Man made caves can be quite comfortable and elegant. But only professionals in regions where the structural integrity of the earth is well known should construct underground dwellings.
The Scout Pit is an underground exception to the dangers of a deep cave. Its unique underground design is small, efficient and cool in the summer. A well-constructed pit can serve as a hunting blind, hideout, shelter or temporary supply cache. The design resembles a grave like pit with a large dirt shelf dug out all the way around the top perimeter. Fill the bottom of the pit with soft bedding material. Strong timbers in the 6-8 inch class are then placed on the top shelf to form a very strong bridge like roof. Be sure to leave a small entry hole. The roof is then covered with a layer of debris to prevent dirt from falling through the cracks between the timbers. A 2-3 inch layer of dirt is then added to make the roof feel solid enough to walk on without detection. The entry is disguised with a grass clump, branches or something similar. Finally, a layer of debris is scattered over the fresh dirt to completely camouflage the location.
The tipi is one of the greatest semi-permanent shelters ever made. It is fast to set up and transportable. The sizes range anywhere from 8’ to 28’ in diameter. They handle snow; rain and some even say hurricane force winds. A Tipi can be covered with many different materials but most modern tipis have a waterproof canvas cover. They allow light to enter during the day; provide good ventilation, safely house a fire and are easy to warm. Of course, this structure can be thrown together quickly or made extremely strong and functional.
Any type of wood can be used for poles. The poles should be debarked, dry, straight and smooth. Smooth poles are essential to prevent drips during heavy rain and to prevent abrasions from rubbing through the cover in windy conditions. Trees growing in tight clusters usually produce the best poles because they tend to be tall, straight and have fewer large limbs. If green trees are used, be sure to lay them on a flat surface to dry and roll them occasionally or they will bow. A 50 x 50 mixture of linseed oil and turpentine could be used to preserve the poles for longer life. The pole diameter should be 3” or less at the base and 2” or slightly less at the top cluster. The rule is that the poles need to be 2’ longer than the intended size of the tipi. In the following example we are building a 14' tipi. Therefore, the poles will be 16 feet in length. When making a 14’ tipi a total of fifteen poles are needed to complete the cone. Use the 3 sturdiest poles available to form the tripod frame and save the next sturdiest pole for the lift pole, which is not placed until very last.
If available, a ½ inch (slip resistant) manila rope about 40-45 feet long will make erecting and anchoring the structure easier while adding to the overall rigidity of the cone. The 3 main tripod poles are securely tied together with a clove hitch. The clove hitch should be tied 14’ from the bottom of the tripod poles while they are still lying on the ground. The long tail of leftover rope is later used to help raise the tripod frame off the ground, wrap the pole cluster together after all the remaining poles (except the lift pole) have been placed and to anchor the tipi to the ground during strong winds.
Not all tipis are perfectly round at the bottom. The asymmetrical cone shape described here provides more head-space at the back wall of the tipi while making the entry point more sloped.
Important: All the following pole placement positions are described while facing the tipi from "outside" the frame. To position the tripod poles, draw a long line oriented east and west on the ground. Then, cross this line in the center with a north and south oriented line to make the pole placement and doorway much easier to follow.
NOTE: The following layout presumes the prevailing winds are from the west. If you plan on having fires in the tipi check the prevailing winds for your location and adjust the layout accordingly. The prevailing wind should hit the back wall opposite the entry or else smoke from the fire may not escape properly.
The 3 tripod poles are referred to as the “Door” “North” and “South” poles. Most likely, only the door pole will sit directly on a compass line. The N, S, and W lines are only for directional reference. Now that the first three poles are tied together, use the tagline to raise the mainframe. Place the Door Pole on the east line. The second pole should now be spaced 11’ 6’’ from the Door Pole heading south. The third pole should now be spaced 11’ 6” from the Door Pole heading north. The North and South poles should end up being 10’ 6” apart from each other while still maintaining the other two 11’ 6” measurements. This odd spacing will help form the asymmetrical cone.
Note: The Lift Pole will be placed at the back of the cone facing West after all the other poles have been wrapped and bound using some of the extra rope still hanging from the original clove hitch.
Now that the tripod has been erected and properly spaced, eleven more poles will be leaned into the cluster. The first set of 4 poles should be stacked starting one position to the right of the Door Pole and leading towards the North Pole (evenly spaced). The second set of 4 poles should be stacked starting one position to the left of the Door Pole leading towards the South Pole (evenly spaced). The next 3 poles should be stacked starting one position past the North Pole, placing 2 poles before skipping the Lift Pole (West) position and then placing the next pole accordingly.
Now that the first 14 poles are in place, the long tail of rope hanging from the clove hitch can be wrapped around the top cluster by walking around the tipi several times while maintaining tension on the rope. Wrap the rope as tight as possible without pulling any poles out of place. Later on, the final Lift Pole will be placed in the skipped position opposite the doorway so don't wrap it into the cluster at this point in time.
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The cover is shaped like a semicircle with another small semicircle cut out of the center of the straight edge to accommodate the pole cluster. A flap measuring 3” wide and 6” long should be left attached to the center of the small half circle so the cover can be secured to the lift pole just before lifting the cover into place. This flap (the solid black rectangle) should be reinforced to prevent the cover from tearing under its own weight while lifting the cover onto the pole cluster.
To determine the length of the cover, measure the circumference of the structure. The width of a semicircle is exactly half its length. The radius can be drawn with a string and marker by simply finding the center point of the length and drawing a half circle reaching from corner to corner. The door and smoke flaps will need to be sewn in after the radius is cut. If desired, leave some extra material for making a hem all the way around the cover so the material doesn’t unravel or tear. Rope is often used inside the hem and any other stress points for added reinforcement.
After the cover is cut, flaps will need to be sewn in with a Quick Stitch Awl to join the ends of the cover together and fashion a doorway. Also, smoke flaps must be added above the door if an indoor fire is to be enjoyed. The size and angle of the flap openings can be controlled by using two additional long poles that cross X each other and attach to the top outer edge of each flap. Ties or loops can be added to the bottom edge of the cover and pegged to the ground to keep the cover tight and in place during strong winds. Additional guide wires can be attached to the top cluster and anchored to the ground for extremely strong wind conditions.
Once lifted into place, the cover should not reach the ground. Interior skirting is used to prevent wind rain and bugs from entering underneath the tipi cover. To lift the cover into place, tie the flap of material left dangling from middle of the small semicircle to the lift pole. It must be secured far enough up the pole to keep the cover roughly 5” inches off the ground. If necessary, notch the Lift Pole where the rope is to be secured so the cover cannot slip down the pole and end up touching the ground later. Then, wrap the Lift Pole with the cover to relieve some of the weight and gently raise it into place.
Carefully wrap the frame with the cover and overlap the ends where they meet. The overlapped ends can be stitched together with rope or long wooden dowels can be laced through tight buttonholes made carefully with the point of a knife. Leave the top 4-6 feet of the cover unpinned if smoke flaps were added. Once they are placed, the main tripod poles should only be moved if absolutely necessary. However, the support poles can be adjusted in or out to tighten or loosen the cover as needed.
TIPS: There are many accessories and custom modifications that can be done to make the tipi more comfortable. The following is a partial list of possible improvements; rain cap, smoke flaps, fire pit, wood stove, interior skirting, floor deck, vapor barrier, carpet and rugs.
A weave hut is similar to a debris hut except its generally larger and stronger. When deciding on a layout, avoid pitching the roof over the doorway. Start building the hut by burying vertical sapling posts 18 to 24 inches deep on roughly 16-inch centers. The saplings need to be green and flexible. The holes can be made without digging by driving a wooden stake into the ground and pulling it back out of the hole. Wiggling the wooden stake around as you drive it in to the ground will make it much easier to remove.
Within reason, the wall can be as long as you need. The sidewall vertical posts should have about 5 ft. exposed above ground after burial. The end wall vertical posts should be long enough to reach the intended ridge-line of the pitched roof. The end wall posts can be trimmed to fit and lashed in place after the roof is formed. Continue this process until you have all 4 walls established in the desired shape and size. Irregular shapes are less visible so perfection is not a requirement.
The next step involves weaving saplings horizontally in-between the vertical posts until the walls are tightly filled, leaving only a door way and possibly a small window that can be storm shuttered later. A pitched roof can then be added by weaving sapling rafters in-between the horizontal saplings at the top of both sidewalls. Pull the opposing rafter poles together and secure them in the center to form a steep pitched roof-line. Cross weave the rafters using the same method as the walls. If you plan to construct a thick heavy roof or snow is expected a strong and secure ridgepole needs to be added to support the additional weight.
Once the roof is woven and lashed in place, spruce bows, bark, tied grass bundles, animal hides or willow branches could serve as roofing. If boughs or willows are used, start shingling at the bottom of the roof and allow the bough tips to hang over the wall edge by several inches to form an eve. Point the branch end of the boughs towards the crest of the roof and weave them securely into place. The tips of the boughs should be facing downward along the roofline to help shed rain. Continue from the bottom up, overlapping each row until the entire roof is completely shingled. This should allow the steep roof to shed rainwater and prevent drips. If the roof is not steep enough it will leak like a sieve. The insulation factor is determined by the wall and roof thickness and density.
As an additional option, a mixture of clay and soil (daub), moss or thatching could be used to completely seal any gaps, while bark, dirt and/or other dense debris can be used to thicken the shelter. Dry logs can be split to make wooden shakes for roofing. The floor can simply be a couple inches of gravel gathered from a nearby riverbed.
Option #1: Internal partition walls can be added for privacy.
Option #2: A similar structure can be configured in a circle using a dome shaped roof with or without a center support. The dome shape makes an extremely strong design, which can handle significant snow loads. It is not necessary to weave the arches if horizontal hoops are securely lashed at close intervals. The Native Americans called this structure a wickiup. A smaller version was often used as a sweat lodge for ceremony. The size shapes and styles varied widely. Some even had covered patios extending off the front. They can also double as a hunting blind with a V frame doorway facing the target area.
NOTES: The Natives added smoke holes and built fires inside their debris huts but this type of shelter is essentially a tender box. A stray spark could quickly burn everything, including the surrounding forest to the ground. The chances of salvaging any personal property left inside would be slim to none. If you don’t want to risk a fire, bring in heated rocks from an outdoor fire pit for added warmth. Additionally, any kind of dirty flame, fuel burning light or stove can quickly fill a poorly ventilated shelter with deadly carbon monoxide gas.
Building a Dirt Sack Hut requires some man made materials. Begin by stock piling used 50 lb. nylon feed sacks and some 4-point barbed wire. The barbed wire is not mandatory but it really helps keep the sacks from shifting after being placed. Obviously, the number of sacks and the length of wire you need depend on the size of the structure you intend to build so do some figuring in advance. Like the Weave Hut, this design can take many shapes, round being the strongest. This structure will work well notched into a shallow but stable embankment. The excavated material can be used to fill the sacks and for back-filling against the walls after the construction process is complete.
Clear the ground of all rocks and organic material so the sacks can form a watertight barrier. Plan your entry point. Fill the sacks with clay, dirt or sand (organic free) and start setting the bottom row. You can use half or partially filled sacks to fill unusual sized voids and to allow for overlapping the seams. Make sure the seams between the sacks do not line up vertically. Pound the sacks with a smooth club to form a level, watertight fit. Once the bottom row is complete run a strand of barbed wire all the way around the top of the tier and stack another row on top with the seams staggered. With plywood forms you can easily build archways over the doors and windows. Without forms you will need a couple sturdy poles or a split plank to be used as headers to support the bags over the door and windows. Keep stacking until your walls reach the desired height.
If you went with a round design you can keep inching the bags inward until your roof reaches a peak. The building will be fairly tall unless you start leaning early. This structure can safely house a stove or fireplace. The dirt sack walls provide good insulation. They are bulletproof, water resistant, fire resistant and will definitely slow down the bugs and bears.
There are many ways to build a small debris hut. Some are fancier than others but functionality and ease is what counts. The obvious goals are to conserve body heat, gain protection from the wet, wind and cold while providing some form of comfort, so you can rest. The colder the conditions outside, the smaller the air space should be inside the shelter. As with any type of tightly enclosed shelter ventilation is needed to allow some fresh air to enter.
There is tremendous heat and energy lost from breathing. The body had to expend valuable energy to warm the cold air. Recapturing that warmth will conserve energy. Constructing a small, tightly covered, well-insulated shelter is the primitive version of an energy efficient house. “Waste not, want not”
Start by picking a location to set up a shelter. Ideally, a suitable location should have natural overhead protection, a wind break, lots of suitable building materials close at hand and well above any high water marks. Be mindful of leaning, dead or weak trees that could fall on the shelter during a storm. A ridgepole support is needed so finding a natural support mechanism like two Y shaped forks in trees will save the time and energy needed to otherwise build one. Clear any undesirable wet or large debris from the site.
The purpose of the floor is to get you off the cold or wet ground and trap body heat. Insulate the floor area with 1-2 feet (or more) of “dry” leaves, grass, needles or green pine or fir bows. If bows or needles are used for bedding some type of thin cover will be needed to prevent them from poking and grabbing you all night. Fluffy dry material like grass or leaves provides good insulation and soft padding against the hard ground. Building the entire floor first will save time, energy and your back, while allowing closer inspection of the bedding materials.
Once your bed is established you can start building a mainframe over the top. Set a sturdy ridgepole about waist high and lean additional poles against the ridgepole forming a triangle shaped roof ∆.
Cover the roof with a layer of dense green willows, spruce or fir bows to prevent small debris from falling through the cracks and into your eyes. Then, bury the entire structure with forest debris leaving only a small door way that can be plugged with extra bedding material upon entry. Add another layer of green bows over the top in a bottom up pattern to shed any rain or melting snow. If the conditions are poor, the roof should have sufficient strength to support several feet of debris. In a very small hut, 2-foot thick wall should be pretty comfortable down to freezing and 4 feet of cover will provide protection in below zero temperatures.
During an excursion in 2008, we tested many different versions of composting toilets. It was discovered that sawdust was the best natural neutralizer of odor and it also sped up the composting process. Adding a scoop of saw dust after each use will help keep the air fresh and odor free. This is particularly beneficial when using an indoor composting toilet (or bucket) on cold nights. If kept separated, urine is liquid gold in nitrogen-starved soil conditions. If applied directly to the roots of plants, bushes or trees it must be diluted with water to prevent nitrogen burn. This may sound sick to some but why waste something that is both needed and beneficial?