Bare Handed Emergency Shelters

Build emergency shelters out of the materials nature has provided you and keep yourself alive if you find yourself lost and in a crisis.

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courtesy by Library of Congress
A typical desert home of the Navajo Indians, Navajo reservation, Arizona, circa 1900. This is probably a temporary shelter for when herding sheep or similar activity.

“Emergency” implies you need shelter quickly and you don’t have much with which to work. Even burrowing into the snow greatly increases your odds of survival; digging a cave in a snow bank is even better. Get out of the wind. If you’re in the woods and darkness is upon you, even a deer bed of moss, leaves, ferns, grasses, or evergreen boughs into which you can crawl will go a long way toward keeping you from dying of hypothermia before daylight. Even if you are wet, keeping the wind off may by itself save you from hypothermia. Ignore stickers and bugs; they come with the territory. If you have an hour or so of daylight to prepare shelter in the woods, you may even have time to get comfortable.

Building quick shelters is not rocket science. It is intuitive but does take common sense. Native Americans and aboriginal people everywhere survived, and often thrived, because of their wealth of common sense, and backbone. People in any situation, if blessed with these same qualities, can do the same.

Trenches & hides: Digging in but not very deep

Being on your own in the wilderness – cold, wet, and hungry – is not a good situation, but it is one you can largely control. What’s for dinner has been addressed in other books (including my two, Eating on the Run and Surviving on Edible Insects), so in this context we’ll just not that battling hypothermia takes a lot of calories. Thus, I’ll address shelter first.

Step 1- Digging the hole.

Even a deer likes a comfortable bed, and depending on your situation, a shallow depression or trench not much bigger than shoulder-width will suffice for overnight. Depending on whether you are in the snow, woods, or desert sand, dig down just deep enough that you can roll over, as wide as you are, with an additional shallow depression for your buttocks and shoulders. Line it with 6 inches or so of grass, leaves, ferns, or evergreen boughs as dry as you can find. More is better.

Step 2- Sticks

Keep in mind that when at rest, according to Department of Defense studies, up to 80 percent of your body heat loss can be into the ground. Weave a cover for your trench from sticks or boughs or, if you anticipate rain, make the cover with a slight peak on one side to shed water and cover it well with additional thatch of leaves, duff or boughs. If dry weather is certain, a “blanket” woven from several layers of fern, reeds, or grass may suffice to keep the wind off. If snow is in your future, build the hidey-hole with a good layer of snow, over a shallow roof that will support it, and fashion a way to block the entrance. Build small because body heat can be significant. The following are some ideas from military manuals, but think outside the box and adapt to your particular situation.

Step 3- Foliage.

Using the same principle that has worked for quiggly holes and modern earth-sheltered homes, a hasty shelter the size of a large coffin can be quickly dug into snow, soil, or sand, and covered with what is at hand. First scoop down (or scrape into a surrounding/sheltering low wall if digging is too hard) to form “walls” and then overlay this with sticks for a framework. Then overlay with foliage or grass that is capped with soul, sand, or snow. With an improvised door, such a shelter keeps off the wind and cold. It also protects from the heat and sun in the other extreme. The only tool required is a digging stick or a sharp rock – and not even this to build a shade shelter in sand.

Step 4- Snow

Fast and temporary shelter

For a Huck Finn or Robinson Crusoe style of temporary shelter, you must strike a balance between what there is to work with and what you need to prepare for. Like these fictional characters, take stock of what you have and, while you are doing that, get busy hoarding what will be useful. Start with material for a deer bed in case you get interrupted or lose light, and go on from there. Dry is always better (even crucial except in the tropics) because of water’s heat-robbing quality. Your body heat will often dry clothing but not if you continually get resoaked. Planning on using body heat to dry all the water that might come your way is only doable if you never stop moving, which may not be feasible. You may not have the calories to waste, and you must rest. Thus, some sort of a roof and windbreak is important. Build it away from the wind, with no danger of water running in.

Green evergreen boughs and leafy hardwood limbs that can be hand broken and that are suitable for weaving or layering will probably be the most expeditious. If you have a large log, a sturdy low branch a few feet off the ground, or a fallen tree, it makes a good foundation on which to build. Don’t make it too steep, as gravity will play a big part in keeping your shelter together–although the steeper it is, everything else being equal, the better it will shed water. Large evergreen trees may have large limbs close to the ground as a good starting point. With nothing to build on, three forked sticks stacked in a tripod (or more sticks stacked in a circle) make a good foundation. Just like stacking rifles in the army, build in a shallow cone. Forked sticks intertwined at the top, along with gravity, can often make up for a lack of lashing material. Improvised lashing material, if necessary, can come in the form of yucca or buffalo grass leaves, strongly fibrous bark, or fibrous root of such plants as mallow.

Once you have the horizontal “bones” in place, whether as a lean-to from a log or dirt bank or as a stand-alone, weave evergreen boughs or green hardwood limbs through these horizontally–in effect, building an inverted basket. Leave an entrance, but no bigger than you need. Once completed you have a basic windbreak, but you want it dry. This kind of shelter is not waterproof, but the right thatch overlay can turn the water, encouraging it to run down and away and not drip on you. A thick layer of evergreen boughs, stem up, woven into the “basket” starting at the bottom and working toward the top, works surprisingly well. Large handfuls of grass or reeds, woven in vertically, in overlapping layers from bottom up, are what have kept European thatch houses bone dry for centuries.

Assuming the structure you built is strong enough, the more cover you add, the better it will be. You can often slide both forearms under large swatches of duff from the forest floor and get “tiles” of leaves or needles to overlay your wee hut. Bark from dead trees, especially large, rotten

evergreen logs, can often be removed in newspaper-size pieces to also make excellent “sheet goods” for constructing or covering. With or without hope of a warming fire, a “blanket” in a simple square-weave pattern of ferns or fine evergreen boughs will make a big difference. A door can be built in the same way, just smaller and heavier. When in the final “insulating” stages of your shelter, keep in mind that the material you will use will settle and you want it to repel water. For these reasons, pile it as deep as you judge the supporting structure will hold, with a pattern designed for the cover to act as thatch to direct the water to the sides. As long as the structure you build is sound and presents no danger of collapsing on you, there is no such thing as too much insulation or cover; the same goes for dry bedding inside.

More from Building Bare-Handed Survival Shelters:

Excerpted from Building Bare-Handed Survival Shelters with permissions from Ogden Publications.

Building Bare-Handed Survival Shelters

In this practical work focusing on building survival shelters by hand, Fred Demara teaches what has been proven to work for such improvised structures (because learning by trial and error is too costly in a survival scenario). Shelters built with the tried-and-true techniques and materials of Native Americans (and even those who came before them on this continent) still work. Mother Earth News is delighted to bring you these ancient construction methods in this revised edition penned by Demara, author of Eating on the Run and Surviving on Edible Insects.

Building emergency shelters starts with knowing what can be done and then learning the expedient way to do it. Odds are in your favor that these largely forgotten techniques will get you through, even if you start barehanded. Regardless of whether you need to survive a few hours, overnight, or for an extended period, Demara shows you how to make tools from whatever is available, select the proper site for your shelter, and match the type of shelter you need to the terrain, climate, and native materials.