Practical Survival Skills 101 - Obtaining Shelter
Authors Note: For this edition of Practical Survival Skills, I want to make things more interactive, as I believe that this format is really beneficial for learning. During the “Mesoscale” discussion, I’ll ask the reader a series of questions that they should answer based on their location. If you don’t want to participate in the conversation, that’s perfectly fine! It’s simply an exercise to get you thinking about how to improvise under pressure.
The Survival Saw gives us three hours of exposure before we begin to succumb to the elements.
This essay is going to largely fill the “mainstream” ideas of what constitutes a wilderness shelter, but I believe in simple, effective techniques, practiced towards perfection, and mental flexibility. Once you understand the concepts, it becomes easier to ‘improvise.’ This is critically important here, because it’s extremely difficult for me to write giving adequate consideration to all environments; it’s incumbent on you to learn your area, know its tendencies, and have the mental flexibility to survive.
Shelter can be loosely described as a place where your environment is not compromising your ability to survive. When we think of environmental dangers, we often consider the impacts of events, and their impacts.
- Heat - burns - heat stroke
- Cold - hypothermia - frostbite
This is the way of thinking that is presented to most people. However, I believe it’s paramount to look not at the environmental effects, but rather at our bodies’ reaction to them.
Thermal Affects - Microscale
In this first part, I want to discuss factors that are, by in large, controlled by you - your mode of dress and selection of equipment. Thermal injuries have common ground in that they are almost all environmental - that is to say, either:
- Some external factor is depleting water from the body faster than it is replaced, or
- The water in the body is crystallizing and causing cell membranes to rupture.
Even in the case of blistering, we see the presence of moisture and irritation - so, far and away, our most pressing concern is how water goes into and comes out of our bodies.
In a healthy human, these things are moderated by homeostasis, so it’s important to know that our main goal here is simply assisting our body in maintaining homeostasis. That is to say, keep your core temperature at 98 degrees, and your body properly hydrated. It cannot be understated that even in extremely cold environments, you need to be drinking a quart of water every hour. Drink before you become thirsty - not after.
Without going into the minutia, there is a 3-sided stool we can use to keep our body well-regulated:
- Physical Conditioning
- Proper Hydration and Diet
- Appropriate Attire
The first two speak for themselves, and the third is easy to misunderstand. Don’t think that because it came from an L.L. Bean catalog, it’s “appropriate." A secret from the homeless: A water-resistant jacket stuffed with newspaper is more “appropriate” than the designer sweater you can’t rely on to keep you warm all night. We can think of attire as a “microscale” environment - therefore, it’s important to remember the following about your attire:
- Cotton Kills. Cotton soaks moisture and contains it nicely. Especially in the high desert or rainforest, where temperatures drop drastically, cotton has a tendency to soak up sweat and keep it close to your body.
- Your base-layer clothing should be Capiline, polypropylene, or a spandex composite, which channel moisture away from your body. Midlayer clothing made from polyester has always worked well for me, as it doesn’t trap moisture and allows passage of heat. I can’t emphasize enough the utility of high-technology secondary midlayers, such as Polar-Tec for keeping the heat in. This, in conjunction with a good, water-resistant windbreaker, will go a long way with providing you warmth while you’re active.
- Whenever you get into a situation, think about the risks of thermal injuries, and consider what you have at hand. Are your shoes inadequate for the conditions? Consider putting a plastic bag between a first and second layer to keep rain or snow out (but remember to let your feet dry out!) Are your clothes soaked? If so - build a fire and wait! Allow them to dry.
Thermal Affects - Mesoscale
The mesoscale perspective on thermal concerns is a detailed look at your surroundings.
This is something that you should practice all the time - it’s fun, informative, and can really help you bolster your ability to survive. While you’re out, ask yourself about your surroundings: Are you in a city, the suburbs, a forest, or a desert? What’s your elevation? What kinds of flora and fauna are found here? What kind of supplies can you scavenge? What types of weather conditions can be expected here?
For this hypothetical situation, a banking crisis has the urban areas in panic, the roads are clogged with parked cars, and I’ve been caught away from home with a friend during the chaos. Our objective is to get another 20 miles on foot the next day, and we’ve stopped to assess a site to hole up for the night. While we had our third line equipment in our respective vehicles, we were forced to abandon the vehicles and take just what we could carry.
One of the most critical rules of survival is letting nothing go to waste - knowing your surroundings can help turn a discarded beer can into a water filter. Knowing the types of wood around you can help determine their combustibility, and their suitability for things like cooking - no one wants to have to eat pitch-flavored squirrel meat in a pinch. It’s bad for morale.
This is where we need to start looking at things such as what materials you have on hand, site selection for your camp/fire/latrine - and begin assessing what materials you have at hand, as well as what the likely weather situation is going to be given the time of year and geographic location.
To begin with, a quick look at what’s going on:
What do you see?
Go to your window, and look out: reply with what you see and what you know about it. Spend a few minutes - is there litter? Can it be used? List all the objects you see - even if they seem to have no use.
Here are my observations:
- It’s 33 degrees Fahrenheit
- the dew point is 17 degrees F
- the atmospheric pressure is 30.25” of mercury at 160‘ ASL (Above Sea Level)
- the wind is from the East at 10kts with gusts up to 22kts.
Translation: Cold, dry, and sitting under high pressure (thin, wispy clouds overhead - more evidence of high pressure). Trees are a mix of deciduous and coniferous; the former are bare, the latter are evergreens.
Based on what you see for yourself, ask What are my concerns? and How will I shelter against them?
Next, a look at a suitable site:
Here is an easy acronym to use for your situational assessment, MAP-E:
- M = Materials available
- A = Assessment of Terrain
- P = Plan for Resources
- E = Execution
2. Materials Available
At present, while traveling on foot along the river, we were lucky enough to find an abandoned structure. It’s heavily overgrown and has lots of ivy and Douglas fir growing around it. In addition to broken concrete, there are numerous bricks buried all around. Ivy covers the ground. There is a recently discarded beer can - color hasn’t faded yet (and no, it’s not mine). This is more than enough to combine with the equipment I had with me to create our own Mesoscale environment.
Ask yourself, What can I use, and for what?
At present, we’re 50 yards from the river, on a granite outcropping. There are railroad tracks to our north approximately 100 yards, a cove with sand on our east and west aspects, approximately 150 yards in either direction. The position we’re assessing is recessed into the ground, giving it a beneficial, low profile that will prevent silhouetting.
Here is a list of what I see, and what I’m going to use it for:
- Evergreens: I’m going to cut two, 3” diameter Fir trees to make the frame of my shelter, and use the boughs for two types of insulation: One for the shelter itself, and one to insulate us from the ground. Fortunately, I’ve got a pocket chainsaw in my 2nd line kit:
- Deciduous: I’m going to leave them alone, with the exception of one small, downed alder I‘ve found. They’re all hardwoods, such as cottonwood. Alder, hickory, or even hardwoods like wild cherry would work well for cooking, but these guys are green, underdeveloped and not going to do me much good this time of year.
- I’m going to use the bricks as a firebreak, and get them warm. Before bunking down, I’m going to dig a shallow hole and bury several of the bricks to warm the ground. Be careful doing this; they are tough to move when they’re hot. Bury them under about 3” of soil.
- I’m going to tear the leaves off, use them for insulation and take the long, thick cords, double them up, and use them for rope:
- Beer Bottle
- This is going to be packed with sand and charcoal in order to create a water filter.
- While waste, the concrete arises on either side of our shelter area, giving some ballistic protection, as well as concealment from the casual passerby.
- The river can provide both water and a potential source of food. Our proximity to it is beneficial, but it will certainly attract others in an emergency.
In addition to this, it should be understood that a system of “Challenge and Password” is established, and if anyone leaves the immediate camp area, that they are either accompanied, or otherwise accounted for by a detailed outline of:
- What they’re doing
- How long they intend to be gone
- Who they’re taking
The military uses the acronym GOTWA:
- Going Where?
- Others with me
- Time I’ll be gone
- What we’re doing
- Actions on:
- Contact with outsiders, you
- Contact with outsiders, me
This is a simple, easy to understand procedure that will help prevent massive confusion in the event that other arrive to challenge you for your spot or resources.
Challenge and Password/Duress:
- Challenge and password is a procedural word that whoever is “looking out” will use if he or she observes someone approaching. When the word is spoken, if it’s not replied, defensive posture should be taken immediately. The words should be made up, unrelated, and changed frequently.
If the approaching person replies with a different answer, you know you’ve been contacted by someone outside your party. Example:
- Challenge word: Rock
- Password: Thunder
- Duress words are words that are spoken in casual conversation to let others in your party know that something is wrong, but that you cannot react for fear of harm. Duress words should be simple, and uncommon, but not alarming. Further, they should be spoken in a sentence. For example, if your duress word is “Giraffe”… A party member returns with two people, and seems to be uneasy. After responding favorable to the Challenge and Password, your comrade returns saying, “I found water, but there were no giraffes.” Instantly, you should be clued in to the fact your partner is in distress, but the word itself means nothing to the people outside your party.
This phase is going to sound very familiar to those who’ve read the Practical Survival Skills 101 - Fire Starting primer: Gather your materials and plan your structure - in this case, a small, A-frame shelter. If possible, now is the time to grab a quick bite to eat and drink some water, as assembling the materials is taxing.
So, here is a shot of our gathered materials. For the frame of the structure, we want to use lengths of about 3” and 1” in diameter:
Once we’ve got them ready, we take our main pole and use two standing trees in the middle of the abandoned structure to give us our ‘frame.’ This is the rear, which will be sealed by boughs - note the ivy used to secure the pieces in place:
Here is a view towards the front:
As we get more complete, the “wall” pieces will be angled to better hold the fir boughs in place. On the interior, another length will support a tarp that I keep in my backpack - this will allow the fir boughs to act as an air break, while giving some warmth-retaining properties as well as running off water.
Here is the beam before the tarp is hung, and before the Eastern wall is covered in boughs:
And a view of the shelter, completed - this is from the south side:
At this point, continue site improvement by adding boughs to the sides and ground for insulation. The sustenance of your fire and considerations regarding where you’re going to get food and water are in order.
This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil. The content is written by CM.com readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site. If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our Input on the What Should I Do? Series feedback forum.
If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:
- A Case Study in Creating Community (SagerXX)
- Peak Certainty, Food Resilience, and Aquaponics (Farmer Brown)
- Creating Healthy Snacks from Your Garden (EndGamePlayer)
- The Essential Gardening and Food Resilience Library (Old Hippie)
- Installing A Solar Energy System (rhare)
- The Keys to Transitioning Healthcare: Empowerment, Education, & Prevention (suziegruber)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers - Part 1 (Cycle9)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers - Part 2 (Cycle9)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 - Fire Starting (Aaron Moyer)
- Raising Your Own Chickens (Woodman)
- Dealing With a Reluctant Partner (Becca Martenson)
- Making the Urban-to-Rural Transition (joemanc)
- Prepping on a Shoestring (Amanda)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 - Water (Aaron Moyer)
- Small-Scale Beekeeping (apismellifera)
- Making Soap (maceves)
- Woodworking (bklement)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 - Obtaining Shelter (Aaron Moyer)
This series is a companion to this site's free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the CM.com staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.