You could be out in the woods on a hunt when you discover that your ATV won’t start. Or perhaps you’re driving along a rural road and your car stalls or catches a flat. Maybe you’re doing some canoeing and it overturns on the lake, forcing you to swim to shore after which you find you’re many miles away from your camp and anyone else.
Regardless of the situation, when you’re stuck outdoors away from civilization, lodging, or nearby help, you may need to build an emergency shelter. Especially when the weather conditions are cold and wet, or will be soon due to an approaching storm or nightfall, an emergency shelter could literally be a life saver. Here’s how to build a good one that will offer you protection from the elements and hold you over temporarily until you can get to safety or get rescued.
State of mind
Before you get started on a suitable shelter, though, you must be in the right frame of mind. Okay, so you’ve gotten into a sticky situation. The first thing you must resist is the urge to panic, or make a hasty decision that makes a bad situation worse. Rather, do this instead:
- Stop and breathe slowly for a couple of minutes. Accept the situation as it is, and calm yourself. Think clearly and rationally.
- Assess your surroundings. What kind of environment are you in? Forest? Mountains? Countryside? What’s the weather and temperature like? How much daylight remains?
- What materials do you have with you? What’s out in the environment that you can use?
Choose a suitable location
Now that you’ve gotten your mental bearings, you can begin planning your shelter. And that first requires picking a location. This is the part where the evaluation you performed earlier comes into play. You’ll want to set up your shelter on dry ground, out of the wind if possible, and near resources such as trees and bushes. If a stream with clean drinking water is nearby, even better.
Assess your materials
The purpose of an emergency shelter isn’t to be all fancy and super comfortable. It’s to get you through the night alive, and stave off hypothermia. So don’t worry about having the perfect materials lying around, since all you need is the basics. First, check your own belongings. Do you have a weather parka/poncho? Emergency blanket? Any kind of tarp or plastic bags that can act as covering?
Assess your environment
Now look at the surrounding environment. Do you have tree branches, boughs, ferns, dead wood, leaves, and bushes around? Is there any “natural” shelter around such as an overhang, rock wall, or cave that can act as part of, or all of the shelter?
Decide what kind of shelter to build
After you’ve evaluated your location, materials, and environment, now it’s time to decide what kind of shelter to build. Keep in mind that it may be cold, dusk may be approaching, or you may be tired, hurt, or ill. So again, nothing fancy, just a quick overnight shelter to protect from the elements. There are dozens of outdoor shelter types you could build ranging from simple to complex, but the one of the quickest to construct is a basic double lean-to, or A-frame shelter.
For an A-frame, you’ll need to start with a long, thick branch or log about one and a half times your body length. This is the backbone of your shelter. Then, either prop one end against something sturdy like a fallen tree or an upright tree at a low angle, and the other end into the ground. Next, place smaller branches along the sides to form “ribs.” The ribs, or the walls should be lined up along both sides so that the skeleton of the shelter takes on an “A” shape.
Once the frame of the shelter is erected, you then begin filling in the space with leaves, branches, moss, and ferns. Keep working until you have the entire shelter covered, as you’ll need to keep the wind and rain out, and also trap heat from a fire if you can manage to build one. If you have a tarp, garbage bag, or poncho, you can drape it over the shelter for added insulation. And make the shelter as compact as possible, to help retain body heat. Of course, if there are others with you, then alter the size accordingly.
Try to be comfortable
You’ve got a shelter that should keep the wind, rain, and snow off of you, but it will still be quite cold. So be sure to insulate your body from the cold ground, which sucks away body heat quickly. Lay down a bed of the same materials you used for the frame right on the ground to lay atop of. Bundle up under an emergency blanket or anything extra on hand, And of course get a fire started if at all possible. Be sure to build the fire close enough to the shelter so that you get some of the radiant heat, but not so close that your shelter catches fire.
When dawn breaks, you might be a bit worse for wear, but you’ll be alive. You feel a sense of accomplishment that you were able to take care of yourself (and others if they’re with you). And you can reassess your situation anew, and determine the best plan to get back to safety.