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The Wilderness Guide to Natural Shelters

Shelter is the most important ingredient for wilderness survival.


Editor’s Note: A term still young to American colloquialism, “bushcraft” refers the to individual’s ability to adapt to a range of different outdoor environments with limited resources on-hand, thereby surviving hostile and potentially life-threatening situations. (By effect, the bushcrafter is the person who carries knowledge and skills necessary to do so.) This excerpt comes from Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival, where author and survival expert Dave Canterbury (known for his role in the television series Dual Survivor) takes readers through the basic principles of getting by in the wild with less. Shelter is vital to survival in the wild, but little understood by amateur outdoor enthusiasts — and what they know often relies on using tents, tarps, or bivy sacks. But when caught in the wilderness without these tools, the ability to construct a shelter with natural materials is paramount to minimize the risk of harm, or even death. Canterbury shares three basic techniques that could save your hide.

The skill and knowledge to build natural shelters is the most important thing any beginning bushcrafter can possess. Why? Because adequate shelter is the most critical component for survival in the woods. You can carry many things easily on your person — even without a pack — the loss of which would be at least a serious inconvenience. Cutting tools, combustion devices, and containers can easily be attached to your belt, and cordage can be salvaged or carried in your pockets as well, but adequate shelter is another story.

If for any reason you lose your shelter or it becomes damaged, you must know how to construct one using the materials you have. There are many forms of natural shelters you can construct if you are without a decent tarp or tent. However, understanding what type of shelter to build and what materials to use is the key to controlling conduction, convection, and radiation. When building any natural shelter, the first consideration is the structural material that is available and workable in the area. Deadfall materials have the least impact on the environment, take the least physical effort, and are the least time-consuming to gather; however, you must ensure that they are structurally safe. Though they are dead, they may need to support considerable weight by the time you are finished. Any main supports (which should be at least 3″ in diameter) should be cut green, if at all possible. External framework not supporting total weight can be constructed from dead fallen material with little risk.

There are three main forms of natural shelters: the lean-to shelter, the A-frame shelter, and the debris hut. However, you can construct any natural shelter to mimic a tarp configuration as well.

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If the weather is fair and you can take advantage of the breeze, a lean-to-style shelter is best. You can make a lean-to by lashing a simple cross pole between trees. Add several more saplings at a 45° angle to the ground on one side, then weave in horizontal vines or cuttings. Once this is accomplished, waterproof the lean-to by adding more cuttings from bottom to top, layering them always with the growth upside down. (This will allow water to be channeled away from the shelter. If any cuttings are placed as they grow, water will collect toward the joints and run down into the shelter.) Avoid branches that can catch water or rain and drip inside the shelter.



For more inclement or stormy weather, add another side opposite to the first onto the lean-to shelter, creating an A-frame to deflect rain or wind from two sides. Again, leave no branches or supports from the inside sticking out, or the shelter will collect water. The colder the weather, the thicker the thatching must be, and if you want it to have insulative value, it must be at least 3′ thick with leaves and debris.

Debris Hut


For the coldest of nights, especially if fire is not an option, a debris hut will be a necessity. This is a simple modification of the A-frame, with one end of the ridgepole on the ground, creating a closed triangle structure with a small opening. The key to these types of shelters is to remember that they only need to be large enough for you — and nothing more. You must restrict space in order to maintain heat on the inside, as it will all come from your body and be trapped within. A bedding of leaves and debris on the ground of any shelter should be at least 4″ thick when compressed to avoid the effects of conduction. Once inside, you can use your pack to close the hole through which you entered, like a trap door.

Tips and Tricks for Smarter Coverage

1. When using your tarp for sheltering on the ground in colder weather, use debris or snow to help insulate around the edges. This will reduce any convective breeze from entering in those areas.

2. Hammocks make great chairs during the day when you set them up on a tripod lengthwise, with an open crossbar on the tripod.

3. If your tarp requires reproofing for water-repelling properties, a simple solution is to rub the entire tarp with a bar made from two parts beeswax and one part tallow or lard.

4. When using a browse bag as a mattress, if all available debris is wet, you can line the bag with a 55-gallon trash bag before stuffing to keep moisture from seeping through.

5. Never sleep closer than one full step away from any fire to avoid bouncing embers.

Further note: After the second season of Dual Survival, it was announced that Dave Canterbury would not be returning for subsequent seasons. He has since been the subject of controversy, facing allegations about the breadth of his military credentials (more info that subject can be found, here). Despite these details, he is still regarded as a survival educator, now the founder of The Pathfinder School, LLC.

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