Of all the most basic and fundamental of survival skills, there are three that are absolutely vital. If you can build a shelter, establish a fire, and find some drinkable water, you will very likely die of starvation rather than dehydration or hypothermia. This may seem of questionable benefit, but of course, you add weeks to the time in which you can be rescued. In a bushcraft situation, these skills combined with the foraging you can learn elsewhere on this site would allow you to go and enjoy yourself with minimal equipment and maximum confidence.
Shelter is the first of all the skills to master. In bushcraft books and survival guides, you will find all kinds of techniques and references. But in practice, this, like most such skills, is surprisingly tricksy. So rather than discuss what others have written about with far more competence and eloquence elsewhere, I thought I would write about my brief history of shelter building. This is in the hope that my laughable bad experiences, and my developing knowledge, will bolster you on your own journey to master the art of knocking up a temporary home in the woods.
This was our first ever attempt at a shelter, built on Exmoor in April about five years ago. We used honeysuckle and natural forks to put a crossbeam between two birch trees. Then we we leaned sticks against it. This process, particularly finding the sticks, took a couple of hours. Eventually we realised that the roof sticks would never be thick enough, so we used some live willow and weaved it in between. We three fern on top of that lattice. We did the same up the sides and stuffed it with moss. The fire was outside the shelter with a wall to reflect the heat.
The most important initial lesson here is to pay attention to the resources at your disposal. We had a plan before we landed, before we had ever seen this site. We stuck to it with very little adaptation, despite the resources being extremely inadequate. The consequence was about six hours of struggling to gather enough material, and still having nothing like a strong enough shelter. Firewood was also woefully short. This was a bad spot, and nowadays both Owen and I would have walked away from it. I was determined to be in the woods, rather than in the caves, and we were both determined to follow the guide in the Marines book, which was only one of about ten options available, and definitely not the best one.
We made the decision to start the fire later in the day, to save wood, and we settled in for the night having not gone for a pee first. Both of these decisions were stupid. In the morning, Owen and I found we had a new shared experience: the horror of waking up in the night absolutely frozen, half naked in the bag, and desperate to urinate. The thirty or so minutes of wondering whether you can hold it in, and the final, hideously cold walk out of the camp to do your business before getting back into the bag. And in the morning there was an hour between waking up and psyching ourselves up to move. Another hour to get the fire started, make a hot drink, defrost our boots (our sleeping bags were literally stiff with frost, it was that cold), and eating the last of our meagre supplies before limping brokenly back across the moor. We only really spoke at all to agree we should never take anyone along with us unless they have expressed a strong interest in hypothermia.
The fire went out because we had not banked the heat for long enough – the wet and cold ground killed it off quite quickly once it was left unattended. The shelter was not adequate to insulate our heat, and the open front, which should have let the heat from the fire in, acted as a giant barn door. We slept in summer bags, but the temperature went into the minuses. Coldest night in ages, apparently. We were lucky, in all honesty, to have been able to get up at all.
Our second shelter was a very different affair. We are not especially stupid people and our weekend in Exmoor had really reinforced some lessons. This time, we gave it a lot more thought. When we arrived at the Wyre, we spent hours looking for exactly the right spot, where we were isolated and had an abundance of wood, forest debris and fern. We planned our shelter in a conversation that was constructive and argumentative without ever getting heated – Owen is a pretty rare sort of guy, really – if he puts an idea forward and I find flaws with it, he is able to take that on and adapt. He doesn’t get annoyed, and he puts up patiently with me not doing the same, waiting patiently for me to grow the f*ck up and realise my plan will freeze/starve/soak us both. So with him in the role of mature adult (and seriously, this is a real skill – most people will argue in a way that basically sounds like “My idea is the best!” “No mine!” “No! Mine is the best!” all day long), we were able to come up with a workable plan in under an hour. The design was basically three big forked sticks leaning in a tripod and tied together, dug into the ground. crossbeams halfway up, forked and tied in. Sticks leaned against this until there were no big gaps. Then we covered it in at least four inches of forest debris and bracken. We poked a beam to hang a cookpot on through the middle, and we dug a firepit in the centre (the top was open as a chimney) We used birch branches for a mattress, pegged into place clear of the pit. We shot a pigeon for dinner.
How nice was it? It was top class. With a teeny weeny fire we were so warm you would not have believed it. I went back on my own in six inches of snow and slept comfortably. It was snug. It kept the rain off. The one problem was the draught – when you use a fire inside the hut, make sure no wind can get in at the bottom, or you will choke to death on the fumes. For a door, we hung our tarp/poncho over the entrance and weighted it down.
I’m waiting for a picture of this – Owen is the photographer and frankly, he’s a lazy bastard. Basically it was the same as the second but bigger, and instead of a tripod we used four sticks in a square, dug them in firmly, tied cross beams, and dug in a pole at each corner. This was a bigger, stronger shelter, which took a bit more time but could comfortably accommodate our full body length, our bags, and some firewood. We could more easily adjust the stuff we hung over the fire, because the structure made it easier. This hut took about 50% more material and longer to build, but it was worth it. We made three trips to this shelter and in all weathers were cosy and happy.
This time we took a rather different approach. We went to Cannock an picked a pine plantation. Finding a fallen tree leaning against it’s stump, we cleared a space under it. After that, we started thinning the pines (which is normal forestry practice and not harmful to the forest), taking out the trees that are weak, dying, and out-competed, as well any “wolf” misshapen trees. The stems we collected; the branches we used to roof the shelter. We did this for about four hours, by which time we had enough pine to have a thick roof and enough lengths to make two raised beds.
It was difficult to use pine branches to insulate the shelter, and I do not think it would have been warm enough or dry enough if conditions had been worse. Nonetheless, it was big and spacious, and with plenty of room for a fire, warm enough. The beds were classy.
Cannock is a big dogging site though, so, err… well, don’t go there to camp. All I’m saying.
Shelter 5: It’s been a while since I went camping and built a shelter. I kind of feel I have the basics sorted now, and want to experiment with other options. So this time I looked again to develop a natural location, but using a tarp to roof it, thus building it quickly and without fuss.
I found a fallen tree and faffed about with a tarp to produce this:
As you can see, it was pretty basic, but on a warm April evening, was not unpleasant to sleep in. This design (if you can call it that), took under an hour. I dragged a pretty big log over a reflector for the fire, and added some branches on the right (as you look at it) because the wind was coming from behind and slightly from that side of me.
This left me with loads of time – despite my arriving at like, 2pm. So I rustled up some ingredients. Dandelion for coffee, Burdock Root (but just for roasting/eating), Nettles, Jack-by-the-hedge, Ramsons and Goosegrass:
And I made a little stew and relaxed.
So there have been some highs, some lows, and some steep learning curves. There have been some adventures on the way, too. But I now feel that whatever happens, I can knock up a shelter, a fire, and a meal, when I find myself in a British forest. Now just Scandanavia and North America to go…