Finding Shelter in the Wild


Survival in the wild is much more complex than movies make it out to be. It’s not that it’s impossible; thousands of years of human existence, much of it before society was as organized as it is today, prove it is. We’ve had many examples of people leaving the advantages of civilization to live and even thrive in the wild as well.

That’s not to say that you and I are ready to head off into the Alaskan wilderness tomorrow and survive. While such a thing is possible, we’d better make sure we’re well prepared before we try it. Some environments are harder to survive in than others, and I doubt that Alaska would be a picnic.

But what would we do if our plane went down in that Alaskan wilderness. For that matter what would we do if we found ourselves in any wilderness survival situation? We would have to make sure our basic survival needs were met, regardless of anything else.

This normally means stopping and setting up camp a good two hours before the sun goes down. While that may seem like a long time, two hours is usually just enough time to get a campsite set up, when we’ve got to gather everything we need from nature. Specifically, we’re talking about two important things; starting a fire and building some sort of shelter. These are the two things needed, besides our clothes, to ensure that we can maintain our body heat through the night.

Please note that we’re limiting our concerns to our number one survival priority; maintaining our body heat. That’s not to say we can totally ignore our need for water and food, but we can look for water during the day. When we get to two hours before sundown, we have to abandon that search, in favor of making sure we can keep warm through the night.

So how do we tell when it’s two hours before sunset? If you have a watch, that should be easy, assuming you know when sundown will be. But whether you have that watch or not is immaterial, as you can tell when sundown is by measuring the sun’s height above the horizon.

All you need to do is to put your pinkie horizontally on the horizon, at arm’s length, and measure how many finger thicknesses the sun is above the horizon. If one hand isn’t enough, use two. Each finger thickness counts for about 15 minutes, so when the sun is eight finger thicknesses above the horizon, then it is two hours until sunset, time to stop whatever else you are doing and prepare your camp for the night.

That doesn’t mean that you should wait until that point in time to start thinking about where you’re going to camp that night though. Travelers in the Old West would keep their eyes open all day for likely campsites, stopping early if they found a good campsite. Chances were that they wouldn’t find another good campsite before nightfall anyway.

A good campsite has to provide three things:

  • Shelter from the weather
  • Fuel nearby for a fire
  • Shelter to defend yourself

While you could use a tent or build your own shelter, you’re always better off if you can start with something in nature that provides you with at least some protection from the weather. There are plenty of times when a tent or shelter made of brush isn’t going to give you enough protection from a storm.

Shelter has to do two things for you; protect you from the rain and protect you from the wind. If it can provide you with some insulation in cold times, that’s good too; but it’s not as high a priority as being able to start a fire to warm the inside of your shelter. Your body heat will also do a lot to warm your shelter, if the shelter is wind-proof.

So, what sorts of things do you want to be looking for?

  • Caves – Probably the best natural shelters you can find. Just be cautious as you check to see if it is already occupied
  • Rock outcroppings – Can contain areas which might be close to a cave, providing at least partial shelter. In many cases, covering over an open area between rocks makes something as good as a cave
  • Overhung embankment – There are many places where high water may have undercut an area, creating something like a wide open-fronted cave. While not as good as a cave, it can provide good shelter from rain and wind. Just be cautious if it starts raining, as you might get washed out
  • A thicket of trees – Trees provide good windbreaks and some protection from the rain. When there are several trees overshadowing an area, they improve this protection. You can use the saplings and/or lower branches of the trees to improve the natural shelter offered
  • Uprooted deadfall – When trees die and are blown over, the root mass makes an impressive wall, which is a great windbreak. Sometimes you can break off the branches on the underside of the trunk, making an open area that provides good shelter
  • Large pine tree – Pine trees are unique, in that their branches grow straight out from the trunk. This means that the branches brushing the ground on the larger trees come out from the trunk a few feet above the ground. You can crawl under those branches and find a natural shelter, covered with pine needle bedding.
  • Man-made structures – There are still plenty of old mines, buildings and other structures out in the wild, mostly broken down over time. Even so, they will often offer at least a partial shelter, which can be improved upon with a tarp or rescue blanket from your pack

Don’t discount something because it doesn’t look perfect. In most cases, you’re going to have to improve upon whatever you find. The main idea behind looking for something that is pre-existing in nature is to save you time and effort in building a shelter. It makes no sense to start from ground zero, gathering materials to build a shelter, if there’s something that will work to protect you with only minor improvements.

More than anything, you’ve got to be creative when it comes to a wilderness shelter. This is one of those places where it’s important to think outside the box, so that you can see things for their potential, rather than just seeing them for what they are. Many other things can work for shelter, if you can learn to see them that way.