Building Survival Skills 3: Shelter Building

For the third installment of the Building Survival Skills series of blog posts, I'm covering the basics of finding shelter and building temporary emergency shelters.

For this third installment of the Building Survival Skills series, I going to briefly cover shelter building. Even though the focus of it will be shelter building, I’m also going to sprinkle in a bit of shelter finding.

Before getting into it and to reiterate, I don’t consider myself a survivalist. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some survivalist types arguing about there being other more important skills to talk about first. I’m okay with that. Chances are I’ll probably cover what other folks consider more important skills eventually in this series. I’m just ordering them by what I think the order of importance is.

At this point, I’ve covered the skills that I think are needed to deal with situations that could lead to the loss of life within minutes. Admittedly, I skipped swimming which I do consider to be more important, but I don’t have a lot to say about it other than anyone who doesn’t know how to swim should learn. I also skipped talking about skills to deal with icy waters, because that is not something I know about given the only icy water I’ve ever dealt with is the one found in a drinking container. So that brings me to skills that will help deal with exposure risks that could be deadly in a matter of hours.

For reference, the survival rules of three, which this skill series of posts is attempting to address, indicate a person can only survive for:

  • three minutes without air (or in icy waters),
  • three hours without shelter,
  • three days without water,
  • three weeks without food.

Mother nature doesn’t care whether we find ourselves outdoors for recreational purposes, or because we have been forced to go bug out. The reality is that prolonged exposure to mother nature’s extreme elements will kill even the strongest humans.

So what can we do about fighting exposure? The most obvious thing to me is to take shelter.

Shelter comes in many forms which makes it very difficult to write a blog post with a lot of detail for every situation. However, any shelter that offers protection from mother nature’s elements provides at least one of the three following things: 1) a place to cool down, 2) a place to dry off, 3) a place to warm up.

It dawned on me as I was writing this post that a shelter can also provide concealment, cover, and a defensible position if one is looking for shelter from a fight or an attack, rather than defense from the elements. It’s something to keep in mind, but not something I’m going to mention again in this post since it’s a topic I only have basic academic knowledge about and wasn’t the topic for this discussion. That said, I reserve the right to revisit it in a future post.

Back to shelter from the elements, I prefer employing shelter finding skills before shelter building because of the difference of calorie expenditure required to employ those shelter related skills. Finding shelter is highly dependent on one’s location, surrounding terrain, and the elements. In its most basic form, it’s about finding a place to “get indoors”.

For example, ten years ago my family and I were driving cross country with a heavy load of our belongings as we relocated from California to Texas. It was approaching noon on July first shortly after crossing the California and Arizona border when the rope that was holding the tarp and belongings on the roof rack of our Tahoe broke and we were forced to pull over. Luckily, the freeway off ramp was visible a few hundred yards ahead along with a truck stop we pulled into. The fix was a combination of purchasing about a dozen bungee cords at the truck stop, reorganizing our belongings, recovering them with a tarp, and using the newly acquired bungee cords to tie everything down. Even though that sounds like an easy enough fix, I was forced to do that in direct sunlight while it was 124ºF thanks to the heatwave that started coming in that day. It was brutal work in those conditions that took about three hours to complete since it didn’t take very long before I started exhibiting symptoms of heat stroke/exhaustion and was forced to take shelter, recover, and give it another go several times. Taking shelter meant going back into the truck stop cooling off and rehydrating. It was as simple as that.

I share that story because it highlights how simple it can really be to take shelter. Had we been on the side of the road, the shelter would have been the car. However, sometimes shelter isn’t so obvious. It can be a natural or man made structure that provides the relief from the elements that are needed. That maybe shade, a break from the wind, or a break from the rain. Sometimes the relief isn’t complete and we maybe forced to add (or build on to it). Other times, it just isn’t available and we have to build (or improvise) shelter in its entirety. The point is be aware of and make use of the surroundings if possible (and legal).

Shelter building is an entirely different beast that may require combining several different skills (some of which I will mention), creativity, and ingenuity. Like shelter finding, it depends on location, terrain, and the elements. Unlike shelter finding, it also depends on the materials and skills available.

So where does one start?

I suggest starting with knowing how to build a few different types of shelter with the materials one already has on hand. For example, those who have been following the Building a Quality Survival Kit on a Budget series should have a S.O.L. Emergency Bivvy (from part 3 of the series) and perhaps a 100′ hank of Paracord (from part 8 of the series). With those materials and the right foliage, a person can make an A-frame shelter, a Sunshade shelter, a Lean-To shelter, or a wind shed shelter. Those are all shelters that can be made with a tarp and other types of cordage as well. Want other tarp shelter ideas? Search the internet for “how to make a shelter from a tarp” and one will find a bunch of suggestions like the ones I found here. The trick isn’t to learn all of the different shelters, but rather identify a handful of shelters that make sense for the environments and terrains one is likely to find themselves in. And I don’t mean “learn” in the academic sense, actually build those shelters with the materials on hand. Remember learning how to do something when one actually needs it is suboptimal at best.

A couple of skills that will be learned or improved by practicing building shelters with tarp and cordage include making knots and perhaps some chopping and wood working skills. Making knots should be obvious. Wood work might not be so obvious, but it might include improvising stakes or creating notches to secure the utilized cordage.

Another side effect of shelter building practice will likely be the identification of items that should be added or improved in one’s survival pack. For example, one might realize that the knife in the kit is inadequate or suboptimal and could be replaced by a larger knife like an Esee 6. As another example, one might consider picking up a set of lightweight tent stakes or even a complete field tent. While these items will undoubtedly add weight and bulk to a survival kit, it will reduce the amount of time and calories required to build a shelter. In some environments, this will be a very prudent decision. Ever tried building a shelter with a tarp and cordage in a desert environment? Personally, I’d rather have a tent.

The tent discussion brings me to my next point. Don’t just buy a tent and keep it around for when it’s needed. Take it out of the package, set it up, tear it down, and pack it up. Multiple times. I don’t care if this indoors in the living area of an apartment or in the backyard of a suburban home. Do it until set up and tear down are second nature. Unless one is an avid camper who will continue to set up and tear down the tent with some regular frequency, plan on regular practice with reasonable frequency.

What about building shelters with just the materials found in nature? The answer to that question is beyond the skills that I possess. I’m sure it’s possible. Heck, there have been several TV series that cover this topic. I’m also certain it wouldn’t hurt to have some of those skills. Unfortunately, I’m not Bear Grylls.

In the event long term shelter is needed, it wouldn’t hurt to develop some carpentry and related skills. While knowing how to build log cabins or yurts can be helpful and shouldn’t be discounted, I personally think these skills are secondary to learning how to build temporary emergency shelters. Frankly, building a permanent (or semi permanent) shelter will likely take longer than it will take for exposure to ruin one’s day.

Bottom line, learn how to find shelter and how to build emergency shelters. Then practice what has been learned to develop and maintain those skills for when they are needed. Hopefully, those skills will only be used during recreational endeavors.

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