Most of us here in the United States take shelter for granted. We are born into it, raised in a shelter, and go onto to buy or build our own shelter when we attain adulthood. Very seldom do we consider what it would be like to find ourselves stranded in the wilderness with a need to erect a shelter just to survive the ordeal. With regards to survival and in order of importance, shelters come in second only to air. We can survive 3 minutes without oxygen, and roughly 3 hours exposed to the elements without shelter. Shelter not only offers protection from the elements, it also provides a sense of normalcy which can be beneficial to your mindset moving forward.
A well-built shelter acts as a sanctuary; it is a place you can rest and feel safe, even if everything else around you seems to be falling apart. If you spend a significant amount of time in the outdoors, shelter building skills will be extremely valuable for you to learn.
People often underestimate how rapidly weather can change without forewarning when they venture outdoors. The 8-hour hike that began under crystal clear blue skies and 80° weather, can quickly turn into a life-threatening scenario in a matter of minutes, when temperatures drop to 40° with wind and rain; hypothermia becomes a real concern under the latter weather conditions. Depending on the elements, a properly built shelter may be the very thing that determines life or death. Whenever we are faced with a survival scenario, it is imperative that we begin a decision making process; how quickly do we need to get the shelter built? In the event there is rain and wind, or cold and snow, mere seconds can matter. The more body heat we lose, the less control we have over our motor skills. The more our clothes get wet, the less insulation they provide. These are all concerns that need to be addressed when deciding when and where to build a shelter.
S.T.O.P. is a survival acronym that comes into play here. Stop, Think, Observe, & Plan. We make the biggest mistakes, and sometimes the deadliest mistakes, when we rush through a process without giving it the proper attention to detail. Answer a few questions with regards to the scenario to help you make the right decision. Is there an immediate threat to your survival? What does the area you are in have to offer for shelter building and fire starting material? Would a signal fire be easily visible from your current location? The answers you give will help you determine whether to build the shelter on site, or look for a better area. Research shelter building in general. Get really familiar with natural insulators, and learn how to build several different styles of shelters, as some of them will be better suited for specific environments.
Once you’ve studied the subject of crude survival shelter construction, you need to begin practicing your skills in a controlled environment. Visit a rustic campground and get busy practicing your shelter building skills. This is how we gain experience and develop muscle memory, through repetition and practice. Practice should be done under every type of weather your region receives. Building a shelter under 80° weather is nothing like building one under wild winter weather conditions. Practice under the harshest conditions your region has to offer and you should be fine during nice weather without much issue.
A well-built shelter can keep you warm and dry throughout the night, even if you are unable to build a fire. Keep in mind that the primary purpose of a survival shelter is to get you out of, and protect you from, extreme weather conditions and the elements.
The location in which you build your shelter is equally important as the shelter itself. Low lying areas near rivers, streams and creeks are susceptible to flash flooding, so building a shelter in this type of area could be disastrous if heavy rains begin falling. An area of higher altitude will have colder temperatures, which may not be the perfect setting for a shelter either. Check the area for dead trees and potential widow-makers and stay away from those when building the shelter. While location is important, so is the positioning of the shelter. You will want to keep the entrance facing away from prevailing wind patterns.
Fire Reflecting Wall/Windbreak:
Depending on the style of shelter you decide to build, you may also want to build a wall to serve as a windbreak, and/or a fire reflector. If you build your shelter with a fire pit just outside the entrance, a fire wall will reflect some of the heat back into the shelter itself, keeping you nice and toasty. This wall can also serve the purpose of drying logs for the fire, or for drying out damp clothing, etc.
Additional Shelter Tips:
If possible, pick a spot to build your shelter where the materials are readily available. If your shelter location is a few hundred feet from the closest natural materials, then you will likely exhaust far more energy retrieving the material than you can replace with foraged edibles; this is a recipe for disaster, you will need energy in order to perform additional survival related tasks, like foraging for food and water, hunting, shelter improvement, harvesting fuel for fires, etc.
Be aware of the situation you are in. If it is cold outside, or heading into fall/winter months, then search for a suitable shelter location that receives plenty of sun. Look for signs of animal life and try to determine what is living in the area with you. Predatory animals are often territorial, which means they not only frequent the area, but they also protect it from other predators, and they view man as a threat. If you see signs of large predators in the area, you may want to search for a less frequented spot.