Shelters seem like a simple enough concept to people but in reality, shelters can be a cumbersome task to deal with. Nevertheless, shelters are extremely important. If you know the Rule of Threes of survival, you should know that shelters fall as the second most important item in that list as a person can perish in an average of Three hours exposed when exposed to the elements. This is of course a general rule as extreme temperatures can accelerate the need for a good shelter, while moderate temperatures will greatly reduce the need, if shelter is even needed at all.
Before I get started, let me tell you a quick bit about myself. I am the owner of Colorado Mountain Man Survival and teach primitive and modern survival in the mountains of Colorado. My team teaches wilderness survival, wilderness medicine, tactical survival...pretty much anything related to survival. I am also an instructor of Sigma 3, one of the world’s largest survival schools and a member of Flint and Steel, a group of vetted survival instructors that span the globe, with most being in the U.S. Enough about me though, let’s get back on topic.
I am going to mention bugging out, bug out bags, survival kits and the like in what I write below but by no means should any of this apply to just bugging out. This also includes get home bags and your standard hiking backpacks. Even if you are out for a nice leisurely stroll in the backcountry, you should always be thinking of shelter in case something goes wrong. I don’t teach TEOTWAWKI Survival, I teach practical survival and stay away from doom and gloom. Survival situations are very real and they happen all the time, to regular people, on a regular day.
I consider anything that protects you, from the elements, as shelter. That includes your clothing, trash bags, mylar blankets, sheets of plastic, ponchos, tarps, rain gear, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, bivvys and even your fire kit. This is why shelters become cumbersome as they make up, or should make up, the majority of ones Bug Out Bag. Once you add all of the “shelter” you realistically need to your pack, your bug out bag can become very large and potentially very heavy. Is that necessary? In my opinion, yes it is, especially considering it is the second most important thing that you can carry to keep yourself alive in a bad situation. Many people load their bug out bags down with gimmicky items without even completely covering their bases with shelter. So, where does one get started with fleshing out your bug out bag with the proper shelter? I'm going to start with your body and work outwards.
Without going into great detail, you should have an extra change of clothing in your pack, to include good hiking boots. The clothing needs to be appropriate for your climate. Keep in mind that when it comes time to bug out, there is a good chance that the weather is going to be less than optimal. Think rain, blizzards, hurricanes, floods, or any weather where you are going to get wet and cold. Simply put, you should have an under layer, mid layer and outer shell, bare minimum. That’s all Im going to say about that.
Next you should have rain gear in addition to your outer shell. I go with good rain pants, a rain jacket and most importantly a big durable rain poncho. The poncho should be rip stop material, large enough to cover the majority of your body, heat resistant and have large grommets in it. Why so much attention on the poncho, you may ask? Because it doubles as a tarp shelter. While we are talking about tarp shelters (or survival shelters in general), let me just remind you that you are going to need rope. I carry 200’ of paracord in my survival kit. If you know how to make primitive cordage, I still suggest you take 200’ because it’s so much faster an easier than making your own in the field.
Beyond items that are meant to go on your body, let’s talk about some basic things that you should have in your bug out bag or survival kit. Let’s start off with what most prefab kits have as their shelters. The ever famous Mylar blanket! While a Mylar blanket isn't a bad thing, it should never be your primary shelter. It should be a backup to a backup, to a backup...to a backup You can use it to line the inside of your primitive shelter or tarp shelter to reflect heat back to you but should not be the only thing that you have on you. They become very effective if used to reflect hear from a fire, back onto you. They are too thin to make any real shelter out of but they do help a little in certain circumstances. They do make great signal mirrors however. Couple your Mylar blanket with a good solid tarp and a trash bag or two and you do have a good, solid emergency shelter. First, string up your tarp shelter, tie the Mylar to the underside of the roof of the tarp, heap up some leaves to lie on for comfort and insulation and then place the trash bags over the leaves. If you build a fire outside of the tarp shelter, the heat will radiate onto you, any heat that passes you will reflect off of the Mylar blanket, back onto you and be absorbed by the black trash bag on the ground.
Oh, if you have one of those orange tube tents as your emergency survival shelter, those things are ridiculous. I’m pretty sure I mentioned gimmicky somewhere earlier. Get rid of it! Do you really want to stake your life on a $4 tube of thin orange plastic? Get yourself a good rain poncho, 2 Mylar blankets and some paracord. If you are going to carry a sheet of plastic, get yourself a 20’x20’ sheet of 6mil clear clastic from the hardware store. It might be a little bulky but there is so much you can do with it. It’s one of my older videos but still great info so check out the Super Shelter that we made in one of my classes. (link above)
Other valuable items to add to your bug out bags survival shelter arsenal are tents, hammocks, ground pads and sleeping bags. Of these, a full hammock sleep system is my favorite. If you don’t know what I mean by that, check out Warbonnet Outdoors for a quality sleep system. If you have ever slept on the bare ground with none of these items, for a prolonged amount of time, you will realize how important these items are. I spent a week in a lean-to, during survival training, in cold, rainy conditions, (uphill both ways) without any of these items. While my shelter was waterproof, having these items would have made life so much more pleasant. But let’s move on to the “fun” stuff. Primitive shelters. To build a primitive shelter it helps if you have some tools. A good bushcraft knife and a folding handsaw will greatly speed up the process. If you can handle the weight, add a good axe or hatchet to this list.
In my experience, as a survival instructor, I find that people want to overcomplicate things. During my classes, I tell people that it takes 3+ hours to build a reasonably sized lean-to. I typically I get a look like Im nuts when I say it takes that long. It only takes 15 minutes in most Youtube, videos so why the heck does it take this survival instructor 3 hours to build one? It’s called reality. In videos, you don’t see the harvesting of trees, limbing of branches, or gathering of leaves. All of these things take time. When I turn students loose to build their own shelters, sometimes I find them building either a huge shelter or some elaborate tree fort, and 5 hours later they are about ¼ of the way done. I want to stop them and make them do something else but it’s a valuable lesson learned. The students that listened to me are sitting in their small yet cozy shelter, with a fire, drinking a cup of pine needle tea. So when it comes to building a shelter in a survival situation, keep it simple and keep it small. At least to start. You can build on later if you need to.
The very first shelter I suggest to build is a tarp shelter, simply to keep me dry. Unless of course I have a big sheet of plastic or my Warbonnet. If so, I would always resort to one of them. Next comes a fire, near my tarp shelter to warm me up. Next I am going to build a lean-to and then attach my tarp shelter to it as a sort of canopy and move my fire so that I can tuck it under the tarp should if it starts to rain. Next comes a reflective wall on the far side of the fire to help trap heat in, and/or reflect it back to me. If I intend to stay in that area for a considerable amount of time, I might consider a double lean-to or alpine shelter.
If you are unable to get a fire going and you are in a cold climate, the next shelter you should consider is a debris hut. I am not going to go into great detail as to how to build one of these because it’s easier to see it and build it than it is to type in words on how to build it. But basically the debris hut is a wooden cave, covered with a ton of leaves and other debris. This shelter acts as a large sleeping bag and you use your body heat to warm its interior.
And in wet, warm conditions I am going to make a jungle-hooch also known as an A-Frame shelter. This shelter keeps you up off the wet ground, away from snakes and is actually very comfortable if built right. All primitive shelters are far superior to modern shelters if built right but they do take a considerable amount of time to make them resistant to the elements. To make a shelter resistant to rain, it takes roughly 3 feet of leaves piled up on its roof. 4-6 inches of leaves placed on the ground, as a bed, will keep the earth from sucking the heat out of you. If you have never built a primitive shelter, I highly suggest that you go out and build yourself one and sleep in it for a night with nothing more than the clothes on your back or what you carry in your bug out bag. For the sake of your safety, please do this in a reasonably controlled environment.
So, in closing, the most important thing that you should take out of all this is that you should have good shelter in your bug out bag and practice using your gear. Figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what gimmicky junk you have that you need to throw away. And practice your primitive shelter building skills. You should know how long it takes you to build the shelter of your choice and you should always have the modern gear so that you can quickly erect a shelter when time is of the essence.