American Survival Guide - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Brian M. Mor­ris

How to cre­ate a warm win­ter shel­ter

When de­scrib­ing the bone-chill­ing cold that could freeze a man to death on a cold win­ter night, Amer­i­can his­to­rian and lin­guist J. R. Bartlett was quoted as say­ing it was as “cold as the north side of a Jan­uary grave­stone by moon­light.”

This might be a bit dra­matic, but I think we can all agree that the kind of cold he was de­scrib­ing was at a level that if you’re caught off-guard and ill-pre­pared, it could eas­ily prove to be fa­tal. If you learn to speak her lan­guage, Mother Na­ture will warn you with ris­ing wind chills and drop­ping tem­per­a­tures. These tell you it is time to stop what­ever task you are fix­ated on and seek shel­ter im­me­di­ately to pre­vent your­self from fall­ing vic­tim to win­ter’s wrath.

One of the most dan­ger­ous things to hap­pen when your body tem­per­a­ture drops to per­ilous lev­els is that your mind also be­gins to “numb.” In these sit­u­a­tions, you can be­come so ir­ra­tional that log­i­cal thought is no longer pos­si­ble, and you will even­tu­ally be­come dis­ori­ented, lethar­gic and drift off into an icy sleep from which you will not wake up.

Some­thing to con­sider when the topic of “sur­vival shel­ter” comes up is that the term “sur­vival” does not al­ways equate to the prover­bial crap hit­ting the fan. In­stead, it is some­times a term that sim­ply means “stay­ing alive.”

With all of this coun­try's wealth, pros­per­ity and seem­ingly end­less re­sources, it is easy to imag­ine that no Amer­i­can would ever go to bed cold, hun­gry or with­out a proper roof over their head. In fact, ac­cord­ing to the 2017 U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment's An­nual Home­less As­sess­ment Re­port, there are around 554,000 home­less peo­ple in the United States, or 0.17 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, the same HUD re­port states that, on any given night, more than 138,000 of the home­less in the United States are chil­dren.

Through­out our his­tory, there have been times when our cit­i­zens had to re­sort to more-prim­i­tive means of shel­ter from the el­e­ments be­cause a more-per­ma­nent struc­ture was not an op­tion. From the pi­o­neers who braved the bru­tally cold win­ters on their slow mi­gra­tion west­ward to those who lost ev­ery­thing in the Great De­pres­sion and the vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Maria’s de­struc­tion of parts of Puerto Rico last year, liv­ing with­out ad­e­quate shel­ter is a real part of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence that can af­flict any of us with­out warn­ing.

I men­tion this only to say that for the home­less, re­gard­less of how they lost their home, they still have to fill their im­me­di­ate need for shel­ter if they want to sur­vive.

It is not out­side the realm of pos­si­bil­ity that any­one, for any rea­son, could find them­selves

in a sit­u­a­tion where they needed to find or con­struct a sur­vival shel­ter. In the end, it all comes down to keep­ing the body’s core tem­per­a­ture at 98.6 de­grees (F), be­cause that is the key to sur­vival. That is why it is so im­por­tant to find or con­struct an in­su­lated shel­ter as soon as you re­al­ize you are in trou­ble.


Any type of win­ter shel­ter, whether it is a per­ma­nent build­ing, tent or a tem­po­rary sur­vival shel­ter, should sat­isfy five ba­sic cri­te­ria to max­i­mize ef­fec­tive­ness and safety. The shel­ter should— 1. Pro­vide pro­tec­tion from the nat­u­ral el­e­ments and other threats;

2. Be free of nat­u­ral and man­made haz­ards;

3. Have a sta­ble plat­form and con­struc­tion;

4. Re­tain heat; and

5. Pro­vide good ven­ti­la­tion.

The rule is that you start by sim­ply meet­ing the need for shel­ter. Then, you con­tinue to re­fine and im­prove your struc­ture to en­sure it con­tin­ues to meet your needs. Pro­tec­tion From the El­e­ments and

Threats. The shel­ter must pro­vide pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments and, to a de­gree, other out­side threats. Keep­ing sun, wind, rain, snow and other nat­u­ral el­e­ments from im­pact­ing your health is key to sur­vival, es­pe­cially in cold en­vi­ron­ments. Threats from preda­tors—both an­i­mal and hu­man—can be ad­dressed by se­lect­ing pru­dent lo­ca­tions and us­ing ap­pro­pri­ate con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als, cam­ou­flage tech­niques and other means.

Free­dom From Haz­ards. Your shel­ter needs to be free of nat­u­ral haz­ards, such as a large, over­hang­ing dead tree branch (“widow-maker”) that could dam­age your shel­ter and in­jure you if it falls. Don’t build where avalanches, mud­slides, floods or rock falls could en­dan­ger

your shel­ter. If you are in a high hu­man threat sit­u­a­tion, your shel­ter should ide­ally pro­vide you with both pro­tec­tion from small-arms fire (cover) as well as con­ceal­ment from any­one who might wish to do you harm.

Sta­bil­ity and Strength. Your shel­ter should be sta­ble and strong enough to with­stand the pres­sures ex­erted by snow loads and se­vere weather. Wind, heavy rain and snow can put sig­nif­i­cant stresses on sur­vival shel­ters and threaten their struc­tural in­tegrity. If your shel­ter won’t last, nei­ther will you. Make sure you are on a solid foun­da­tion and that you re­in­force the assem­bly of your frame­work with cordage, wire or other means to en­hance the shel­ter’s sta­bil­ity. This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant if the shel­ter you choose is in a struc­ture that has been da­m­aged, such as in the rub­ble of a build­ing or in an aban­doned home.

In these cases, un­seen struc­tural dam­age could make fur­ther col­lapse of that dwelling im­mi­nent and there­fore not a vi­able op­tion as a place of refuge. Heat Re­ten­tion. An­other very im­por­tant fac­tor to take into con­sid­er­a­tion is heat re­ten­tion. You should in­su­late the out­side of your sur­vival shel­ter with all the ap­pro­pri­ate ma­te­ri­als you have avail­able to use. After build­ing the frame­work, try to use a non­porous layer, such as a tarp, trash bags or even large leaves that are lay­ered like shin­gles over the frame­work. Then, use leaves and de­bris or even snow—an ex­cel­lent in­su­la­tor—to build up your outer shell and pro­vide the max­i­mum amount of warmth and heat re­ten­tion. If you are mak­ing your shel­ter in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, fol­low the same rules as they ap­ply to the space and ma­te­ri­als of your shel­ter. Re­mem­ber: A smaller space is eas­ier to keep warm.


Ven­ti­la­tion. One fea­ture of­ten over­looked when con­struct­ing shel­ters is ven­ti­la­tion. You can eas­ily die from car­bon diox­ide poi­son­ing if you have no way of cir­cu­lat­ing fresh air into your shel­ter at all times. This is com­pounded when you burn fuel for heat or cook­ing in­side your shel­ter, be­cause it pro­duces car­bon monox­ide, which is odor­less and in­vis­i­ble and can also kill you quite rapidly if it’s in a high enough con­cen­tra­tion. Al­ways be sure to make a ven­ti­la­tion hole at the top of your shel­ter and a fresh air en­try point, which is of­ten lo­cated near the en­try to the shel­ter. Both holes are needed to pro­mote a con­stant flow of fresh air to cir­cu­late in­side your sur­vival shel­ter.


When time is a ma­jor fac­tor, or if you just want to have a rel­a­tively safe place to base out of while you search for or con­struct a more ef­fi­cient shel­ter, nat­u­ral shel­ters such as caves or rock over­hangs might be your best op­tion. They are the eas­i­est to es­tab­lish and can be mod­i­fied by lay­ing walls of rocks, logs or branches across the open sides. Large, hol­low logs can be cleaned or dug out and then en­hanced with a pon­cho, tarp or pine boughs hung across the open­ing.

One im­por­tant point to be aware of is that nat­u­ral shel­ters might al­ready have “ten­ants”— snakes, bats, bears, moun­tain lions, rats, coy­otes or other an­i­mals—that will be re­luc­tant to give up their home for you. Other con­cerns from an­i­mal res­i­dents in­clude dis­ease from de­cay­ing car­casses or an­i­mal scat.


The type of shel­ter you seek out or con­struct is go­ing to cor­re­late with the sur­vival sit­u­a­tion you are pre­par­ing for. Here are a few more shel­ter tips to add to your sur­vival tool box in case you ever find your­self need­ing to seek shel­ter from the cold or other haz­ards in or­der to sur­vive:


Fire. Sur­vival sce­nar­ios can be deadly if you don’t have the abil­ity to make a fire. Fire warms your body and your shel­ter, cooks your food, and heats ice and snow so you can stay hy­drated with safe wa­ter.

Heat Re­ten­tion. Keep a low sil­hou­ette, and re­duce your liv­ing area to im­prove your heat re­ten­tion.

Emer­gency Blan­ket. You can find My­lar blan­kets in the camp­ing sec­tion of any big box store for a few dol­lars. They are quite small when folded and can be used to wa­ter­proof the roof or sides of a makeshift shel­ter or as a blan­ket to wrap your­self in. Their re­flec­tive ma­te­rial re­flects up to 90 per­cent of your body heat back to you.

Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion. When seek­ing shel­ter out in the wilder­ness, avoid val­ley floors and moist ground. Try to find higher ground to avoid wa­ter and slush runoff, but stay away from open hill­tops, be­cause the wind chill will be much greater there than any­place else. And stay out of the way of mud­slide and avalanche paths. Build your shel­ter in the vicin­ity of fire­wood, wa­ter and sig­nal­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, if nec­es­sary.

Wher­ever you choose to make your shel­ter, you should di­vide your space into four ar­eas: where you sleep, where you eat, where you clean your­self and where you re­lieve your­self. Make sure your la­trine is down­hill from your camp and as far as pos­si­ble from where you eat and source your wa­ter.

Snow In­su­la­tion. Cre­ate a ther­mal bar­rier by ap­ply­ing snow, if avail­able, to the shel­ter’s roof and walls.

Ve­hi­cle Shel­ter. If you are us­ing a car for shel­ter, con­sider park­ing some­place that will of­fer you se­cu­rity and some rel­a­tive safety (such as in the park­ing lot of a big box store that is open 24/7). That way, you can en­joy the se­cu­rity most of these fa­cil­i­ties pro­vide, as well as ac­cess to free drink­ing wa­ter and clean pub­lic re­strooms.


If you find your­self in a sit­u­a­tion where liv­ing in the el­e­ments is not as tem­po­rary as you might like, one of the best ways you can help pro­tect your camp­site and keep your­self warm is to adopt a healthy stray dog as a com­pan­ion.

You can’t watch your own back. If you can find some­one you trust (this can be harder than it sounds), it pays to stick to­gether so that while one of you is rest­ing, the other is awake and look­ing out for pos­si­ble threats.

Above: If there is a chance you could face this bleak scene, be sure you are pre­pared with the right gear, knowl­edge and at­ti­tude to come in from the cold. Far left: Never say that you will never be in a sit­u­a­tion where you will need to pro­vide al­ter­na­tive shel­ter for your fam­ily. The Great De­pres­sion forced mil­lions of av­er­age Amer­i­cans into makeshift shel­ters such as this lean-to.

Near left: At one point dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, the home­less rate rose above 25 per­cent—147 times as many home­less as we have to­day.



Be­low: While it has a strong roof, this shel­ter's lack of walls and ex­po­sure to the lake make it in­ef­fec­tive at re­tain­ing heat and pro­tect­ing oc­cu­pants from wind and snow, mak­ing it a dan­ger­ous choice.


Left: Snow caves are ex­cel­lent choices for pro­vid­ing shel­ter and pro­tec­tion from the harsh re­al­i­ties of win­ter weather.


Left: Tak­ing shel­ter in­side da­m­aged struc­tures, such as in the rub­ble of a wartorn build­ing, can be quite risky be­cause of pos­si­ble struc­tural weak­ness that could make fur­ther col­lapse of that struc­ture im­mi­nent.


Left: Even in the best of cir­cum­stances, it can take the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) awhile to get re­place­ment shel­ter to vic­tims of ma­jor dis­as­ters. Know­ing how to build an emer­gency shel­ter can help bridge the gap be­tween the loss of your home and govern­ment hous­ing as­sis­tance.


Above: Even if the sit­u­a­tion is dire, try to spend some time do­ing things that get your mind off the cir­cum­stances and al­low you to re­lax a lit­tle.

Near right: While stay­ing in a re­lief camp dur­ing emer­gen­cies might be an op­tion, make it your last re­sort—these camps are of­ten dirty and plagued by crime that can be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous for women, chil­dren, the el­derly and any­one not healthy enough to de­fend them­selves from wrong-do­ers.


It is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to con­struct some form of fire­wall in or­der to pro­tect the shel­ter from wind and re­flect some of the heat of your fire back into your shel­ter struc­ture.


One of the big­gest mis­takes peo­ple make when they be­come lost in the woods is that they sim­ply wait too long to stop try­ing to nav­i­gate them­selves back on track and start build­ing a sur­vival shel­ter for the night.


If your home were ren­dered un­liv­able in the win­ter, would you be able to build a suit­able al­ter­na­tive shel­ter that would sup­port and pro­tect your fam­ily?


Top right: If you find your­self need­ing to use your ve­hi­cle as a shel­ter in a win­ter sur­vival sce­nario, re­mem­ber to pe­ri­od­i­cally clear the snow off of it so it re­mains vis­i­ble to ground and air­borne res­cue crews. Keep the ex­haust pipe clear to pre­vent car­bon monox­ide buildup if you run the en­gine.


Bot­tom right: If you ex­pect an ex­tended stay in your shel­ter, also build a shel­ter for your fire­wood, be­cause snow and ice can sat­u­rate your wood with mois­ture, mak­ing it al­most im­pos­si­ble to burn.


Above: Fire is one of the hard­est of the prim­i­tive bushcraft skills to mas­ter. We can learn a lot by study­ing tech­niques used by those who still live ev­ery day de­pen­dent on their sur­vival skills, such as this San Bush­man, who is blow­ing on a small fire he started.


Near left: If you don’t have the abil­ity to make a fire, sur­vival sce­nar­ios can be deadly. Fire warms your body and your shel­ter, cooks your food, and melts ice and snow so you can stay hy­drated.

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