COME IN FROM THE COLD
CREATE A WARM SHELTER IN THE WINTER.
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.
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.
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:
IF YOU LEARN TO SPEAK HER LANGUAGE, MOTHER NATURE WILL WARN YOU WITH RISING WIND CHILLS AND DROPPING TEMPERATURES.
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.