American Survival Guide - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Dana Ben­ner

Build your own emer­gency refuge.

Emer­gency/sur­vival sit­u­a­tions hap­pen all the time, and most have noth­ing to do with nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or ter­ror­ist threats. Far more hap­pen due to hu­man er­ror and mainly im­pact those who ven­ture out un­pre­pared. The colder months of fall and win­ter seem to be when these er­rors hap­pen the most. I live in north­ern New Eng­land, a moun­tain­ous re­gion full of hid­den dan­gers, in­clud­ing rapidly chang­ing weather pat­terns. Snow can hap­pen at any time start­ing in Oc­to­ber. Tem­per­a­tures fluc­tu­ate from 60 de­grees (F) to well be­low freez­ing. Foot­ing is of­ten treach­er­ous, even dur­ing the best of times, and turned an­kles and knees, slips and falls, and cold-weather dan­gers are al­ways present.

Emer­gen­cies can hap­pen to the best of us, whether we are pre­pared or not, but many can be avoided if you are ready to deal with the sit­u­a­tion.

If you ever find your­self the vic­tim of such a sit­u­a­tion, would you know what to do? The first thing you need to do is stay calm, as­sess your sit­u­a­tion and think out your next move. If you can’t get your­self out, you need to build some sort of emer­gency shel­ter to pro­tect your­self from the el­e­ments.

Very few peo­ple carry a tent in their day­pack. This means you’ll need to find a good lo­ca­tion and use the ma­te­ri­als you have on hand to build your shel­ter. Your shel­ter doesn’t need to be like a cozy room at the Hol­i­day Inn, but keep in mind that this could be a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion. If you let oth­ers know where you were hik­ing, chances are you will be res­cued within a day or two. Con­se­quently, your shel­ter only needs to keep you alive for a rel­a­tively short du­ra­tion.


In some sit­u­a­tions, you have the lux­ury of pick­ing your shel­ter lo­ca­tion; at other times, you do not. An in­jured leg or arm could keep you from mov­ing very far, so you need to deal with what you have nearby.

If you can, pick an area that of­fers you as much nat­u­ral cover as pos­si­ble. Groves of ev­er­greens,


such as spruce and hem­lock, are per­fect. They act as a wind­break, and the limbs will help keep snow and rain off you. Caves are also good choices, but you need to be aware that other an­i­mals also look to them for shel­ter. Make sure you are the only oc­cu­pant and that it’s rel­a­tively free of an­i­mal waste, rot­ting car­casses and other po­ten­tial health haz­ards. You don’t want to make a bad sit­u­a­tion worse. Rocky cliff walls and fallen trees that block the north wind are also great start­ing points. Even a large hole or de­pres­sion shouldn’t be dis­counted.

You should have told some­one where you were go­ing and when to ex­pect you back. If you did, any res­cue at­tempts will be launched based on that in­for­ma­tion. You will want to stay as close to that gen­eral area as pos­si­ble. Don’t wan­der away to find the “per­fect spot” for your shel­ter.


Take stock of what you have to work with. Start with what you are car­ry­ing. I carry some ba­sic items in my hunt­ing/hik­ing pack (see the side­bar to the right) that will get me through in an emer­gency. Be­sides food, wa­ter, fire-start­ing ma­te­ri­als and ex­tra cloth­ing, I also carry some cordage and a small fold­ing saw. On my belt, I wear a heavy-bladed bush knife. These are the tools I will use to build my shel­ter.

Next, look at the nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als around you. What is avail­able, and what can you rea­son­ably take ad­van­tage of? Rocks (to build walls and re­flect heat from your fire into your shel­ter), fallen tim­ber (used to build walls, a wind­break or to form a roof over your head), ev­er­green branches (to line your sleep­ing area or used as roofing), leaf lit­ter (for in­su­la­tion or bed­ding) and even snow

(for walls or the en­tire shel­ter) can all be used ef­fec­tively. Re­mem­ber: Work smart, not hard.


Big­ger is not nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter. In any type of sur­vival sit­u­a­tion, but es­pe­cially in cold weather, the goal is to re­tain as much body heat as pos­si­ble. This means think­ing small when build­ing your shel­ter.

The smaller the area you need to heat, the warmer you will stay. Your sur­vival shel­ter should be no larger than what your body and your gear can com­fort­ably fit into.


In these sit­u­a­tions, I like the “Keep it sim­ple, stupid” way of think­ing. What type of shel­ter takes the least amount of time and ef­fort to build? What is the best one for my sit­u­a­tion, and can it be built with the ma­te­ri­als at hand?

The three eas­i­est shel­ters to build in a wilder­ness sit­u­a­tion are lean-tos, de­bris shel­ters and snow



h Left: This sin­gle-per­son shel­ter cov­ers the im­me­di­ate es­sen­tials— weather pro­tec­tion, as well as a heat source for warmth and melt­ing snow and ice into wa­ter. No­tice the wind break pro­tect­ing the fire area.

h Top: Be­gin­ning the lean-to build­ing process in an arid area of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The process is the same ev­ery­where, even if the ma­te­ri­als are dif­fer­ent. (Photo: Christo­pher Ny­erges)

h Above: The bones of this two-sided lean-to are up. No­tice the shade from the hot sun that this struc­ture of­fers. (Photo: Christo­pher Ny­erges)

Find a shel­tered lo­ca­tion to keep out of the wind. Then, build a fire and make a shel­ter.

Two of the tools the au­thor finds in­valu­able for shel­ter build­ing: a Ger­ber Gator fold­ing saw and an L.T. Wright Jess­muk JX2 bush knife

The au­thor’s trusted Ger­ber Gator fold­ing saw and L.T. Wright Jess­muk JX2 bush knife are ready to hit the trail.

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