December was a crazy month – it always is during the run up to the holidays, trying to prepare at home, and preemptively get everything done at work. Like I mentioned in the run-up to Christmas though, I had plans, and some of them have come to fruition.
Oysters on the Campfire
In mid-December, I was able to complete a trip focused on practicing some Wilderness Survival skills and techniques, including improvised shelters. We had 14 of us out there, working on water purification techniques, a little orienteering (we had to find the food that was “airdropped” to us!), and building fires without matches. In the spirit of eating wild, foraged food, we enjoyed a few oysters on the campfire too!
The real focus, though, was shelter – and in winter temperatures, shelter was pretty important. It only got down to 28 degF (-2.2 degC), but that counts!
So, just like a little kid, I got a bona-fide excuse to build a “fort” with sticks and leaves in the woods, AND spend the night in it! There are some good techniques to building a debris shelter. That’s what it’s actually called. It sounds like a pile of trash, but it’s a shelter made from downed trees, limbs, sticks, leaf litter – whatever you can find – without any permanent construction.
Here’s some tips to pulling this off, if you’re so inclined:
1) Minimize the work, find some dense wood/brush, use (sturdy) downed trees – anything that will provide shelter and ready-made structure. I once had a shelter in 5 minutes, just burrowing into the branches of a large downed beech tree that still had its leaves. Look for something you can improve, rather than build completely from scratch.
2) Pick a good site – out of the wind, providing some natural shelter, and stay above the low spots, particularly in the cold. Cold air will settle into the valleys overnight and it can be a few degrees warmer just a little higher (like I was here).
3) Insulate with what you can! Really you should start with several feet of leaves underneath you, but I had limited headroom. Cold ground will suck heat away quickly, and a bed of leaves helps a lot. Same on top – it doesn’t look like much, but that insulation keeps you dry and toasty! Surprisingly weather-proof too! (It’s not thatching, but it still works!)
4) Keep it small – just like heating your house in winter, bigger isn’t better if you’re trying to stay comfortable with a limited furnace (your body). This little shelter was snug, but that’s what you need! If you have a buddy, you’ve got twice as big a furnace – resist the urge to make your shelter too roomy. If you’ve found or made a good ridgepole, make sure it’s high enough, but not TOO high, then stack branches along the sides to provide a net to catch the leaf blanket you’ll pile on top. Seal all the entrances – I pulled my backpack and my winter coat over the entrance hole to completely seal myself in for the night. It was dark, but warm!!
5) Use a moisture barrier underneath your sleeping gear. I used a sleeping bag, but no ground pad. Contrary to popular belief, the pad is not there to serve as a mattress. Its primary function is to insulate you against the ground – hence the need for as many leaves, and air pockets, as possible. All that said – lay down a garbage bag or some other barrier, if you can, between your bag and the leaves, to avoid sucking up any moisture. If you get any wetness in this setup at all, you’re going to be worse off.
With this setup, I stayed nice and warm, and didn’t even realize it had dropped below freezing. In this instance, we did it for fun – but if you spend time outdoors, its a good skill to know, and practicing really is a great time.
Good luck and have fun!
Get Out There!