If you camp often and spend a lot of time in the wild, you probably know how to pitch a tent and keep warm and safe at night. But what do you do if you find yourself lost and alone, without any of the gear you normally rely on?
Finding food and clean water is important, but don’t forget that having a good shelter is crucial for your survival. There are lots of shelter types for various situations, from the desert to the Arctic. But if you’re lost in the woods and night is falling, what you want is a debris hut.
Versatile and simple, a debris hut requires some good branches and a lot of leaves and grasses. But before you set out on your next trip, make sure you know how to build one, what you’ll need and where to put it.
The last thing you want to do is build a great shelter, only to bed down and realize you just moved into a mosquito breeding ground. You want to be near a water source to save time and energy during the day, but remember that bodies of water are mosquito home territory. The ground around them is prone to flooding when it rains and the ground is often damp.
Instead, find high, dry, flat ground. Any place with natural insulation from wind is good. Once you start building your shelter, you can’t change it’s location, so choose carefully.
Start by finding a stout ridgepole, about two feet longer than you are tall. If it’s too short, you won’t fit in your shelter; too long and your shelter will be too big. Find a tree stump, boulder or tree fork about waist height; this will support one end of the ridgepole.
Gather around 30 sticks, each one slightly longer than the one before it. These will form the sides, or ribs, of your hut. Then get together a lot of leaves (drier is better), grasses and other debris for the hut’s insulating layer. Find a bunch of small, light branches to lay over the debris, so it doesn’t blow away during the night.
Lay one end of the ridgepole on the stump or boulder and secure the other end on the ground with rocks. Make sure it won’t budge, even in wind. The pole is the spine of your hut; if it goes down, everything goes with it.
Your head will be under the high point, which will serve as a door. Orient the ridgepole so that the opening is facing away from the wind. If the air is still, you can put it on the east side, to benefit from the warmth of the rising sun.
Lay the ribbing sticks to form the sides of the hut, each about an inch apart. Before going ahead, crawl inside to check its size. Your body heat will have to fill the whole space, so keep it as small as possible, while making sure you fit comfortably.
Now that you’ve got the skeleton of your hut, pile on the leaves and grass you gathered to insulate it. You want a layer at least two feet thick; if it’s cold out, at least three. Then lay more branches on top to keep everything in place.
Don’t just insulate the outside of the hut. Bare ground sucks away body heat, so lay down a carpet of debris for a sleeping pad. Pile up some more debris and branches to close the opening once you’re inside.
Then settle down for the night, get some sleep, and get ready for another day of survival when the sun comes up.
Follow Alex on Twitter.