Gimme Shelter!

It is m0002-survival-prioritiesore than a Rolling Stones song!


By Benjamin ‘Raven’ Pressley


What is the number one reason people die in a survival situation? Statistically speaking it is the mistakes they make, paranoia, thinking more about what they don’t have instead of what they do have. The number two killer is exposure.     Your top four priorities, in order of importance, are as follows: SHELTER, FIRE, WATER, then FOOD. Why this order? Most people that die when thrust into a survival situation die of exposure, not hunger or thirst. An emergency shelter can be as simple as a natural shelter, such as a hollow tree or cave. It really depends on how much time you have and what you have to work with. It also depends on what you need shelter from (temperature, rain, snow, etc.) In some cases you may not need shelter overhead you may just need a well insulated ground bed. I have read journals of early explorers surviving a cold night by putting some natural insulation between them and the ground and sitting in an upright fetal position, with back leaned against a tree and covering themselves under a blanket.

The secret to insulation and staying warm is surrounding yourself with some material that will retain dead air space. This should be a consideration even in the clothing you buy for outdoors. Your clothing should be able to maintain dead air space even when wet. For instance, down is a fine insulator until it becomes wet, then it clumps up and even squeezing it out only clumps it up more. Holofil or some other modern insulator is a better choice because it can be squeezed out, shaken and dead air space and insulating qualities return. Cotton clothing by itself is not a good choice for outdoor clothing. When it gets wet it takes too long to dry and has no insulating qualities especially when wet. This slow evaporation though can be a plus in a hot area where you need to have heat taken away from your body. Layering different materials is best. That way you can take off a layer as needed. If you are caught in the cold and don’t have these materials all is not lost. Tie the cuffs of your shirt and pants legs and stuff your clothing with dry leaves and grass. You may look like a scarecrow but it could save your life!

Types of Shelters

If there is enough snow on the ground a simple snow cave can be constructed by making a depression in the snow and covering it with branches. If the depression can be filled with leaves and other natural insulation, all the better. The consideration here is getting out of the wind and putting a barrier between you and the ground. Many campers make the mistake of putting more blankets over them than under them and wonder why they remain cold. It is because of the tremendous amount of heat loss conducted to the ground.

debris-frame  debris-covered debris-shelter-snow 

Debris Shelter

There are many emergency shelters that can be built with the materials around you, such as lean-to’s, wickiups, etc. but the quickest, most efficient emergency shelter to build is the debris shelter (see pictures). It will keep you warm even when the temperature drops down into the ‘teens. Simply described, it is constructed of a center pole that may be leaned against a tree and be of sufficient length to allow you to lie down comfortably and sit up in a cross-legged fashion with a head’s height above your head. This allows for freedom of movement, in case you are in there for a long time. Other branches are then leaned against it leaving an opening to one side near the tree supporting it, only big enough to crawl through. Smaller branches are then laid on top of these creating a spider web effect. Then leaves are poured all over to a thickness of 12 inches or more and branches are laid on top of this to keep them from blowing away. The shelter is then filled with dry leaves and packed down 3 times. You may then crawl inside and surround yourself with this natural insulation, scooping enough against the door to cover it or construct a door from matting cattail leaves together or some similar matting. If you have ever taken time to take a squirrel’s nest apart you would see a similarity. I have personally tested this type of shelter at 15 degrees F with it snowing, with only jeans and a T-shirt on and spent the night and remained perfectly warm.

build-wickiup  wickiup-at-onelife  wickiup-snow3Wickiup

A wickiup is basically a teepee shaped structure made from natural material (see picture). It takes longer to construct. It is more of a long-term shelter. You may make it any height or diameter you wish. With any shelter it is always a good idea to not build it any bigger than is needed and the smaller the opening the better. This consideration is important because the larger the space the more it will take to heat it and to keep it warm. The larger the opening the more of a chance there is for heat to escape. (I know I am mostly addressing heat loss in my discussion but a well insulated shelter can also be useful to protect you from overheating. Allowances being made for body heat.)

To build a wickiup get three strong limbs that you can interlock or tie at the top establishing your height and three points on your circumference. These are the infrastructure that all else will depend upon so it is important they be strong. I have even built these three limbs against a center pole of a live tree. They must be securely tied together or interlocked securely in some manner at the top and they must have a stake driven in the ground at the end of each one to keep it from collapsing. Then you proceed to layer more and more limbs and eventually cover with debris like leaves, bark or whatever you have the most of. I have even covered one with lots of small junipers (cedars) before. It really depends on what material you have available. I usually lay the first layer of branches with limbs pointing up so they will serve to hold the next layer in place from sliding down. You do want to finish with a layer of limbs facing down though so water will run down. Use what you have. If you have a lot of vines wrap a course of vines every now and then to hold everything in place. While building leave only a small entrance you can crawl into. Then make a door of some sort to cover the opening that you can pull shut from the inside. I usually make two panels by lashing several limbs together patterned to cover my entrance. Then I take these two panels and sandwich debris between them and then lash the two panels together to hold everything in place. This panel construction is a good technique to know. You can create several panels like this and use them to cover a framework creating a shelter like the Paiute did.

100_1214  double-lean-to  jay-in-shelterLean-To

The lean-to is a good choice if constructed properly. I like to construct a double lean-to or some type of reflector wall in front of my lean-to for the purpose of reflecting heat into the area where I will be sleeping (see pictures and drawing). You then build a trench fire the entire width of the opening and lay across the width parallel to the fire. This will maximize warmth from your fire. In case of a double lean-to one party sleeps in one lean-to and another party sleeps in the other with fire between the two lean-to’s with both parties benefiting from the fire.

Ground Beds

Ground beds are generally of two different types. One is a debris bed and the other is a hot coal bed. Ground beds are only practical if you are in an area where it is safe to sleep on the ground. Concerns would be particularly aggressive insects or known predators that could harm you in your sleep. In cases such as these you need to get up off of the ground and build a platform or hammock of some type.

A debris bed is as simple as enclosing a space with logs and then filling it with soft dry debris such as leaves, pine needles or dried grass. Build the layer of debris 24-36 inches because it will pack down as you sleep on it. Choosing soft, level high ground, if possible, is important also.

A hot coal bed is a little more involved and tricky to sleep on. Basically you dig out a space big enough on the ground that you are going to sleep on and dig a depth of eight inches in the ground. You then build a fire and let coals burn down till you have a good layer of coals. Then you cover the coals with about eight inches of dirt and smooth it out and you lay on top of this space. As the heat of the coals comes through the ground it will heat you and keep you warm. The tricky part is if you are one of those who roll around a lot during your sleep and you dig a spot out accidentally while you’re sleeping you will get burned.

There are many possibilities for shelter. These are the ones I consider most viable in a survival situation though. Space does not permit me here to cover the bark covered shelter, the cattail leaf covered shelter and many others. Again, be resourceful. Work with what you have. Use your head. Layer your clothing. Wear clothing that dries quickly. Know how your body loses heat.

Benjamin ‘Raven’ Pressley has been teaching survival skills since 1986. He has written for many magazines and is considered by many to be a primitive and survival skills expert. This article is an excerpt from his book CAN YOU SURVIVE? Available along with many other resources on his website


By Benjamin ‘Raven’ Pressley
NOW ONLY $15.95
5 STAR REVIEW!  Primitive Survival Perfectly Explained, February 18, 2016 By Scifi Fan
This review is from: Can You Survive?: Basic Primitive, Survival and Wilderness Living Skills (Paperback)
I received a review copy of this book based on a publicly recognized shared expert knowledge of wood lore and I must say first off, that I am quite pleased
with the authors well written descriptive training for those that are trying to learn the art of primitive survival. The books author “Raven” has drawn from his heritage and applied a great deal of his continuing practice and research in using the basics of bushcraft to try to sustain ones self while using traditional time proven practices of a bygone era of Stone Age technology and beyond. The book details many practical and effective methods displayed in many crisp well placed illustrations as well as further articulated in clear photos of the author himself demonstrating what his unique prose is trying to further convey to both the layman and practiced woodsman in techniques of using natural elements in survival. You will learn many forgotten talents and survival tricks in this book that runs the gamut from the rudiments of just starting a fire and staying alive to catching animals and smoking hides so that they will be resistant to odors and bacteria. A Primitive survival book written by a true practitioner and it shows! I highly recommend this book.

“Your books are excellent. They are accurate, understandable and the illustrations are superb. For classes and teaching purposes I have never used a better resource.”—D.S., Educator, Philadelphia, PA

on March 8, 2016
I recently received a copy of this book from a friend while on a camping trip, and I had the free time to read it cover to cover during the drive home. I really enjoyed this book! I have been reading books about Wilderness Survival & Living for many years and still learned a bunch of little tid-bits and jewels of ideas found within this author’s work. The illustrations and photos are of a uniquely high quality….visually describing complex tasks in clear and easy to view pictures and diagrams. The pages and layout are very easy to view and I found myself dog-earing pages along the way to review further!
I would recommend this work to both novice and more experienced woodsmen alike that are looking for a well constructed analysis of the skills and knowledge required to live in a primitive outdoor situation.
Well Done….


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