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Clan of the Cave Turtle: Basic Shelters
© 2006

This is the first of a series of articles I will publish throughout the year that will deal strictly with emergency shelters. I will start out with the ones I think you may need first, and later on move into more complicated shelters for longer-term living. I will assume that you have already packed the minimum supplies I have recommended, and that you will be moving through areas with trees of some kind. Stealth will be a factor.

I first started this article in a book I wrote for my family called Clan of the Cave Turtle. The photo above shows the original cave turtle coming out of his shelter. No, he doesn't have (or need) a name. However, it should be pointed out that this is the original survivalist, because he takes his shell-ter with him wherever he goes.

In an urban (city) environment, there is always shelter of some sort around. Man made buildings abound and in an emergency, many of them will be vacant. Look around, and CAREFULLY help yourselves.

Back to the forest:

Fallen Tree Shelter

This illustration came from Shelters, Shacks and Shanties, by Daniel Carter Beard, first printing 1914.
Renewal printing 1942, Charles Scribner�s Sons. It covers the "Shelter for the day".

(Reference Figure 11 in the illustration)

For a one-man, one-night camp, see if you can find a thick-foliage fir tree that has already fallen over. A tree already down is preferable to cutting one down. $$$$ = fines.
Failing that, find one that is still standing, preferably in the middle of a clump of trees that cannot be seen from any angle. Cut it partly through the trunk so that it will fall as seen in Figure 11, above. Then trim off the branches on the underneath side so as to leave room to make your bed under the branches.

Next, Trim the branches off of the top or roof of the trunk, and use them to thatch the roof. (Thatching will be shown later.) Do this by setting the branches with their butts up as shown in the right hand shelter (Figure 13) above. Thatch with smaller and smaller branches and you will make a cozy one-night shelter.

If the tree is large enough, more than one person could share the shelter.

LEAN-TO (Referred to by Mr. Beard as "THE SCOUT MASTER")

Take three forked sticks (A, B, and C of Figure 12, above), and interlock the forked ends so that they will stand as shown in Figure 12. Over this framework, you can stretch a canvass or tarpaulin, one or more ponchos, or branches.

To use branches, rest the branches with the butt ends up as shown on the right-hand shelter, (Figure 13, above). Or, lay a number of poles as shown in the left-hand figure (Figure 12, above). Thatch this with small branches as illustrated in the same figure.
If you are really energetic and have a lot of time, Take elm, spruce, or birch bark and shingle it as shown in Figure 14.

CAUTION: The US Forest Service rangers do not take kindly to stripping bark off of trees for shelter. If caught, you may pay a fine the equivalent to the cost of your car.

CAUTION #2: All these shelters are highly flammable. Keep away from fires. If you need heat inside these shelters, heat up rocks and move the hot rocks in with you. You will probably have to change the rocks about once per hour depending on the outside temperature. It beats freezing to death.


Thatching is the use of plants or plant fibers as a construction material, primarily for roofs, but can be used for any surface that needs a cover. The advantage of thatching is that it is made from locally available plants, hay, wheat stalks, reeds, tree limbs, etc. It is, however, labor intensive. The reeds or plants are tied or woven onto a lightly constructed frame, as seen in the photo on the left from Hawaii.

Roofs are made much thicker than the side walls since they have to shed rain. The reason that thatch works is that the reeds or branches are closely packed. As water hits the top reed, it flows down hill and hits another reed underneath it. Rain water continues to run off until it reaches the overhang of the roof. In areas of cold weather, the thickness of the thatch adds an insulating layer of air on the roof top. Cover this with a poncho to insure a water-tight roof. A small frame makes a good shelter door.



I don't care what type of ground it is, or how warm the outside air may be. The ground will "suck" the heat out of your body and will transfer moisture to you, your clothing and your bedding. You will be cold and absolutely miserable if you do. There are a lot of commercial mattress pads out there, of various price ranges. My preference is the inflatable type, similar to those you blow up for the swimming pool. You can make or purchase stuff-sacks that hold them rolled up for easy portability. It doesn't have to be pretty. Nobody sees it.

Coleman's Ultralight Camp Pad (bottom photo) only weighs in at 1.5 pounds. Others should be equal to, or less than this weight. Remember, you've got to carry it. A very large plastic bag will work too.

Ground Cover: A ground cover is any material (man-made or natural foliage) that puts some form of a gap between you and the ground. Some campers call this a ground sheet. It can be a sleeping pad, a foam pad, or air mattress. It could be as simple as a piece of waterproof canvass or a piece of plastic. You can even take the smallest of the soft fir branches you can find and make a layer at least 6" thick (12" is better) and stretch out on this. The air pockets in the foliage will create the "gap" you need. The bigger the gap, the more comfortable you will be.


REMEMBER: By getting your body OFF the ground, you will be WARMER in Winter, and COOLER in Summer.

Remember my Survivorman article? Les Stroud? One of his shows, I think it was in the Rockies, he was really running late setting up his camp. His first night was spent sleeping in a "half-cave" of a rock formation. He slept on the cold, bare rock all night. When he started filming again in the morning, he looked like death-warmed-over. He really suffered the rest of the next day. He spent the rest of his 2nd day making a proper shelter.

In the Philippines, I attended PACAF Jungle Survival School in northern Luzon. Snake School. (PACAF is Pacific Air Forces) The instructors there spent long hours beating into our heads that to be on the ground is to be vulnerable to every critter that walks or crawls. By raising your bed, even a few inches, you give yourself a chance that most "critters" will walk under you, not over you. That evening, I made a bed out of branches and bamboo that looked like a 6-foot by 2-foot lashed picnic table. I covered this with palm leaves. For a roof, I strung up my poncho to look like a flying pup tent. I slept like a dry log all night. It was a good thing, too. I had inadvertently set my bed under a tree that drips water all night long. I thought it was raining. It was the tree dripping on me. Oh well, I was dry as a bone. Others in my group, too lazy to make the raised sleeping platform, were soaked to the bone. Even though the coldest it got that night was a balmy 75 degrees, they were freezing. Later, during the "Evasion Phase", I was forced to sleep on my poncho, on the ground. I found the footprints of a very large jungle rat all over my blanket in the morning. There's a lesson learned here.