Among all the things a successful outdoorsman (or woman) must have in his possession, a working knowledge of how to meet the challenges of exposure to the elements is one of the most crucial. While water is essential to life and fire is necessary for warmth, shelter ranks among the top three priorities for human survival.
Without adequate cover, wind and damp conditions can turn an overnight in the wilderness into a miserable and dangerous situation. To survive, the body must maintain its core temperature; wind chill and damp clothing rob the body of heat and threaten deadly hypothermia. As a measure of protection from the elements and to conserve body heat, knowing how to build an emergency shelter may be necessary for getting home alive. Bear in mind that survival structures work best when they conserve energy. Restricting the air space around the body retains precious warmth, while utilizing materials as they are found reduces physical effort.
Whatever the landscape offers will be the optimum materials for building a camp. The tools the outdoorsman has on hand will greatly effect the type of structure that can be built. Topography plays a part in locating camp, but safety and level of protection is absolutely the first priority.
Pits are usually constructed in soft soil by digging a shallow trench to lie in, or located where a natural depression already exists. Short branches span the pit to add a roof while bark panels, pine boughs or grasses are layered over the top. Pits are susceptible to flooding, so they work best in arid areas and are good for combating high winds.
Debris huts, as they are commonly known, are made from branches, twigs, leaf litter and mosses that are easily found in dense hardwood forests. The debris hut works by constructing a lean-to or tripod of large branches, walled in with smaller vertical branches. The outside is then heaped up with pine boughs, fallen leaves and even snow. As one of the warmer structures, a debris hut requires no special tools.
Also known as snow caves, snow shelters make extreme survival possible by providing wind-proof insulation. Even a few inches of snow can be used to turn barren ground into a protective den by packing and stacking it up igloo-style. Alternatively, in deep snow, you can simply dig a snow pit, span it with pine boughs and cover the entire structure with snow. Snow caves can be reinforced from the inside with a small fire inside to glaze and solidify internal walls.
Image via US Army Africa