You’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and you need shelter now. A cold wind is about to bring in a cold rain, and hypothermia is a very real possibility unless you can stay dry and warm. Or maybe you’re in the desert and you need protection from the sun. Here are six improvised shelters that can keep you comfortable or, if things get really bad, save your life.
Tarp Pup Tent
All you need for this is a tarp, or even a sheet of plastic, and some sort of line, like 550 parachute cord. You tie the line tight in between two trees. If wind is a factor, make one end higher than the other. The lower end of the line points to the direction of the wind, so when you drape your tarp over the line that end it will be much lower to the ground, closing off that end of the pup tent and protecting you from the wind. Drape the tarp over the line and anchor its corners with heavy objects such as rocks. Penetrating the tarp with tent stakes or sticks to try to hold the corners down will just lead to long tears in the material for the wind to whistle through. Brrrr!
This one requires less line but more tarp. Grab a stone a little smaller than your fist and place it underneath the center of the tarp, then grab it from above the tarp and tie a loop of your cord tight underneath it. This is an old school way of anchoring the middle of a cloth or canvas area without puncturing it. Now that you have your line tied tight to the middle of the tarp, tie the other end to an overhanging branch, which will hang the tarp from its middle in the air. Make sure the branch is secure, you don’t want a widow maker that comes crashing down onto your head in the middle of the night! Use rocks as anchor points again to spread out the base of the tarp and form the distinctive cone or teepee shape. Without a dedicated entrance flap, getting inside the tarp teepee can be challenging, but once you’re in you are very protected from wind and water.
This one goes out to my friend Chris, who swears that the combination poncho-shelter half is the coolest item ever issued to the U.S. infantryman. He loves to get all Swiss Family Robinson with poncho halves out in the field. If you have a couple of these units you can snap them together to create a big tarp-like square waterproof sheet. Even a single poncho can be used to make a small shelter that’s better than, um, wearing a poncho. They have reinforced grommets built right in. You can use the grommets to tie two corners up high to tree trunks, then anchor the other corners down low with sticks or tent stakes through the grommets there. You’ll want to angle the square at a 45-degree angle, and if possible the low side should be facing directly into the wind. The lean-to is super fast and super simple, but it doesn’t offer much protection from cold. If possible, build a fire on the side opposite the wind, and let the heat radiate into the protected area under the lean-to.
Underground shelters can be a real lifesaver but take much more time and effort to construct. In a survival situation you need to balance the energy you will spend on creating this shelter with the benefit received by its protection. If you spent all day building this thing and then only get a couple of hours in it before you have to move on, you are going to feel ripped off. You’ll want something to dig with, a shovel or E-tool or even a helmet, if you want to know how the Marines on Guadalcanal felt. Dig a trench long and deep enough for you to lie down in, then cover one end of it with your tarp, poncho halves, or even sticks and leaves, or anything that will cover it up without collapsing. Anchor your tarp well and then put some earth and vegetation on top of it for added insulation. If you’re in a desert environment and trying to cool off, making multiple layers of “roof” with an airspace between them can help cool the temperatures underneath significantly. Digging the covered trench deep into the side of the hill gives you a protected area that you can shoot out of without giving away your position—thus the name “sniper hole.” At the Battle of Khe Sahn the North Vietnamese dug individual sniper holes deep enough to protect them from napalm dropped on the hillsides!
Sometimes you want to be as close to the ground as possible, like in the sniper hole, and sometimes you need to be off the ground. If the ground is wet and marshy and you just can’t get to a dry spot, a hammock will keep you off the ground and let you get dry for awhile. Nobody likes trench foot! Fold your tarp in half length-wise so it is longer than it is wide. Larger tarps can be folded in half a second time. Gather two corners together and tie a big knot around them about nine inches from the end. Bring the end over to the knot, and tie another big knot to the first knot with the same line. This makes a loop of tarp held together by the knots. Then tie the loop to a sturdy tree trunk or branch, and do the same for the other side, a bit lower. You’ll sleep better if your head is a bit higher than your feet. Your tarp is now stretched between two trees—climb inside and wrap yourself up in there. Hammocks are also great in areas where dangerous ground critters like scorpions or snakes can really ruin your camping experience. Their disadvantage is in cold weather—you’ll literally be swinging in the wind with no insulation at all, so they are a poor option when temps are down.
Debris Hut Shelter
Okay, let’s say you foolishly left your tarp or poncho behind. A debris shelter is basically the same as the tarp pup tent, but you are going to need to build it out of stuff you found lying around on the ground. If you have a machete or hatchet and you are in a wooded area, get ready to hack and slash. You’ll need to take a long branch and turn it into a pole by removing smaller branches coming off of it. Lean your pole up against a tree stump or a rock, or tie two smaller branches to the pole to form an “A” frame holding it up. The pole needs to be far enough off the ground for you to fit underneath it. Now lean branches and sticks against your pole on each side, making an “A” shape that starts small at the end where the pole touches the ground and grows taller and taller towards the end where the pole is highest. These branches and sticks will grab onto the debris you’ll throw on top, leaves and twigs and whatever you can find lying around. All that stuff will insulate you and keep the rain off… mostly.