Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Nature Can Be Brutal. It Can Also Be Generous. You Just Have to Recognize the Gift When Nature Presents It.
Most of us have the basic knowledge to build a lean-to in the woods. The design is simple, the materials are available, and the concept is obvious. And it can take an hour or two to build from scratch.
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In any survival situation, time is often the only luxury. How you use that time determines survival success. That’s why you have to make the best of the time you have because every place in the world has to confront one inevitability: It gets dark outside.
Approaching nightfall is a bad time to be scrambling around to locate or gather the things you need to survive in the wilderness. The same goes for a sudden storm front, high winds, or snowfall that turns into a whiteout.
In any wilderness survival situation, a fire is always a priority. So is water. You can do without food for a couple of days. But shelter is high on the list of priorities and often takes the most time to construct. Natural shelters are everywhere if you recognize them, and many can make short work of any shelter construction.
We’re going to explore 10 types of natural shelters. We’ll also consider ways to quickly adapt nature’s materials to make the addition of a poncho or emergency blanket an instant shelter. Time is of the essence when the cold of night or worse approaches. These quick shelters will give you the time you need to get that fire started and get through the night.
With any luck, you’ll be carrying or wearing a poncho and maybe carrying a mylar blanket in your pocket. In fact, carrying just three items will give you the ability to make any shelter fast if you let nature do most of the work.
We’ll provide estimated times for completion for all of these natural shelters. The shorter times assume the use of an emergency blanket or poncho as part of the construction. Longer times are estimates for construction with found materials.
1. From Two Trees to a Lean-To
It’s not hard to find two trees growing next to each other. If the ground is level and not in a low spot to collect water, an emergency blanket and some cordage can make short work of an effective lean-to to protect you in a sudden downpour, winds or snow. This assumes you’ve carried an emergency blanket with you, but given its pocket size, why not?
Estimated time to complete: 5 minutes
2. Cavity of An Uprooted Tree
There are times when we don’t have things like an emergency blanket to make it all easy. That’s when a natural shelter can make all the difference. It’s going to require a bit of housekeeping and a little digging, but the cavity of an uprooted tree can make short work of a windbreak and protection from the elements to some degree.
The heat from a fire facing the cavity will be captured by the natural cavity. The branches of the tree itself are a good source of firewood as well.
Estimated time to complete: 5 to 15 minutes
3. A Lean-To Head Start
Trees that have broken over without breaking from the stump can give you the top structure that will make short work of a lean-to. Sticks and branches can be leaned against the horizontal trunk, or once again you can use your poncho or an emergency blanket to finish the job. Leaves, bark, and grasses can help to further protect you from the wind, rain, and snow. But be careful out there.
Nature isn’t always fair. This branch shows a gap where it has broken from the tree. It’s not worth the risk. Keep looking.
Estimated time to complete: 5 to 30 minutes
4. Very Large Deadfalls
The trunk of a large deadfall tree can provide you quick and instant protection from rain or snow. Make sure the branches supporting the trunk are sturdy. If for any chance the trunk were to fall on you, it would be bad.
Like other horizontal structures in nature, you can stack branches against the trunk to further enclose your shelter and other materials like bark or grasses to provide a windbreak and shingles against the rain and snow. Here again, you could just duck under the tree to dodge a downpour or sudden snow squall.
Estimated time to complete: 0 to 20 minutes
5. Naturally Obvious
Sometimes nature surprises us with a natural form that simply says, “Here I am.” A tree bent to the ground with a natural arch is made-to-order for either a lean-to or A-Frame. The surrounding trees offer branches for support and the generous leaf litter can serve as natural shingles on your roof. Throwing a poncho or emergency blanket over the top makes everything easy.
Estimated time to complete: 5 to 30 minutes
6. Nature’s A-Frame
An A-Frame design is the best for heavy precipitation whether it be rain, snow, or sleet. A deadfall supported by its branches can make short work of this design. You’ll need to carefully clear some of the branches that might fill the space you need to huddle or sleep, but the branches supporting the tree from the ground are instant parts of the structure.
Adding more branches on both sides will complete the skeleton of the A-Frame and the addition of leaves, bark, and grasses can further protect you. Obviously, you can also spread an emergency blanket or poncho over the top to complete the deal.
Estimated time to completion: 5 to 40 minutes
7. Nature’s Do-It-Yourself Kit
Think of it as IKEA in the wild. All the materials you need to quickly get started on a shelter with the supporting beam structure at the top and the branches to get things started. With any luck, you can roll a log or two along the sides to create a windbreak at ground level. In this location, tall grasses would serve the purpose of thatching for the roof.
Estimated time to complete: 20 to 30 minutes
8. Pine Forest
Pines are evergreens and their year-round needles mean that the ground under a pine will typically be the last to show snow. They also present a bed of pine needles that prevent weed trees and other brush from growing, leaving a soft mat of natural insulation. The boughs of the tree can also serve to blanket and cushion the ground.
A low hanging branch can be used to support an emergency blanket as a lean-to, or branches can be stacked on both sides of the branch to make a shelter. In the short-term, just sitting under a pine during a snowstorm can keep you relatively protected.
Estimated time to completion: 0 to 30 minutes
9. Hollow Trunks
You don’t see this every day, but nature is full of surprises. An adult could actually sit in this hollow. The obvious concerns are animals and insects. Animals probably wouldn’t be an issue. Many animals are prey and prefer dens that offer better protection and proximity from predators.
Insects deserve a good look, but this open trunk showed no immediate presence of insects. It’s a perfect place to quickly find cover during heavy rain or winds and a fire in front would radiate into the cavity. No assembly required.
Estimated time to completion: 0 minutes
10. It’s Not Just About Trees
Very large boulders, cliffs, caves, and rock overhangs all present shelter opportunities both immediate or constructed with less time and effort. As always, check out any natural shelter like a cave for potential dangers ranging from animal occupancy to collapse. If it gets you through the night and you still don’t get out of the woods, you’ll have more time the next day to both find a new shelter before nightfall stops your progress again.
How Native Tribes Predicted Nightfall
Even if we have a watch in the woods, we don’t always know when that big yellow ball in the sky is going to hit the horizon. But native people knew how to predict it to the minute using only their hands. It’s an important skill to know because the surprise of twilight will severely restrict your time to prepare even the simplest survival site.
And as for those natural shelters, they’ll always be there to help, assuming you can find one in time.
Predicting Time Until Sunset
The concept is simple. You hold your flattened palm at arm’s length from your face towards the sun before it approaches the horizon. For every finger you can put between the bottom of the sun’s disc and the horizon, count fifteen minutes. If you can count 4 fingers, you have one hour to sunset.
You can use your other hand to measure up to 2 ½ hours with all ten fingers before the sun starts to set. After sunset, there are 15 minutes of good twilight and 15 minutes of dim twilight. How much time you need is up to you, but at least you have a sense of the time to darkness and the need for shelter.
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