Building a Dry and Warm Temporary Shelter With No Tools, by Richard B.

Building a Dry and Warm Temporary Shelter With No Tools, by Richard B.

If you ever find yourself in the wilderness without any hope of finding rescue in a day or more, you don’t have any camping equipment, fire starting tools  and no way of knitting a 0 degree sleeping bag before nightfall, you may need to build a shelter.  The only other alternative in cold weather is to sleep during the day and stay awake all night with a fire or continually move to stay warm.  In this type of situation, you may be there for multiple days, and it may rain sometime during your time in the woods.  You need to stay warm and dry and get rest to survive.

Non fire shelters are built and used all the time but mainly by squirrels and mice etc….  The Indians knew this and they observed what works in nature and replicated the construction of these shelters.  They do work for humans but there are some specific steps, methods and rules to follow to make the shelter warm, dry, and wind proof.  

The basic design is an elongated “A” frame with a ridge pole that you sleep under.   Ribs (endoskeleton) are rested on either side of the ridge pole to form a slanting stick cave.  Leaves are piled on top of the ridge poles as siding for water shedding and insulation.   Additional branches are laid on top of the leaves (exoskeleton) to hold the leaves in place. A hatch is made to close the entrance enclosing you in a cocoon of leaves.  Now for the details 

1. Making a rake
When making this type of shelter you will need the ability to gather a large quantity of leaves.  Squatting down and sweeping leaves with your hands is brutal labor and will burn more calories than if you were standing up raking.  This type of shelter can take 8 hours or more to build when done correctly but that is if you have a rake to assist you and you move fast.  Finding a natural branch formation of a rake, well, don’t count on it.  So you either have to know how to make cordage or how to use what you have with you.  There is not enough room in this article to instruct on making cordage so we will suggest, for sake of time, to use shoe laces, belts and any other material you may have.   A simple branch with a Y about 4 feet in length is a starting point.  Find a second Y branch that is smaller in all dimensions and lash its Y in between the longer branch’s Y using laces and a cross beam for stability.  You will end up with a rake that has 4 end points which is much better than using your hands or feet as you will work faster and not burn as much energy.  A tarp, jacket  or some piece of material would be nice to rake leaves onto and transport them to your shelter.  But if none are available, making a travois from sticks may be the only option you have.  These tools may take a few hours to build but invest the time in making them as it will absolutely save you time overall. 

2. Find a location. 
Do not build a shelter in a low area or you may find yourself in a small stream at 2am watching your bedding and shelter flow downhill.  Not a good time to realize you are sleeping in a wash.  Think about water flow and spot the areas you will be above the flow zones.  If you are building your shelter next to a hill, you need all the leaves to be left untouched on that hill above your shelter as that keeps water from hitting dirt and flowing right down to your shelter, possibly in a mud slide.

The location should have a tree that has a Y formation approximately 2 – 3 feet from the ground. This will be used to hold one end of the ridge pole off of the ground.  If no such tree is available you will have to make an “A” frame out of lashing two (3 to 4 feet in length) sticks to your 9 foot (or more, but not less) ridge pole.   A side view of the completed structure will be the same form as a man doing a push up at the apex of his thrust.

3 Measure and adjust.
Laying on your side under the ridge pole, the underside of the ridge pole should not be any further away from your shoulder than 7 – 9 inches (approximately the distance from your thumb to your pinky with your fingers stretched out widely.)  This maximum distance allows your body heat to be captured and help warm the cavity or cocoon area of your shelter, but also allows you to move without moving the shelters skeleton.  More on this later.   If it is too tall, either break the two legs of the structure to lower it and keep the legs at an approximate 60 degree angle, or find other legs or another tree.  This angle is important for water shedding.

4.  Create the rib cage.
Procure sticks to lean up against the ridge pole adhering to the 60 degree angle.  Make sure the ribs do not extend beyond the top of the ridge pole.  This too is important in water shedding as it will create a V (looking down the length of the ridge pole) shaped tub to hold water as well as provide an extruding stick to transport rain directly inside. Use as many poles as you can to form the ribs, the more the better but economy of time is also important.  Keep in mind you will need more of these sticks to rest on top of the structure after you have applied the leaf covering.  If you make the opening small, just large enough for you to shimmy your way in, you will have less area to seal with leaves once you are inside. 

5.  Apply the leaf siding.
You will find instructions and videos on YouTube to make this type of shelter but I have yet to find one that speaks about the proper method for laying the leaf piles against the Rib Cage.  Raking a pile of leaves for your shelter results in leaves oriented in many different ways.  As the siding of a house is layered flat against the wall overlapped by the siding above, the leaves have to be layered flat against each other.  Take both of your hands and swat the pile of leaves 20 or more times with your fingers outstretched and palms down like you are playing a bongo drum.  This patting will force the majority of the leaves to lay parallel to the earth.  This is important as when they are laid against the rib cage at 60 degrees, any rain will hit the surface leaf, roll down ward and onto the leaf beneath it and continue on its way to the ground.  Therefore, it is extremely important to make your leaf siding 2 feet thick at a minimum or else the water may reach the inner layer of leafs before it reaches the ground.  Do not skimp on the 2 feet thickness even if you feel it won’t rain as this depth also provides an insulation layer that uses your body heat to warm the cocoon.  If the cavity is too big, if you do not lay down enough leaves to sleep on, if the depth of siding is not 2 feet, you will have marginal results by either getting wet, the air in the cocoon is only a few degrees above the outside air or the ground sucks out your body warmth.

Once the leaves are oriented, put one arm under the pile and your other arm on top of the pile directly over you other arm.  Pinch the pile together between your two arms, lift and carry to your shelter.  Start at the bottom and gently lay the siding pile against your shelter.  Cautiously remove your arm from beneath the pile attempting not  to disturb the leaf siding keep the leaves oriented broadside to broadside. 

Repeat this process all the way around the shelter except for the opening.   Once one level is complete around the bottom, apply a second layer above the first layer and against the rib cage working your way to the ridge pole.   Continue this process all the way around until the entire shelter is covered with leaves.  At the ridge pole, over lay the siding piles from one side so that they extend above and beyond the other side’s top siding pile.  This will send any rain striking the top of the shelter down one side of the shelter and not allow it to fall into the cocoon as easily.  Once the entire shelter is covered with this layer of siding piles, start over and apply a second layer.  This should give you the two feet of leaves if the piles you lift are thick.  Repeat this exact same process until you have layers that reach the two feet level.  Any more than two feet is a bonus but by the time you have two feet of leaves you will be ready to be done with the process.

This is by far the most time consuming activity in creating this shelter and can take 5 hours or more if this is built correctly.  It is also the most critical step, the part where cutting corners leads to failure and the part that you will be tempted to skip on. Do not skimp on the two feet of leaf siding and do not short cut on orienting the leaves.  

6. Fill the cavity.
When ground is cold and comes in contact with your body or cloths, it will draw the warmth away from you and drops your body temperature.  Leaves will insulate you from this effect but only if you have a thick enough layer between you and the ground and the leaves are dry.  To accomplish this, find the driest leaves you can and fill the inside of the cocoon to the top.  Stuff extra leaves just inside the entry hole that you can use to stuff into the opening once you are inside.

Filling to the top provides two requisite features and one feature that is nice to have.  One: It gives you the insulating layer between you and the ground when you crawl in and work the leaves underneath you.  Two: It also lifts you up closer to the top which is where your body heat will rise to and be caught by the two feet of leaf siding.  Three: Finally. it provides a softer surface to sleep on.  Comfort is not required but any comfort in this situation is greatly appreciated and can make a large difference in attitude the following morning. 

7. Cover the shelter with branches.
The leaves are there to protect you from the wind, rain and cold.  But the leaves are easily removed by wind so a second layer of ribs (or sticks) must be used to hold them in place.  I have had wind blow at my shelter in varying speeds but the air inside these shelters does not move because of the two foot thick walls.   Lay the exoskeleton on top of the leaves the same way the endoskeleton (inner rib cage) was built.  This holds the leaves down.

8. Make the hatch.
If your rake will cover the opening, you will have no need to make a hatch as you can use that.  If you have to make one then you can use your rake as a starting point but do so only after the leaves have been gathered.  The goal is a flat grouping of sticks that you can pile leaves upon after they have been oriented and will not allow the leaves to fall through the gaps in the sticks.  If you can lift it off the ground and the leaves do not fall through, you have a good hatch.  The purpose of the hatch is to seal the opening after crawling in.  You accomplish this by reaching out and pulling the hatch up bringing the leaves with it to seal up the entrance.   You may have to stuff leaves in any gaps once inside to seal it completely.

9.  Using the shelter
Before entering the shelter use the bathroom and avoid drinking liquids that will make you want urinate in the night.  If you have any water or any supplies you may need during the night, put them in the shelter before entering.  You do not want to go in and out of this shelter as it smashes down the leaves.
Enter the cocoon feet first.  Lift your legs to attempt getting them as high up on top of the leaf pile as possible.  Wiggle your way in trying to keep on top of the leaves and use as little movement as possible as this smashes the leaves down and removes the insulting air layers.  Once inside, pull the hatch to seal up the opening.  Use the extra leaves you pushed inside to seal up the opening with as thick a layer of leaves as possible. 

If your leaf siding is thick enough and your bed of leaves is also, your body should generate enough warmth to keep you at a temperature that will not allow your body to enter hypothermia.  If it was built well enough it may even be a temperature that allows you to sleep all night without discomfort.  

A few words of warning and advice. 
This shelter is a fireless shelter for obvious reasons.  Do not attempt to bring coals or any type of exposed flame into the shelter.  Although you can escape easily enough by kicking up and rolling out of it,  you don’t want a fire to burn your shelter and possibly the area you are living in.

If you leave this shelter for even one night, remove all of the leaves from the inside carefully.  Smack the sides of the shelter and look for any signs that some rodent or reptile has taken over your abandoned shelter.  Nothing like crawling in and finding you have a roommate at 2 in the morning. 

If you are practicing this in national forest, you cannot leave a structure made of natural material standing once you abandon it.  That is illegal.

Finally, this shelter is to be made when you can find an abundant supply of dry leaves.  Not all the leaves have to be dry for the siding but it is imperative that the leaves used inside that you will be laying on are dry and that no moisture from the leaf siding is dripping moisture into the cocoon.  If leaves like this cannot be found or it is raining when you are building this shelter, you must make a different type of shelter that will incorporate a fire.  The shelter described in this article is not that type of shelter.

If you are starting this type of shelter later in the day (after 1p.m.), It may be a better idea of gathering up as much food as you can for the next day and make any preparations for the night and then get as many hours of sleep that you can because you will have to stay up and move all night.  You will not have time to finish this type of shelter and you will skip steps and build a bad shelter.  You will then be exhausted from trying to get it built and you will have a miserable night, exhausted and cold. 

If you are making this shelter in the late spring through early fall,  keep in mind that you will be sleeping in the insects world.  Chiggers, fleas etc.. are a pest and cause a level of frustration in your survival situation that can be demoralizing and push you to giving up.  Eucalyptus, Sassafras, Pawpaw trees provide natural insect repellents in their leaves, just to mention a few.  You can lay them or mix them in with your bedding, lay down a layer before putting in your bedding, crush them and stuff them in your socks and any other way you can use them as a barrier between you and the insect world.  Research and practice identifying these and the many other trees that have this ability.