Guest post: debris shelter advice

This summer, I ran a survival skills week for teens where the last 2 nights were overnights in their shelters. It's always hard to "teach" someone what kind of work is required to insure a good night's sleep, and this week proved to be no exception. The instructors and I found it necessary to build an exemplary debris hut even though we were busy with alot of other camp logistics. So I proposed that the three of us build one debris hut in one hour, and one of us would sleep in it. So we let the campers know what we were doing and got to it. We found an ideal site nearby, a flat ridge above a small, dry, and steep ravine where last fall's leaves had been blown in and accumulated. We set the clock and got to it. We worked our asses off and when the timer went off we were standing next to a debris hut that had been stuffed with leaves and was "armpit to fingers" thick.

I've had my share of cold debris hut nights, and was a bit skeptical as to whether it would stand up to the 45 degree nights we were having, yet I  had to try it out. Soon night was upon us and I crawled in with a sweater and jeans, shoes, and a baseball cap. We had built the shelter a bit longer than I was accustomed to, in order to avoid having to deal with time consuming nuances of the tunnel doorway entrance. There was a big pile of debris in front of the opening, which I pulled into the opening after getting situated, deciding to leave a small ventilation gap which I could close in as the night cooled. I never had to close it up however, and mind you- I had no leaves on top of me either. I spent my first truly comfortable "First Night" in a debris hut, thanks to 3 motivated man hours. In the process I identified a few things that I will remember for next time:

Select a good location. Just as the adage goes "a good shelter in a bad location is a bad shelter"- So it goes with selecting your foraging location. Find a spot with a lot of debris!

Identify the areas where debris is most abundant within your chosen area- for instance, if it's summer and you've chosen a place where leaves have been blowing in all year- identify where the larders are within that larder. These will often be on one side of a fallen log or a boulder, somewhere that the wind has deposited them and the debris is most thick. Don't forget to be systematic and relentless to the forest floor though! Just keep in mind where you are going to get the most bang for your calories. Start at a wide proximity to your shelter site and work your way in, saving the immediate area around you debris hut and micro-larders for last, when you are more tired.

Quite often, I find myself saying that I learn the most when I fail, and in a lot of cases I might be correct, however, my last experience with the debris hut has taught me that there is nothing sweeter than a well-earned success! And by well-earned, I mean my past is riddled with failures, so I guess I stand corrected.


  1. Thanks for posting, dude. That sounds like a great time. It's pleasantly shocking to actually be comfortable in a primitive shelter!

    It's neat that you were able to seek out a spot with large amounts of debris. How did you guys collect the leaves?

    Have you tried getting together a debris shelter or similar with very limited time, manpower, and/or energy?

    It seems like that shelter you built is ideal, but what would you do if you had only an hour before dusk and you were alone? Or if you were injured or very hungry and thirsty so you couldn't bust your ass getting tons of supplies?

  2. Good questions. We gathered the leaves by hand, raking them into large piles, kneeling down and compressing the pile towards ourselves until we could carry most of it in one trip.

    I have slept in just a pile of leaves, which works better if you have two logs on either side of your sleeping space to keep the pile together through the night. I have yet to experiment fully with this method. You would still need a good supply of debris, which would take time and energy.

    As far as your last scenario, limited time/injury/quick fix- I don't know... a fire could heat some rocks for you to bring into a meager pile of debris for warmth. Or a fire and reflector wall such as a ledge. Then you could sleep rottiserrie style!

    I'm excited about this website- I like how you cut to the chase!