Modified debris shelter: success

Episode #1 of the search for an alternative to the debris shelter was successful.

First, a recap on my motivation for this trip (see "Alternatives to debris shelter?").

The reason shelter is the second priority (after getting your head straight) and not the third or fourth is you can go without water for up to a few days. You can go without food for much longer. You cannot go without a bare-minimum protection from whatever potentially lethal elements are present, like cold. This lends itself to a somewhat grueling, but very useful survival skills practice regimen: go out for one night, with no food or water or gear, and get yourself sheltered. See how it goes. Take notes. Repeat in varying seasons and conditions.

I’ve tested the debris shelter several times over the years, under the belief that the debris shelter is the only reasonable option in the absence of a tarp. I haven’t done this as many times as I would like, in part because building a debris shelter is such a daunting task. At the Tracker School, a half dozen volunteers for the basic survival course spend about 3 or 4 days collecting pine needles with tarps and rakes for the debris shelter demonstration. The only times I’ve ever personally constructed an adequate shelter in under 4 hours or so was when I had a tarp to help me collect the debris! If I have a tarp, why the hell am I going through the effort of making a debris shelter???

So, my mission on this outing was to attempt an adequate, but simpler and easier to build, alternative to the debris shelter.

I ducked out of work early Friday afternoon with the intention of spending the night out in the woods. I brought no equipment with me; not a saw, not even a knife. No food, no water. I wanted to simulate a survival emergency in which I have no gear.

I hiked a couple of miles along a ridge trail a few miles from my house. Stopping at a peak with a view of the valley below, I decided on a rough destination to build my shelter and left the trail, bush-whacking my way down the mountain. I stopped at many potential shelter spots like rocky overhangs and spaces underneath downed trees, marking them mentally so I could come back if I didn’t find anything more appealing.
I was searching for something like a rock crevasse or downed tree which I could stuff with insulation (leaves) for a simple shelter.

Lots of rock overhangs where I could stay dry
I considered staying here because of the ridiculous amounts of debris
Perfect fallen tree for a traditional debris shelter
Could I just stuff debris into the cavity under this fallen tree?

Just because shelter is higher priority than food, doesn’t mean I am going to ignore food and fire making supplies that I find while searching for a shelter location. I snacked on plantain seeds and leaves, a berry I call tea-berry but which is not in my edible plant books (but I've been eating liberal amounts for years), hickory nuts, and white pine cambium (inner bark – see Food section). I ate very little that day before heading out, so these meager calorie supplies were quite rewarding.

I wasn't THAT hungry...
"Tea berries". They taste a little like wintergreen berries.
Plantain seeds and leaves
White pine cambium. Younger trees taste better.

I also collected several promising pieces of wood with the intention of trying a hand drill fire later. I collected quartz blades for cutting the pine cambium and the hand drill parts; I smashed apart a large quartz rock, which yielded several usable cutting edges.

Perfect cutting edge from smashing quartz
After a few miles of bush-whacking, I happened upon a rectangular crevasse in a large slab of granite just about the width and length of my body. I knew this was the spot immediately.

I knew this was the spot for my shelter immediately
Ant's eye view of the crevasse

I took my own advice and got my head in the right space first. I took a moment to lay out and organize the food and supplies I’d picked up along the way. I planned out how I was going to build the shelter and replaced my thoughts of “can we go home now” and “this is going to be miserable” with “I’m going to be out here all night, so I need to make this a quality shelter. Take no shortcuts. This will be so cool”.

Then I got to work.

I set about collecting sturdy cross beams to lay perpendicular to the crevasse. I had no saw, which actually helped me to realize there is no need to cut or break limbs to size. Just let them be “too long” and save a lot of energy and risk of injury. I moved at a steady pace, taking care to pause periodically and avoid breaking into a full sweat. I didn’t want to get soaked with sweat in the 70 degree weather, only to freeze when it got down to 40 that night. Plus I had no food or water, so I needed to conserve energy and sweat. Before I finished laying the cross-beams, I realized I should stuff the cavity with insulation.

Stuffing the crevasse before finishing laying the cross-beams

I could stuff it from the side, after laying the beams, but that would be a waste of energy. I used my button down shirt as a small tarp to collect the maple, oak and beech leaves (which make for gorgeous, warm, comfortable insulation). I found that certain areas have much, much more debris than others. I started collecting only from along the edges of boulders and downed logs, where the leaves seem to be four times as thick as out in the open. With the crevasse totally filled with leaves, I finished the cross beams.

Done with the cross beams
View from the doorway
View from the doorway after insulating

I then spread a small layer of leaves over them, taking care to fill every little gap between beams and where they rested on the rock. Next I laid a lattice of smaller sticks over the insulation layer to hold it in place. I spread a thicker layer of insulation over the lattice and topped it with heavier lattice-type sticks in case the wind picked up. I closed off the back of the shelter, where my feet would be, by laying sturdy sticks not quite vertically against the last cross beam. I followed a similar procedure as above to insulate the back of the shelter. I used a large flat rock, along with several heavy sticks, to secure the debris and sticks in place.

Closing off the back of the shelter

I grabbed a couple more shirt-fulls of insulation and stockpiled them just outside the doorway, in case I needed extra when the temperature went down. The only thing left to do was the door. I needed to keep out the cold and the mosquitoes. I took my button-down shirt and tied the arms to the last cross beam. The shirt was just big enough to act as a door. I found that it pulled the last cross beam loose though, which threatened to cause a problem if I nudged it in the middle of the night. So I took my belt off and secured the last three cross beams together, using the strap on my camera case to secure the other side. That was much more stable. Looking at my watch, I was shocked to see I’d built the shelter in just under 2 hours. This was definitely a record for me, by far.

The shirt door worked perfectly
Securing one side of the last few cross beams with belt
Securing the other side with camera pouch strap

Though I’d kept exertion to a minimum, I now felt extremely thirsty. I hadn’t had any water since about 2PM (and come to think of it, I also had a high-gravity beer around that time). Since then I’d hiked about 6 miles and moved leaves and sticks around for 2 hours, up and down a small hill.

Remembering that the hero from 127 hours who survived by drinking his own pee and cutting off his own arm, I looked with some anxiety at the quart sized Ziploc bag I’d brought for my camera in case it rained.

Folks, I drank a pint of my own piss.

I felt surprisingly revived by it, even though it was f$#%@-ing disgusting. I was sufficiently hydrated that I felt no more extreme thirst for the rest of the night and into the next morning.

With the shelter built, I was free to use the remaining hour or two of light to try and make a fire primitively. All of which I used, with no fire to show for it by sunset.

I attempted hand drill, mouth drill, a variant of hand drill I call “shoe drill”, and a combination of the mouth drill and shoe drill, all to no avail. I got very close with the combination technique, but my jaw felt like it was about to break so I had to stop. And then the sun set.

I lay out in the open for a while, not wanting to stuff myself inside the small shelter for the night just yet. I was surprised to find myself in a very peaceful, relaxed state of mind, even with the mosquitoes attacking and the temperature dropping swiftly.

After a half hour or so, I started to shiver.

I got up and stuffed the area between my T-shirt and long sleeve shirts with leaves, then laid back down. The insulation kept me warm for another half hour as I lay listening to owls hooting and watching the stars emerge.

Around 9PM, I got into the shelter.

It’s a bit of a process. I had to insert my feet underneath the insulation and gradually inch-worm my way underneath it. Once all the way in, I arranged my shirt-door to totally cover the doorway and adjusted the insulation to fit the contours of my body. I could lay on my back only with my arms crossed like a mummy’s, with my shoulders tightly wedged between the rock surfaces. I could, without too much effort, move from side to side.

It was tight but actually much more spacious and comfortable than an ordinary debris shelter. I experienced none of the usual debris shelter claustrophobia. The air inside quickly warmed up with my breath and body heat. I felt only mildly suffocated as compared to highly suffocated in a debris shelter. It was shockingly comfortable, even luxurious.

I noticed a very low level of light inside the shelter and realized it was coming from the dozen or so lightning bugs that had come with the leaves. I relished the moment and smiled in the darkness.

Unfortunately, I had consumed a great deal coffee earlier in the day to get through a series of presentations at work. I felt the resulting insomnia coming on strong.

After an hour or so, a mosquito found her way in, followed by another. There was a tiny passageway somewhere in the doorway, and these two had found it. I brought in the auxiliary pile of leaves and more carefully sealed the doorway by stuffing handfuls into cracks here and there, and by stacking up a pile on the inside of the shirt. That successfully blocked further intrusion.

I slept in half-hour intervals starting around midnight and ending at 4AM, punctuated by irritating literal dreams about work. The insomnia was frustrating, but no more so than it is when I am home in bed.

The shelter was adequately warm. The temperature was around 39 degrees F that night. When changing positions, different parts of my body might get cold as a new section of rock had to be warmed up. But there was no shivering.

This was, by far, my most positive experience sleeping in primitive shelter ever.

Here is how I might have improved it. I should have taken more time to pack the crevasse with leaves before laying the cross beams. It would have been better to have a compacted layer against the ground that wouldn't move around when I changed positions. That would have made it a bit warmer. If it had been raining, I think I would have needed a lot more insulation on top of the shelter, to keep out the worst of the rain.

I inch-wormed my way outside at 445AM, when I observed the faintest hint of predawn light poking through my shirt door. The owls were still at work; the stars were still out. I stood around and watched the world awaken, periodically warming up with Chi Kung exercises.

Few things can match the beauty and optimism of dawn in a survival situation
Back on the trail

Then I hiked back to the trail. I was feeling a little headache-y from the lack of sleep and dehydrated. I found myself craving another piece of white pine cambium, which I cut out with one of my quartz blades. Within a minute, my headache disappeared and my thirst was temporarily and artificially relieved by the saliva flow. I ate some more hickory nuts and tea berries and hiked back to the car.

Reactions? Questions? Comments? Leave feedback below.


  1. What would you have done to reinforce the shelter you made in this outing to insulate it from rain? Are leaves and other debris enough to keep out the water, or is there something else to put across the roof of the shelter to waterproof it?

  2. Great question. With enough time, I would just put enough additional leaves to shed most of the water on the roof. That would probably be 2-3 times what I put on this shelter, and I would guess an additional hour of work.

    If I found any massive chunks of bark on a fallen log nearby, I would try to "shingle" the roof as well.

    I think if there was no time for that, I would more carefully stuff my clothing with leaves. Not just the front of my shirt, but the back, sleeves, and my pants. It would be a miserable wet night but I think that would keep me warm enough to avoid danger.

    Got to test those ideas out though.