Hybrid shelter: tarp, blanket and leaves

In my bug-out pack, I keep an 8x10 foot tarp and a military issue wool blanket. One of the missions of my latest outing was to experiment with the tarp and blanket to make a quick and effective (warm and waterproof) shelter. The weather was about 33 degrees F and rainy that night, so it was a perfect testing ground.

I chose a beech-oak-hickory forest on a south-east facing slope. The debris was dry on this side of the slopes because it gets more sun, whereas the debris elsewhere was quite soggy from recent rains. I found a small flat section amidst the steep and rocky topography, at which there was a massive fallen oak tree. The space from the base to about 7 feet out seemed perfect to drape my tarp over, and stuff with debris, in the shape of a debris shelter.

I simply draped the tarp over and secured each side with long heavy branches. I tucked the tarp carefully into the bottom end, to avoid drafts. Because the trunk was so large, it would be difficult to sufficiently lace up the open end of the tarp. So I tied a rope tightly around that end, so that the tarp was wrapped around the full circumference. That allowed me to lace shut the ends, loosely.

Seemed like a good shelter support
A little too roomy, in retrospect
Stuffed with debris and ready to be laced shut
I then used the wool blanket to gather leaves and stuff the tarp shelter. It took very little time, on account of the recent fall.

Gathering debris this time of year is incredibly fast and easy. The debris is so fresh and fluffy, not like the year-old, moldy, mostly rotted debris I'd used for my last shelter.

With that done, I just needed to secure the doorway. As an added barrier, I tied my wool blanket around the trunk, underneath the tarp and a foot inward (to protect from rain). That provided a fully covered, but breathable, doorway. The shelter was completed just as the sun disappeared from the sky – totaling less than an hour. A tarp is an incredible survival resource.

The shelter was very roomy because of the large diameter of the supporting log. This was nice on the one hand – I could freely switch from my stomach to my side to my back to my other side. On the other, there was too much loose air, increasingly so as my tossing and turning compacted the debris. It got cold. The inside of the tarp was wet with condensation, so I had to take care not to touch it lest I get even colder.

The cold was not anywhere near dangerous, just enough to prevent falling asleep. 

Between that and the barking dog off in the distance, I didn't get more than a wink of sleep for what was probably 3 or 4 hours. It rained on and off all night, which made me grateful to have a waterproof, if drafty, shelter.

I remembered the emergency foil blanket in my bug-out pack. I removed it from its packaging and began the aggravating task of unfolding a 2x3 inch square into the 4x6 foot piece of foil. On one's back, covered in leaves and with limited space in total darkness, this is not easy. 20 minutes later, I had it wrapped it around me. I warmed up very quickly. I wasn't exactly cozy, but I was able to just barely reach that uneasy equilibrium of warmth which you lose instantly if a square inch of your body gets exposed to the open air.

I finally knocked off for the rest of the night.

My shelter was barely adequate in several ways. Here is what I would do differently next time I build a hybrid shelter when it is cold.

Do not build such a roomy shelter. Instead of using a massive log as the main support, use a slender but sturdy pole, which will allow for tighter construction. Stuff the tarp with more insulation, and have extra on the outside.

Actually make shelter priority #1. Once it's set up, you can explore or travel for food, but you can't relax until you get it up.  

I'd waited until less than an hour before sunset to build my shelter. That worked out fine this time, but could easily create an unnecessary emergency if any unforeseen circumstances arose.

Overnighter: the search for food

I had a three day weekend on account of Veterans' Day. I wanted to see what I could find for food over the course of a day and night, and also to test my bug-out survival pack and box.

For vegetable matter, I figured I'd be hunting for partridge berries (thanks to Stephanie Brown for identifying this plant for me), wintergreen berries, white pine cambium, cattail roots, lily pad roots, acorns, hickory nuts, black walnuts, butternuts, rock tripe, and whatever else I might find. I have a cookset in my survival pack.

Some of the plants above cannot be eaten without boiling, sometimes in several changes of water (like acorns and rock tripe). Without a pot, many food sources are unavailable.

For protein, I figured I'd search for some grubs/worms/bugs. I haven’t been hungry enough to pursue those options in the past. I started out with no food in my system on this trip - just a pot of coffee - in the hopes of enhancing that motivation. I also hoped to trap an animal or two using primitive deadfalls and snares. I anticipated not getting meat until the second day (if I was lucky).

Thus, during the first day and evening, I would need to find as many plant sources of food as possible.

I set two traps early on, only a couple miles into my hike. I have only set up one or two snares in the past, and never successfully snared an animal (though there was evidence on one of these occasions that the bait had been taken and the snare triggered, but the noose was poorly placed).

I found what appeared to be an area with heavy squirrel activity.

Beech nuts EVERYWHERE - but only the duds (how do they always know??)
Every square inch of this area was covered with the hulls
Indeed, while I was working the snare, Two squirrels barreled by 50 feet above me, disappearing into a hole in a large oak tree. I thought that was a good sign.

I began the rather frustrating task of building a squirrel snare, baiting it with some peanut butter I kept in my bug-out box.

I am more accustomed to building figure 4 deadfall traps – though I must confess I have never successfully trapped anything larger than a chipmunk. Thus, I was able to build this much faster.

About 50 yards up the mountainside from the snare, I found a nice heavy log – an old downed oak trunk about 3 meters long. I found some strong, dead, 1 inch maple stock and carved the three figure 4 components.

When I tried to set the trap up, the log wanted to slide down the slight incline. I put a heavy rock behind it. Then, the log wobbled side to side and wouldn't balance. I planted two stakes on either side of the log, further down from the figure 4, and loosely tied the tops together.

Finally, I set the figure 4 and it held. I tested the sensitivity once and was satisfied, so I set it up one last time and left it alone.

Stakes to keep the log from wobbling
The figure 4, with peanut butter on the tip of the bait stick
Looking back at the snare, I saw that it had been set off. No, not by an animal. By an inadequate stake piece.

I had cut it too short, and made the notch lip edge too close to its end. The pressure of the sapling ripped the edge clean off. I carved a more substantial stake piece, and reset the snare.

I tested the sensitivity with a branch, and again, it executed perfectly, ripping the branch out of my hand and dangling it above.

I had spent too long on these traps. I'd set up only two over the course of about two hours. I needed to get a shelter in order, that being priority #1 in any survival situation. I scolded myself for not following my own survival priority rules. It was about noon – nothing to panic about, but it does get dark around 430 this time of year.

Part of the purpose of this trip was to test my bug-out box and pack – see what was missing and what might be unnecessary. My bug-out pack, weighing just 15 pounds, contains an 8x10 foot tarp and a military issue wool blanket (also an emergency foil blanket). So I could relax a little - no need to build a primitive shelter from scratch. Still, I would need to collect a lot of debris to stuff my tarp shelter with.

We've had regular, heavy frosts for a couple of weeks now. A wool blanket would be nowhere near adequate.

While searching for a good shelter location, I crossed the M-M ridge at the summit house area.

En route, I found an unbelievable amount of wintergreen and partridge berries. 

For some strange reason, partridge berries are not listed in many edible plants books (though they are in the Peterson guide). I suppose it may be because they do not have a lot of flavor. Just a dry, mildly sweet starchy texture. But they are a precious survival resource from July through winter, if you can find them under the snow. I found massive patches of ripe berries, of which I could pick a handful within 30 seconds. Having eaten nothing this day, I indulged in many handfuls of the berry. It was so prevalent I passed up quite a few patches!

I probably ate between a pint and a quart of the berries that afternoon.

Sometimes you have to dig under the leaves to find partridge berries
Less than 30 seconds of work
Wintergreen berries are bigger, a little juicier, and more flavorful. They are available at the same times as partridge berries, and can also sometimes be found under the snow. If you find wintergreen, you often find the partridge berries nearby. They both seem to like shady evergreen-dominant forests.

But wintergreen is not as plentiful as the partridge berry. I found one really impressive patch where I could gather 2 large handfuls. But for the most part, I found only 3 or 4 patches at most in any given location, and the fruiting patches are rarer. There seem to be many more plants without the berries. Though, it is nice to chew the wintergreen leaves as well, even if they don't provide much sustenance.

An unusually large bunch of wintergreen berries
More commonly just 1 or 2, if any
About a minute of work
I was surprised to find that ALL of the acorns, hickory nuts and beech nuts were gone! The only ones left I could find were rotten or moldy inside. It appeared that the squirrels had gotten all of them, without exception. 

I stopped to dig amongst the freshly fallen leaves many times in search of a single good acorn. Included in my bug-out bag is a cookset, so I was looking forward to stewed acorns (you have to boil the tannic acid out of them with several changes of water to make them edible). No such luck. On my last outing, in September, there were many good acorns and hickory nuts still on the ground, though I couldn't enjoy the acorns as I had no cookset.

I guess there is a short window of opportunity, and I missed it.

I was equally surprised to find no rock tripe (a type of lichen) on this trip. This is another food that requires cooking, and I usually find huge rock faces covered with the stuff. Maybe it's because I was hiking on the southeast side of this mountain range, or maybe they just don't grow in the general region I was hiking.

Because of this, and because I don't have a lot of faith in my trapping skills, I decided I needed to shelter at a lower altitude, somewhere near a swampy area which would provide valuable starch in the form of cattail and/or lily pad roots.

I hiked down in a fairly aimless fashion, stopping to gorge on partridge berries or harvest a piece of white pine cambium periodically. I found several swampy areas, but no cattails or other good edibles. I knew there was a reservoir somewhere in this area, though I couldn't find it.

Another source of food I was hunting is insects. 

I tore apart a few rotted logs in search of grubs, worms or beetles. I dug the earth in search of earth worms. I was again surprised by a lack of finding. One exception was a rotted birch log full of ants with red mid-sections, and a pile of ant eggs. Not very appetizing, but I've been meaning to try ants anyway.

It was impossible to grab the ants separately from the birch dirt, so I grabbed a gallon full of the mixture of confused ants and rotten birch and stored it in a ziploc bag (another luxury of the bug-out pack). 

I intended to roast them in my pan later, though I had no idea how to separate them from the rotten wood.

Most rotted logs I dug up contained no insects
But I hit the motherload of ants here
I was being very indecisive about shelter location, and not finding any starchy plants didn't help. I was really enjoying the hike, with the dynamic cloudy-then-sunny skies. I was alternately bush-whacking and following streams or unknown trails, without a care in the world. I just didn't feel like stopping, and was overconfident on account of my tarp.

I kept saying, “OK, I'll stop and make shelter at 2, no matter what”. Then 3, then 4. At 330, I really did stop.

I built a hybrid tarp-debris shelter by securing my tarp over a fallen log and stuffing it with debris.

Seemed like a good shelter support
A little too roomy, in retrospect
Stuffed with debris and ready to be laced shut
I then used the wool blanket to gather leaves and stuff the tarp shelter. It took very little time, on account of the recent fall.

Gathering debris this time of year is incredibly fast and easy. The debris is so fresh and fluffy, not like the year-old, moldy, mostly rotted debris I'd used for my last shelter.

It was only 430. I contemplated building more traps to set later. That would be a good plan if I intended to spend another night out here. Build trap parts all evening, then set them all up in the late morning. But, I knew I was heading out the following morning, and I wanted food now.

I was fairly certain that I was in the vicinity of a reservoir, so I decided to go for a night hike in search of cattail. I was worried about finding my way back. Since I was not on a trail, it was hard enough navigating even in the daylight.

Losing my way and all my gear along with it was not an option, so I took my pack and wool blanket with me. 

I scanned the barely moon-lit area in the direction I wanted to hike for an obvious landmark. I found a massive, black, dry-rotted oak leaning on another oak. I named it the “icy black hand of death” (mnemonics help to remember landmarks) and started toward it, counting my paces.

45 paces to the tree. From there, I could see an unmarked path that went in the direction I wanted to go. 230 paces to a fork in the trail. Turn left, go 70 paces to a brook. Refill the water bottle (filter is part of the bug-out bag) and continue another 55 paces to a dirt road. Repeat the sequence in my head and look back often. Turn right, go 335 paces. The reservoir! I was so close!

I scoured most of the circumference of the reservoir for cattails, but was surprised not to find a single one. No lily pads either.

So much for getting some starch tonight. 

I did find some plantain and dandelion leaves to munch on. The half-moon and (I think) Venus really lit up the lake. It was so gorgeous, I decided to bundle up under the wool blanket at the base of an ancient white pine and listen to the night. I sat there for an hour or so, listening to a few owls hoot and some unidentifiable crashing in the brush at the opposite shore. Then the cold became too much, and the moon disappeared. The temperature dropped quite a bit just while I was sitting there. I think it was just above freezing.

I packed the blanket up and headed back to camp. It was strikingly easy to retrace my route, confidently expecting each trail intersection and landmark by my pace (though my paces on the way home were about 10% shorter on account of the increased darkness when the moon hid behind clouds). It was as easy as day hiking, just different.

The moon and Venus light up the reservoir
Back at camp, I lit a fire, collected some hemlock (no, not poison water hemock!) needles and brewed a pot of tea.

Any kind of tea goes a long way psychologically, when you don't have food. 

The thought of trying to separate biting ants from rotten wood in the near darkness did not appeal to me even in my hungry state. Save it for the morning. At 8, I set up the wool blanket doorway again and retired for the night.

Even without food, the fire is comforting
The shelter was very roomy because of the large diameter of the supporting log. It got cold FAST. The inside of the tarp was wet with condensation, so I had to take care not to touch it lest I get even colder.

The cold was not anywhere near dangerous, just enough to prevent falling asleep - until I wrapped myself in the foil emergency blanket from my bug-out pack. 

I crawled out well before the first touch of dawn, at 430. I finished up the previous night's tea and packed up camp.

I wanted fish. I shouldered the bug-out pack and hiked back to the reservoir. On the way, I harvested a long, straight sapling. Once there, still well before sunrise, I pulled out the fishing line spool and hook from my pack. I attached about 4 feet of line to the end of the pole, and secured a lead sinker and and hook to the end.

I collected a handful of objects I thought a fish might confuse for food and which attach nicely to a hook: some small, hard mushrooms and a couple of rotted acorns. 

I dug around in several areas for worms or grubs, but again, no luck.

Not a single ripple to indicate fish activity
I found a rocky ledge on the shore with a steep underwater drop off, and dropped the line, slowly and erratically waving it back and forth, up and down. I switched the bait half a dozen times. Just before the first light of dawn, there was a giant splash out in the water, just a little ways away. That had to be a fish. I thought I had a nibble several times, but except for that one splash, I saw no other signs of fish activity. Not one ripple, except for when occasional sprinkles dropped from the heavens.

Once the sun was in the sky, I gave up, packed up the gear and headed in toward the other side of the mountains, where my squirrel traps waited.

On the way, I stopped for a snack.

Ants (at least these ones) taste like vinegar. Not a hint of vinegar. Straight vinegar. This is very strange, and slightly disturbing. 

I made the physical motion of putting roasted ants in my mouth several times before successfully putting aside my inhibition. I was surprised by how repulsed I was. I didn't know if I would be able to overcome it! At first, I opened up the ziploc and simply allowed several ants to crawl out into the hot pan. But I ran out of volunteers. So I pulled out the cohesive chunks of rotten wood and picked them apart, brushing the sleepy ants into the pan. Then I was left with a bag of rot dust and ants, with no good way to separate them.

I shrugged and dumped the whole mixture into the pan, roasting it until all the ants were cooked. Then it was a matter of plucking out the hot vinegar-flavored crisps, blowing them off, and crunching away.

There is a nanosecond between when you bite down and when the ants' exoskeletons explode, spraying your taste buds with boiled, vinegary ant insides. A great deal of anxiety occurs in this brief moment, and a burst of hot vinegar does nothing to soothe the anticipation. After my first bite, I violently spat out the creatures, thinking I'd bitten into poison. I never quite got used to it. I have to confess that I did not eat all of them. I'm not a huge fan of vinegar, or of insects. The combination overwhelmed me after a bit. This was a lot of work for probably few calories.

I'm not sure I'd do ants again. Maybe on day 3 of no food. Maybe.

The hike back to my squirrel traps was much faster than the meandering, berry-picking excursion of the previous afternoon. I was surprised by how much energy I had in spite of no meal the previous day. I guess those berries pack a lot of energy. That, and fasting doesn't affect me as much as it used to. I really hoped to see a squirrel in on of those traps though. A couple hours later, I easily found my traps using a series of mnemonic land marks (another “icy black hand of death” tree) and giant arrows constructed of logs (I've committed the embarrassing error of losing a trap in the past and was determined to avoid it this time).

It's neat how much more you pay attention to the landscape when you have to.

One of my giant arrows pointing toward the traps
No squirrels in the traps. Neither had been triggered. 

Furthermore, the peanut butter was totally undisturbed in both. No one had even tried to get the bait! Crushed, I reflected on how careless I'd been the previous day. I've read that you need to de-scent yourself and your trap components. Build the components somewhere else, spend some time near a smoky fire, and quickly get in to the target trap area, set your traps and get out. Your scent scares wild animals away. Not only did I make no effort to de-scent, I spent 2 hours in the trapping area!

I don't have enough experience to know for sure that this is the reason I failed. 

Maybe there is something about the nut season that makes the squirrels uninterested in the bait – I have a pear tree in my yard which the squirrels rob only in non-acorn years! They take every single pear from the tree before it is ripe in a non-acorn year, but otherwise leave nearly all of them for us to harvest. Maybe the squirrels were totally uninterested in my peanut butter for that reason (this was an acorn year in that area). Or maybe they didn't like its rancid smell. Or maybe I just needed to set many more traps.

Maybe the chance of success for a random trap is 10% - in that case, you'd want to make at least 10 to achieve an expected value of 1 trapped animal.

But there is no reason not to take the precautions offered by other survivalists. I was just being thoughtless. Anxious to get to a shelter area, I didn't manage to set up any others before sunset. I thought about how if I'd been out for 3 days instead of 2, I could spend all evening the first night constructing trap parts. I could then spend all of day 2 setting those traps, and check them on day 3. On the other hand, I could have a stock of trap parts built ahead of time, and set them up during day 1 of a 2 day outing.

Questions for next time: spend time building traps ahead of time, de-scent with a fire and avoiding overly flavorful foods a few days before, set up more traps overall. Instead of setting only baited traps, take the time to locate fresh animal sign and pathways, and set unbaited trail snares on animal pathways.

I'm at the start of a steep learning curve, which is always frustrating. The key will be to stick with it over the next few months, keep tinkering, keep trying.

Other lessons learned on this trip -

Shelter: do not build such a roomy shelter when it is cold. Instead of using a massive log as the main support, use a slender but sturdy pole, which will allow for tighter construction. Stuff the tarp with more insulation, and have extra on the outside.

Actually make shelter priority #1. Once it's set up, you can explore or travel for food, but you can't relax until you get it up.  

Fishing: I need a better collection of lures and fake bait.

Bug-out box/bag: need to get an extra water filter cartridge and figure out how to know when the current one is shot. Need a better knife in the box. Need fish hooks and a lure in the box. Need a compass in both/or just the box. Add some basic, compact calorie source to the pack, like protein or chocolate bars.