Winter shelter: semi-primitve in a blizzard

Google maps estimated the driving time to Kent Coffee and Chocolate Co., in Kent, CT, at just over 2 hours. My buddy Alex and I were to meet up there for a coffee before plunging into Macedonia Brook State Park for a winter wilderness blizzard semi-primitve survival outing.

I was excited to see the warnings on I-91 which advised planning cautiously around the already-upon-us nor'easter. Travel was slow but steady on the interstate, but was just barely possible once I exited to western CT's steep, winding state roads. The poor Mini just made it up the hills at 10 MPH, frustrating the 4x4 trucks behind me.

I met Alex at 830. We relished a cup of coffee and split a chocolate croissant, jokingly pondering staying in the cafe all day and night rather than braving the storm. After a little last minute planning, we set off to the state park. 

Big, bold-lettered “no camping” signs all over the park convinced us we needed to find another spot. We travelled a few miles north to Kent Falls State Park, which warned against going off the trails and parking past sunset, but not explicitly against camping.

It was a much smaller park. We hiked up to the gorgeous falls and then started bush-whacking, only to encounter roads or houses within a few hundred meters in all directions.

Looking at a crude map of the park, we decided to set up camp somewhere in a roughly square mile section amongst the park's trails. This wilderness experience would be a little contrived, but surely still valuable, since neither of us had camped primitively or semi-primitively in blizzard conditions before.

Stashing our gear while hunting for the right spot

As we searched for an ideal spot, I found myself in a mental fog, a side effect of a large dose of DayQuill I'd taken to stave off the lingering symptoms of a nasty head cold and cough. Simple tasks like filtering a bottle of river water confused me. 

To make matters worse, I was feeling intensely sad in light the recent first anniversary of my father's death and an argument with my girlfriend. I'm always writing about how mental state is the number one priority in a survival situation. I tried to stay positive and engaged, but was seriously failing on the inside.

We quickly found an ideal spot to set up camp. There was a massive boulder with a wide, flat and vertical side. A few meters away was a small cave opened up by an old fallen oak's root system. I always like to take advantage of any naturally formed, time-saving shelter I can find, so I would bed down here. 

There is a little cave in the dirt, under the side of this old tree's root system.

Alex began constructing a fire-based shelter next to the rock face, and I started building a roof over the top of the little cave. It was incredibly difficult to get in and out, which I suppose is a good thing.

I noticed there were several large passageways to the open air in my cave, besides the opening at the top. These would need to be plugged to prevent drafts. I found that by pushing away all the snow in an area of open ground, I could access the thick layer of oak and hickory leaves underneath. They were frozen into a crust of ice, so I had to repeatedly punch the area before gathering up the stiff debris. I was able to quickly secure huge armloads of the stuff, which easily plugged the holes in my cave. 

First I used an emergency blanket over supporting limbs for the roof. I sealed the entrance with a garbage bag full of snow.
The emergency blanket was inadequate, making the cave drafty. I added the tarp.
The entrance was barely big enough for me to squeeze through.
Close-up of the entrance. The "floor" of the cave is at a 60 degree angle, meaning I would be nearly standing up during the night. This is actually less clautrophobia-inducing than an ordinary debris shelter.

Inspired by Alex's professional-looking fire-based shelter, I decided to abandon my original body heat-based shelter in favor of a fire based shelter which would use the wall of tree roots as a heat reflector.

Alex's shelter from behind. Note the stacked debris walls to either side of the shelter area.
The shelter from front. Just to the left of this is a large, flat faced boulder which reflects heat from the fire. Note the bed of evergreen boughs under the tarp.
It would be a sitting-up shelter. I'd lean against the rock, with the tarp over me and a large fire in the pit on the other side of the tree roots. It seemed impossible to create a barrier against the wall of the cave to prevent conduction of cold from the ground, and the fire-based shelter seemed more lucrative.

The reflector wall is the roots and dirt to the left. Fire pit on the ground below it.

My idea was to tarp this over, and sit against the rock in the center, facing a fire.

Alex took down a medium-sized fir with his ax for the evergreen boughs. He created a bed of the boughs under his tarp. There were enough leftover for me to create a bed under where my butt and feet would rest, and against the rock where my back would rest. I tested it out, and it seemed very cozy.

My fire-based shelter, lined with evergreen boughs

The view from inside

Then we started collecting massive amounts of firewood. Alex planned to have a “long-log” fire, a big rectangular structure which would burn long, thick logs all night. I couldn't quite manage that because of how my shelter was set up, but I figured I could just feed logs perpendicularly into my pit fire all night.

As night fell, we lit a fire in Alex's shelter area to boil some snow for water and to cook a small stew. I had a bit of jerky made from a roadkilled animal, a carrot and an onion. Alex had some flour and raisins for making stick bread, and a cup of ramen noodles. The feast replenished our depleted metabolisms.

The long-log fire, with stew on the way!

The steady snowfall was causing my one-piece snowmobile suit to collect moisture at an alarming rate, so I cut out holes for my head and arms in a contractor garbage bag from my bug-out pack, and put it on. It helped.

Alex got into his shelter and was pleased to find it quite toasty.

Eventually, I went over to my shelter and lit a fire. I let it burn hot and huge for a while to cook the moisture out of the fire pit. Soon I realized the pit was too deep. As a result, I could not simply feed logs to keep it burning – there was too much space underneath, so the overhanging logs tended to burn themselves out.

I searched around in the snow for a large rock to fill the space with. Once I'd put the rock into the pit, it was very difficult to rebuild the fire on top of the cold, wet stone, with massive amounts of snow coming down.

I went out to find a bunch of small, easily combustible sticks. I came back to find that my bug-out pack had slid off its shelf and down next to the fire, burning up one of the straps.

I'd been feeling more and more negative all day, increasingly wanting to just call it quits and hike out. Go home to the lady, rent a movie, and try this again on a day when I was not loopy and sad. This silly little error of a burned pack strap was the straw that broke this camel's back. I decided on the spot to hike out, dig out my car and head home.

I attempted to explain this to my horrified friend, who advised against hiking around in the dark in the middle of a blizzard when I had a perfectly functional shelter right here. He was able to talk me out of leaving, thankfully. He helped me to get my fire going again, and I squeezed past the fire into my tarp shelter for the night.

The smoke made this spot completely uninhabitable. My shelter was sort of above the fire (plus I was sitting up), which meant any time the wind shifted, I was unable to breath or see. I could see now that this would never work.

Fortunately, I had my backup cave shelter. Unfortunately, I had not made any effort to line the ground/wall with evergreen bows. It was too late to improve the shelter now, for 2 reasons.

First, the snow was coming down so hard that leaving the doorway open for more than a few seconds would result in a snow-filled cave. Second, I didn't want to take apart and then rebuild the doorway anyway, because it was covered in a heavy layer of insulating snow that would fall down into the shelter. I would have had to remove the doorway to pack the cave with evergreen boughs because the entrance was so tight that I could barely, and with massive effort, get myself in and out of the cave.

I reasoned that it would probably be cold, but not dangerous. Not ideal, but functional. So, I squeezed into the cave and sealed the doorway shut. I would not come back out until morning, no matter what.

I'd brought my burned bug-out pack inside with me. I pulled out the other foil emergency blanket and began to unfold it. These things are usually tear-proof, but the extreme cold (about 5 degrees F) made it brittle and it immediately tore in half. I VERY carefully finished unfolding the two pieces, and then began patching it back together with little strips of Gorilla tape from the bug-out pack. A half hour later, I had it patched together and managed to avoid further tears.

Still fairly warm, I used my folded up wool blanket as a pillow and draped the emergency blanket over my head and body. In this manner, I stayed warm enough to get a few hours of sleep. By midnight, however, the ground had sucked a lot of heat from my body and I was shivering. It didn't help that my mittens, hat and suit were very damp from collecting and melting snow all afternoon.

Inside the cave, looking up

I carefully put the emergency blanket underneath me, against the ground. I put the wool blanket over my head and body. This was a bit warmer, and I was able to get little snippets of sleep for the rest of the night.

I periodically woke up in a panicky, lazy shiver, with my toes going numb. I had to move my toes in their boots vigorously every 20 minutes or so to keep them from going numb.

I eventually realized that by bracing my boots into the crevasse further up from the bottom of the cave (which is of course the coldest spot), and resting on my heels rather than soles of my feet, I could keep my feet much warmer. The pressure of my feet against the bottom of the boots compressed all the air from under them, causing loss of circulation and conduction against the cold rubber. But by creating a little space underneath, they stayed much warmer.

I spent the rest of the night repeating a half hour cycle of shivering, readjusting, and sleeping a tiny bit before waking up shivering again. It wasn't pleasant, but it was definitely warmer than outside, and I've been much colder. It was adequate. At some point I peed in my water bottle. Either I was very dehydrated or it wasn't too cold in the shelter – the pee bottle never froze at all. The snow inside my shelter never melted, so it was certainly below freezing, but it was surely warmer than the 5 degrees outside, and there was no wind or snow.

Alex invited me over to his fire just before 5AM. I slowly extracted myself from the shelter and happily walked over to the fire. He had burned a TON of wood that night and there was a massive pile of ash. As a result, he was plenty warm in his old down sleeping bag and wool blanket. 

Outside my shelter the next morning

We boiled some more snow for drinking. When the sun rose around 630, we packed up our gear. We were surprised during the hike out to see plenty of animal tracks already piercing the fresh, deep snow. Deer, squirrel, rabbit and fox (sorry Josh, not sure if it was red or grey), along with human and dog tracks, went in every direction. 

We had survived to see a new day, and it felt good.

I'm obviously not yet a winter shelter expert, but here are some lessons I will apply to my next winter outing.

It takes a ton of evergreen boughs to make a bed

It took an entire mid-size fir tree to supply enough evergreen boughs for the two of us. I was shocked by this as I've never used evergreen boughs for shelter before.

If Alex had not had his axe, we would not have been able to find sufficient boughs in this area. All the trees were so mature that green limbs were not accessible from the ground. I'm not sure climbing a tree repeatedly to get green boughs would be a good use of energy. I think we would have needed to set up camp in an area with many young evergreens in order for that to work.

Fire-based versus body heat-based shelter; natural versus constructed

For a fire-based shelter, I think it is critical to be as low to the ground as possible. My high-up, sitting-up shelter was flawed from the beginning becuase no matter how warm and cozy the shelter is, it won't work if you can't breathe or see in it. On the other hand, the smoke from Alex's fire never bothered him because he was low to the ground and protected from the wind.

For a body heat-based shelter, it is absolutely critical to have a barrier that creates dead air space between my body and the ground. A bed of evergreen boughs works nicely. Without the ground leeching body heat from me all night, I would have actually been very warm and comfortable in the cave, as I was during the first few hours of the night. Sadly, I've already learned this lesson before, when winter camping with a tent - my problem was I spent all my time working on the other shelter rather than properly insulating this one.

The body heat-based shelter is a much lower maintenance shelter, once it's built. Instead of needing to collect massive amounts of firewood and insuring the fire burns all night, you just go to bed. It is a trade-off, I suppose.

The body heat-based shelter which is built into pre-existing, natural structures (like my cave) is very easy to build, and takes relatively little time. I spent less than an hour building this cave shelter! If I'd taken another hour to line the floor of the cave with evergreen boughs, I would have had a perfectly warm, comfortable shelter (that functions well even in a 5 degree blizzard) in less than 2 hours!

I think one's choice of fire-based versus body heat-based shelter should depend on circumstance. What tools do I have? Do I even have matches, flint striker, etc? Is there a natural structure I can use rather than building one?

I will need to go out in varying winter conditions many times more before I can say anything more definitive on this.

Combining forces

There were 2 of us, and for some silly reason, we decided to build 2 (actually 3) completely separate shelters, with separate fires and therefore separate firewood supplies. If we had instead both built Alex's type of shelter on either side of the fire, with a rock face on one side and stacked debris wall on the other, we would have saved many man-hours of labor. This is a grave error in retrospect. What a waste of energy and time!

We were just a mile from our cars and from civilization, so we were in no real danger. But in a real winter survival situation such an error could be far more costly.


I felt goofy having spent the time and energy to build not 1, but 2 shelters for myself. On the other hand, if I had built only my fire-based shelter, and did not have the cave as back-up, I'd have been in trouble. I think the lessons I took from this outing are sufficient that I could build just one shelter next time and not need a back-up. I'm glad I had 2 shelters this time, but next time there will be just 1.


There must be a lesson in my unpleasant state of mind during this outing, but I haven't figured out what it is yet (other than: don't take cold medicine before a wilderness outing!). I'm not sure what more I could have done to stay sharp/positive mentally. Sometimes your dad dies and you're in a crappy mood about it a year later. Just something to ponder, I guess.

I will say I'm glad to have had a friend convince me to stay through the night. Otherwise I wouldn't have much of a post to write!


  1. Great post Brent, I'm glad you stayed as well. Despite a cold night, it was a great time and looking forward to the next one. I posted some photos of the trip on my facebook and the reaction from people was a mixture of admiration and sheer insanity. To add to the "lessons learned" section, the amount of wood turned out to be just enough in retrospect, I think I could have saved a bunch if I slept closer to the fire. I ended up progressively moving the fire closer and closer, till I was about 1 foot and half away and was comfortable. If we did another night I would have done this from the beginning but it still would have taken a ton of wood.

    Just to add to the bed, the amount of boughs I had underneath me was 6 inches compressed, head to toe. That was the minimum I needed to get off the ground and eliminate conduction. If we had more time I'd probably put another two inches for good measure.

    I've also thought a lot about what I would have done if I didn't pack an axe given that there would have been no way to insulate us off the ground. The best answer I could come up with is either collect enough debris to get off the ground and get under an evergreen tree or just move on to find a better shelter. Anyway great post man, looking forward to the next one. And yes, definately one fire between the two of us. :)

  2. Thanks for the comment man. Definitely should go out again soon!