Night in a (mostly) primitive fire-based shelter

With some valuable lessons learned, I drove myself to the same spot on the M-M trail as last time, and immediately hiked to the very same Stevens Swamp. I didn't want to waste the entire day looking for a shelter spot (like last time) but I did want to hike all the way around the swamp once to scope out the area.

During my trek around the swamp, I realized this ice-hardened snow would never allow me to set up a fire-based shelter next to a boulder. That had been my strategy up to this point - find a decent flat-faced boulder and build a lean-to facing it. Have the fire next to the rock, so it would reflect the heat back onto the lean-to.

The problem was that the snow was much deeper around every single boulder I found than in the surrounding area. Compounding the issue, thick ice often encrusted that snow.

As I discovered during my previous outing, digging this stuff up in a timely manner was impossible.

This would be a fantastic fire reflector wall...if the ice-hardened snow adjacent to it wasn't so deep and tough

This looked promising - less snow under the log. Still, there would be too much digging.

There is a frozen pool at the base of this one.

Again, promising, but it's impossible to dig the surrounding snow and ice up
My new plan was to find a spot where wind and/or sun removed some or all of the ice and snow for me.

I struggled mightily to overcome the urge to wait for the perfect shelter spot, and I settled for the first decent snow-cleared area I found.

In most places, the ice and snow was 18 inches deep. Not here!

some nice beech debris exposed

This spot even had a small rock in the snow-cleared area
I walked back and forth among several candidate spots in this area before deciding on a relatively flat, low spot with a decent rock for fire reflection.

I'd learned and practiced a new knot for lashing sticks together perpendicularly.

I put it to good use here, after taking down a beech sapling with my knife and a whomping stick.

this would be the base for the first lean-to wall

essentially a clove hitch with an added single overhand knot to hold the branch in place before wrapping

after wrapping, I held the tension with a power cinch knot
Next, I took down another beech sapling and lashed it perpendicular to the first branch. This would hold an adjacent lean-to wall.

The beginnings of the two lean-to walls
I didn't have a saw, hatchet or axe. 

Thus, I did very little cutting when searching for building supplies. Giant, semi-rotted oak branches were perfect. Strong enough for the shelter, but weak enough that I could wedge a limb between two trees and pull on it to break it.

Though I'd taken out nearly all the shelter-supporting gear from my pack, I did have two small foil emergency blankets. 

I took one out and secured it to the wall facing us in the above picture. Then I covered that with hemlock boughs to make one hell of a fire-reflector wall.

I still had to stuff some cracks with hemlock boughs here

the back side of this fire reflector wall
This would be the main wall, the one I would sleep under.

After packing every little crack with more hemlock boughs, this wall was fairly airtight. 

I did not use a foil blanket for the adjacent wall, but did cover it with hemlock boughs to make a decent wind break.

A note on collecting hemlock boughs when all you have is a knife. 

There was no way I could take down a medium size hemlock tree to get at all its boughs, like Alex did here with an axe. I'd noticed while hiking around the swamp that the bushiest small-size hemlock saplings tended to cluster on the border between hemlock and deciduous (mainly beech and birch, with some oak) sections of the forest. This is where I hunted for my evergreen boughs.

The labor was not too intense. Those bushy young saplings have lots of tender, needle-filled branches, unlike the shade-damaged half-dead limbs on hemlock saplings within hemlock stands. It was quick work. I didn't feel good about negatively affecting the little ecosystem, so I did my best to select saplings from crowded areas where one or more would have to eventually die anyway.

I must have taken down at least a dozen saplings before I had adequate supplies.

Before I put together my hemlock bough mattress, I collected a decent amount of beech and oak leaves from the few nearby exposed areas of ground. I put the hemlock boughs on top of this first layer.

During the process of de-limbing the hemlock saplings and sorting usable boughs from thick branches, I intentionally held a low standard for comfort. 

Meaning, I allowed a lot of fairly thick branches to be part of the mattress. I figured I was trading some comfort for better dead-air space and less work. I wasn't disappointed. I never felt any cold from the ground at any point during the night, and was comfortable enough to get some sleep.

My mattress was only 3 or 4 inches thick, compressed.

2 lean-to walls completed, with mattress

A third rough wall added as a wind break (didn't work)
I'd started building the shelter a little after noon. By around 2, I had my shelter built, complete with mattress.

But, this is a fire-based shelter, which means I still needed a TON of firewood. 

I spent another 2 or 3 hours collecting firewood in the form of long (15 feet or more), semi-rotted oak logs. I was unable to harvest most of the dry, aged hardwood I found because it was attached to trees. With only a knife, I could not hack 3-6 inch limbs from fallen trees.

Thus, I had to settle for moist, semi-rotted hardwood logs which I could either drag or break free.

My plan was to burn these logs at full length. When they burned in half, I'd just move the smaller sections into the fire.

Lighting the long-log fire

This bed of coals could burn ANYTHING
I was warm almost the entire night.

In fact, the first part of the night was spent figuring out just the right amount of logs to put on the fire to AVOID overheating! 

I woke up cold once or twice after the logs burned down, but was able to get them going again fairly quickly.

Around 3AM, I ran out of firewood. 

Armed with my headlamp, I spent a half hour collecting more wood, which lasted until I got up at around 7AM.

I did my best to position the shelter such that the prevailing wind would blow the smoke away from where I was sleeping. It worked until the wind started shifting directions.

I got a little bit of sleep, but then got smoked out a few times. 

At around midnight, I added the second foil emergency blanket to the rough wall. This worked as a wind break, and allowed me to be mostly smoke-free the rest of the night.

My midnight fix: wind break
The temperature dropped to around 20 F that night, so this wasn't the coldest winter camping experience. But I was pleased to have survived the night fairly comfortably.

Almost no shivering, and I even got some sleep!

Before breaking camp, I boiled up a big pot of hemlock needle tea - all I had to do was reach into my mattress for a few limbs! I had awoken with a bit of a headache, and this cured it almost immediately.

hemlock needle tea is delicious
Things to think about for the next winter outing (probably not til next winter, since it's almost April now).

It was so simple to build the airtight lean-to wall which I slept under. It took relatively little time. I don't think it would be much more work to construct a body-heat based shelter constructed mainly of hemlock boughs - especially if I have the luxury of a couple space blankets. I'd be willing to bet it would require less overall effort than this fire-based shelter (when you include firewood). But that's something I'll need to experiment quite a bit more with in varying conditions.


  1. Good to see you're putting those lessons to use. Was 2-3 inches enough to insulate you from conduction? I've been taught at least 6. Let's do another outing soon.

    1. Yes, I felt no conduction with the frozen ground whatsoever! I'm done teaching for the semester as of the beginning of May, so I'll have plenty of time for another outing soon.