Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Guest Post: Natural Shelter Build Along, by Gurthy

A while back I had the fortune to bump into Gurthy, a fellow outdoor blogger and fan of bushcraft. In fact, he was the one who introduced me to Blades and Bushcraft, which has come to be my favorite bushcraft forum. For those of you who have not done so yet, please check out his blog, and well as the forum. There is lots of good information in both places. Anyway, he did a great series following a natural shelter he was building. I found the account to be very honest and informative. He has fortunately allowed me to re-post his articles here. I have combined the two posts into a single one here.

It has been many, many years since I built a natural shelter so recently I decided it was time for a bit of practice.


There are several factors to choosing a good shelter location. Since every bushcraft, camping and survival guide in the world discusses location selection to one degree or another I'll skip the book stuff and just discuss the specifics of the site I selected today. It is in a secluded hemlock stand with plenty of resources nearby. My resource priority was as follows:

  1. Shelter construction materials- There are many deadfalls in the area so poles are plentiful. These dead stumps and trees also were an important resource for roof "shingles". There are lots of hemlocks and white pine in the area for bedding.
  2. Water- there are three small, quick flowing streams within 100-200 meters of the site. There are two large ponds and a medium river within a quarter to half mile away.
  3. Firewood- there is a ridiculous amount of fallen soft and hardwood in the area; there is also fatwood and birch nearby.
  4. Food- There are many wild edibles in the fields nearby and there is plenty of small game (squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, and turkeys to name a few) as well as whitetail deer in the area. At least one of the nearby streams has fish, and the ponds and river have fish also. Of course there will be plenty of frogs in the spring.

I  found a good spot between two hemlock trees that was level and on highish ground. On the downwind side thee is a small depression that works well for a cooking fire.


I chose the traditional lean-to design because I want to have a fire just outside the shelter and I do not want any critters to make the shelter their home too, which would be likely with a debris hut. A lean-to also provides room to sit up and work inside the shelter.

I chose to lash two thick forked sticks to the hemlocks to support the ridge pole. I lashed the ridge pole to the uprights on the downwind side so that the trees help block any cross winds.


Then I built up a sturdy frame work of stick/logs. It took me about 1 1/2 (maybe two) hours of steady but not rushed work to get this far. By the time I had a 6-7 foot wide section done I was getting hungry. Shelter construction is a lot of work!


After lunch I began gathering bark for the roof. Luckily this area has lots of downed hemlocks and I was easily able to get large sheets of bark to "shingle" the roof. I began at the bottom and worked from left to right, overlapping each piece 4-6 inches or so. Then I worked my way up, again working from left to right, overlapping the first row by 6-12 inches. In about  30-45 minutes I had this:



Here is a shot from the inside. There isn't much light showing... that's a good sign!


At this point I'm confident that the shelter will provide me and my fire protection from wind and snow. I also think that it will provide decent protection from rain. It is slightly longer than I am taller, but only by a bit. By this point it was also getting to be time to head home for family stuff, so I had to be satisfied with what was accomplished so far. Here is what it looked like when I left:



I plan to return in the near future and do the following:

  • Widen the shelter another 2 feet
  • Add a vertical support in the center for the bowing ridge pole
  • Add logs as weights to keep the bark in place
  • Maybe add a couple of feet of debris on top of the bark roof 
  • Build sides for the shelter to increase protection against crosswinds


Like I mentioned earlier, it has been a long time since I built a natural shelter, and I learned a lot with this project. As you can see in the final picture the ridge pole really started to bow under the weight of the bark. Some of the pieces were surprisingly thick, damp and heavy. Next time I'll use a stronger ridge pole. Here are some other lessons:

  • Making a shelter is a lot of work and uses a lot of energy
  • Plan on at least 3 hours to make a shelter
  • Site selection is important.... access to materials is paramount
  • Hemlock stumps and deadfall are easy to bark if you are patient
  • There are a number of great reasons to keep that small tarp or USGI poncho in my daybag!
  • I need a different axe for chopping
  • My body is older than it used to be... especially my back 

Assuming nobody burns, disassembles or otherwise destroys my shelter, there will be additional installments with the improvements to the shelter as well as my experiences sleeping in it in the near and not so near future!

It was a beautiful day here in Michigan (sunny and temps in the 60s!!) and I got back out to work some more on the shelter. Firstly I replaced the ridge pole with a sturdier piece of wood and then spaced the angled sticks for the roof out more. I am keeping about 2/3 of it shingled with bark and am using debris for the other 1/3 as an experiment to compare the effectiveness of two methods. I spent about an hour rebuilding the shelter and getting a thin layer of debris lad in before my wander lust got the better of me and I headed off to explore and enjoy the weather.



Lessons Learned:

  • Place the ridgepole on the back side of the trees versus the front... the trees will not block as much of the wind but the shelter will be inherently sturdier.
  • Bark shingles are very fragile
  • An armload of debris does not go far in shelter construction

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