Photo by Justin A. Levine
Downed trees can be useful when creating a makeshift emergency shelter. First find a downed tree that will work, then use balsam branches above and below to help to insulate and waterproof the shelter.
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An unplanned night in the woods is something that many people, well, don't plan for. But if a hiker, hunter or backcountry user finds themself out in the cold, having a solid base of knowledge on finding or making a shelter can mean the difference between life and death, comfort and misery.

Even if the plan is just for a short day hike, keeping your eyes open to shelter opportunities should be on your mind. There's also a few things that can be carried in your pack to make life a lot easier if the worst happens and you have to hunker down for the night.

The woods are full of shelters such as rock overhangs and dead trees, but with a small amount of weight and space, a very effective shelter can be carried along as well.

When lost in the woods, most people think that building a fire should be the first thing that gets done. But, depending on the situation, that is not always the case. A fire can provide light and heat as well as serve as a beacon for searchers, but the priority in a survival situation like this is to make sure you have a place to stay for the night that is out of the wind and rain.

There are several reasons to build a shelter before getting a fire going, but it does kind of depend on the circumstances. If you have been able to call for help and the rangers are on their way, then a fire might be the only thing you need to draw their attention. But if there was no cell service or you didn't leave a detailed itinerary with anyone, then shelter should be your top priority.

While a fire can be comforting, it lacks several key survival requirements. For one, it provides no protection from the elements. Another issue with just having a fire is that it will only warm one side of you at a time. And when it's minus-30 degrees, that means one side of you is still very cold.

A small survival shelter not only keeps you dry, but will actually warm up rapidly when a person is inside of it. A small candle burning in the shelter, combined with body heat, can rapidly bring the temperature up in a well-made shelter, often making a fire unnecessary.

Of course, no one wants to pack a heavy tent for every hike. But a tent can be distilled into some basic parts, and much lighter options can be brought along. Basically, a tent consists of three parts: ground cover, rain fly and bug protection.

The ground cover and rain fly can consist of any number of items when carried for survival situations. A large, heavy duty garbage bag or tarp can act as both the ground cloth and help keep you dry. And although sleeping in a garbage bag is probably not what you'd prefer to do, it's definitely better than dying from exposure.

With two bags and a little bit of cord, a simple shelter can be made in just minutes. Simply lay one bag on the ground and string the other from a tree over the ground cloth so that the snow/rain/dew sheds off of it onto the ground and not onto you.

The bug netting obviously requires something a little more advanced than a simple garbage bag, but netting is quite light and and packs down to nothing. In the winter, netting isn't an issue, but when the weather warms at all, it will pay off in spades to have some protection from the black flies and mosquitoes.

When it's cold out, protecting yourself from the ground is one of the most important things you can do. The garbage bag will keep you dry, but doesn't provide any insulation from the ground, where most heat loss occurs. Of course, you could spread everything that you have with you out in the shelter to lay on, but a backpack and empty water bottle will provide little comfort indeed. But if it's life and death, then comfort should be the least of your concerns.

Luckily, the Adirondacks offers plenty in the way of insulation, even in the dead of winter. Anything that keeps you separated from the ground can be used, and while it is illegal to damage plants and trees, the likelihood of getting a ticket for doing so in a life and death situation is quite low.

Perhaps the best and most iconic bedding that can be used is balsam boughs. Balsam trees are nearly ubiquitous in the forest preserve, and making a pile of the soft branches several inches thick before putting the garbage bag down will help immensely to keep you warm. But again, anything that can be piled a few inches thick to lay on will help. Doesn't matter if it's long grass, dry leaves or a sleeping pad that you brought along, putting something down under the ground cloth is key when it's cold out.

But what if you didn't bother to bring anything like tarps or garbage bags with you? Again, nature will provide, if you know where to look.

A survival shelter, almost by definition, is not going to be comfortable. It's going to keep you out of the elements and save your life, but that's about it. So don't go looking for the Hilton when what you really need is a roach motel.

There are any number of natural shelters available pretty much everywhere in the Adirondacks. There are caves and rock overhangs, and while attractive because of the stability offered, there can be some drawbacks to these types of shelters.

One of the downfalls of rock shelters is that they tend to be cold. Rocks and caves will work, but you will still need to add a lot of insulation to the ground before laying down. The flip side of this is that if you can find a good rocky overhang, then a fire can become your friend. By planting yourself in between the fire and rock, the rock can help reflect some of the heat back on to you. Be careful not to build the fire too close to the rock though, as the change in temperature can cause the rock to break away and possibly fall on you, or cause ice and snow to melt, making you wet.

Another issue with caves and rock outcrops is that because they are so attractive, you might not be the only one occupying them. It's unlikely that you will be snuggling with a bear, but plenty of other animals might already be occupying the same space, and might not take kindly to having to share their spot.

One of the best places to seek shelter when out in the woods is to find a large downed tree that isn't quite all the way on the ground. Some of the bigger species of trees, such as white pine and hemlock, can be several feet across, and when those trees fall they make an excellent shelter. But don't let the size be the only determining factor, smaller trees that are similarly suspended parallel to the ground can work just as well.

If you can find a tree that is slightly above ground, then you're in luck. Even without the bags or tarps, the trunk itself can offer plenty of protection from the precipitation, and possibly even the wind. If you are in a windy location though, then some work on the tree shelter is probably necessary, but easily done.

Just like using cord to string up the rain fly, the trunk of the tree can act as the backbone of the shelter. If it's windy out, then begin by gathering some long, stout sticks to lay against the trunk on the windward side. Once you've gotten a bunch of sticks against the trunk, make sure they are at a slant and not straight up and down.

Gather a lot of balsam boughs, or something similar, and start laying them across the sticks, going from the bottom toward the top. This will help them shed water and snow better. If the wind is swirling or the snow and rain are coming down hard then do this to both sides of the trunk, and soon you will have a dry, protected shelter made of nothing more than things found all over the woods.

You'll still need to insulate the bottom of the shelter so that the cold doesn't seep up from the ground and cause problems, but the tree shelter can be put together fairly quickly and easily. And there is certainly no shortage of downed trees in the forest preserve.

Of course, anything that keeps you alive for the night can be an effective survival shelter. It just takes a little know-how to make one effectively. And you never know, if you get good at building survival shelters (through practice, not out of necessity) then you may never need to carry a clunky tent again.