Survival was a way of life for most of human history. It’s only in modern times that we have become dependent on our complex infrastructure and have forgotten about our basic needs in the search for a new car, a bigger house, and fancier clothes.
In this process, we’ve forgotten that the purpose of that house and clothing is to protect our bodies from the rain, snow, and cold so that we can survive.
Travelers in ancient times couldn’t just pull into the nearest Holiday Inn or Motel 6 for the night. Oh, there have been inns as long as mankind has traveled; but that was only in populated areas. Anyone traveling out beyond that point had to find their own shelter as they didn’t have an ultralight backpacking tent to use.
It was commonplace for travelers to keep their eyes open for good campsites and just about as common for them to share that information with others over a campfire. Such verbal trail guides helped those who followed behind by giving them the information they needed to make their way and therefore increasing their chances of survival. It’s always easier to travel a trail others have traveled before, especially when you have information from their journeys.
Many of these campsites were used over and over again. Travelers would come upon one of them and often see a blackened fire pit, some stacked wood, and cleaned-out water holes. Many would try to leave things a little better than they found them, realizing that others would be coming along in their footsteps.
But what about those times when there was no campsite left behind by someone else? It was then that they needed to depend on spotting places that offered natural shelter so that they could set up camp.
That’s why they were always looking and would often stop early if they found someplace that made for a good campsite, rather than taking a chance and counting upon finding somewhere better down the road.
So, what makes for a good campsite?
- It provides shelter from the wind and rain
- There is an abundance of wood for your fire – preferably deadfalls
- There is a safe place to light your fire
- There is access to water
- It protects you from attack
Nature is actually full of such spots; we just have to train our eyes to see them.
Probably the best natural shelter you can find is a cave. A good cave will provide you with protection from the wind and rain as well as providing good insulation to keep the heat from your fire right there where you are. As many of our ancient ancestors discovered, if you have to find a natural place to live, a cave is just about ideal.
But caves are not without their dangers. It is rare to find an unoccupied cave, so you want to be sure that nobody has got there before you. Bears and wolves like caves as shelters, as well as a lot of other animals. There might also be pits and other physical hazards just waiting to break your leg or kill you. Be sure to explore any cave you intend to use thoroughly to make sure that it is safe.
One of the ways that caves form is from rivers undercutting their banks. If you’ve ever seen Mesa Verde, that’s essentially what it is. Those caves are big enough that the people who lived there built entire villages inside.
While an undercut bank can provide excellent shelter, it’s important to keep in mind how that undercut bank was formed. Where is the watercourse that created it? Is it raining now? Is your campsite likely to be flooded? The last thing you need is to be flooded out in the middle of the night, so check things out thoroughly.
Any time you find rock outcroppings, there’s a high probability of finding shelter amongst them. Even if all the rocks do is provide you with shelter on three sides, they will protect you from the wind, and a few cut branches placed over the gap above you can make a very snug shelter with protection from the rain.
A Cliff Face
While not an ideal shelter, a cliff face can provide you with shelter from the wind. If there are trees in front of that cliff face and the wind is coming from behind the cliff, you might have a very snug shelter indeed.
One of the things that a cliff face does very well (as well as rock outcroppings and undercut banks) is to provide a good heat reflector for your fire. You’re better off building the fire up against the cliff face, between you and the cliff. That way, as the fire warms the stone of the cliff, it will radiate that heat out to you.
Thickets of Trees
One of the easiest and most common places to find shelter is in a thicket of trees. You may need to cut down a few saplings to make it into an effective shelter, but the trees will provide you with protection from the wind and rain. The tighter the thicket, the better the protection.
If there are a lot of saplings available, you can bend them down and tie their tops together to create a framework for a shelter. Lay cut branches over this, working from the bottom up, to form walls and a roof. Soon you’ll have a hut that you can stay in.
Deadfalls often provide good shelter, especially if they are fairly recent. The root mass will keep the base of the trunk up off the ground, providing a place you can crawl under for shelter. The root mass on a large tree makes an almost impermeable wall, which is excellent protection from the wind. Cutting a few branches and laying them over the tree trunk can improve the shelter that the deadfall offers, giving you more overhead protection.
A Big Pine Tree
One of my favorite natural shelters is a large pine tree. Pines are unique in a number of ways, including that their branches grow straight out from the trunk, parallel to the ground. As the limb grows, its weight causes it to sag. This means the branches that are touching the ground will be connected to the trunk a few feet above the ground.
If you crawl under that tree, you’ll find an open area that is just big enough for a shelter. You might have to clear out some dead limbs that are still attached to the trunk, but those should break off easily. Adding some additional branches around the base or even piling up snow can provide added protection from the wind and insulation in areas where the branches are a little thin.
There are several things that make a pine tree an ideal shelter. They provide excellent protection from the wind and rain, the blanket of pine needles on the ground will provide you with a comfortable bed to sleep on, and you will be hidden from sight. Even the smoke from your fire will be well hidden.
One thing you must be careful about when using this sort of shelter is that you can only make a small fire. You have to keep in mind that there is a lot of flammable material under that tree, including the tree itself. But if you keep your fire small, you can cook and warm the area. Even so, I’d recommend putting it out before going to sleep.