Bivouacs and emergency shelters

  • Emergency equipment
  • Shelter construction
  • Snow shelters
  • Separated group members
  • Splitting the group

Spending the night huddled under a bush is not the ideal way to give your group a positive experience. Well-prepeared leaders should always aim not to require emergency shelters (except to practice!). However, knowledge of emergency procedures and how to construct emergency shelters is incredibly useful if ever required.

There are many different scenarios that may warrant the construction of a shelter to make spending an unplanned night less uncomfortable. If well equipped, you simply need to practice good campsite selection criteria for an unplanned stop. However, the situation changes significantly if you have inadequate, damaged or no equipment at all.

Emergency equipment

Whenever taking a group away from the campsite for a side trip or simply doing a day trip, a minimum amount of safety equipment should always be carried. A basic list of equipment is shown in Table 39.1, but requirements differ greatly according to the location, time of year and expected weather. Depending on your group, this equipment could be shared out among the group, or put into a single pack which is carried in turns.

Shelter construction

If it becomes obvious that an unplanned camp with little equipment is inevitable, it is better to make the decision to stop early enough to leave some daylight for finding a suitable spot and for building some form of emergency shelter. The construction of shelters varies greatly, depending on the location, weather, equipment and the group. In most bush locations, particularly wetter areas, it is difficult to construct a waterproof shelter without the use of some man-made materials. Any natural assistance, such as large rocks, overhangs, logs, or other protection which provide a beginning will greatly improve the protection offered by the emergency shelter.

As the leader, you should be able to delegate tasks to group members to make the situation as comfortable and safe as possible. The first task is to ensure the whole group is present, and that they are as warm and comfortable as could reasonably be expected. Then the location for shelters should be decided, considering available natural protection, and whether this suggests one large shelter, or more commonly a number of smaller ones. It is then useful to get some group members to collect firewood (a great way of providing warmth and morale for the night), others to gather all available food and prepare a meal for the group. The remaining group should start erecting shelters.

To construct a shelter first look for rock overhangs, large boulders, hollow standing trees, hollow logs or large solid logs. The natural protection these offer should be supplemented by emergency fly sheets, rope and groundsheets, or whatever else you have available. The floor should be covered with foam mats and once you have eaten stay warm by huddling together inside.Often it will not be possible to find any suitable natural assistance, and a lean-to must then be constructed. Find a conveniently low horizontal branch about 1 m or so above the ground, or a large log. Lean small logs, branches, foliage or strips of bark against this at an angle of about 45°. The thicker the layer, the more waterproof it will be. The lean-to should be built in as sheltered a spot as possible and should face away from the wind and driving rain. Light a fire in front of the lean-to so that heat radiates into it. If you have used a large log rather than a horizontal branch, this may not be possible.

Even if the weather is fine it is worth the trouble to find something to bed down beneath, especially if the sky is clear. Unless sheltered by foliage, logs, etc. your body will lose considerable heat by radiation to a clear night sky. The less sky you can see the warmer you will feel, other factors being equal. You will also be more protected from dew and wind.

If practising building emergency shelters, do not cut green foliage, as this damages the environment unnecessarily.

Table 39.1 Emergency group and individual equipment

  • First aid kit
  • Closed cell foam mat (between 2 people or a sit mat each)
  • Ground sheet (1 per 6 people)
  • Emergency fly sheet (1 per 6 people)
  • Bivvy bag
  • Tent pegs
  • 20 m cord
  • Communication device
  • Stove and fuel
  • Food for the trip and emergency food
  • Sleeping bag
  • Waterproofs
  • Gloves and beanie
  • 1 spare jumper
  • 1 thermal pants
  • Full water bottle
  • Maps and compass
  • Whistle for each participant
  • Snow shovel (if winter in the mountains)

Snow shelters

If your group is caught out in snow conditions there are a number of other considerations. As well as protecting the group from the weather, people need to be insulated from the ground. Anything available can be used for this, with closed-cell foam mats, packs or timber and bark all being adequate. Snow shelters are very effective for providing protection from the elements, as snow is a very good insulator, discussed further in Chapter 13.

In an emergency situation, it is preferable to dig or move snow to create the walls of a structure that can accommodate the whole group, with the top covered by timber or skis and fly sheets. The fly sheets can be secured by placing snow on top. Digging into a bank of snow can be a good place to start such a shelter, particularly if the site gives protection from the wind.

Separated group members

A major problem arises when an individual or a couple of people become separated from the group and they have minimal equipment, or even nothing other than what they are wearing. It is certainly likely that these people will spend a cold, uncomfortable night out, but there is no real reason they should not survive the night. A snow situation is more serious, as they will need to get off the snow by whatever means possible, and gain as much protection from the wind and further precipitation. They should dig out hollows in the snow and if possible use snow to create protection from wind and weather.

A snow bivouac may seem more serious, but the snow presents the opportunity to dig in for protection from the wind. In wet, cold and windy conditions, protection is more difficult to achieve, and construction of a shelter from whatever is available is very important.

Remember to:

  • stay calm
  • think clearly
  • think back to your training
  • be honest and confident
  • explain appropriate lost and emergency procedures to your group
  • make the most of any situation you are in.

Splitting the group

Many leaders of outdoor groups have found themselves under pressure to split the party. It may be due to injury or illness of a party member, serious disagreement among the members, or simply slow progress by the total group. Often the arguments in favour of splitting will include a quicker exit from an area in order to obtain outside help. This may be valid, provided that it does not endanger either the fast exit group or the residual group. Both must have reliable leadership and sufficient resources of equipment and food.

A split may be acceptable if the distance is short and the track and weather are both good, but in remote situations or bad weather it is very risky. It is rarely possible to justify sending a solo person to go for help. The risk of misadventure is too great. The general recommendation for minimum group size is four—should one person become unable to complete the trip, one can stay with the incapacitated person, and two can go for help. Larger groups offer more options if splitting the group has to be contemplated.

Leaders faced with a decision on whether to split a group should consider what they would tell the judge if something goes wrong. A few notes on paper made at the time may assist in the choice and will probably improve the judge’s understanding of the predicament.