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)