Exposure to the elements is good for the soul, but it can also be deadly if you are caught unprepared. In survival, shelter is your number-one priority. You should always carry a small survival kit when you are in the backcountry, but unless you are on a long trek, you probably won’t carry a tent and sleeping bag with you everywhere you go. A reflective emergency blanket is a great addition to your daypack, but it won’t fully protect you from the elements if your day trip turns into a surprise overnight ordeal.
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If you ever end up lost or just decide to go completely feral, you’ll want to know how to build a debris hut. For a short-term shelter solution, debris huts are one of your best options. They will keep you warm and dry in howling rain and bitter cold, and they can be built entirely out of found materials in most ecosystems. The debris hut, more or less, is squirrel technology. Like a squirrel’s drey, a debris hut has a stick frame, a thick outer layer of debris and a debris mattress in the sleeping chamber. The leaves create dead air space for insulation and also shed water away from the inside of the shelter, while the sticks make the frame, hold debris in place and create a sleeping chamber. To compare it to modern gear, it is basically a sleeping bag and bivy sac.
Location Is Key
The first thing you need to consider is your shelter location. The same principles of picking a good tent site apply. You need to find a location that is high and dry, flat, off any major game trails or beds, out of the wind and away from any widow makers or rotten trees. Ideally, you also want to build in a location that is rich in debris. It will save you an unbelievable amount of energy if you don’t have to import debris from some far away place.
Look up at the canopy for trees that produce lots of fat deciduous leaves or pine needles. Are there any cliff faces or drifts on the landscape where blown debris collects? If you are in an emergency situation, don’t worry so much about proximity to food and water sources; you can deal with those needs after you dodge hypothermia. If you are setting up a long-term camp, consider where you are in relationship to food and especially water. Wherever you choose, choose wisely.
Fixing A Frame
Once you have selected a good location, you can start working on the debris hut’s frame. Made entirely out of sticks, the frame requires no lashing and is shaped like a long-sided, sloping pyramid with a triangular opening on the high side. First, you will need to find a long sturdy stick for the ridgepole. The ridgepole is the backbone of the shelter. It should be straight and as tall as you are plus an arm’s length and 2 to 3 feet. It should be about 3 to 5 inches in diameter and not rotten.
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When you have a good ridgepole, find two forked, Y-shaped sticks about waist height. Put the forked ends of the “Y” sticks together and the straight ends on the ground to form a triangle. Fit the end of the ridgepole into the forks of the sticks so that you have a long-sided, sloping pyramid with a triangular opening at the front. Check to see if your frame is the right size by lying underneath the ridgepole with your feet at the low end. You should be able to lie under the ridgepole on your back with your head behind the entrance and your toes underneath the ridgepole. If it fits, continue by building the hut walls.
The sides of the debris hut are made with rows of sticks called ribs. The ribs should be close together and lean against the ridgepole, following the angle of the “Y” sticks to the ground. They should extend a few inches beyond the top of the ridgepole but not be too long. Oversized ribs encourage rain to travel into your shelter and onto your face. Finally, add a thin layer of wide branches to the ribs as lattice to keep your debris on the outside of your shelter.
Pack It In
It’s all about debris now. If you haven’t channeled your inner squirrel yet, it’s time to get in touch. You are going to need a ton of debris, 4 feet in cold weather and about an arm’s length in warmer conditions. Keep in mind that not all debris is created equal. Dry, broad leaves are ideal, but pine needles are great too. Dry grasses or pine and fir boughs work, and even punkie wood is all right in a pinch. Don’t use any green material on the inside of your shelter, however, as the moisture inside of it will let the cold creep into your bones.
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I have found that the quickest way to gather debris is to work backwards towards my shelter frame like a digging dog, gathering leaves and pushing them between my legs. By the time you reach your shelter you will have already collected a large pile of debris to be thrown on top. Once you have about 4 feet of debris collected, pack it by pushing it down along the frame ribs toward the ground. Follow the angle of the ribs and don’t lose heart when you see how much loft is suddenly gone. Packing the debris helps prevent the loss of insulation throughout the night.
Now gather more debris—keep packing and gathering until you think you are done, and then continue on. When you have about 4 feet of debris you can stop. Don’t be stingy. Add some light bark or sticks to the outside to protect your insulation from the wind. If you take the time to do this right, you will sleep warm and dry. Otherwise, be prepared for a long, uncomfortable night. The inside of your shelter needs insulation, too. Stuff it full and then crawl inside, compacting the debris as you roll around. Repeat this process until your debris hut is full of compacted debris.
Sealed And Secure
The final step is to build a door. Without a solid door, all your insulation is useless. In entry-level survival classes, lots of people try to seal the hut with a large piece of bark. This is the wrong approach. The door is the plug that keeps heat inside your shelter. The simplest technique is to simply pull a large pile of debris into the shelter after you crawl inside. With enough debris, the leaf pile will completely fill the entrance, keeping you comfortable all night. If you want, you can also sandwich a thick layer of debris between vines or twigs woven into two flat panels to use as a door. Once the basic parts of your hut are complete, you can add awnings, work areas and lean-tos to your shelter, to make it more comfortable. If you are in a rush or just love ultra simplicity, you can, on a still night, also just sleep inside a large pile of leaves.
Making a fully functional debris hut takes practice. Until you have built one and slept in it on a cold night with no blanket, it is hard to appreciate the sheer volume of debris needed to stay warm. It is also an amazing experience to pass the night warm and comfortable in a shelter made from nothing but your hands and the raw materials that you find in the forest.
With a winter storm raging outside, you will be cozy and deeply satisfied inside your debris hut. If you want, bring a wool blanket the first time you try it and then work towards being able to stay warm in the depths of winter with nothing but your clothes and the leaves around you. When you have this skill mastered, you will be able to travel in the backcountry with a new sense of confidence, knowing that the wilderness contains all you need to survive.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.