Monday, February 27, 2006

The Shelter Challenge

At the beginning of last week I had to miss work because I had severe back pain. The weekend before I went climbing, did some moving and played basketball. All this was after not exercising for more than a month. So it was with nervous excitement that I drove south Saturday morning to test my survival skills.

I met up with five other guys on some property northeast of Bloomington. Our challenge was to each build a shelter without tools out of things found in the forest. The type of shelter we all built was a debris hut. It is one type of shelter that you can make that can keep you warm with just your own body heat. Think of it as a giant sleeping bag.

A shelter like this takes a little wood and a TON of debris like leaves and other ground litter. Before we started, we discussed whether we should build our huts apart or close together. The benefit of being apart is that you don't have to compete over resources. The benefit of being together is that you can more easily socialize, communicate, share a fire, and help each other out. In the end we decided it would be cool to all be together especially since the resources were plentiful. They were so plentiful, in fact, that I never had to go more than 30 yds. to find materials.

We next walked around a ridge looking for a good shelter location. Because there was a 5-10 mph wind, we chose a spot a bit downhill from the top. It was a lot less windy there which ended up being a big benefit throughout the experience.

My hut is at center in the picture below. As you can see, the frame was one long ridgepole supported by some "Y" sticks. Over the ridgepole, other sticks called ribs were laid. On top of that, smaller twig-like sticks were laid for the purpose of holding the debris up. At this point my frame was basically complete which meant I was about 15% done.

The bulk of the time was spend gathering leaves. This was the part I was worried about for my back. There is basically no way to gather leaves without using your back a lot. To minimize this, my technique was to use my feet like a rake. It really helped to have size 14 shoes! After foot raking four huge piles of leaves onto my shelter, it looked pretty much like this.

As you can see it takes a lot of leaves to insulate your hut. My debris pile was about 2 1/2 feet deep. Besides the leaves on the outside, I also stuffed a bunch of leaves inside. The whole process took about 4 hours. To make the challenge more realistic, we decided that we wouldn't eat any food until our shelters were finished. In a survival situation, the sacred order of survival needs is shelter, water, fire, food. We weren't completely hardcore because we did keep ourselves hydrated.

Here's the gang. From left to right is Darin, Dewey, Rob, Kevin, me and Michael. My debris hut is the one on the right. It is nearly finished in this picture.

As the day continued the temperature kept dropping. We all had a laugh when we looked up and saw four geese flying directly south. It was as if they decided they migrated north too soon and were getting the hell out town for the night. Before sunset we got a fire made and started eating. Around 10:30 I crawled into my hut and had someone plug up my entrance tightly with a couple armloads of leaves.

I had high hopes for my shelter as I started the night with just normal clothes on. I wore an undershirt and a long sleeved cotton shirt with pants and socks. It didn't take long before I put my hat on and moved the fleece that was my pillow down to become my blanket. This allowed me to go in and out of sleep till about 3:30am when I emerged from my den.

It was interesting because Kevin also emerged at the same time and we both spent 20 minutes gathering more leaves with head lamps on. I stuffed about four more armloads of leaves into my hut to plug up gaps and to generally fill up the inside. Then I crawled back in with my fleece and hat on.

Despite patching up more holes I still felt cold air on my face. I covered my face with my scarf but after awhile longer, I emerged again. I finally got in my sleeping bag and wiggled into my hut. I was able to sleep the rest of the night although I was still a little cold.

In the morning our water was frozen. The low temperature was 17 degrees not counting the effect of the wind. Although I wasn't comfortable and warm inside my shelter, it was WAY better than 17 degrees and windy. It was probably around 45 degrees inside. I made it through the night with the shelter I built and without a shelter and fire I could have possibly died in 17 degree weather.

We talked about our experience and the lessons we learned which were many. Before packing up and leaving we went on a walk exploring the area. It was still in the 30s but after living through the night it felt warm. If I had slept at home in my bed and then gone outside I would have thought it was a cold day and worn a coat.

The number of things I learned this weekend are too numerous to list. I am still on a natural high from the whole experience. It is hard to not think about it. Starting work Monday I felt like I just came back from a week's vacation.


Bleach n Sheets said...

Cool trip man. I wouldn't mind trying it out sometime when it is not 17 degrees. You need to get your back looked at though. That can get serious and you'll be building a debris hut on your moms floor. Did you all think of building one big hut you could all sleep in?

Sassmouth said...

I'll teach you how to build one sometime. I'm not too worried about my back. It's happened before just not this bad. Don't talk about my mom.

We definitely talked a lot about building one big hut. Kevin, our leader, has built them on several occasions and told me a design he uses a lot. This was the first time for about half of us so we wanted to learn how to make solo huts.

fooiemcgoo said...

cool story. i like that it felt like a week's vacation. that is quite a bold statment. cool.

good story too. i do wish you would have talked about some of the lessons. it seems to me like you already know how to build and sleep in one of these, since you have in NJ.

i like the skills you teach us common folk. i have learned alot from you and i like to think if i ever was in a survival situation i wouldn't be totally screwed.

On saturday night i slept in my king-sized bed with my wife in my house which was a comfortable 68 degrees. When i got cold, i spooned with her...

Not many similarities...

Pinger said...

Nice story.

I need to get out soon to spend a few nights in a debris hut. I'm planning one in the forest outside my office building. We have a shower here, so it may work out nicely. Mybe I will go scout pit instead.

I thought that if you were doing a number of debris huts together in a small area that you would have stacked them all next to each other to share walls. As in the ribs from your hut would but right against the ribs of mine, and whoever has a debris hut on both sides would have a sweet benefit of being unsulated by an entire decris hut. With 5 people, you could have made a star or cirlce with your toe sections all at the center.

I did this once with a friend and we made a single doorway, that split into two huts, which wasn't that good of an idea. It was drafty.

I'm impressed though with the 17 degrees. That's far colder than I've ever camped.

Sassmouth said...


My original intention was to talk about what I learned, but by the time I got to that part, I figured the post was already too long. Also, I thought it might get too technical with terminology. I'll briefly talk about some of the things here.

I learned that as the temperature drops you have less room for error. You can't do something sloppy. Making a sloppy shelter or fire could cost you your life more so than in warmer climates. I feel I did a sloppy rushed job on my hut. We had a huge stack of fire wood for our fire. To me it was almost laughable. Once I woke up at 3:30 and warmed up by the fire, I noticed just how much of that wood we used. Had I been alone, I wouldn't have thought to collect that much wood. That error could have been a problem in a real situation.

More specifically about my hut, I knew that it was going to take a long time to get leaves so I rushed through the framing. The frame ended up being to big around for my body to insulate. When I foot raked my big piles of leaves onto my hut, I didn't take care to make sure there weren't big pockets between the lattice and the ribs. These are pockets that your body has to heat. I had a lot of them. So not only was my frame too big, but I also had pockets. That means I probably could have added another 2 feet of debris and it wouldn't have been much warmer.

Building a shelter in cold temperature points out your weaknesses like playing a sport against a better player. You can't just be mediocre and still do well. You have to step up your game.

Sassmouth said...


Since we were on a ridge, we couldn't find an area where we could all gather up together. Originally we were going to do that, but two of the people moved up or downhill where there was more room and the ground was more even. We could have had a spot that was flat enough but it would have had to be on the top of the ridge where it was windier. In a real survival situation, we may have squeezed together anyway to conserve energy and resources in building.