I can hear the pushback about the primitive part already. I know you’re thinking what’s this primitive shelter nonsense? I have a top of the line sleeping bag with a waterproof shell and the same ultra-light tent that the SEALs use. That’s great, you’re way ahead of the game.
But you ARE kidding yourself if you don’t recognize that there are a dozen different ways to be separated from your costly cocoon. So if you’re building a primitive survival shelter in the winter, and it’s not just for fun, then I think it’s safe to say that your day has gone horribly wrong. That’s why we learn about survival skills, to make it through our darkest days. Whether you’ve been separated from your bug out bag or didn’t have one in the first place, it’s possible to survive the cold weather by taking refuge in low tech lodging. You and I are the living proof.
Throughout human history, our forebears have spent many more nights in primitive huts than modern people have spent in houses. They survived and we can too. In this article, I’ll provide some rules for shelter construction in cold conditions. I’ll also outline a few basic primitive winter shelters. Hope you never need them.
Plan Before You Build
Prior to building a winter survival shelter, it’s very important to consider these five issues. Your life may depend on one or more of these points.
- Dial in your location – If you have a choice, try to pick the safest and most protected location to build your lodge. Find a place out of the wind and out of the path of natural hazards like falling rocks, branches, and dead trees. Remember that a great shelter in a terrible spot is a terrible shelter.
- Build small – Your winter shelter should be so small that you can barely fit in there. Think claustrophobic small. This means that you’ll save time on the build, burn fewer calories during construction, and it takes less heat to warm the interior.
- Insulate heavily – Insulation is the key to success in winter. The walls and roof should be thick to keep out the cold plus keep in the heat.
- Protect from the ground – Bedding should be very thick, to protect you from the cold, wet, or frozen ground.
- Don’t sweat it – Work steady but just below the point where you start sweating. Sweat will cause a chill after you stop working, and this can cause a greater risk for hypothermia in cold weather.
Build a Leaf Hut
Winter means cold but doesn’t always mean snow. You can build a warm shelter from available vegetation in a cold outdoor setting without snow. Construct a small shelter frame using branches, limbs, and poles. Then cover your nest with available leaves, grasses, and other vegetation. I typically build frames that are shaped like a tripod with one long leg. The two short legs are 3 to 4 feet long and the long one is usually about 12 feet long. This allows for ample head space and foot room inside the shelter.
The best thing about this shelter is the fact that you can build it anywhere and don’t even need tools. Just mimic the nests you’ve seen in nature. Build it so that you can just barely squeeze in. Build the exterior walls 2 to 3 feet thick for warmth and protection from precipitation. Pack the interior of full of thick and fluffy vegetation also, then you’ll be able to fight the coldest weather.
Dig Out A Tree Well
When you’re in an evergreen forest with deep snow, a naturally occurring shelter can be found in the form of a tree well. This is a gap in the snow underneath the protection of an evergreen tree. The gap occurs when the wet snow collects on the tree boughs and creates a natural cavity. Then you can expand it into a temporary shelter. Dig a small entrance to the tree well and then dig down until you hit the ground.
Use the snow you excavate to pack in openings around the rim of the pit. Some books illustrate the happy survivor sitting next to a fire inside a tree well. I wouldn’t recommend this, as your little blaze will melt the snow covered boughs overhead. Instead break off more boughs from nearby trees, shake off the snow, and use them to build an insulated nest in the tree well.
Scoop Out A Snow Cave
If you can find a hard packed snow drift, carve out a snow cave. Excavate it with any available tools. You can use a shovel, a snow shoe, large cooking pot, or even your gloved hands. Bore one or two ventilation holes in the roof to provide fresh air. Dig a low spot for cold air to fall, commonly called a cold well.
Use your bug out bag or a block of snow to plug the doorway. For the final task, build a thick mattress of evergreen boughs or other insulating materials for your bed.
Carve A Quinzee
I often think of this shelter as the poor man’s igloo. It takes a lot of skill and the right kind of snow to make an igloo. The quinzee requires a lot less than an igloo. All that’s needed is wet packable snow and some gear you can pile up. Then create a form which can be covered with snow. Build it by piling up some gear or snow and covering the pile with a tarp. Next you’ll pile a great heap of packable snow on top of this pile.
Traditionally 12-18 inch sticks are inserted around the mound to act as depth gauges. Allow the pile to harden in sub-freezing air for a few hours. Excavate a doorway, pull out the gear or initial snow pile, and remove the tarp. Then dig out the interior like for a snow cave, stopping when you hit the sticks. Add a door, build a bed of insulating vegetation, and you’re ready to move in.
Even if the plan isn’t to use a primitive shelter, you should still have this survival skill as back up. These shelters won’t be a very comfortable night but you’ll survive to see the morning if done properly. I would suggest practicing these skills before they’re needed in an emergency. As always, planning and some prepping could save your life.