A survival shelter can be something you build, with tools or barehanded. It can also be something you find, ready-to-use and provided by nature. Since exposure is one of the top threats in a wilderness survival setting, learning how to find shelter quickly can save your life. The landscape can provide many different kinds of shelters if you just know where to look.
Caves are one of our oldest known human habitations, and there’s good reason for it. You’re out of the wind in most cases, unless the cave has its own air flow. You’re out of the rain and water is not a problem, unless the cave is prone to flooding. Caves also have stable temperatures, feeling cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In fact, when you get a few feet underground, the temperature doesn’t change much at all. The underground temperature will be affected by the area’s latitude, with caves in North America ranging between 40 to 60 degrees (being warmer in the south and cooler up north). Caves are also easier to defend than most other natural shelters (or man-made shelters, for that matter). They are not without problems, however. The three main issues with cave safety are animals, air and collapse.
2. Rock Overhangs
Strangely satisfying to our instinct for protection, rock overhangs have long been a magnetic draw to humans in need of refuge. These stony shelters are called by many different names, like rock shelters, rockhouses, crepuscular caves and bluff shelters. Some can be deep, seeming almost like a cave, while others are quite shallow, barely providing enough room to lie down. Whatever you call them, these landforms are shallow openings at the base of an outcropping, a cliff or some similar form. These are sometimes formed by water erosion. They can also be dissolved slowly by weather, when a soft rock stratum erodes away beneath a more resistant rock stratum.
3. Rock Formations
They’re not caves or overhangs, they’re something different. Rock formations that offer protection are often composed of boulder groupings that block the wind, or boulders that are jumbled by geological activity or piled up by glaciers. When boulders produce a gap or void underneath, survey it carefully before crawling under. Look for any loose rock overhead, and look for recently fallen rock on the ground underneath the sheltering stone. The most obvious hazard you’d face is that something could shift and fall on you, though there are less obvious problems. These are often fine habitats for venomous animals like snakes, scorpions and spiders (in the right climates).
4. Evergreen Trees
Since hollow trees aren’t too common in most places (as old growth forests are scarce), this form of natural tree shelter might be your next best bet. The protected space under an evergreen tree can give us good coverage from the sun, and provide partial protection from the wind and precipitation (particularly snow). Their wind and sun protection are best when the lower branches droop down, touching or nearly touching the ground. Their rain and precipitation protection are governed by two main factors: foliage density and tree shape. With a thick canopy of needles or evergreen leaves overhead, the precipitation is naturally redirected out to the edge of the canopy (often called the drip line).
5. Hollow Trees
Some of our ancestors used to live in hollowed out tress, so we can certainly make use of them for a night or two. In the Virginia Colony, a down-on-their-luck colonial family was recorded making a home in a large hollow tree. In the Shenandoah Valley in 1744, the Hampton family of three lived inside a hollow sycamore tree for the better part of a year. Jump forward to the winter of 1778, Thomas Spencer Sharpe spent the season living inside a huge hollow sycamore tree, later becoming one of the first white men to grow crops in Tennessee. Even in recent times, tree cavities and cavernous hollow logs have provided people with necessary shelter from the elements. In the winter of 2012, three people spent nearly a week sheltering in a hollow tree in an old-growth Oregon forest.
6. Fallen Logs And Trees
The trunk and attached disk of roots and soil may fall in such a way that it provides a small measure of protection, especially when the wind and weather are coming from the right direction. It’s not as snug as a hut or a tent, but when you’re in need of a place call “home”, there may be a dry space underneath the trunk or behind the root ball. Inspect it carefully before deciding on using it as a shelter, making sure these structures have moved to their final position and are in no danger of falling down further.
7. Brush And Thickets
We can’t always eat the same wild plants or drink the same water as the wild animals do, but we can take a page from their playbook when it comes to finding shelter. Natural vegetative cover does a lot more than just hide animals from predators. It provides a break to get out of the wind and it can also block some of the rain. In bad weather, you may find that many animals have moved to thickets and other brushy areas for protection. You don’t need to get lost in a briar patch, but take advantage of these wind breaks to find a “microclimate” that feels better than being exposed. A great choice for year-round protection is a thicket of evergreen vegetation.