Primitive Survival Skills: Part 1, Shelters

Primitive structures fall into three categories: body-heated shelters; open structures; and enclosed ones heated by inside fire. Each has its advantages

Field & Stream Online Editors

Introduction:
Last November, my son, Tom, and I weathered a snowstorm in Montana's Crazy Mountains while hunting elk. At the height of the storm, when whiteout conditions made it difficult to see where we were going, I found a sheltered spot and gathered some downfall to build a wickiup, a primitive half-tepee. I sparked a fire by glancing the back of a knife blade against a piece of flint and lighting some bark tinder. With shelter and warmth, we rode out the storm, eating sandwiches and talking elk.

At the same time, a 49-year-old hunter was lost and in serious trouble in the Absaroka Range a few dozen miles to the south. Rescuers with search dogs unraveled a 6-mile scent trail the man had left before finding him collapsed on a logging road, hypothermic and barely breathing. Despite their attempts to warm him, he died six hours later. Apparently he had been unprepared for the storm, but it was not a terribly cold day, and had he been able to build a fire or construct almost any kind of primitive shelter before sweating through his clothing, this tragedy might have been avoided.

Primitive is the key here. Our ancestors depended on three basic skills to survive: They knew how to shelter themselves from harsh climates; they were able to spark fire to heat those structures; and they could trap and gather food. Sadly, many of their skills have been forgotten.

Most sportsmen rarely find themselves in life-or-death situations. But it can happen, and not just when you're hunting or fishing. What if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, or your plane had to make an emergency landing in the wilderness? What if all you had was a knife and your wits? Could you survive the way your ancestors did? Read this, and you just might make it. [NEXT "Body-Heat Shelters"]

Part I: Body-Heat Shelters
In its simplest form, a shelter is nothing more than a shell that traps a pocket of dead air warmed solely by body heat. In tree belts, such shelters are constructed of decomposing leaf litter and other organic debris; in barren, polar regions, they are made of snow.

skill 1 Debris Hut (picture)
Heap up a big mound of duff and detritus from the forest floor, then excavate a pocket that is large enough to crawl into. After getting inside, partially block the doorway to minimize air circulation. If it isn't cramped and dirty, you've made the air space too big for your body to heat it sufficiently.

skill 2 Quintze (picture)
Properly constructed, this poor man's igloo can be body-heated to above freezing on a 20-below day, higher if you light a candle.

  • Step One: Build up snow to a depth of at least 8 inches and pack it down to make a floor.
  • Step Two: Heap loose snow onto the floor. Piling the snow over a backpack or mound of branches will let you create a hollow, which hastens the excavation process, but it isn't necessary. Let the snow consolidate for an hour or more, until it is set up hard enough to form snowballs.
  • Step Three: Tunnel through the mound at opposite ends to dig out the center efficiently, fill in the unused entrance, and crawl inside to shape the interior. Ideally, the quintze should be narrow at the foot end, with a bed long enough to lie down on, and just tall enough at the head end for you to sit up. The walls and roof need to be at least a foot thick (check this with a stick).
  • Step Four: Poke out an air vent overhead and dig a well at the entrance for the cold air to settle into. Cut a snow block for a door. Glaze interior wallsith a candle to prevent dripping.

[NEXT "Open Shelters"]

Open Shelters
Bough structures that reflect a fire's warmth are the most important shelters to know how to build. They can be erected without tools in an hour provided you are in an area with downed timber-less if you find a makeshift ridgepole such as a leaning or partly fallen tree to support the boughs.

skill 3 Pole and Bough Lean-to (picture)
One of the most ancient shelters, the single wall of a lean-to serves triple duty as windbreak, fire reflector, and overhead shelter.

  • Step One: Wedge a ridgepole into the crotches of closely growing trees (one end can rest on the ground if necessary), or support each end of the ridgepole with a tripod of upright poles lashed together near the top.
  • Step Two: Tilt poles against the ridgepole to make a framework. To strengthen this, lace limber boughs through the poles at right angles.
  • Step Three: Thatch the lean-to with slabs of bark or leafy or pine-needle branches, weaving them into the framework. Chink with sod, moss, or snow to further insulate.

skill 4 A-Frame (picture)
The pitched roof of the A-frame bough shelter offers more protection against the wind than a lean-to and can still be heated by fire at the entrance. One drawback is that the occupant can't lie down parallel to the fire for even warmth.

  • Step One: Lift one end of a log and either lash it or wedge it into the crotch of a tree. Tilt poles on either side to form an A-frame roof.
  • Step Two: Strengthen and thatch the roof as you would a bough lean-to.
  • Step Three: Thatch the lean-to with slabs of bark or leafy or pine-needle branches, weaving them into the framework. Chink with sod, moss, or snow to further insulate.

[NEXT "Enclosed Shelters"]

Enclosed Shelters
These take more time to build than open shelters (at least three hours), but your efforts will be doubly rewarded. Not only can the shelter be warmed by a small fire, reducing the need to collect a huge pile of wood, but the firelight reflects off the walls, providing cheery illumination for sitting out a long winter night.

skill 5 Wickiup (picture)
This forerunner of the tepee remains the quintessential primitive shelter-sturdy enough to blunt prevailing winds, weatherproof, quickly built for nomadic hunters, but comfortable enough to serve as a long-term home. It can be partially enclosed (my son and I made a half-open wickiup to sit out the snowstorm, with a fire built in front of the shelter), or fully enclosed and vented to permit an inside fire.

  • Step One: Tilt three poles together in tripod form and bind them together near the top. If you can find one or more poles with a Y at one end, tilt the others against the crotch, eliminating the need for cordage.
  • Step Two: Tilt other poles against the wedges formed by the tripod in a circular form and thatch, leaving a front opening and a vent at the top for smoke.

skill 6 Wigwam (picture)
A complex version of the wickiup, this is built with long, limber poles bent into a dome-shaped framework to maximize interior space.

  • Step One: Inscribe a circle and dig holes at 2-foot intervals to accommodate the framing poles.
  • Step Two: Drive the butt ends of the poles into the holes and bend the smaller ends over the top. Lash or weave the tops together, forming a dome-shaped framework.
  • Step Three: Lace thin green poles horizontally around the framework for rigidity.
  • Step Four: Thatch the framework, leaving entrance and vent holes.

skill 7 Salish Subterranean Shelter (picture)
Used by Pacific tribes from Alaska to present-day California, pit shelters are impractical unless you have a digging implement, but they offer better protection from extreme heat and cold than aboveground shelters.

  • Step One: Dig a pit the circumference of the intended shelter to a depth of 3 feet.
  • Step Two: Build a supporting tripod of poles, strengthening the framework with horizontally laced limbs.

skill 7 Salish Subterranean Shelter (picture)
Used by Pacific tribes from Alaska to present-day California, pit shelters are impractical unless you have a digging implement, but they offer better protection from extreme heat and cold than aboveground shelters.

  • Step One: Dig a pit the circumference of the intended shelter to a depth of 3 feet.
  • Step Two: Build a supporting tripod of poles, strengthening the framework with horizontally laced limbs.
  • Step Three: Thatch the shelter, leaving a hole at the center to serve as both a laddered entrance and a smoke vent. Use earth removed from the pit to sod and insulate the shelter walls.