There are many articles on survival shelters available in books and online, but after 2 decades testing them out, one thing sums them all up for me – hard work!

Everyone tells you to NOT PANIC in an emergency, but few can tell you what TO do – the opposite of panic.  If you have no positive alternative, who can blame you for panicking, doing something stupid and giving up?

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.  Just breathe.  Breathe deeply.  Literally, if you want to survive a cold emergency, you just need to keep breathing.  Think about that.  No matter how dire a situation was, no one has died who kept breathing.

In fact, you will be warmer the more you breathe.  You’ll even be smarter!  If you can get oxygen into your cells, they will function better. So more oxygen to the brain makes you smarter.  More oxygen into your bloodstream will make cells in your fingers and toes produce more heat.

So cold you can’t breathe?  Run in place until you are “out of breath” and when I say “in place,” I mean in one place.  Running willy-nilly during a panicked situation is usually a bad idea and often causes injury.  Of course, if you see a safer, warmer place right near you, then move over there.

Artwork by Joanna Colbert ( depicting the author in a debris hut.

Otherwise, once you’re breathing well, once oxygen is warming those extremities and making your brain work smarter, the idea of taking or making shelter should pop into your brain, because that will be your next step toward survival. Seems like common sense, but during emergencies, we have to get back to basics, so remember:

1.  Breathe deeply and slowly, using your diaphragm below your lungs which can be done by sticking your stomach out when inhaling, then pushing it in to exhale.  Try it now.  Amazingly, after just 10 breaths, most people start to feel flushed and a little bit warmer.  Remember, breathe deep and slow!

2.  If you can readily see a safer place that is out of the wind and less wet, then move to that place.  Wind and water are the main causes of heat loss, so find the leeward side of a rock, or a tree that is leaning a little, and you will often find a dry space at the base of its trunk.  But always watch out for hazards! For instance, test the tree first, by trying to push it over, looking upward all the while to ensure that no branches fall on you.

3.  Run in place, or otherwise exercise to increase your respiratory rate.  Jumping  jacks are good if you need to warm up your arms, but I find that running in place and keeping my arms tucked-in helps to conserve and generate heat at the same time.  Jumping  jacks cause quite a bit of heat to escape.  Just be sure to stop before you make yourself wetter through sweat, because sweat will make you colder once you stop moving again.  Of course, if you are already drenched, then by all means, keep jogging.  Otherwise, if and when you are just sitting or standing around during a cold emergency, you should nonetheless continue fidgeting your fingers and toes, twisting your ankles around, or pretending to “rock out / keep a beat” to music. If you get sick of that, or too tired, take a short break, but get back to it.  Think about it:  shivering doesn’t seem like it’s much exercise, but it’s our body’s brilliant mechanism for staying warm.  Trust your body, and imitate its brilliance, because it will work if you give it the time and assistance it deserves.

4.  Check to see if you have some food and water.  If you do, then drink and eat some.  If your water is super cold, then just sip on it, or warm it in your mouth before you swallow because you will want to keep your core as warm as possible.  But by all means, drink and eat.  If you are dehydrated, you won’t warm up very easily.  And if you don’t have nourishment, your cells will have less food for that oxygen to metabolize.

5.  Check and see if you brought something extra to put over you, under you, or around you.  Use it to the best of its ability.  Also, take some more deep breaths, and think whether you can adjust your clothing to your advantage.  How?  That depends on the situation.  Soaked shoes are sometimes best left on, and sometimes best removed, and it will be up to you to figure that out.

6.  It’s time to think your way out of this situation, so take a few deep breaths again, or run in place if that’s the only way you can get oxygen to your brain, and take another drink or a bite to eat.  If it’s truly easy to get to warm safety, then plan a route that avoids hazards.  If the route is not a sure thing, then it’s probably best to look around you and make the best of your situation, especially if someone even vaguely knows that you are in the area and expected back sometime, because search and rescue personnel will be called. Cost should never be a concern, especially if 911 is called in the North Cascades region, because search and rescue is conducted by volunteers (such as myself) under the direction of sheriff deputies. National Forest & Parks sometimes charge if you call them, but money should not be a concern, no matter how embarrassed you might feel.  But you know what?  Rescuers love to volunteer, and remember, they will find you more easily if you stay in one place.

7.  If the best decision is to stay put, then you need to plan your shelter right away.  The kind of shelter depends on many variables.  Did you bring something that can be strung up to shed water?  Did you bring anything with you that you can stand or sit on, lifting you away from the cold, wet ground even a little?  Do you have something you really know how to start fire with, and I mean really practiced starting fire with?  Is there a good natural shelter within sight?  If you know you can make fire, then you are going to be building a shelter far different than if you can’t have a fire.  Decision time.  To state the obvious, if you choose incorrectly, you will be more uncomfortable than you could have been, but you will just have to survive anyway.  After assessing the scene around you, and making a decision, then start working.

Wolf Camp student-turned-instructor Charlie Borrowman chills under his lean-to, which at this point was for sun protection during the day. He would add more cross-supports and bark shingles to make it waterproof by nightfall.

Shelter takes about 5 times longer to build than you think.  If you think it will take 2 hours to build what you will imagine, it will take 10 hours. So, if it’s 10 a.m. you have just enough time.  If it’s 4 p.m. you’re probably going to have a cold night, but you’ll survive if you work hard between now and dark.

If it’s already dark out, then your options depend on your light source. If you have a headlamp that will work all night long, then you’re fine.  Just keep building your shelter, but take care to avoid injury, because when you get cold, tired, hungry, thirsty, or emotional, and it’s dark, the chances of injury increase dramatically.  And an injury will reduce your survival time considerably.  The clock is ticking, so start working.

But wait, one of the lead instructors in my survival school, Jason Patterson, always reminds our students to watch out for the 5 W’s before making shelter: Weather, Water, Wigglies, Widow Makers and Wood Supply.  I’m pretty sure he picked that up from his training at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.

In other words, try your best to choose a location that won’t kill you in the following ways:  Weather concerns include being in the wind, or setting up your shelter under/on a lightning rod; Water concerns include having water too close, or too far away; Wigglies include checking for suspicious snake lairs, spiders, or disease-carrying bugs around your shelter; Widow-makers are, in logging terms, branches and trees that fall on you; and Wood concerns include the lack of adequate building materials near-by. Believe me, you don’t want to talk far to get materials!

Before listing the many choices for building the best shelter in your situation, let’s discuss finding the best natural shelter situation possible.  Needless to say, finding good natural shelter will reduce the time it takes to get comfortable, so track it.  However, you are in a dangerous situation, so keep sight of your initial shelter out of the wind and rain.

See any tree-wells, burned-out logs, or rock overhangs?  Positive there aren’t any?  Go look, because maybe you’ve never really seen what one really looks like.  How about a fallen tree with a dry spot underneath?  Maybe a burned-out shell of a tree, or rotted-out cactus.  If you can get into a natural shelter, chances are you’ll be perfectly fine, though still rather uncomfortable.  Just remember, you can survive discomfort, but probably not stupidly staying directly out in all the elements.

Camper squeezes into his well-built debris hut during the “Survivors Side of the Mountain” camp run by the Wolf College in June, 2010.

Here are your choices, in order of my preference, for shelter during a cold emergency:

1.  Natural shelter that I can safely have a fire next to, with enough fire material around to make fire of course, plus rocks near-by to build into a heat-reflector on the opposite side of the fire.  If, in addition, I brought along something to shed water, like an emergency reflective blanket, then I’ll use it to enhance waterproofing and wind blocking.

2.  A lean-to (see picture) if I know I can make fire, and there are enough materials close-by to create a waterproof roof, plus enough soft materials to create insulation from the ground and behind me when I lay down.  Of course, if I brought something to put over the lean-to to shed water, like a tarp or a couple hefty garbage bags, then I’ll use those instead of natural shingling for the roof.  The decision between building shelter or fire first hinges on this:   If I am warm while working to build the shelter, then only after I have made it waterproof and gathered the surprisingly large amount of insulation needed to stay warm while at rest, will I bother making fire.  But if I’m not warming up after finishing the frame of the shelter, then I will switch to making fire in order to warm my extremities.   If the fire doesn’t light, and it gets dark, then I know I’ll be needing to run in place all night long because if I can’t light a fire during the day, then I won’t at night either.

3.  If I determine that I won’t be able to light a fire, and I can’t find a natural shelter to stuff, then my choice for shelter should be some kind of debris hut.  Many have written about the debris hut, so look at a picture and you have the idea.  But just remember, this is a natural sleeping bag, nothing more.  The more debris you have around you, the warmer you will be.  You can even include damp debris, especially if you are already wet.  You will be cold for a while, but eventually, your own body heat will dry the material immediately around you, and if you can stay surrounded, you will warm up over time.  Try to collect enough material to shingle the top of the debris hut if possible.  They key, though, is learning how to collect debris fast enough, and constructing it so that the debris stays all around you.  That sounds simple, but trust me, it isn’t.  If you brought some kind of plastic, then use it on the very outside of whatever shelter you create, and leave some air ventilation, because if it is next to your body, it will trap moisture and you will get wet fairly quickly.  Of course if you are already wet, and it’s dark, and you have a tarp, then go ahead and wrap yourself inside, being sure to leave breathing room!

4.  Take a look at for depictions and descriptions of these and other types of shelters for various environments, and check out my article in the October issue of of Seattle Backpackers Magazine on Wilderness Survival for a discussion of your needs beyond shelter during an emergency.

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