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Emergency Shelters

Survival Lab: Gimme Shelter

Losing daylight and don't have a tent? Don't panic: We tested three shelter-making techniques that will help you survive the night. Plus: Three bomber bivies.

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GOOD: Fashion a bed of leaves

Do It Look for piles of dry foliage, needles, and moss at the base of a tree and scoop out a trough for your body, or make a heap the size of a single-bed mattress. Collect a stack of cover-up material nearby. Gather three times what you think you’ll need; the nest will compress, and adding warmth requires about two feet of insulation both above and below your body. Lie in your pile, and cover up with your collected debris.

Protection It’s easy and warm—with ample supplies, you can be covered in 10 minutes—but don’t expect much sleep with all the creepy-crawly bedmates. Though it stays remarkably dry during drizzles, it will soak through in direct rain. Situate under tree cover.

Pro tip Wind and anxious tossing can quickly scatter your maple duvet; build in the lee of windblocking features. Orient for southern or eastern exposure, which will be warmer.

BETTER: Build a tarp shelter

Do It Use paracord and stick toggles (see right) to secure grommets along your tarp’s edge. String the tarp tightly between two trees at waist height. Angle and secure the loose side flush to the ground with rocks or by staking with sticks; it will be angled and open on the other side. Fill the back and base with insulating leaves (see above).

Protection Conserving calories in a survival situation is critical, and this shelter goes up in minutes with few supplies. However, wind can catch your tarp if it’s gusty or you set up in unprotected areas; build behind windblocks and so the open side faces away from the wind, or secure the top low to the ground for a shorter profile.

Pro tip When it’s cold, build a trench fire paralleling the length of the open side (within five feet for optimal heat); angle the rocks on the fire’s far side to reflect warmth toward you. If your tarp doesn’t have grommets, create an attachment point by gathering tarp fabric around a small rock and tying the rock into the pocket with a simple overhand knot.

BEST: Improvise an A-frame

Do It Find a strong, navel-high tree limb growing roughly parallel to the ground, or sloping toward it, to use as a ridgepole (or make one yourself by placing a branch atop a stump or in a tree notch, shown below). Lean branches against the limb on both sides, creating an A-frame that’s just wide enough for your body. Continue piling sticks and debris until no light penetrates. Fill the inside with insulating leaves and foliage.

Protection When conditions were cold and windy, this shelter topped our testing as the warmest and sturdiest. It held heat and offered protection in fog and full-on downpours (with an added plastic layer). The only downside: Building it takes time and energy (a few hours if supplies are nearby). If you’re in a littered forest, uninjured, and hydrated while awaiting rescue, testers say the comfort is worth the extra effort.

Pro tip Have a garbage bag? You should. Cut it open and place it between layers of the roof’s material to add low-tech waterproofing. Got two? Make a door to block wind.

Scout a Safe Spot

Save energy and stay more comfortable.

>> Look for existing shelters first. Hollow logs, tree wells, and rock crevices may provide quick protection for a fraction of the calories you’d spend cobbling together a shelter. Best bet: Look for depressions at the bases of healthy evergreens; overhanging boughs shed precipitation.

>> Avoid natural cold sinks. Construct your shelter above low features like ravines and valley bottoms where cold air settles. Also stay away from wind-exposed areas. Need a fire to stay warm? Build in level, well-drained spots near wide rock faces, which will bounce heat back at you. Avoid overhanging cliffs—heat can loosen rocks.

Ultralight Bivy Sacks

Why build a shelter when you can carry one in your jacket pocket?

Burliest We slept like babies—with and without a sleeping bag—after unpacking Rab’s Survival Zone ($125; 11 oz.; 98”x34”; from its eggplant-size stuffsack. The Pertex Shield waterproof/breathable shell impressed: One tester, sweat-soaked after a night hike, expected to shiver in a tree hollow when temps in the Cascades dropped to 50°F, but after 10 minutes of venting, he stayed dry through an all-night drizzle.

Minimalist Terra Nova’s Moonlite ($130; 7 oz.; 78”x30”; is made of superlight micro rip-stop nylon (be gentle!) that compresses to the size of an orange, and the waterproof/breathable membrane kept us comfortable on cool nights in the Cascades. Fave feature: the easy-to-use drawstring. Drawback: A narrow cut that could compress bag loft and crowd broad-shouldered campers.

Bargain Essentially an emergency blanket welded into a tube, the SOL Emergency Bivy ($17; 3.8 oz.; 84”x36”; employs an aluminized coating that reflects body heat, adding 10°F of warmth. “It was enough to keep me from shivering through a 45°F night,” says one tester. However, the crinkly fabric doesn’t breathe, so prepare for a clammy sleep. It packs down to the size of a tennis ball and it’s inexpensive, which makes it a

no-brainer backup for dayhikers.

Emergency Only

Building a shelter with natural materials isn’t always Leave No Trace. Practice these techniques in your own backyard, but only gather boughs, branches, mosses, and leaves in the backcountry if you’re in a true crisis. Even then, try to use dead or downed wood.

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