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Ideally, you never need the contents of this article. The best way to survive an unplanned night in the wilderness is to avoid getting yourself in that situation in the first place. That said, it’s always smart to have a plan for a worst-case scenario.
So, let’s say it’s winter and you get lost or hurt while skiing or snowshoeing in the backcountry. Maybe a storm you didn’t see coming blows in or darkness descends, and you have no way of safely making it out. If it’s an emergency, your best move might be to stay put. If you’re lost, moving blindly can be dangerous.
“Most people who travel in a survival situation end up dead. Think long and hard before you attempt hiking out or self-rescue. Stop, sit down, breathe, and assess your situation,” says Jessie Krebs, a Colorado-based survival instructor, former U.S. Air Force survival specialist, and a contestant on season nine of Alone—where she survived 46 days on the Labrador coast. Krebs is the founder and owner of O.W.L.S. Skills, a women’s survival school. “This is part of the mental and emotional aspects of survival. Most of us think we need to get somewhere else to be saved. People will keep pushing when they should just shelter in place.”
Stormy weather, darkness, injury, or being lost are all good reasons to hunker down, and you should do so in some kind of shelter. Here’s how to build a makeshift one, with tips from Krebs.
Pick Your Location
First, find a safe place to construct your shelter. “Make sure it’s an area that will meet all of your needs, including shelter-building materials and a good signaling site so rescuers can find you,” Krebs says. Check for safety concerns. Are you in an avalanche path? Are there large dead branches or trees above or near you? Once you’ve settled on a location, figure out what kind of shelter you’re going to build.
Select a Type of Shelter
Think about what you have and what’s around you. Do you have an emergency kit with rope and tarp or a large piece of material? Were you carrying a sleeping bag or a sack you can make into one? If so, great. Use them. Take in your environment: Are you above treeline or below it? Is the snow soft or icy? Are there several feet of snow on the ground or can you dig down to the dirt? “Depending on your location, that’ll determine what type of shelter you can make,” Krebs says.
Most likely you’ll be building what Krebs calls an immediate action shelter—something you can create in 20 minutes or less that’ll protect you for a few hours or overnight. A long-term shelter—like the elaborate hut that Krebs built on Alone and nicknamed “Hodgepodge Lodge”—is something you hopefully won’t need in this situation.
This isn’t technically a type of shelter, but it’ll do in a pinch. “If you’ve got a lot of branches around you, pile them up until it’s about chest high, then wiggle your way into the pile of boughs,” Krebs says. “Essentially, you’re making a sleeping bag and a shelter at the same time. Most animals make nests and burrows. They bed down, and they do just fine.”
Tree wells happen in mid-winter when snow piles up around trees and the tree sluffs snow to the outside. Directly underneath the tree next to the trunk, there can be an opening, basically a cavernous hole with less snow. They can be very dangerous—you can suffocate inside of them if you fall in head first—so consider yourself severely warned on this one. But tree wells are also nature-made shelters if they’re used properly in an emergency situation.
“The tree has done a lot of the work for you, but be careful when you approach them,” Krebs says. Start a few feet away, and make steps into the well by stomping down the snow. “Once you’re down there, you can dig out the snow and make a spot to sit,” Krebs says. Remember to put as much insulation between you and the ground or snow as you can. Stuffing the walls or ground with tree boughs and sitting on a backpack or a foam pad will help you maintain body heat.
Snow caves are commonly used in winter overnight situations in the backcountry, but they can be time and energy consuming to build. Ideally, you’ll have an avalanche shovel and a waterproof, insulated pair of gloves with you. Look for a steep wall or drifted snow that you can dig horizontally into, instead of vertically. “Snow is such a good insulator. Look for a wall, usually on the downwind side, then start digging in, then dig down, then dig up, and build a sleeping or sitting platform,” Krebs says. Remember to make an air vent—separate from the cave’s opening—on the roof of the snow cave at a 45-degree angle and at least two inches in diameter to prevent air poisoning.
A lean to—a simple shelter with a sloped roof and two walls—is a great option if you’ve got trees around and you plan to have a fire or you are trying to protect an injured person. Because one side is open, you’ll have access to treat that person easily. Use long pieces of wood and lean them at about a 60-degree angle against a horizontal branch or pole propped up at neck level between two trees. Or use a tarp and line if you have it. “If you build a fire, make sure it’s at least three feet from the edge of your shelter. Especially if this is natural material, it’s easy for that shelter to catch on fire,” Krebs warns. “If you want to build a fire in front, you may also want to build a separate shelter over the fire circle to help you light and protect it.” As a general rule, make all shelter entrances away from the direction of the wind. If you’ve got a tarp and some rope, you can use that as the roof or put together a basic tent.
The Athabaskan name for traditional snow shelter, a quinzhee is a shelter inside a mound of snow. Instead of digging down into the snowpack like a snow cave, you’re piling snow into a dome. You’ll need a decent amount of snow to make this work, and this one is more of a long-term shelter since it will take most people more than 20 minutes to build. Start moving snow into a pile (don’t pack it down and make sure it’s rounded at the top) until it’s about chest high. The snow needs to sit for a couple of hours to solidify. Then choose an entrance (ideally one facing away from the wind), and start digging your hole to hollow out the inside. Putting foot-long sticks through the mound like a porcupine will help guide you so you don’t carve out too much. “This is a dome shelter, so the sides need to be vertical,” Krebs says. “We’re not making flat pancakes, we’re making an arch. Make sure it’s almost vertical on the sides, otherwise, there’s a chance it’ll collapse on you.” Put down an insulated floor—vegetation, a foam pad, whatever you’ve got—and don’t forget your air hole for ventilation.
Set Up Signals for Rescuers
This is a critical step. If you’re awaiting a rescue, make sure you’re not hiding from your rescuers out of sight and earshot. “It can be very difficult, especially if the weather is bad, for people to find you,” Krebs says. “Make sure you put something outside of your structure so they know you’re there.” That can be poles or sticks in the ground tied to a piece of bright clothing or whatever else you have to create a visual signal.