Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shelter Building

Shelters of Opportunity

Although I do teach survival skills, I still consider myself a student and as such I’m always looking for a better way - something new, a different approach or some foolproof means to get a message across to students. I read everything I can find on the subject, attend Primitive Skill Rendezvous, watch videos and generally live and breath survival for a good part of each day ( I do have another life that occupies some of my time) but even then – I’m a long way from knowing it all and have enough common sense to realize that I’ll never actually “Master” any of these skills. There’s always something more to learn.

After watching many of the wild antics of Bear Grylls or even the more pragmatic and realistic approach of the Survivor Man , Les Stroud, I’m not surprised anymore when a student asks me if I’ve ever bitten off a rattlesnakes head or run down a full grown caribou on foot then drank it’s blood. When I answer those questions with a “No” they sometimes seem disappointed and I get the feeling that, in their minds, I’m not a real survival man.

I do understand that sometimes these made-for-TV drama shows are my students only exposure to the art or practice of survival. They’ve maybe seen an episode where one of these TV experts built a mini condo using loose sand mixed with bat guano, built a roaring fire during a monsoon with one wave of their magic fire wands and then feasted on roasted pheasant under glass that they caught with their bare hands. A hard act to follow to say the least.

Shelter building especially seems to be one of those skills that a good number of students have trouble with. It seems they think only in terms that range from one extreme to another. They want to build either a full blown 2 story, 2 bath house, complete with a carport for the ATV they’re going to build the second day, or, they just want to sleep on some hard wet rocks like The Survivor Man did in that last show they watched.

My approach to teaching shelter building is slowly but surely evolving into what I think of as Reality Shelters or more specifically: Shelters of Opportunity. After many years of research and a few years of practical experience I’ve come to realize that, for the most part, people that find themselves in a true survival situation, that is, a situation that actually calls for a real need to build a shelter, are probably not going to follow the rules and guide lines commonly taught or recommended by us supposedly more informed survival types.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we instructors, teachers of survival skills, are not seriously taking into account and fully considering what actually happens when someone gets lost. (I’m using the lost person scenario as that’s the most common). Let’s say that this individual has actually attended a basic survival course and during this course he was taught to make a shelter using a large section of plastic tied into place with about 25 feet of parachute cord - a very common and very effective standard instructional method. In addition to the plastic shelters he may have also being shown how to make a simple debris shelter using whatever materials are at hand. Again, a very common and practical training exercise.

The problem here is that statistics show very few people, even though they may have some training, are going to actually stop and take the time to build a suitable shelter, especially the first day out. As far as the sheet of plastic goes, I seriously doubt that few, if any, students actually carry a large sheet of plastic with them or elect to make that one of the shelter items in their Personal Survival Kit ( PSK) If this lost individual did happen to bring along a PSK it’s much more likely that he’d have a space blanket and/or maybe a large trash bag. Both of these can make excellent emergency, short term, fair weather shelters, but only if they know how to use them. That training they got in building a large plastic A-Frame isn’t going to be all that much help.

I feel the same way about those large debris huts. That’s good stuff to know and they do make fairly good shelters, IF- you have or actually take the time, if the materials are at hand and if you really know what you are doing. In many cases there will not be suitable material at hand, it may be pouring down rain (try building a dry debris hut in the rain) or the most likely scenario, that poor lost soul is going to run around in circles until it’s totally dark and to late to build any type of shelter. He’ll be lucky to find a dry spot under a tree.

When I was a kid I spent many a night outdoors in all kinds of weather. Not once did I have a tent, tarp or any form of shelter. I never owned one. None of the guys I ran with and hiked all over the hills of Kentucky with owned a tent, sleeping bag or anything else that most people now consider essential. We slept wherever we could find a dry spot. The same goes for Native Americans and early man all over the World. When caught out at night, whether by accident or purpose, they didn’t have large sheets of plastic, space blankets or anything else other than the clothes they wore and what they were carrying.

Where did these guys sleep and how did they keep from freezing? Just like animals they found themselves a natural shelter, a shelter of opportunity. Their shelters ranged from a luxury type shelter like a rock cliff or small cave to maybe just a depression in the ground and a clump of grass or two as cover. This was practiced for thousands of years and goes on to this day in remote parts of the World. As you are reading this there are thousands upon thousands of people sleeping outdoors without any of the modern aids most of us softies desperately need.

My new approach and training philosophy for shelters is to teach students how to find and utilize shelters of opportunity as their primary, first choice shelter. This may sound like a backwards approach to some. Why not teach the conventional shelter building methods using space blankets, ponchos, plastic tarps, as the primary shelter and consider shelters of opportunity, natural shelters, as a fall back, last ditch shelter? Good question but it goes back to basic human nature and statistics. The chances that a panicked (and they usually are) lost hiker, especially teenagers, the most likely age group to get lost, are going to stop and take the time build to a bomb proof shelter, even if they had the materials, are slim to none.

What I hope to do is give students the necessary training and ability to be on the look-out for and be able recognize a suitable shelter of opportunity even while they are doing exactly what they have been told to never do – run blindly through the woods. Yes, I continue to teach the conventional methods but not using large plastic sheets or other non-realistic materials. I use only items such as space blankets, garbage bags, ponchos (my favorite), maybe a tarp, items that a person might actually carry in their PSK or in a small day pack.

I’ll continue to hope that none of my students would actually run amuck through the woods. I’ll also hope that I taught them well enough that they will remember to follow the basic rules of survival. And I'll hope that in the event they find themselves lost, or maybe just a little confused for a day or two (directionally challenged) they’ll use their skills to build that picture perfect shelter.

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