Finding the right words to describe the bone-chilling cold that could freeze a man to death on a cold winter night is often difficult. I believe we can all agree that this type of cold is dangerous enough that if you are caught off guard and unprepared, it can be fatal.
Dealing with Mother Nature
Mother Nature will warn you of rising wind chills and dropping temperatures if you learn to speak her language. These indicate that you should abandon whatever task you are working on and seek shelter immediately to avoid succumbing to winter’s wrath.
When your body temperature drops to dangerous levels, one of the most hazardous things that can happen is that your mind begins to numb. In these circumstances, you may become so irrational that logical thought is no longer possible, and you may become disoriented, lethargic, and fall into an icy sleep from which you will not awaken.
When discussing survival winter shelter, keep in mind that the term “survival” does not always imply “the proverbial crap hitting the fan.” Instead, it is sometimes used to refer to simply staying alive.
With all of this country’s wealth, prosperity, and seemingly limitless resources, it’s easy to believe that no American would ever sleep cold, hungry, or without a proper roof over their head.
According to the 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are approximately 764,000 homeless people in the United States, accounting for 0.18 percent of the population. Furthermore, according to the same HUD report, more than 142,000 of the homeless in the United States are children on any given night.
Throughout our history, our citizens have had to rely on more primitive means of protection from the elements because a more permanent structure was not an option.
Living without adequate shelter is a real part of the American experience that can afflict any of us without warning, from the pioneers who braved the brutally cold winters on their slow migration westward to those who lost everything during the Great Depression and the victims of Hurricane Ian’s destruction.
I mention this only to emphasize that, regardless of how they lost their home, the homeless must meet their immediate need for shelter if they are to survive. It is not unthinkable that anyone, for whatever reason, could find themselves in a situation where they needed to find or build a survival shelter.
In the end, it all comes down to maintaining the body’s core temperature at 98.6 degrees F, which is essential for survival. That is why, as soon as you realize you are in trouble, you must find or build an insulated winter shelter.
The basics of shelter building
To maximize effectiveness and safety, any type of winter shelter, whether it is a permanent structure, a tent, or a temporary survival shelter, should meet five basic criteria.
The shelter should:
1. Protect against natural elements and other threats
The winter shelter must protect against the elements and, to some extent, other outside threats. Avoiding the effects of the sun, wind, rain, snow, and other natural elements on your health is critical for survival, especially in cold environments.
Predator threats, both animal and human, can be mitigated by choosing wise locations and employing appropriate construction materials, camouflage techniques, and other techniques.
2. Be free of natural and man-made hazards
Natural hazards, such as a large, overhanging dead tree branch known as a “widow-maker,” that could damage your shelter and injure you if it falls must be avoided. Avalanches, mudslides, floods, and rock falls can all endanger your shelter.
If you are in a high-human-threat situation, your shelter should ideally provide both protection from small-arms fire (cover) and concealment from anyone who may wish to harm you.
3. Ensure a stable platform and construction
Your winter shelter needs to be stable and strong enough to withstand snow loads and severe weather. Wind, heavy rain and snow can all put a strain on survival shelters and jeopardize their structural integrity. If your shelter isn’t going to last, neither will you.
Assemble your framework on a solid foundation and reinforce it with cordage, wire, or other means to increase the shelter’s stability.
This is especially important if the shelter you choose is in a damaged structure, such as the rubble of a building or an abandoned home. In these cases, unseen structural damage could cause a further collapse of the dwelling, rendering it unfit for occupancy.
4. Retain heat
The retention of heat is another critical factor to consider. You should insulate the outside of your survival winter shelter with whatever materials you have on hand.
After constructing the framework, try to cover it with a nonporous layer, such as a tarp, trash bags, or even large leaves layered like shingles. Then, build up your outer shell with leaves and debris or even snow, which is an excellent insulator and will provide the most warmth and heat retention.
If you are building your shelter in a city, follow the same rules that apply to the space and materials of your shelter. Keep in mind that a smaller space is easier to keep warm.
5. Provide adequate ventilation
Ventilation is a feature that is frequently overlooked when building shelters. If you don’t have a way to constantly circulate fresh air into your winter shelter, you can easily die from carbon dioxide poisoning.
This is exacerbated when you burn fuel for heat or cooking inside your shelter because it emits carbon monoxide, which is odorless and invisible and can kill you quickly if present in sufficient concentrations.
Always make a ventilation hole at the top of your shelter and a fresh air entry point, which should be near the shelter’s entrance. Both holes are required to maintain a constant flow of fresh air inside your survival shelter.
The rule states that you must first meet the need for shelter. The structure is then refined and improved to ensure it continues to meet your needs.
When time is of the essence, or if you simply want a relatively safe place to base yourself while searching for or building a more efficient winter shelter, natural shelters such as caves or rock overhangs may be your best option.
They are the simplest to build and can be customized by erecting walls of rocks, logs, or branches across the open sides. Large, hollow logs can be cleaned or dug out, then adorned with a poncho, tarp, or pine boughs draped across the opening.
One thing to keep in mind is that natural shelters may already be occupied by snakes, rats, bats, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, or other animals who will be reluctant to give up their home for you. Disease from decaying carcasses or animal scat is another source of concern among animal residents.
Winter shelter tips
The type of shelter you seek or build will be related to the crisis you are preparing for. Here are a few more shelter tips to add to your survival toolbox in case you ever need to seek shelter from the elements in order to survive.
Fire – If you don’t know how to make a fire, survival scenarios can be deadly. Fire warms your body and shelter, cooks your food, and warms ice and snow, allowing you to stay hydrated with safe water.
Emergency blankets – Mylar blankets can be found for a few dollars in the camping section of any big box store. When folded, they are quite small and can be used to waterproof a makeshift shelter’s roof or sides or as a blanket to wrap yourself in. Their reflective material returns up to 90% of your body heat to you.
Location – Avoid valley floors and the moist ground when looking for shelter in the wilderness. Find higher ground to avoid water and slush runoff, but avoid open hilltops because the wind chill will be much higher than anywhere else. Also, stay clear of mudslides and avalanche paths.
Build your winter shelter near firewood, water, and signaling opportunities, if available.
Wherever you choose to live, divide your space into four sections: where you sleep, where you eat, where you clean yourself, and where you relieve yourself. Make sure your latrine is downhill from your camp and as far away from where you eat and get your water as possible.
Snow insulation – Apply snow to the roof and walls of the shelter to create a thermal barrier.
Vehicle winter shelter – If you use your car for shelter, consider parking somewhere with security and some relative safety (for example, in the parking lot of a big box store that is open 24/7).
This way, you can take advantage of the security that most of these facilities offer, as well as free drinking water and clean public restrooms.
A final suggestion
If you find yourself in a situation where living in the elements isn’t as temporary as you’d like, adopting a healthy stray dog as a companion is one of the best options available to protect your campsite and keep yourself warm. You can’t look behind your own back constantly, and the dog will be there to alert you when danger approaches.
If you can find someone you trust (which is more difficult than it sounds), it is beneficial to stick together so that while one of you is sleeping, the other is awake and on the lookout for potential threats.