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Bushcraft: Gimme Shelter!

With our wonderful climate being what it is, if you are going outdoors for any time, you will most likely want shelter of some sort. If you are just going into the woods for a few hours on a fine day, then the clothing you select may be all you need to keep you warm, dry and comfortable, but for longer stays – especially overnight and longer trips – you will need something, or things, to keep off any dew, rain, wind, snow and ground chill. You can build all this on-site, but it takes time and effort and in the spirit of ‘leave no trace’, will take almost as much time to dismantle at the end of the trip if you do not have permission to leave semi-permanent structures standing.

For quick and easy overhead shelter, most bushcrafters will choose a tarp, though some will opt for a tent of some sort, be it tipi, lavvu (Scandinavian style tipi), a lavvu made from Army Surplus ponchos, hike tent, bell tent, pop-up tent or home-made of their own design. To my eyes, a tarp is, under most circumstances, the favourite option, as it can be pitched in a variety of forms to give varying degrees of shelter, from almost fully enclosed, to simple lean-to or flying ridge styles, while keeping off the worst of the weather. Tarps come in all sizes from the minimalist – such as the Snugpak ‘Stasha’ at 160cm x 245cm – to gigantic. I have seen tarps up to 9m x 14m used for group shelters. Most bushcrafters go for something around three-metres x threemetres for solo use (although I prefer four-metres x three-metres if I am using a hammock or stretcher bed) and larger tarps or even Army Surplus parachutes for group shelters over a communal fire.

Hanging Around

For sleeping arrangements, the bushcraft community is roughly split between using hammocks (hanging) and sleeping on the ground (ground dwelling) and, if hanging, most folk use a flying ridge tarp cover. The majority of bushcrafters use a sleeping bag as their bed insulation, but some prefer blankets and hammock dwellers have the choice of sleeping bag, blankets or even hammock quilts and underquilts. I personally like to ‘hang’, but (being wide in build) prefer a ‘bridge’ style hammock or stretcher bed, which avoids the ‘sausage skin’ effect I get when using single end-point hung hammocks. Most hammock users get on fine with standard, single end-point hung hammocks.

To avoid ground chill striking up when your sleeping bag is compressed between your body and the ground, most ground dwellers and many hammock users use a mat of some sort. The most basic insulation mat is a closed cell foam camping mat, but this lacks any real padding. A stepup is a ‘self-inflating mat’, a slab of foam inside a sealed outer skin with an inflation valve. Unroll the mat; open the valve and you have padding and insulation. After use, open the valve and roll it up to drive out the air, and then close the valve to reduce the size for transportation.

More luxurious again is a down-filled (or artificial insulation filled) airbed – one of my favourite luxuries! For long-term camps some folk even take Army Surplus (or better) camp beds. In poor weather, a breathable and waterproof bivvi bag is often used and a ground sheet – generously sized for ground dwellers but only a ‘take-off pad’ sized item for hammock dwellers – is almost essential to keep things clean and dry. My personal favourite sleep system is a ‘tripod stretcher bed’, with a down-filled air bed, a down sleeping bag (or blanket in summer) and an air pillow, under a 4m x 3m canvas or cambric tarp. I have tripod stretcher beds as semi-permanent structures at both of my ‘base camps’ but use my hammock when visiting other sites or ground dwell using the same kit - just minus the hammock or bed! If you have permission, building natural shelters on site is a very rewarding experience.


Protect and Survive

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For overhead protection, most folk will build either a lean-to or a debris shelter or variants on these basic themes. A basic lean-to needs a ridgepole to be propped into convenient forks of two trees (or securely lashed to the trunks with additional ‘prop’ poles for security) and positioned so that any wind blows across the open front of the shelter. If you have the wind on the back of the shelter, then eddies caused by the shelter will blow into the leanto.

Poles can then be leaned at an angle steep enough for any water to run down and not drip off into the shelter, and then a ‘thatch’ of leafy boughs or bushy conifer branches fixed to the sloping roof. Start the ‘hatch’ at the base and push the stems into the gaps between the roof poles, working in rows across the shelter and layering each row like roof slates. Several layers will usually be needed to avoid rain working its way through. Poles can be leaned over the top final layer of boughs to help stop anything blowing or slipping away. The ends of the lean-to can be blocked to give extra protection from the weather.

A free-standing ‘dog kennel’ style debris shelter is built by first constructing a tripod of strong straight branches, with two shorter branches forming a doorway of suitable height and a long branch forming a ridge pole sloping to the ground. The opening needs to be high enough to allow sticks laid to form the ‘roof and walls’ along the ridge to be steep enough for rain to run off and not drip into the shelter, and the ridge long enough for you to lie full length without bashing the roof and walls. The roof and walls are formed by laying sticks along both sides of the ridge, with very little of the stick poking above the ridgepole, but enough to stop the stick falling off too easily. Over the sticks you can pile bracken, leaves, coniferous needles – any forest floor debris – to give insulation and weather resistance. To get decent water resistance, the debris covering needs to be at least as deep as the distance from your fingertips to your elbow. This depth is needed between the longest of sticks that pokes from the ridge to the open air above the ridge, and to get that depth the debris at the sides will need to be much thicker to hold everything in place.



Under a lean-to, you can build an insulation bed or use a raised bed to keep you off the ground. A raised bed is made by criss-crossing strong logs – short (around 3-4ft long) – at head and foot of the bed, and long (8-10ft) for the sides. Two layers of short logs and two of long should be enough get you clear of the ground – less if your short logs are very thick! The top layer of long logs should have two thicker logs as outer members – to keep you from rolling off – and the rest of the bed base can be made of strong, but more flexible thinner poles to give a sprung mattress. To save too much flex up by your head and shoulders, an extra short pole can be used under where your shoulders will come when you lie down. Long stakes driven into the ground at the corners or tying loops of cord will stop the bed falling apart.

Dry vegetation such as thin pine boughs, heather etc., can then be spread deeply on the bed base for comfort, just like a ground based ‘insulation bed’. An ‘insulation bed’ is basically just vegetation piled high, at least 3ft deep, inside a frame of logs some 4ft x 8ft (to help stop the bed materials drifting away). Any dry vegetation will work. I have even used green bracken, which if not very warm thanks to its water content, was very comfortable. If you use green vegetation, you will need to cover it with a groundsheet. Be aware that bracken spores are carcinogenic – you may want to avoid using bracken too often. Vegetation can also be piled on top of you in bed as more insulation.

Lean-tos or single-sided debris shelters face-to-face across a fireplace, hollow square multi-person shelters with a central fire, and other natural shelters are all possible by adapting the basic designs. If you use a fire near a natural shelter, be very careful and build the fire at least one long pace from any point of the shelter. You want to stay warm and cosy, not burnt alive…

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