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Emergency Winter Survival Shelters

Building outdoor shelters from scratch can be a fun exercise in creativity and ingenuity. However, when facing extreme weather conditions and the threat of hypothermia and frostbite this fun activity can feel much more urgent and stressful. Be prepared for emergencies by doing your research ahead of time and understanding the basic principles of building emergency shelters. 

Keep in mind that emergency shelters are built out of natural elements, such as snow and tree branches, that blend into the landscape around you. This can make it extremely hard for rescue parties to locate you. Snow can insulate you so well that it may be difficult for you to hear search and rescue parties. Be sure to leave brightly colored objects or other clear man-made signs that make it easy to locate you even while safely sheltered. 

Types of Shelters

The number and types of shelters at your disposal are nearly limitless and will largely be determined by the environment you find yourself in. Some emergency shelters can be built with nothing but what nature provides. Lean-tos can be made from tree branches and forest debris such as leaves and moss. Igloos and quinzhees can be shaped out of hard-packed snow. 

Other emergency shelters can be made out of basic survival gear that you may carry on you at all times. A wide variety of emergency shelters can be constructed out of tarps and rope. Other shelters make use of emergency mylar blankets and bivvies. 

You may want to find a natural shelter such as a cave or a dense, wooded area that the snow and rain are unable to penetrate. Be mindful that in extreme weather conditions other animals will also be seeking shelter, some of which can be as dangerous to you as the weather conditions. 

No matter what kind of supplies you may or may not have on you, it is important to be familiar with your local terrain or any terrain you may be exploring. Know what nature will likely provide for you, and what you will need to have on hand. 

Insulate and Ventilate

Shelters must be both insulated and waterproof to protect your body from extreme heat loss due to cold and damp weather conditions. It will be hard for your body to regulate your core temperature once you become wet. 

Always create a barrier between you and the ground, as the ground will quickly absorb your body’s heat. Using forest debris such as leaves, moss, twigs, and evergreen branches can be layered to create an insulated barrier between you and the ground. You can use tree branches to create a bed frame that elevates your body off the ground as well. These same forest debris can be used to help insulate the roof of your shelter. Be mindful that strong winds can blow away loose leaves and you may need to use mud or snow to weight down the insulating material. 

While insulating your shelter be mindful of proper ventilation. Without proper fresh air, you risk a dangerous build-up of CO2 in your shelter. The condensation from your breath can create a damp environment that will make it harder for you to stay warm. If you expect continued snow-fall while you shelter, consider using a stick or small branch to clear the ventilation hole of your shelter. 

If you opt to build a fire, build the fire in the mouth of the shelter or just outside of the shelter to help ventilate the smoke. Build the fire at a 90-degree angle to the wind so that it can be carried away and doesn’t fill your shelter with smoke. If you are using hard-packed snow as a key element of your shelter be mindful that your fire is small enough that it does not begin to melt and damage the structural integrity of your shelter. 

If you choose to shelter in a cave you will still need to build a raised bed or otherwise insulate the cave. Rock walls and floors can absorb your body heat even faster than the ground. Caves are often poorly ventilated and you may be unable to build a fire without the risk of filling your shelter with smoke. If you do decide that it is safe to build a fire, be mindful that your fire is not so large that it warms the rock walls and ceiling causing the rocks to shift and become structurally unstable.

Build Efficiently

Efficiency is key in any survival situation. Building a shelter can be a strenuous activity and your body will already be coping with a lot of stress as well as fighting against frigid temperatures. Do your best to give your body the energy it needs and be mindful of any warning signs of exhaustion. Try working at an even, steady pace. Drink clean water and eat high-calorie snacks if you have them available. 

When possible, use found objects to create a shelter, such as downed tree branches or forest debris, as opposed to trying to chop down trees to build elaborate structures. 

Building Shelters From Snow

Building a shelter with only snow is one of the most strenuous types of shelters you can make. You will need to dig through dense, hard-packed snow and possibly even gather and pack the snow yourself, making this much more exhausting than collecting fallen tree branches and forest debris. That being said, the quinzhee, a dome made out of snow, is a popular natural shelter with survivalists. The naturally insulating snow creates a warm shelter and many people comment on how peaceful and quiet the inside of a quinzhee is. 

Be aware that improperly built quinzhees and igloos can be dangerous. If the structural integrity of your shelter is not solid you risk a cave in. Snow, especially hard-packed snow, is heavy and you may find it difficult if not impossible to dig your way out.  

Continued snowfall also poses a risk to your shelter. As you build your shelter, be mindful that it can withstand the added weight of what could be several inches of accumulated snowfall. 

If you expect search and rescue teams to be looking for you leave clear signs that indicate where you are and elevate them off the ground so that they will not be buried in snowfall. This will help you to relocate your shelter if you have to leave it for any reason to collect supplies or freshwater. Your shelter may blend in so well with the natural environment you may have a difficult time locating it even if you constructed it yourself.  

Learning More

For a detailed list of safety considerations when building your shelter the wonderful people at Mothers Earth News have shared an excerpt from The Extreme Survival Almanac by Reid Kincaid that speaks specifically to building emergency shelters in winter weather conditions.

If you are curious about the many different types of survival shelters and which shelters might work best for you, The Uncharted Supply Co has put together several ideas for you that are demonstrated in videos.

Always Practice for Emergency Situations

We recommend practicing putting together cold weather shelters in a safe environment, such as out in your backyard or on a camping trip when you already have a reliable shelter, such as a four seasons tent, with you. Experiment with different designs and styles of shelters in a safe environment so when an emergency arises you are already prepared with the experience and knowledge necessary.

We would love to hear about your favorite survival shelters. Please share any comments, tips, and helpful suggestions in the comment section below. 

We would love to see you in your survival shelters! Please send us pictures through our social media pages by tagging @Prepared4X or directly through email at info@prepared4X.com. We would love to feature you!

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