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Debris Hut Part 2: Self Imposed Survival
Last month I wrote to you about sleeping in a debris hut, and detailed the steps for constructing your own. Click here if you would like to read that article. As you may recall, my first crack at that particular shelter was good but not great. It was warm enough to keep my girlfriend and me from getting too cold, but we still woke up frequently. The wind had a habit of invading the shelter and made it difficult to sleep much more than twenty minutes at a time. I went back out to the debris hut a week after our first outing to make some major improvements. It didn't take much effort to make it significantly more impervious to the elements. It all got back to a simple mantra: collect more leaves! This time the leaves I gathered did not go on top of the shelter, but rather they went inside of it. I tossed several armloads through the entrance. Then I wiggled in feet first and packed them all the way to the back. I repeated this process two or three times, which created an insulating barrier between the earth and my sleeping surface. Perhaps the biggest improvement was the addition of a weather tight door. Last time, we pulled an old blanket in behind us and packed leaves around it. Admittedly, this was a bit of a cheat. However I'm glad it did NOT work because it taught me how dangerous shortcuts can be. Similarly, it is unlikely that you will have a blanket in a survival situation, so you must ultimately train yourself to do without. When the improvements were finished, I slept in the debris hut (alone this time), and found it to be far more warm and comfortable than our first crack at it. In fact, my coldest moment on the second outing was still warmer than I had been all night on our first attempt. Regardless of the significant improvement, I was still left with questions about how to build the shelter faster, better, and more efficiently. That first debris hut took me a full day to construct, and then another half day to make it a comfortable dwelling. In a survival situation, spending that much time on a shelter could prove to be a tremendous waste of energy. So with questions in mind, my friend Tim Flynn and I set out for the woods to force ourselves into a new learning experience. This time we went to southern Missouri, but we made a different rule: We treated this scenario as if it were a “day hike gone bad”, and only allowed ourselves minimal implements like a knife, fire starter, water, and a small amount of food. The whole idea was to act as if we were lost in the woods with stuff that we would normally have in a small day pack... and then force ourselves to stay the night. Definitely no blankets allowed! This pressure caused us to find a better and faster method that advanced our skills to the next level... (Of course, we now have a whole new set of questions! But that is the fun part of these skills.) See our learning process below:

Better, faster, and more efficient
As I mentioned, our theme for this outing was “better, faster, and more efficient”. The first thing we realized was that in an emergency, constructing the skeleton framework of a debris hut takes a huge amount of time and focus. We decided to eliminate that need by building our shelter inside a natural drainage ditch between two hills. This allowed us to have an impervious wind barrier while taking away the need to build walls… think of it as an upside down debris hut. I know what you are thinking! What happens if it rains? Wouldn't that shelter flood? The answer is YES, but only if built improperly… more on that later. This is a picture of the first drainage ditch we started using.

After about ten minutes of collecting materials, we realized our first major lesson of the day. In wilderness survival (and even a simulated scenario like this one), there is a self imposed pressure to rush the process and start building fortifications immediately. In our haste, we chose a location that seemed “good enough”, and so we went with it. We didn't take the time to search the land, and had inadvertently picked an area that had almost no forest litter for the shelter. Realizing this, we took a short hike and discovered an area that was ten times better. This is a picture of the new spot. It is still a drainage ditch, but notice the striking contrast between the left and right sides. The left side of the ditch is north facing, hence it remains in the shade. The right side is “south facing”, and benefits from being exposed to direct sun all day. Take a look at how much beautiful dry debris there is on the right side! We saw this as a gold mine, and immediately learned another critical lesson: look for debris on south facing slopes. Another benefit is the fact that we could easily push all that debris on the hill right down into our shelter: no carrying of leaves required!

Insulate the Ground
First, we used sticks held horizontally to rake a ton of debris down the hill and into the ditch. We didn't stop until we had about two and half feet of densely compacted leaf litter. This became an incredibly soft bed that was actually more comfortable than a modern mattress.

Build the Roof
We then created a massive lattice structure that covered the top of the bedding. This picture shows the right half of the lattice work fully complete. The left side was then filled in with the same structure of sticks.

Here it is in completed form. When you go in the entrance of this hut, it branches to left and the right: one side of the hut for each person. This was definitely the most comfortable shelter yet.

Additional Comfort
For the added touch of comfort, we built our fire around several igneous rocks. Then, when we went to sleep, we brought the hot rocks inside the shelter with us and buried them under the leaves. This kept us warm and heated for several hours. A word of caution: if the rocks are too hot to pick up with gloves, they should definitely not be in the shelter with you. Obviously there is a danger of catching the leaves on fire, but there is another danger. Hot rocks may cause the leaves to smolder when they make contact… this smoke can be deadly if inhaled for a prolonged period such as when you fall asleep.

My Critique
This shelter was a huge leap forward on efficiency: it took just over 3 hours to construct. I imagine that if only one person were building, it would be the same amount of time because the shelter would be much smaller. That night we slept well at first, but as the rocks cooled off the shelter lost a lot of heat. This was a mystery to me at first because we had a TON of debris in and on top of the hut. It wasn't until the morning sun peered through that I noticed a fist sized hole near the doorway. To me this reinforces the necessity of being thorough. All it takes is a small draft to ruin an otherwise comfortable night. As for the water run off, Tim and I have several ideas. First of all, we need to test the current shelter through a rain storm. We left it in place so that we can check back at a later time and see whether or not the inside gets soaked. It is possible that the water could run through the shelter without effecting us, especially with the huge insulating barrier of leaves we put down. If that fails to work, we may dig a small water channel inside the ditch, and then further elevate the shelter by creating a floor of wrist-thick sticks. Theoretically, that should allow the water to pass right underneath us.

Do you have comments or ideas about this article? I'd love to know because this type of shelter is a work-in-process.

Thank you to the kind folks on www.knifeforums.com and www.naturetalk.net for all of the ideas about this training exercise.

Best always,

  Best always,
Paul Scheiter

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