Beyond clothing shelter is anything that protects a person from environmental hazards such as rain, wind, lightning, snow, cold, insects, and more. Shelter helps you maintain a 98.6 body temperature, stay dry, and warm. When most people think of shelter in the wilderness they imagine a tent, spend enough time outdoors and you’ll find that in most situations you aren’t carrying or have easy access to a tent. Think about the last time you hiked, were on the summit of a mountain, skied, or went for a trail run. Some prepared outdoor enthusiasts carry a small daypack with a space blanket, small tarp, or trash compactor for an emergency shelter, which I recommend. Another option if caught in the elements is to utilize natural shelters.
Natural shelters fall into two categories, those already occurring in nature and those you build yourself using natural materials. Naturally occurring shelters are best for immediate needs to get out of the elements and don’t take time to build, in this post I’m going to focus on the most prominent ones an adventurer can utilize quickly:
1. Caves, Rock Overhangs, and Crevices. Best for getting out of the wind, rain, and snow. Some tend to offer nice flat spots that can fit several people. High on mountains they can also be good for waiting out the night away from exposed spots where a fall can be devastating.
Shallow caves and overhangs are not a good place to be in a lightning storm, the ground current from lightning is strong and can leap the cavity.
2. Ice Caves & Crevasses. Best for getting out of the wind and snow on mountains. There’s quite a few stories of mountaineers who’ve survived the night by taking refuge in a crevasse. The main con is that many crevasses and ice caves are unstable, can shift and drop large ice chunks at anytime, and have false floors. If one must resort to this ensure you have solid anchors above, stay tied in, and know how to extricate yourself and others. Here’s a video of Grant Rawlinson and Alan Silva's night in a crevasse during severe weather, stuck on the Hooker glacier in New Zealand's Southern Alp's.
3. Deadfalls. These are fallen tree trunks or exposed root debris where a person can fit under for shelter. The key here is to make sure they are stable and not rotted and present a risk of falling on a survivor. In most cases you’ll want to take a few minutes to level the ground inside and add additional branches above to fully waterproof.
Solid deadfalls can also save you time in building a bomb proof natural shelter by adding other natural materials to it, like pine boughs, bark, leaves, or weaved grass.
4. Tree wells work well for getting out of the rain and snow, in some cases if there’s existing snow on the ground outside they provide a low spot that’s a good wind break. The best tree wells are coniferous trees with lots of branches above. During prolonged storms some moisture will get through, but they work well for a temporary gathering place or in conjunction with man made emergency shelters.
A good skill to exercise next time your on the trail or mountain is to try and spot naturally occurring places you would or could take refuge in an emergency.