The best shelter is the refuge that is reached in time
And it explains why all survival and bushcraft handbooks give emphasis to constructing your shelter well before nightfall. The pleasantness of finding and preparing the right spot, setting up the tent, collecting wood for the fire, and hauling water from a nearby stream is likely to be continued in a night of undisturbed sleep.
This ideal scene cannot always be set. Situations that call for more immediate precautionary measures will present themselves. In that case, a shelter is needed to protect you from the elements because severe, rough weather conditions may threaten your safety. This includes the heat from the sun. Consequently, there is one item that literally always has to be in the backpack and that is a tarp, a basic bivouac sack, an emergency blanket, or a large poncho. Even when no trees are around to fasten the ends you can sit under it or wrap it around you, preventing you from becoming thoroughly wet, cold, and miserable. Without any doubt, ingenuity and creativity will help in situations where you have to invent and build your own refuge.
Natural formations like caves, hollows, or large trees with low-hanging branches could also function as a temporary refuge. But if these natural supplies are not around, you have to build them. Of course, shelters may be constructed in various ways and from various materials. In the woods you’ll opt for branches and wood, on a barren plain there will be little to nothing to choose from except a few rocks and thus your options are limited.
“An idea is salvation by imagination.” (Frank Lloyd Wright)
Certain places are unsuitable or at least not to be preferred as campsite:
- The top of a mountain: too exposed, especially to higher winds
- Low grounds: they are more humid, damp, and therefore colder
- Riverbanks: sudden heavy rainfall, even when not precisely on the site but in nearby hills may cause flash floods. Keep a safe distance between the river and your shelter.
- Anything that is or could become loose should be avoided: dead trees (the so-called widow makers), loose rocks
- In general: water is more or less synonymous with insects. Mosquitoes will be thrilled to have the unequaled luxury of your company.
The best sites to make camp have in common that:
- Water and (fire)wood are at a comfortable distance
- The ground is well-drained, dry, and flat
- Protection against the weather, e.g. strong winds is maximal
- Passing wildlife is not disturbed by your presence
- You are not under or close to dead trees.
Thunderstorms: a natural hazard
Fulgara Frango. This inscription on many Medieval church bells, meaning ‘I break up lightning’ shows how people were misguided by lack of knowledge. It wasn’t until 1752, the year in which Benjamin Franklin with his kite experiment proved that lightning is a stream of electrified air, that people understood lightning was an electrical current in nature. Nevertheless, it was still a late 18th century European custom to ring the church bells in the event of an approaching thunderstorm. By then it was believed that the tolling bells were moving the air, causing the lightning to drift away. A noteworthy fact: 103 German bell ringers were struck doing this in 33 years.
All thunderstorms are dangerous. And outdoors there are no places that are hundred percent safe. Lightning, the result of an atmospheric discharge of electricity is unpredictable and can strike anywhere. As a rule, on its way from high above to earth, it will strike the first object encountered. For that reason exposed, high places, as well as solitary trees or cabins, should be avoided to take shelter. Simple rain shelters or sheds, in fact, all solitary standing small structures aren’t safe either because they lack the necessary grounding mechanisms from the roof to the earth.
- In a forest: seek shelter under small trees, growing as a group close to one another, surrounded by taller trees. The lower you can be, the better it is. Stay away from outcrops and protruding rocks or wood.
- In water areas: get away from the water. If you are in a boat or swimming: get to land as quickly as possible.
- In open areas: find a low and dry place. In case this is a dried river bed: be alert of flash floods.
- Remember that in open areas you have to make yourself the smallest target possible to reduce the risk of being stricken. Never lie flat on the ground! Instead, crouch down with your heels touching each other, your head between your knees, hands over your ears. Important: make minimal contact with the ground. This is immediate action when you have a tingling sensation or when your hair stands on end: possibly your body has sent a positive streamer and lightning is about to strike you or within close proximity.
But do not panic, keep in mind these words from a wise man, they have only been around for a few thousand years:
“If lightning is the anger of the gods, then the gods are concerned mostly about trees.” (Lao-tzu)
Image: J. van Marsdijk