Thursday, February 6, 2020

Shelter Essentials

Lately we've been discussing skills and the need to practice them, and one of the most important skills that I can think of is providing some form of shelter in an emergency. I'm going to take a generalist approach to my methods and ideas on shelter in order to cover as many variables as possible, as this is one of those times where knowing "why" helps take care of the "how".

These are general ideas work for improvised shelters, portable shelters, and impromptu or expedient shelters. You're going to want the same basics in any tent, debris hut, basement, or bunker. If you're looking at a damaged or abandoned structure, these are the things to give extra scrutiny.

Parts of any shelter, in my order of importance:

  • Most of what we'll need shelter from is going to come from above. Rain, snow, fallout, and sunlight are all things to take shelter from, so having a proper roof over our heads is important. 
  • A proper roof should stop most of what you're trying to get out of. Nothing is perfect, so look for ways to improve what you've found with what you have.
  • Of slightly less importance is heat; heat rises, and a good roof will trap it closer to you and therefore shrink the amount of heat you'll need to generate to stay comfortable. 
  • For the most basic shelter, a flat roof leaned against a solid structure or another section of roof (to form a tent-like shelter) is quick to build and simple enough to throw together from debris and scraps. Additional heat is usually provided by an open fire outside the shelter, near the opening, for safety. 
  • More advanced shelters should include some method of allowing smoke and excess heat out through an opening in the roof, so include that in any planning.

  • Heat may rise, but it is also carried away by conduction. Placing a floor between your body and the ground will break the physical connection between the two and reduce heat loss from conduction through the earth.
  • Anything placed on the bare ground will be better than nothing. Packed earth is a building option, but should be on the bottom of the list.
  • If you're going to be using an open fire inside as a source of heat, you'll want to make sure the floor is not going to catch fire. 
  • You'll want your floor to be above ground level to prevent water from entering. If you can't get that, make sure the floor is sloped enough to allow water to leave. The standard for water drainage is at least one-eighth of an inch of drop for every foot of length.

  • A simple debris hut or lean-to won't have actual walls, but anything more complicated than those will have them. 
  • Walls have to support the roof and block weather, and are normally built before the roof. Plan ahead and make sure you have some way to get the roof pieces up on top of the walls, or you'll have an animal pen instead of a shelter.
  • They also should be constructed in a manner that will let you control air-flow through the shelter, especially if you are using an open flame as a source of heat.
  • Walls will give you more room to move around inside, but will also increase the amount of air you'll have to heat or cool, so plan your shelter according to your fuel supply.

  • Opening don't have to be doors and windows, but those are the most common. Chimneys, ventilation holes, and loose construction methods also count as openings. Openings should have some method of closing when they're not in use.
  • Doors and shutters are a great way to add a layer of security to your shelter while they help keep out the weather. The tighter they fit, the better they will keep out dust, snow, and vermin.
  • Windows don't have to be made of glass. Early pioneer cabins and houses didn't have access to glass, so they used oilcloth or greased paper to keep the bugs and dust out while letting some light in. 

  • Modern plastics are common enough to be useful in emergency shelter construction. Clear plastics make passable windows, but add layers if it's very thin. Opaque plastics make good waterproofing for roofs and walls.
  • Wood comes in many forms, from sticks, logs, and branches to mill-cut lumber. Easy to work with and easy to find anywhere outside of a desert or arctic plain, wood is the most common material in the US.
  • Masonry like brick and stone is common in many areas, but requires a binder of some sort (like mortar) to hold them together, unless you're lucky enough to find flat stones that will stack securely. A good source of clay and a fire will provide you with masonry bricks.
  • Dirt makes a fair construction material, but takes a lot of time and manpower to use correctly. Sod cabins were common 150 years ago around my area; adobe is more common is the Southwest; and baked mud bricks were used for centuries in other parts of the world. Google "rammed earth construction" if you want more information on a rather rare method of building.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but rather more of a way to spark your imagination and powers of observation. I've got a fair amount of experience building and repairing things, so I can look closely at a structure and get a good idea of how sturdy it is, but some of you may not have much experience and will have to learn as you go. Just remember that practice makes permanent, so if you practice something wrong, you'll always get it wrong. I'll be practicing a couple of methods of making emergency shelters this spring and summer, so watch for updates with pictures.

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