The first decision you’ll make with regard to a shelter — no matter how long you think you’ll need it — is where to put it. Even if you have all the right materials, building your shelter in the wrong place could be a fatal mistake.
The first time I made a survival film, I flew to a beautiful area in Ontario known as Wabakimi. I built my shelter in a spot I figured would work both for filming and survival: close to a smooth rock outcropping on a small remote lake. It worked great — for a few nights. Then the wind turned on me and my shelter became a wind tunnel. I spent one entire night pacing on the outcropping and doing push-ups to try to avoid hypothermia. My poor choice of shelter location was the reason I had to endure that horrible night. Well, that and the fact that I hadn’t been diligent in ensuring that my shelter was sealed off and had a tight-fitting door!
What do you need to consider in selecting a site? First, choose a spot that is relatively flat and free of loose rocks. And as my buddy and premier desert survival expert David Holladay says, always remember the five W’s: widowmakers, water, wigglies, wind and wood.
Beyond the five W’s, temperature is an important consideration when selecting a site. If you’re in hilly terrain and seeking warmth, it’s typically better to pick a spot about three-quarters of the way up a hill. Cold air settles in the valleys at night, and the hilltops are often windy; both will chill you in the middle of the night.
Another place to avoid putting up a shelter — in Africa especially — is under or next to a fruit tree. Fruit attracts insects and animals, and ripe fruit will fall on your shelter, interfering with much-needed sleep. Bird droppings will mess up your survival area. Avoid building on or near animal trails, because passing creatures might destroy your shelter and possibly hurt you.
Remember that time of year and geographic location will play a large part in determining the ideal location for your shelter. You will want to choose a location that is close to a source of drinking water, and in warm regions or in summer, as free from insects as possible. In cold regions or in winter, seek a site that offers protection from the cold prevailing winds, is close to wood for fuel and has direct sun exposure.
Widowmakers are the standing dead trees just waiting to come down in the next big wind storm. It can be dangerous to build your shelter in the midst of widowmakers -- though you may not have a choice.
This story is an excerpt from the book Survive! by survival expert Les Stroud, best known for his hit show “Survivorman” on the Discovery Channel.