The Debris Hut Survival Shelter, while difficult to learn, is the most efficient That bold statement is based on fact and experience. The facts are that the debris hut, built correctly, is an airflow management system that sheds water, prevents conduction, and provides protection from radiation and convection. It does so without need of fire, knife, plastic/canvass sheeting, or cordage. The Debris Hut Shelter relies on the individuals radiant body heat to not only warm, but also to dry the occupant inside. The debris hut is so efficient that, with the door open, a properly built one makes the occupant invisible to mosquitos as well as infrared. This Survival Shelter is more than a transient quick shelter. If maintained, a debris hut can last for years. As a matter of safety and eventual evolution from survival al to long term outdoor living, the “more advanced” shelter designs are often built with a debris hut nearby or as an extension coming off of their side walls. This tutorial will walk you through the step by step process of building your own effective debris hut.
The first step in building a survival shelter is choosing your location. Keeping at least fifty yards from body’s of water will help reduce mosquitos, dampness, patrolling large foragers, and cross contamination issues. Once you find a site that is free of hazards such as widow makers, ground hornets, and the like, make sure it is high enough in elevation, has plenty of materials, is either dry or will dry out quickly due to drainage, exposure, and/or materials type. Oak and Beech stands are my preferred areas to build both short term and long term debris shelters.
Once you choose a site, look for a dead, but off the ground hardwood that died from lack of sunlight at about three to five inches across at the base. Never shake or try to carelessly push one of these trees down. Often the tops snap off they will come down on your head! This can kill you. Instead, find one you can either gently and consistently apply pressure to or use a snag that has considerably lean. Playing survivor guy usually results in injury. Think like a gardener who can’t afford to miss a days work from stupid injuries. This attitude will not only keep you safe, but it will also keep you busy at a sustainable rate. Young folks tend to burn themselves out and build inadequate shelters as a result.
Once you have this solid and long “Ridge Pole”, find the exact spot you want to use as a foundation to build your bed. You should be able to lay comfortably down on that exact site without rock or roots making it uncomfortable. Mark the area around your body one hand length around. You can do this by sticking small branches into the ground a hand length away from the top of your head, each shoulder, your hips, knees, ankles, and the bottom of your feet. From there you can “connect the dots” to determine the size and shape of your bed. Bisect this area with your ridge pole to mark it. You’ll want to find this spot again once you are finished gathering materials.
Raking leaves is the most efficient means of gathering them in the woods. I lost the tip of my pinky to the “paddle through your legs” method of gathering debris. Maine has a lot of farm dumps and a broken mason jar was beneath the leaf litter I was gathering. I took to using hemlock branches as rakes and found it to be quicker and easier than any other technique I have encountered. A critical concept is Energy Efficiency. Calories invested should have a
valuable return. I find that if I gather my materials first, my shelter gets built faster, I have more energy, and the design is more effective. Thus, we not only gather first, we gather efficiently. Art raking your materials at the furthest point from your shelter worth starting at. Then, by raking “big laundry piles” of leaves in to piles, start spiraling closer to the center of your camp. The effect is that after fifty or sixty piles, you have nearly all you need for the coldest night and your immediate camp area will still be rich in debris should you need to add some more insulation in the middle of the night. Again, remember the analogy of the lazy gardener. Consistent and sustainable effort toward and effective shelter is the mindset. Other housing takes months and is far less efficient. Expect your first attempt to take twice as long as your third. Eight hours is not unheard of. Don’t give in to the corn syrup side of the force!
Once you have your insulation gathered it’s time to build your debris bed. Compressed, the debris bed should keep you at least six inches off the ground. Remember that conduction is indicated by cold hips and shoulders, two areas of most compression when laying down. A six inch pad between you and the ground can reduce through, compression overnight, to a three inch insulation pad. Make sure your bed is comfortable before we go to the next step.
After you have stacked and compressed debris multiple times and are satisfied with the comfort and loft of your debris bed, it is time to place your ridge pole and begin to define the interior of your shelter. Remember, your shelter relies on your own body heat to warm it. Too big and interior, a common cause for failure, results in an interior too big to heat. You want to just be able to turn from front to back. Think about replicating the interior of a mummy sleeping bag if it were expanded around you. Wiggling in and out of your shelter at night should take effort enough to consider a pee bottle to get you through the night.
After choosing a sturdy and long enough ridge pole a self standing debris hut can be created using interlocking forked or branched sticks to form a tripod. Like any primitive skills, the materials you gather are two thirds the overall outcome of the product you are trying to design. Your forked sticks are best gathered from high, dead branches and not from the forest floor where rotting is accelerated. To start, the fork of the stick should be between hip and first rib high while holding the forked stick upright and at your side. To break them to size find two trees growing close together and pry the bottom end of your branch between them. This controls the break and gives you a more precise length. Canting the sticks outward to adjust height should be enough after that. Remember that this is an air flow management system and precision measurements around your body are what make it work.
Once you have a door you can fit through, lay on your bed and check your clearance for your feet. There should be one hand length to one hand width worth of clearance between the tips of your toes and the bottom of the ridge pole. Usually this means propping up the foot end of your ridge pole with rocks, logs, or more debris. The important thing is that there is a sleeping chamber just big enough to roll over in. Any larger and you will be cold or bothered by mosquitos and other insects. Roll to your side and check your hip and shoulder clearance. Again, hand width is as big a distance as you want to go. I stick to three fingers between my ridge pole and my shoulder and hip unless I have a ridge pole with some flex. Than I use the hand width method and monitor as I add debris.
The next step is to add the ribs to your shelter. It is easier and more efficient if you place ribs on one side and add two thirds the height of your first long wall before adding the ribs to the second wall. Checking for ridge pole sag, making final adjustments to your bed, and correcting any stability or height issues are
all good reasons to build in this sequence. Once you have enough debris to hold the ribs in place, roll in to your bed and lay there for a few minutes. Take the time for the mosquitos to drive you out or to notice any discomfort you want to address before adding ribs to your second wall. Did your ridge pole sag? Is there enough room for your feet? Can you roll over with only light brushing against your ridge pole? These are important questions to answer before “sealing the deal” with the building of your second wall.
Before you leave your debris bed, make sure you mark the distance between your walls with “marker ribs” at your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. The distance the walls should be from your body is one hand length on each side. Once you have that marked out, go ahead and add the rest of the ribs to your structure.
From this point it is all about adding debris. The materials you gather, how you gather them, and the sequencing of events are all key to stream lining your process and making this shelter in less than four hours. Remember that, while a tarp goes up quickly, you spend the night feeding a fire, not sleeping. The goal is a restful nights sleep in a bed as comfortable if not more so than your own bed at home. Anything that falls short of this standard is a learning shelter.
The first “head game for success” is to start gathering from a distance and spiraling in toward the center of your shelter. The second is to dump your debris starting at the feet until you get to sternum to chin height and move toward the head of your shelter. The more tired you get, the less debris you need and the closer it is to your shelter.
We want steep and thick walls to insulate as well as shed rain. To accomplish this, add a lattice work of fan-like branches with lots of secondary growth at forty five degree angles. Put these on each wall to catch debris before it falls to the forest floor. Use your lap and hands to pack the spaces in between the lattice work in order to make your walls of uniform density and avoid holes and funnels for water to enter and warm air to escape.
Once you have a shelter shaped like a leafy loaf of bread with a small entrance it is time to build your igloo door. The whole reason your debris hut works is that it slows the exchange of heated air for cold air. As your body heat warms the interior of your shelter some of it will eventually permeate through the debris much like gore-tex or other “breathable” fabrics. Most of your warm air, however, will take the path of least resistance. Worse, most of your body heat leaves through your head. While there are debris hut modifications for this, you don’t have to move the entrance to the side to create an effective resolution to this air flow issue.
When built and utilized appropriately, the igloo door solves this problem, regardless of it’s location, by providing a chamber that traps warm air at sleeping elevation and cold air below the sleeping area. Like a beaver lodge or Quinzee, the warm air must first cool before sinking and escaping, while the cold air must warm to rise in to your sleeping area in order for air exchange to be possible. Because of the slow exchange, the air leaving the debris hut, even without the door, is so close to ambient atmospheric pressure that mosquitos don’t detect it. As long as your debris walls are at least two feet thick, they won’t burrow through to get to you as well. I don’t use a door plug unless it’s below 20 degrees f. A basket weave door is usually overkill unless it gets below negative five degrees f.
Here is where all of your efforts gathering materials before hand come in. It is usually at this point or the point of making a door that most people are too burnt out to gather any more leaves. Most folks give up with the finish in sight because of poor sequencing of events. We don’t have to succumb to that. Simply pour all of your energy into gathering leaves once you have selected your site. Make sure you have at least fifty large leaf piles of leaves. Sixty is better. When you finally get done constructing your igloo door frame (see photo) the leaves simply have to be gathered and placed until the whole system looks like a giant loaf of bread. For good measure, add two big piles near the entrance to pull in after you if you find your measurements lacking.
While we cover all of this in our Earth Living Intensive, most folks don’t achieve a comfortable nights sleep until their second or third night. We encourage folks to get right back in their tent, journal their issues, and share them with everyone else in the morning. In this way, we all learn from each others mistakes and the instructors can each share how they would address the problems that the students are encountering.
The best feature about a debris hut is certainly not how easy it is to learn. There is a certain degree of mental conditioning that has to occur when ones expectations of shelter are allowed to atrophy due to convenience and lack of physical effort. By the third attempt, you should be seeing drastic results. By the fifth, you will not need convincing. The debris hut is more than a survival shelter. It is a transitionary shelter that empowers you with the choice to stay “lost”, return to our modern world, or continue the quest toward a long term symbiotic existence we refer to as Earth Living. If you are interested in experiencing more please sign up for an Earth Living Intensive www.primitiveskills.com/portfolio/earth-living/