You’re lost, light is fading fast, and bad weather will be rolling in soon. In such a situation, one of the first things that you should consider is shelter, and rightfully so. Exposure can lead to trickier situations you don’t want to be in—dizziness, confusion, heatstroke, hypothermia and even death.
But more than just building a shelter, there’s something just as important that you should consider: the location of your shelter. Finding the right spot will increase your chances of survival, and picking a bad one could be just as fatal as having no shelter at all.
Here are a few of the things to consider when picking out a location for your shelter.
Is there a water source nearby?
Apart from shelter, finding water should be a priority. It’s possible for you to carry your own supply of water, but realistically speaking, you won’t be able to bring more than a couple of days’ worth of water with you. If you’re going to be hunkering down in one spot, it’s a good idea to have a source of water nearby to preserve or replenish your supply. Being near a large body of water, like a lake, will also mean cooler temperatures even on hot days.
When resources are scarce, you should be burning your calories as efficiently as possible– If there’s no water source nearby, you’ll unnecessarily be spending too much time and energy looking for one. A spot where water runs or can be collected nearby is great BUT…
Don’t stay too close to the water
The weather can be unpredictable and change at the drop of a hat. What’s dry now could get deluged in a couple of hours, and your idyllic spot at the riverbank could be swept away by a flash flood.
Basins, dry streambeds and washes are areas that have a high potential for flash floods. Even on a seemingly dry and sunny day, a flash flood can occur caused by heavy rains many miles upstream. Here’s an example of how fast the water can rise during a flash flood (video owned by David Rankin).
It’s scary to think of this happening during the day, but just imagine if it happens while you’re asleep in your makeshift shelter in the middle of the night.
Other things to note when pitching your shelter near a body of water—stagnant water will often host insects like mosquitoes. In some areas, it also means large reptiles like alligators. So be wary of calm, seemingly placid water that could be anything but.
From the bottom up
Make sure the ground is dry without any pooling water. With no elevated bedding, you’ll be sleeping on the ground, and a damp and cold ground can rob your body of precious heat that will leave you shivering in the night. If it’s not possible to find ground that’s completely dry, you can use dried grass as an insulator.
Check the ground for rocks and roots. You can sweep away loose rocks and broken branches, but roots and rocks that are lodged too deep will require more work, so it’s better to just move and look for better ground. If you can’t find a suitable spot, you can work around the problem by filling the gaps with suitable materials, like old leaves or dry grass until it’s more even, and use thicker or inflatable sleeping pads.
Once you’ve found a sweet spot on the ground, it’s time to look up and around. Are there any loose rocks or boulders that could fall on or roll their way to your shelter? How about ant’s nests or burrows where snakes could pop out of? Are there any toxic plants like poison ivy that you could accidentally bump into? Look up, are there any wasp or bee’s nests hanging from a tree nearby?
Another thing to watch out for are broken branches hanging from trees. Also called fool killers or widowmakers for a very good reason, these branches can fall off anytime, and have been documented numerous times to have killed people, especially when high winds or snow are present.
How high should you go?
The risk of flooding has been mentioned earlier, and it makes good sense to look for higher ground because of it. A couple of other reasons why you would want to go up are the temperature, and other risks coming from above.
Rock falls, avalanches and landslide can happen so most of the time, it’s better to go up. You can look for evidence of these in the debris that you’ll find at the foot of a hill. If it’s too cold or smack in the middle of winter, cool air will settle at the bottom during the night.
However, setting your shelter up too high on a hill presents its own set of problems, like strong winds and uneven terrain. If you really have no other choice than to settle on a hilly area, set up your temporary shelter hallway or 3/4 up the hill as a compromise between cooler temperatures, safety and more tolerable winds.
Other things to consider
Once you’ve found the perfect spot, it helps to consider the orientation of your shelter.
Observe the direction the wind is blowing and orient your shelter accordingly. Keep the wind behind the opening of your shelter; with the wind behind you, you won’t have to worry about being too cold, and you can safely set-up a fire in front of your shelter without having to worry about stray embers.
It’s also advisable to look for a spot where you can easily find materials to build your shelter, such as wood, grass and old leaves. If materials are scarce, you can look for natural formations like sturdy overhangs, caves and fallen trees as your temporary lodging (although they won’t really give you much choice when it comes to orienting them)
These are just some of the things to consider when choosing a site for your temporary shelter. If one of the hazards mentioned is present in your chosen spot, it’s better to look for a different site. It’s a minor inconvenience, but you’ll be able to sleep a bit better at night knowing that you’re safe.