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Surviving in the wild: How to build shelter when you can't get to safety

Wilderness survival experts Zach and Cody show how to create a life-saving structure using items you’ll find in the woods.

Wilderness survival experts Zach and Cody show how to create this life-saving structure

Do you have the skills to survive in the woods? That may seem like a scary question, especially if you're someone who prefers to stay within city limits, but thankfully, wilderness survival experts Zach and Cody have our backs and are here to teach us the basics. In this video, watch them construct a shelter that'll keep one warm and dry in the event that walking to safety isn't an option.

Surviving in the wild: How to build shelter when you can't get to safety

CBC Life

3 years ago
2:18
Wilderness survival experts Zach and Cody show how to create a life-saving structure using items you’ll find in the woods. 2:18

Note: Without the use of any cordage, this shelter system uses one main ridge pole with the use strong "Y" sticks to adequately secure the ridge pole to two parallel trees. Leaving you with a framework in which you can then lay a back-wall of straight, dead standing, trees. Creating a tight structure that you can then build on and off of. With the shelters framework erected, debris from the forest floor is then piled onto your structure and used as the first layer of protection from the elements. Twigs, sticks and leaves work well as your first layer. Spruce and Pine boughs are then added and placed from the bottom of the back-wall towards the top in a fashion that allows the boughs to interlock & weave together and shed any of the outside elements (rain and snow), creating a semi-water-resistant shelter. The shelter will be adequate when the entire framework is encompassed in evergreen boughs, and has minimal sunlight shining through from the inside. For maximum efficiency and warmth, this shelter should be paired up with a fire.

Here's what you'll need:

  • A cutting tool (knife, axe, saw — whatever you brought with you)
  • 1 14ft dead standing hardwood tree, 3-5 inches in diameter
  • 4 3ft hardwood branches
  • 15-25 12ft straight trees
  • A 1 ft thick layer of twigs, sticks and natural vegetation
  • Evergreen boughs
  • Assorted wood for fire

Here's how to do it:

  1. Safely using your cutting tool, take down/gather one 14ft ridge pole (dead standing hardwood tree), 3-5 inches in diameter (larger trees can be used).
  2. Take down/gather four 3ft hardwood "Y" branches (Wrist thick and live wood if possible for added strength and durability).
  3. Find a suitable area to create your shelter, keep in mind that you want to be close to all of your building resources, and away from any Widow Makers (deadfall from trees above you that can come down from wind or activity and injure someone).
  4. Finding a shelter site with two trees side-by-side will be best suited for your shelter build
  5. Using two trees, raise your 14ft ridge pole flush with both sides of the tree (you can use branches from the trees to temporarily lock the ridge pole in place while you set your "Y" sticks).
  6. Place a single "Y" stick on either side of the ridge pole and trees, once it is secure enough to leave on its own, add the other two "Y" sticks to the ridge pole for added strength and security.
  7. With your shelters framework constructed, you are going to want to now safely gather 15-25 - (12ft) straight trees – these will be laid against your ridge pole and act as a back-wall that can be built on and off of.
  8. Once you have adequately placed your trees, constructing the back-wall, add two more (12ft) trees in an (X) shape on top of the back-wall (this will help hold all of the debris and boughs you will be applying in the following steps).
  9. Pile a 1ft thick layer of twigs, sticks and natural vegetation from the forest floor to act as your first layer of insulation and protection – this will also help the boughs cling to your shelter and allow them to not slide down.  
  10. Start from the bottom of the back-wall and work towards the top of your shelter
  11. Roughly gather enough evergreen boughs (Spruce, Hemlock, Pine) to encompass your entire shelters framework – you want your shelters walls to be about 3ft thick in every spot.
  12. Keep adding natural vegetation until there is minimal to no sunlight showing from the inside of your shelter.
  13. Your shelter is now complete, but you are going to want to pair it up with a hot fire for maximum efficiency from the elements.
  14. Place your fire one full step away from the lip of your shelter and away from any natural hazards above or around. Always practice safe fire-making and check your local fire regulations before ignition.

Zachary Gault, Owner and Instructor at Primitive Living is a Wilderness Skills Instructor whom specializes in the art & skills of Bushcraft, Self-Reliance and Sustainable Wilderness-Living. He passes on his knowledge of nature and the outdoors with formal teaching of these tribal skills, as he feels there is a strong connection to the earth when you strip away modern comforts and learn to create them yourself from nature. Zach's exploits of his treks in different remote environments can be viewed through his social media page.

Cody Bokshowan, the man behind Trustin Timber Productions, is an avid backcountry canoeist, adventurist, photographer, and filmmaker. His journeys often take him far out of range of cell phone service so maintaining a strong instinct and understanding of survival skills in various conditions is a responsible part of training for the next production. In this series, he teams up with Zachary Gault, Wilderness Skills Instructor, to share with you a few lesser known skills that could save a life.

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