Primitive* shelters ain't all they're cracked up to be. If you've studied many "survival tips" websites or quick reference guides, you get the impression that simple debris huts are all you need to stay warm and dry in any conditions. If you've ever slept in one, though... well, that's a different matter. While they have an allure that modern shelters can’t match, and they sure do look cool for Instagram, they often leave a lot to be desired when it actually comes to accomplishing their intended purpose. Staying dry is devilishly difficult if all you have between you and a storm is a layer of pine boughs and fallen leaves. Even well-built ones leak pretty heavily, at least unless you put lots and lots of hours into reinforcing them. Long-term primitive shelter calls for something better.
If we’re going to build primitive shelters and hope for them to work, it pays to take a cue from people who actually lived in them. Enter the bark shingle. Native tribes in forested areas throughout the world (including the Cherokee) have utilized tree bark as a shelter material for thousands of years, because it works. The wigwams of the Iroquoian and Muskogean tribes throughout the Eastern Woodlands all leaned heavily on tree bark as a construction material. In the North, that usually meant the Paper Birch. But in the South, those are in short supply, and the tree of choice was the Tulip Poplar. The Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is known as the King of the Forest, and is arguably the most useful bushcraft tree in the Eastern Woodlands. Technically a magnolia, it grows fast and hearty to a maximum of 250’ or so in the old growth stands. Poplar bark is the best choice for sheltering in this area, if you can find it easily. Dead trees are easiest to work with. The bark separates easily from the trunk, and can be cut or broken into big sheets like the ones pictured in the photo. While not watertight (very few natural materials are), they're a big step above just using leaf litter. Use several layers for maximum effect and then use your pine boughs and fallen leaves to cover. If you’re feeling really crafty, you can even use a big sheet of poplar bark lashed to a frame to make a door for your shelter. Like many things out here, the uses of poplar bark are limited mostly by your imagination and the extent of your resources.
Want to learn how to put this skill to use in the field, along with about a hundred more? Come join us for Wilderness Survival CORE on June 14-16! Learn more and register now at https://www.sarcraft.com/course-registration/wilderness-survival-core!
*As a side note that I believe we should address, when we use the term “primitive,” we do not mean it in any way to put down or disparage the native peoples worldwide who have used these technologies and skills since time immemorial. Just because we call them primitive does not mean that they are simple or easy. Quite the contrary. It takes far more brain capacity and skill to start a fire with a bow drill than it does to use a lighter or even a ferro rod. And it takes far more wherewithal to do all of those things than it does to work an iPhone or any other modern tech. It’s just a conventionally accepted term that describes an ancient way doing things. However, some folks still feel the need to get butthurt over it. (Looking at you, Kau’i. Love you!)