Instructor Corps Pro Tip:
If you’ve been studying wilderness survival for any length of time, you know that shelter is one of the Core Four survival priorities. Some would argue that it’s priority number one, although if you know us, you know that we don’t believe in hard and fast lists. Regardless, shelter is a big deal. Shelter is anything that helps you maintain your core body temperature. It keeps you out of the rain and wind and prevents you from losing body heat through convection or conduction. Shelter matters no matter what time of year you’re out, but in the winter, it’s critically important, even here in the Appalachian South where it doesn’t get “that cold.”
However, building a winter-worthy shelter is deceptively difficult. There are really very few options, and even fewer that can be put together quickly when time is of the essence and lives are potentially on the line.
Primitive shelters are a fun bushcraft exercise and look awesome for Instagram, but if you’ve ever actually had to sleep in one because you had to, they kind of suck. Something most survival instructors won’t tell you is that it’s nearly impossible to construct a shelter from natural materials that’s completely waterproof. The only one we’ve built here at SARCRAFT that holds water is the Scooby Shelter, made from thatched broomsedge. The Collins Shelter (bark shingles covered in debris) is a close second. But both of those shelters took days of work, and we’re blessed with a resource-rich property. We weren’t facing down a winter rainstorm with a hypothermic patient in a bramble thicket.
Fast action tarp shelters like the plow point and A-frame are great, and we’re big fans of them. Unlike primitive shelter, they’re quick to set up and are reliably dry when executed correctly. But they don’t do much to keep you warm. They help moderately with wind, but if it’s howling strongly enough, you’re still gonna freeze.
What about tents? Well, of course, tents are awesome. But if you’re on a day hike, a search & rescue mission, a short hunt, or most other outdoor activities that lead to being unexpectedly stuck in a real-world wilderness survival situation, you probably won’t be carrying one. Plus, tents are agonizingly expensive, at least for one that’s light enough that you’d want to carry with you.
But what if we told you there was a shelter system that fulfilled all these criteria? A shelter system that was quick to set up, reliable, and affordable? A shelter that kept out wind and water and effectively kept you warm? One that you could carry the components of in almost any daypack? And cost less than $50 at most? We always say that we don’t do “hacks,” and we don’t. But this is the one thing we’ve come across that truly hacks the system – it allows you to bend the laws of the woods like Neo bends space and time in the Matrix. There is no downside, and there are no compromises. Interested? Then allow us to enlighten you about the Kochanski SuperShelter.
Mors Kochanski is a survivalist and bushcraft instructor living in the great boreal forests of northern Canada, and is indisputably one of the greatest woodsmen alive. In his quest to not freeze to death in the harsh Canadian winters (and springs… and falls… and occasionally summers...) while still packing light and keeping effort to a minimum, he invented the SuperShelter. It’s a study in brilliant simplicity – in its most basic form, it’s like a greenhouse and a reflector oven came together, made passionate love, and had a beautiful baby. Wanna make one? Let’s lay out the recipe, starting with the ingredients:
What you’ll need:
- 1 poncho or small tarp
- 1 aluminized casualty blanket/heavy duty space blanket
- 20’ of paracord or similar small cordage
- 1 plastic painter’s drop sheet
- 2 3” diameter poles cut to fit
- 1 military bivy sack or twin mattress cover (optional but nice to have)
- Clothespins or safety pins (optional)
1. Find yourself two trees far enough apart to string your tarp or poncho. Using a bowline, girth hitch, and taut-line hitch, string your ridgeline. Make some toggles and secure your tarp as a lean-to, maybe with a little overhang.
2. Underneath your poncho-tarp, string up your aluminized blanket. The idea is that both of these layers create an air pocket between them and help to block the wind.
3. Using your feet or a rake if you’ve got one, rake up a pile of debris a few feet thick for your mattress. This is where the bivy sack or mattress cover is nice to have, because you can fill it with leaves and sleep on top of it. It’s cleaner and drier. If there’s thick snow on the ground or your leaves are soaking wet, skip this step and use a ground pad or extra space blanket if you’ve got one. If there’s a lot of snow and you wanna go full bushcraft, you can make a wood bed frame with a cold air well underneath it. But that’s a tip for another day. A word on leaves – your compression ratio is 4-to-1, which means that every foot of leaves you put down, it’ll compress down to 4.”
4. Unfurl your drop sheet and cover your lean-to with it. Tuck it under the back side and roll it up with one pole, and use the other pole to secure the front. If you’re lacking a ground cloth, you can bring it all the way under your shelter to cover the ground. Secure your ends with the clothespins/safety pins, or simply poke the pole ends and wooden toggles through the drop sheet. Make sure you’ve got vents you can open to give yourself fresh air and allow moisture to escape.
5. Build a long fire or Siberian fire one big step in front of your shelter. Don’t risk going closer because the plastic drop sheet can and will burn. This is a fire-dependent shelter – you can use it without it, but you’ll be far more comfortable with it.
This shelter works on the principle of reflecting and trapping heat. The aluminized blanket reflects heat from you and the fire back into the shelter, where it’s trapped by the plastic sheeting. The poncho creates an extra layer of trapped air on the non-fire side to keep you warm. And believe us when we say… it really, really works. A recent example: This past weekend at the annual DuPont Rescue Experience in DuPont State Forest, NC, we featured this shelter as part of our wilderness survival class and decided to leave it up overnight for kicks and giggles. Overnight temps dropped down to about twenty degrees, but inside the shelter it was… get this… 105 degrees! We had a fairly large long fire set up in front of it, and the wind wasn’t too strong, but otherwise, it was by the book. If you were unexpectedly stuck in the woods on a cold, wet, rainy night, you couldn’t ask for better. In fact, this shelter far outperforms many fancy store-bought shelter for a fraction of the cost and weight. Say you spend $20 for a decent poncho and $15 for a heavy-duty casualty blanket, $5 for a drop sheet and a few bucks for paracord, you still come out of this deal for under $50. And after you practice it a few times, you can get this shelter up in less than five minutes, which is great for those of us who run search & rescue ops in the deep woods and come upon hypothermic patients who may not be able to be extracted quickly. Even without the fire, your own body heat will warm it up to the point that you won’t freeze to death.
What more could you want in a winter survival shelter? It’s fast, warm, waterproof, lightweight, and cheap. The wraparound plastic even has the benefit of keeping smoke out of the shelter, which not many other designs can say. All of its components are multitaskers – the poncho has a myriad of uses, the casualty blanket does as well. The plastic sheeting can be used for water collection or reinforcing a primitive shelter if the weather’s not as cold. All of them are compact and take up little space in your pack. So carry them as you venture afield, and in the meantime, practice setting this shelter up a time or two. Get comfortable with putting it up quickly, heck, sleep in it in your backyard. We guarantee you’ll be blown away.