Winter Shelter

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by Ross McKenney

16 January 1951

Winter Shelter:

Many things have to be taken into consideration in choosing the type of shelter one is to build for protection in the open. Namely? terrain, wind, material at hand such as logs, poles, evergreen boughs f ground cloth or shelter half, snow,, firewood and the type of tools one has to work with. If you have a sharp axe with a or 3 lb. head with a 20" to 24" handle much more can be accomplished than with the usual belt hatchet, machette or belt knife. One of the elements to guard against is wind or draft. This element at ground level can cause more discomfort than others such as temperature or rain. In snow one should strive to dig the snow away to the ground, If possible, thus getting you below that level where wind or draft is most uncomfortable. The bank of snow caused by digging eliminates most of this element. If available two trees can be used against which is braced a cross member, horizontal pole or log. This can be placed on limbs protruding from upright trees, if available, if not a forked pole can be used to hold horizontal in place; it can be lashed with thong, rope, or strips of bark or twisted switches. The height of this horizontal pole depends on the elements. If the temperature is very cold or if the wind is high and strong, this horizontal cross member should be as low as possible. Namely, if the front of shelter is high and the roof poles are long giving room and depth to shelter the wind can blow in shelter and the larger the shelter the harder it is to heat. So, a low front support with roof structure as near vertical as will allow you to get under comfortably lessens the chance for wind to enter and the nearly vertical pitch eliminates unnecessary space to heat. If one has a ground cloth, poncho or shelter half a dozen or fewer poles are needed for roof structure. Stretch cloth over poles securing upper edge and corners to prevent sliding down roof pitch. If snow is plentiful evergreen boughs are not necessary, but a thin layer is helpful in keeping cloth from freezing to snow. Now pile snow over cloth; the more snow the warmer the shelter. Now make a floor in shelter of evergreen boughs to guard against dampness as your fire will melt surplus snow left on ground after digging. If possible build shelter facing a good-sized tree or boulder. If a tree is available cut some good- sized logs 3 or 4 feet long and place on each side of tree, open ends facing shelter; now pile logs across these logs, against tree trunk, sides to shelter and build fire beneath them. The tree serves as a sort of chimney and reflector that will throw heat towards and into shelter. Stick heavy evergreen boughs in snow against snow walls to prevent melting of snow. Gather a good supply of firewood, with plenty of kindling, such as dry, soft wood or dry pine limbs in case your fire gets low during the night. Cut cross logs as long as possible, and as they burn in two place ends back across fire. These top cross logs are important as they force the heat from beneath them into shelter instead of allowing all the heat radiation to go straight up in the air.

This set-up can be made double. A shelter on each side of tree, the size of shelters to be made to accommodate number of people using them. This type of shelter can be constructed without the large tree for reflector by constructing shelters facing each other approximately 6 to 8 feet apart with fire between. With base logs of fire placed open ends to the shelters; with cross logs to hold heat low. If high winds are blowing there will necessarily be somewhat of an eddy caused by shelters and possibly there will be some smoke to contend with, which will be unavoidable.

Shelters for only severe cold, with no wind or draft, can be constructed more simply. All that is necessary is a log, boulder or snow bank to serve as a reflector to hold heat of fire from passing beyond or above you. If no tree is available for a reflector it is well, if possible, to erect a reflector of some kind behind fire to turn heat toward person seeking shelter.

2. Firewood:

The selection of firewood is all important. Hard woods such as birch, ash, maple, beech, throw more heat and last much longer than soft woods such as spruce, pine, balsam, etc. Dead wood doesn't necessarily mean dry wood. A pine or white cedar that is dead and still standing, the great majority of times, will be dry. The butt of these trees no doubt would be wet or partially so but the trunk should be dry enough for kindling. White birch bark is no doubt the best tinder to be found in the forest. It ignites very easily and burns furiously due to an oily substance in the bark. After the fire is burning in good shape green or partially wet soggy logs can be piled across top of fire and they will dry out and burn well; but green or wet wood should not be placed on bed of coals with expectations of a quick response. Place a few sticks of kindling on coals first and then green wood. In case of severe fatigue or chills always build fire first and shelter last. If near darkness after fire is going and you have thawed out, gather as much material for shelter and fire as possible and drag it into a pile before darkness sets in, and construct shelter by light of fire. Always use axe with caution. Never get careless in hurrying and disable yourself. ' Haste is often disastrous unless guarded by caution. In severe weather one should know their own capacity for absorbing abuse such as fatigue.

If you are in doubt about your ability to reach your destination you should stop while you have some stamina left and build a fire, rest and then continue, rather than to spend all your energy before having to stop and find you haven't enough energy left to build a fire or shelter. The wind and snow is capable of making artists stand in awe looking at their beautiful castles and figures as they compete with Jack Frost in his ceaseless attempt to make more beautiful his snow flakes and frost jewels. Yet these elements are the most ruthless of all and will cut you down without effort unless you know yourself.

3. Cooking Hints:

In preparing one's food over open fire you should check heat of fire by holding bare hand in front of fire at distance you are going to place food to cook. Many will be surprised to find such a volume of heat coming from beneath the cross logs. This method should be used for other purposes also, as it is very easy to burn foot gear due to the volume of heat at ground level, controlled mostly by base and cross logs of fire. Your upper body is in the colder air and you are apt not to realize this; hence, your leather top packs can be burned to a crisp before your legs register the heat due to underwear, socks and heavy trouser legs. If you have containers for coffee they can be placed on top of cross logs over flame. Check logs for stability as they are apt to roll and spill container. Two forked uprights driven Into ground on each side of fire with lug bar across, resting in crotches; with pot hooks of various lengths, is best method for boiling pots over open fire. Pot hooks can be made by cutting bush or pole with protruding limb; cut limb off about 3 inches long; cut off bush or pole close to this limb on one end leaving other end as long as desired; in the long end cut notch for pot bail and hang over fire. Bacon or meat in steaks or strips can be broiled in front of fire by using pointed or forked sticks, one end stuck in ground to hold it upright, and turned as desired. Potatoes can be boiled in pot or baked in coals or placed on stone or tin plate with another stone or plate placed back of it to serve as reflector. Bread can be baked with same method with stones or plates - but frying batter in skillet makes a much simpler operation. A split log with face angled toward fire, with the other half of log angled behind it for reflector will accomplish same results. If one has a pot with cover that goes clown over outside of pot it can be used to cook in the ground. Dig hole in ground deep enough so pot can be well covered; build fire in bottom of hole, or rake coals from fireplace into hole. Place kindling sticks on coals, then a good supply of hard wood on kindling. Place small stones, size of fist approximately, on hard wood and when wood is burned out stones will be hot; remove stones and place pot on coals. Now pack hot stones around pot closely and cover with coals, ashes and dirt, packing dirt closely to prevent air from entering holes, before putting pot in hole. Prepare food in pot same as for cooking over fire. Cover with water and bury in hole as described. Both meat and vegetables or a stew or beans can be made in this manner. 10 or 12 hours is sufficient for cooking by this method; in case of no water available snow can be melted. It is suggested to boil snow water well before using to eliminate possible contamination or smoke taste.

It is well upon retiring to place a thin screen of evergreen boughs over front of blankets or sleeping bag to guard against sparks snapping onto blankets while you sleep and burning large holes which detracts greatly from bag or blankets in keeping one warm. One should always keep in mind a woods neighbor that hasn't too many scruples. Namely, the porcupine. He will gnaw anything that contains grease or salt especially. While you are sleeping he can really do a heap of damage. It is well to hang things up out of reach or place in shelter back of you. You will have many visitors no doubt. Mice, squirrels and skunks, the latter should be handled with care. He will leave if you wave something at him or by shouting but he doesn't like to be pushed around; he is capable of leaving behind him a reminder of this fact that couldn't be called a gentle one.

Axes and Hatchets:

Great care should be encouraged In the use of axes and hatchets. The axe with long handle is the safest of the two due to the fact that both hands are being used thereby giving better control. In splitting stand block on end or lay block across another log flat; in chopping be sure branches are removed that could catch the axe in swinging and cause the stroke to veer and into your foot or leg. The hatchet is handled mostly with one hand and if it glances or goes through a branch easier than you anticipate, with only one hand to stop or guide it, it can do a heap of damage, usually about knee height. A knife should be used with care also. Carelessness renders them dangerous* Never leave axe, hatchet or knife laying exposed or stuck into tree upon retiring; you could stumble or brush against them in the darkness and get a nasty cut. In camping in the open either mild or severe weather always remember to use judgment. Never let over-enthusiasm or fear hurry you to a point where judgment is forced out. Remember it's up to you, whether you get over-enthusiastic or panicky and injure yourself or whether you keep your head and do a good safe job.

Ways to get out of the woods:

Among the many things the forest has to offer getting lost is the easiest one to locate. Getting lost or confused can be embarrassing but not necessarily disasterous. The first thing the majority of people feel upon finding they are lost is fear, panic or near panic; this is the worst thing that can happen. Again you must refrain from letting fear control you. It's up to you - are you going to get panicky and cause yourself and others hardship and worry or are you going to keep your senses on a level and get yourself out of a fix? In the first place a person should never go into the forest for any length of time without a compass and at least a memory map of points to travel to in case of need. Before entering the forest consult a map of the area you are going to be in. Locate on the map roads, rivers, streams, lines or mountain ranges - fix their directions in your mind in regard to the section you will be in; namely, if a road or river runs north and south generally, and you are entering the forest east of road or river you must travel west to hit them; perchance some landmark runs north-south and some other cuts across east-west this puts you in a section that has a corner; thus if you enter the forest east of one landmark and south of the other you must travel west or north to hit one or the other; no matter how scared or confused you are your compass will bring you out. Never doubt your compass, if the needle is alive and quivers it is on the job. Your fear, darkness, bad travelling or any other circumstance you would encounter will not effect the accuracy of your compass. You may feel that you have travelled far enough to have reached your landmark and thus doubt your compass, keep travelling, remember your judgment is slightly off due to confusion and maybe you haven't travelled as far as you thought. Perchance you looked at a map or knew the section you are in and felt you did not need a compass and went without one; you still can get lost in a section you know well due to snow, rain, darkness, etc. If this happens take your watch and point the hour or short hand at the sun and lay a twig across the dial dividing the distance between the hand and the figure twelve and the twig will be pointing north-south. If you feel you do not know which is the north end or south check the time and you will know approximately where the sun should be at that time - east at sunrise, south at noon, west at sundown. If there is no sun take your hunting knife and stand it upright with the point resting on your thumb nail, turn it slowly and you will find it throws a shadow. Now check the- shadow as you turn your knife until you have found it at its broadest or narrowest point then the sun must be on the opposite side. Thus you have found the sun. Following a stream will always bring you out. It may be a long hike but eventually you will reach civilization. Climbing a tall tree or mountain or hill top will give you a view of the country which may enable you to locate buildings, etc, or help you to find your natural bearings. One way to travel straight in the forest is to line up three trees regardless of distance between them. Travel to second tree and line another beyond third tree. If you miss in this start again in the same general direction. After darkness, if you have a gun shoot three evenly spaced shots. If someone answers wait a moment and answer with one; thereafter one shot is sufficient to answer or signal with.

One impulse you will no doubt have is to hurry, possibly you will find yourself running. If you do, remember running over a forest floor can be very dangerous inasmuch as it is rarely ever level. Holes are covered with dead foliage. Uneven stones lurk beneath the surface, logs and branches are ever present, dead branches protrude from tree trunks that can cause severe damage to eyes, face, hands, etc., twisted ankles can result from hurrying, even broken limbs. Keep your fear harnessed at all times. This circumstance could well justify that age-old saying: The more haste the less speed. Keep your head clear - use your judgment.