One of the things that I get asked most is, “What is the worst thing about survival?” Our fans are a morbid bunch!
Not surprisingly there are quite a lot of hideous aspects to surviving in the wilderness. The dreadful dehydration headaches, the insect bites, the fear of disease, being bitten by a venomous creature or eaten by an apex predator. All of these things are what make surviving outdoors so very different to camping, which generally is a wonderful experience.
But for me, aside from being away from our little boy, which is top of the list, the worst thing is the nights. I have spent some horrendous sleepless nights in some of the most exotic and beautiful places in the world! So I thought I’d tell you a little about some of the shelters that I’ve known and loved. Or not…
Unless we’re expecting major action in the night, when the filming light fades our camera crew tootles off to the relative safety of their base camp and Myke and I are left alone in the darkness. It’s at this point that our shelter becomes very important.
One of the first lessons that Captain-Husband-Hawke taught me about shelters is to use what is already there in the environment, be it man-made or natural. This way you don’t needlessly expend energy by building when you don’t need to. Basic common sense really but good to commit to memory because in a survival situation your brain doesn’t necessarily function in a rational and commonsense manner.
In this article I’m going to concentrate on the times when life and nature has been good to us, times when finding and making shelters was relatively easy.
Recently while filming Lost Survivors for the Travel Channel we were on an abandoned Cold War prison island so we slept in the old prison laundry room. An awful place but a blessing in terms of shelter.
We were protected from the elements and actually used some old prison bed frames and a door to sleep on. I collected arm full’s of fresh greenery to insulate us from any germs and fungal spores that might have been on the beds and we rested in relative luxury in survival terms. Obviously in derelict building you need to make sure that the structure itself is sound and not going to collapse on you while you sleep.
Cars can make excellent shelters. In Botswana when our Toyota pick-up broke down we slept in the back of it.
The grass we used as padding was more comfortable than many motel beds I’ve slept in. This should have been a glorious sleeping arrangement, lying there in comfort under the vast African skies but the wildlife had other ideas. The mosquitoes were out of control, a pack of hyenas paid us a visit and lions hunted baboons nearby so we were awake all night feeding the fire for safety’s sake. The next night we added to our shelter by building a barricade or ‘boma’ of acacia thorns at the back of the truck. Local people traditionally use these to keep cattle safe from lions.
And remember, if you are driving a car and you find yourself in a survival situation it’s almost always best to stay with your vehicle. It’s much easier for a search and rescue party spot a nice shiny metal car than it is a person.
Boats can also be put to use. In Tasmania after our inflatable sank we dragged it onto dry land and fashioned a kind of tent between two lumps of rock. We then chopped brush and positioned it round the front and back to form walls. The sea breeze, the position of the fire and the angle of the rocks meant we inadvertently made a little smoke house to sleep in. My eyes were like slits in the morning but at least we were dry. And the insect life stayed away!
Smoky boat-brush house, Tasmania. Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel.
If you don’t have the good fortune to have man-made vessels and structures at your disposal you can sometimes find those which nature has provided for you. Caves, rock overhangs, trees and the natural gullies and indents in the land can often provide you with shelter. Be aware though, that you may not be the only animal that finds these areas attractive. One time in Alaska I came across some prime real estate in the form of a dry earthy cave tucked into a bank under some tree roots. As I got closer I spotted bear poo, trampled foliage and deep scratch marks in the trees. I decided not to sleep there…..
If you’re using a cave or sleeping on any kind of rock surface be sure to gather as much bedding as is humanly possible. Cold rock bleeds the heat from your body at warp speed. One of the most bony cold nights I’ve spent was in the Appalachians in early summer. We were sleeping in a rock hollow in a cliff face and even though I’d collected reams of rhododendron leaves we were wide awake and frozen in less than two hours. A note here on poisonous plants – try not to use them for bedding! I used a layer of giant magnolia leaves on top of the rhododendrons to prevent contact.
We found a sweet bed in Iceland, a lava tube. Not an active one obviously. This time we didn’t have to worry about the rocks underneath leeching the heat from us because they were covered in a six inch layer of moss.
Where ever possible you need to sleep up off the ground. The ground is often cold and/or wet and in many place it’s also home to biting insects, venomous snakes and spiders. You really don’t need a venomous reptile that could kill you snuggling up to your body heat in the night. On the ground you’re also potentially in the path of apex predators hunting smaller animals… Something else to be avoided.
One time when we were in the Amazon Jungle we had no choice but to sleep up off the forest floor. That’s because at that time there wasn’t a forest floor to sleep on, the Amazon River and its tributaries had swelled their banks and flooded the jungle for miles around. We were in a little dugout canoe paddling around in the treetops with 30 feet of anaconda and piranha infested water between us and what should have been the jungle floor.
Eerie, Beautiful and terrifying.
We had an old Indian string hammock, which we hitched between two trees over the boat and then took turns in grabbing a few moments of sleep. This was a particularly nerve wracking experience because many of the snakes and other horrors that would normally be down on the ground were up in the trees with us!
Hammocks are a great piece of survival kit. These days you can buy fancy systems complete with bug nets, tarps, padding and all manor of whistles and bells. Or course you can’t always guarantee that you’ll have a hammock with you when you need one, however they are relatively easy to improvise. In Costa Rica, in the jungles of the Osa Peninsular for Lost Survivors, we made a couple of hammocks out of cheap table cloths and some 550 paracord.
It wasn’t the most comfortable night; we could have done with a few more yards of fabric but at least we up off the forest floor.
We did a similar bit of hammock improvisation in the swamps in Louisiana, this time with an old parachute. The first night was awful. Night was falling fast and we still hadn’t found dry land so we just tied the parachute as it was up into the trees and climbed in together. A night of “serious spooning” as Myke described it. Nonetheless I was grateful to be up out of that black water.
To this day I’ve never seen so many water moccasins in one place. The next night was better, we camped on a little natural levee and carved the parachute into two separate hammocks, color coded pink and blue for his and hers!
I will say that padding is vital for hammock sleeping, both for comfort and for insulation. Without it you wake up cold and stiff in the early hours even in the tropics.
In my next article on the ‘joy of shelters’ I’ll talk about less fortunate times, those times when you have to build your home from scratch.