Monday, February 28, 2011

Natural Shelter by Greg

You’re alone, a traveler coming from the Gladden Fields headed south, through the Dimrill Dale to Lorien. Clouds are darkening over the mountains to the west, and coming in quickly. The Sun has already disappeared, but the moon in the east is, for the time being, bright enough for you to see. You left the village later than you should have, so you need to find a place to hole up for the night. You didn’t plan for this, so you’ve no tent with you…just a blanket barely big enough to keep you warm. A chill north wind begins to pick up. You shiver against the cold, blowing through your clenched fists.

This doesn’t look good.

There are three main points I look for in naturally-occurring shelters. The most important, generally, is protection from the wind. Wind can and will make your night absolutely miserable. Your body heats up a thin layer of air around you, which is stolen away by wind. A good, solid windbreak can mean the difference between sleep and freezing. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A rock can do the trick just as well as a tree, and sometimes all you need is a one foot tall shelf eroded out of a hillside to lay up against.

The second point I look for in a natural shelter is the shape of the ground. I always want it to be self-drained. You want to be lying on a high point relative to the features on the ground. If you’re in a small bowl, any rain that might fall nearby will funnel straight to you and you’ll be soaked. The only reason I think that natural drainage in the ground is more important than an overhead shelter from the rain is that you can find a well-drained location absolutely anywhere; even if there’s no windbreak. You can’t always find overhead shelter, but with a well-drained location in a rainstorm you’ll be alright, if not a little wet, and if you’ve got a decent windbreak, you might even stay dry.

Third, the one thing that most everyone looks for first: I check for overhead shelter from rain/snow. The main reason that this is of lowest priority in my book is that if I’ve found a decent, well-drained windbreak, odds are there are some sticks and branches nearby that can be leaned against the windbreak for an overhead in just a few minutes. Still, a naturally occurring overhead shelter will usually do better than a cobbled-together one, so if you can find one, by all means.

Though generally unnecessary for survival situations, there is a fourth point that Rangers and Travelers alike in Middle Earth should look into, and that is concealment. You may have a fantastic windbreak that is well-drained with a nice rock overhang for overhead protection, but you may also be leaning your back against the only large rock for three miles in any direction in the wide-open plains of Rohan. You may not be visible to the naked eye, but any patrol of Orcs or Men crossing will gravitate towards the rock, and find you there. Find shelter that does not draw attention, is unobtrusive, and, preferably, keeps you out of sight. You can’t always have concealment, but it’s a good thing to look into.

Large Rock is most always an excellent source of natural shelter. If you see large rocks in the distance, make a point of looking them over. Rock is, for the most part, immovable, solid, and dependable. It’s not going to break down on you in the rain, and it won’t blow over in a windstorm. The first thing I look for in a rock is, of course, wind direction. Rock, as a material makes, without a doubt, the most dependable windbreaks. That doesn’t mean that every rock will be a perfect one, but every good windbreak made of rock will be a better one.

Large trees are great in that they can offer a windbreak and at least a mild overhead cover at the same time, but watch the ground. Exposed and buried roots can be a curse. First, they often make the ground uneven, whether they are buried or exposed, which makes sleeping uncomfortable. This is something we can usually suffer through, but it creates another problem. The way roots grow tends to funnel rain in towards the tree to soak into the ground and find the roots. With my luck, that usually means the water goes directly to where I’ve chosen to lay down. Trees can be well-drained just like any other patch of ground. Just be extra careful if you’re expecting rain.

Caves are a favorite with a lot of people, but caves can be dangerous in themselves. The air coming out of a cave is almost guaranteed to be several degrees cooler than the outside air, as it never sees the sun. Caves and abandoned mines also have a tendency to collapse without warning. If you must use a cave, stay as close to the mouth as you possibly can. Lastly, a cave can easily wind up being some big-to-do Goblin’s backdoor as well, so proceed into Caves with caution, and bring a Wizard with you.

Dry creek beds offer many excellent opportunities at shelter. They often have deeply undercut banks and vertical shelves that the water has cut away during the wet season, providing easy concealment, soft sandy bottoms to sleep on, and big, robust windbreaks, often covering two directions. Often there will be large trees whose roots have become exposed due to the bank eroding away. These exposed twists of roots are often easy to lie beneath, and weaving branches or rushes between the roots to patch up the spaces between them for overhead is a simple matter. In the image shown, there is a large mossy fallen tree branch off to the right that would be excellent for putting together a lean-to out of materials on hand if one has time to prepare. The danger here, in a dry streambed, of course, is rain. If you are 100% sure that there will be no rain, that’s fine. I’d still recommend finding the highest patch of ground within the creek bed to ensure that, on the offhand chance that there is rain, it will go around you. At least, as long as the rain is light, it will. If it becomes a torrential downpour, you will obviously need to seek shelter outside the natural drainage.

There are many more things one can find to incorporate into a shelter, such as a surface to reflect heat off of to direct the warmth of your fire into your shelter, but these main key points will get you by when you’ve little time to construct something more formidable. A night spent in a natural shelter with these three basic needs covered won’t be the most comfortable one, but it will suffice. You will stay dry, for the most part, you won’t freeze to death, and you can bet you won’t forget your shelter tarp again!

The wind has picked up now, but you can only hear it. Your back is to a large, curved rock that extends a short distance overhead. A large log with some pine boughs leaning on the rock partially block the moonlight streaming in, and you watch as the clouds slide across the sky like a curtain, snuffing out the stars like tiny candles until all is black and it begins to rain. You smile. Your hands slide back and forth over a small bed of coals in the corner, and then you curl up against the massive rock, bundled warmly in your blanket, falling asleep to the sounds of the rain upon the branches overhead.

~ Greg


  1. I love how you actually take precaution to make sure your campsite won't be seen by Orcs. You are awesome, Greg.

  2. Well, Orcs aren't common in my area, but hunters and hikers are, and I spend a lot less time explaining myself if they just don't see me...*chuckles*