You’ve decided, for whatever (bad) reasons, that you are heading into the woods. There are a few considerations to keep in mind as you head into the woods.
You’re Not the Only One!
Yeah, there are any number of other people that think they are going to be living in the woods after a SHTF situation.
The good news, for you, is that after a couple of weeks, you’ll start to come upon caches of goods. You’ll be able to spot them by the smell of dead bodies near by.
Most people won’t survive in the woods for very long. If you plan on surviving in the woods, you need to be able to shelter and survive and move back towards living (as opposed to surviving).
Your biggest enemy will be time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you are going to need to do.
Reasons For Leaving Perfectly Good Shelter
The joke is that a parachutist must be crazy as they are leaving a perfectly functional aircraft in mid-flight.
There needs to be a good reason to leave a functioning shelter (or aircraft).
Years ago I read a story in Reader’s Digest about two groups of people caught in a blizzard. The first group were two hunters. The other was a man and wife with an infant.
When the blizzard struck, the hunters quickly realized that they couldn’t make it out. They pitched a tent, hung the deer, went to sleep. In the morning they stomped out a “help needed” sign, marked the sign with brush, went back to their fire and waited. A day later they were rescued. (Snow was too deep to get their truck out)
The other group, a fit young man and his fit wife with 6 month old, were in their car when the blizzard caught them. They drove on for a bit and realized that they couldn’t continue. They pulled over to the side of the road.
After a while the panic set in and they decided to walk back to town. They bundled up and, with their child, started hiking back to town. After a short time they realized they weren’t going to make it but didn’t go back to the car.
They searched out shelter and found a fallen tree. They huddled under the tree in its shelter. The woman was putting snow in her mouth, likely to have something to drink and was breast feeding her baby so it wouldn’t starve.
They found the car a week or so later. They found the bodies in the spring.
That couple left perfectly good shelter.
Why to Leave
- Current shelter is collapsing
- Current shelter is no longer providing protection from the elements
- Locals are restless
- Current shelter is in danger of being overrun
- Resources are getting low
- Resupply is becoming difficult
- Plans call for movement to different location
Current Shelter Is Failing
If you shelter is failing and can no longer provide protection from the elements, it might be time to move. If the waters are getting close to flooding your shelter, it might have been time to leave a bit earlier. If the roof is falling in and no longer keeps the rain out, it might be time to go.
There are all sorts of reasons why your shelter might no longer provide shelter. It could be that what was adequate shelter April through August isn’t going to hack it once the temperature drops below freezing.
All of these are reasons for leaving.
Somebody Is Preparing To Take Your Shelter From You
There are those that plan for disaster with an eye to taking what they need. In addition, there are those that will want what you have and are willing to take it from you. Some of those are members of our own government, sadly.
A hard discussions I had with my wife was about what she would be willing to do to feed her children. She was willing to sacrifice almost everything, including her life, in order to provide for her children. It was hard for her.
Those neighbors across the street, with the sweet little girl who plays with your kids, what are they willing to do to feed that kid? They didn’t put away a 6 month supply of food. And they know you are there and you seem to have food…
Are they willing to take from you to feed themselves? Are they willing to gather the mob in order to take from you? If that is the situation, the natives are restless, you have two choices.
- Make is so expensive that nobody wants to take from you
If you choose to stay, have you made the proper preparations? Are you willing to stack bodies in order to preserve your life and the life of your family? Do you have the resources to do so?
Resources Are Getting Low
Sometimes you are in a temporary shelter. Or you are working from limited supplies. You are stuck in your office or work location. You have been surviving with your car as your shelter and you are out of resources.
This can lead to needing to leave. Hopefully by the time your supplies force you out, most of the bad things have left your area.
When an event stresses society, things happen in predictable ways, with predictable outcomes, and on a predictable time table.
For example, most cities only have a 24hr food supply. In less than 24 hours the places where people shop for food will be empty. Most grocery stores operate with Just In Time(JIT) shipping.
What this means is that instead of paying for store rooms full of stuff waiting to be put on the shelves, goods are shipped from warehouses anticipated to arrive just in time to be put on the shelves. This is why it no longer really makes any sense to ask, “Do you have another in the back?” There is no back.
This means that all those stores that people are expecting to resupply from are going to be empty very fast.
In terms of the mob in the cities, they will run out of food about 24 to 48 hours after the event. They will then start to flow out of the cities. This will work fine for about 2 hours. At the end of that time there will be huge traffic jams.
Members of the mob will start to panic and abandon their vehicles, in traffic. This will make it almost impossible to get past. Some people will push abandoned cars off the road way, but not enough, and not soon enough.
Vehicles will start to run out of fuel. Again, these will be abandoned along the way.
By the end of the third day, the mob will have reached the suburbs. They will first attempt to resupply (buy food) at the stores along the way. Shortly these stores will be stripped clean, if they weren’t already.
By the end of the fifth day, violence will have become common. The unprepared city dweller is hungry and when he looks back in your vehicle and sees you drinking or eating while listening to his wife or kids screaming because they are “hungry”, he’s going to be willing to strongly suggest you share your good fortune with him.
If you can wait out the initial waves of panic induced disruptions, your odds of getting where you need or want to be goes way up.
Resupply Is Becoming Difficult
It might be that when you picked your current shelter, you had means of resupplying. But that crystal clear stream is now flowing brown from the sewage being dumped in upstream. The food warehouse you were using was discovered by the mob and is now stripped clean.
It is now time to leave your current shelter.
The Plans Call For It
There are groups, families or otherwise, that have made plans to move to a single location where the power of numbers will make living easier.
You need to get there someway. And it is time to make your way to that location.
What’s in your pockets
Staying alive without shelter isn’t going to be fun. You are going to need to make or carry your own shelter as you move. You likely will need to move quickly with the least amount of gear possible.
That’s what you have on your person. If I step out of my house, regardless of anything else, what do I have in my pockets?
The mental exercise of surviving after a plane crash
A friend of mine use to treat people with traumatic brain injuries(TBI). One of the tools that she used was a what if situation.
A small plane you are in has landed in a small lake. It is sinking. You are forced to leave with just what you have on your person. Now tell me how you survive.
She asked me to play. I asked if I would have what I normally carry in my pockets. She told me that is exactly how it is done.
So I told her how the first thing I would do when I got to land would to select a safe location, collect firewood and start a fire. She explained that all my matches were wet. I explained that I always carried a ferrosteel rod and striker with me and how I would use it to start the fire. I had to “prove” I had that in my pocket, which I did.
I explained how I would use feathering to create a starting point to catch and build the fire. I had to show her the pocket multi-tool I carried.
I then explained how I would use line to create a lean to. The multitool had a saw. She was going to disallow the line until I showed her that my belt was made from braided 440 paracord. And how I could take the core out to make many more feet of very strong thread.
The emergency blanket was a bit much, but it was in my pocket.
She was staring to get irritated as I explained how I would dig a filter pit for fresh water a short distance from the lake to get clean filtered water.
She gave up when I explained how I was creating a fish trap from short pieces of branches. How I was using some of my paracord to create snares for animals.
The point of all of this is that with a bit of knowledge you can carry much of what you need to build an emergency shelter.
The three most important things to have on you:
- Two or more ways to make fire
- A way to keep wind, rain, and sun off
- A way to keep heat from leaving your body
Fire in your pockets
Whether you smoke or not, make it a habit to have at least one, if not more, BIC lighters on your person. Yes, you can get more expensive or better lighters. Don’t.
The Zippo lighter has been the go to lighter for years and years. But you have to keep it fueled. The fuel in it will evaporate over time leaving you with an expensive flint.
Next, get yourself a ferrosteel rod and striker. There are many options for this. I went to ebay and got a dozen 1/2 inch diameter rods and then a dozen ring strikers. You can use a knife as a striker to throw a spark.
If you are not in a location where you can find tinder easily, then you should also carry a couple of cotton balls with you. If you can, carry a couple of cotton balls that you have soaked in liquid petroleum jelly.
Here is the thing, image you are in need of fire and your hands are cold because it is freaking wet out or you just climbed out of a river you stumbled into. You have only a few minutes to get your fire started.
Your lighters aren’t working because they don’t when they are wet. The ferrosteel will. Pull a little bit of starter material near, pull that cotton ball out of your EDC container and put it next to your little pile of starter material. Strike a spark into the cotton ball and you have a good 5 minutes of burn time to start the rest of the material burning.
You can also buy little fire starter pockets that are the equivelant of that cotton ball but it comes in a waterproof package and is easier to transport.
The Five Minute Fire Drill
We use to go hiking on the land with friends. They had two younger daughters, around 9 or 10. When we got to our lunch site, I would give them five minutes to start a fire with what they had with them.
They got a fail the first time as they had nothing to light a fire with.
I handed them a BIC lighter and started the timer. After five minutes they had nothing and bitched that it was impossible.
I stood up and walked to the side of our lunch campsite. Picked up some materials, went back, used my ferrosteel and knife to start the fire. It took about 2 minutes.
Next time out we got to the campsite and I called for a five minute fire drill. Five minutes later I called it a failure as they didn’t get the fire started because they had no tinder.
I pulled some bark out of my pocket and got the fire started in less than 2 minutes.
Next time they came up they were paying attention and picked up tinder and other things along the way so when it came time, they had the fire going in less than 5 minutes. They were very proud of themselves, as they should be.
On the next outing, we got there and they had big shit eating grins plastered across their faces. They knew they had this licked. I smiled and made them stick their bare hands into the snow for a good 3 minutes before I started the clock.
By the end of that year, both girls could start a fire in less than 5 minutes from the things they had in their pockets or carried with them, from things they picked up from around the campsite. And they could do it with freezing cold fingers.
Training pays off.
There are other ways of starting a fire. I’ve used the magnifying glass method with frustration. I’ve used bow and stick without success, I’ve done flint and steel with success. Matches work as well. The steel wool and 9v battery also works.
Pick what works for you and make sure you can start that fire. Pick two other ways, and practice with all three. Training pays off.
Wind and Rain
The phrase is, “The wind cut right through him, chilling him to the bone.”
Convection can carry off a great deal of heat very quickly. One of the best ways to keep from losing body heat to the wind is to stop it. Modern clothing does a reasonable job of stopping most wind, but be aware, not all materials are equal.
Some of the common materials of the modern age are cotton and plastic. Older materials in common use were wool, silk and linen.
Cotton is comfortable, strong and will stop the sun and depending on the weave, some wind. Once it gets wet though, the wind will cut right through. If you are wearing cotton clothing, make sure you have something to block the wind.
The plastics of the modern world are polyester, rayon, and fleece. These have different characteristics and you should look into what works for you. I wear plastics when I go out most of the time as it is lighter and warmer than some of my other options.
The downside of plastics is that they don’t burn as easily as cotton but they do melt. And when the melt they will burn your flesh, sometimes in horrible ways. It use to be that airlines told women to not wear nylons because if there was a fire, the nylons would melt to their legs and causes significant damage.
If you can get and wear wool or silk, your survival life might be much more comfortable. Wool is as good if not better than cotton when it comes to flames. It doesn’t melt like plastics. AND when it gets wet, it still stops the wind and continues to hold heat in. It is great for sheltering you.
My lady swears by her silk period garb. It is light, warm, sometimes too warm in the summer, and comfortable. Just remember that silk is not just the satiny stuff, but many different textures.
Linen is another one of those magic fibers that is no longer really used. It is just too expensive to harvest and prepare on a commercial basis. It can be used just about anywhere and has good wear characteristics and wind control. Linen has the added benefit of being naturally antibacterial. This means that it doesn’t allow bacteria to grow on it as easily as other fabrics. It’s part of what makes it an excellent dressing for wounds. It also helps you not to stink, because body odor is caused by bacteria, which is inhibited or stopped by the linen. You can rub your body with linen (your dirty linen undershirt, for instance), and lessen your body odor and make yourself cleaner.
Regardless of what you are wearing, having an air gap between the wind and you is a good thing. One of the best pieces of gear you can carry with you is a mylar blanket, often sold as “Space Blankets” or “emergency blankets”. They are relatively strong and have a shiny side that will reflect heat.
These mylar blankets are wind proof and water proof so they make a good temporary shelter. You can use them to cover yourself. They deal with convection and radiation heat loss.
They are small, compact, and will fit in a purse, pocket, or pouch. I don’t carry one in my pockets but do carry one in my pouches and EDC bag.
To make any sort of blanket shelter easier to create and use, you should carry some sort of cordage. I recommend 440 cord, sometimes called paracord. This is an outer woven sheath with 7 or 9 inner threads. It is around 6mm (1/4 inch) in diameter. The cord is called 440 as it is rated for 440 pounds of static load.
In addition to using the cord as is, you can strip the outer sheath and use the inner threads. Each of those threads is very strong, I don’t have the specifications on it.
So having a 10 yard hunk of 440 cord will give you nearly 100 yards of cordage. The best shoe lace I’ve used is the outer sheath of paracord.
If your blanket like thing has grommets you can use them as tie down points. If your blanket like thing doesn’t, you still need a way of attaching cordage to the blanket. If you have any question of the grommets holding up to a strain, use the wart method.
To use a tarp button, take a small button, pebble, smooth stone, marble, small amount of sand and push it into the tarp. This will make a bulge (wart) on the other side. Take your cordage (440 thread) and tie a loop around the tarp trapping the button in the bulge.
You can also use a sheet bend hitch to attach cordage to the corners.
The wart method is much less likely to tear through than using grommets and doesn’t require poking holes in your blanket like thing. If you tried to poke a hole in your mylar blanket and then tied a 440 thread through that hole, it will just rip.
Use the cordage you just attached to your blanket to create some sort of awning/cover. This can be a lean-to. Use a fallen log, the side of a building, a low wall. Anything that will block the wind from at least one direction. Attach your cordage to the thing, then stake out your shelter so that you can crawl in.
This will keep rain, snow, wind, and sun off you.
For attachments, you can use weights or stakes or solid objects. For example, consider a hand rail attached to a wall or next to a path. They might be at a slight slant. But being dry and warm might be more important to you than being nearly level.
Consider a bottle of water or small (3-5lbs) rock to hold the other end of your cordage. You don’t have to drive stakes into the ground to be able to hold your shelter half in place. When using a camping hammock, we’ve even wound the tension cords around sticks and tossed them out to the right distance. Be imaginative!
What’s In Your Bag Or Pouch?
Once you get past your pockets or clutch, you start to have a bit more space for more resources.
In terms of shelter, the next step up is the USGI poncho and liner. Everything you can do with a mylar blanket, you can do with a USGI poncho, plus more.
First, it has snaps along the edges. You can use two ponchos snapped together to create a pup-tent. They work just like the old school shelter halves. If you had tent poles I’m pretty sure there is a grommet at exactly the right place to use them at both ends. If you don’t use poles you can use cordage to make your tent ridge line.
Again, your goal is to get out of the elements. To keep the rain, snow, wind and sun from getting to you. In addition, once you close off the ends of your shelter, you create a bubble of heat.
Besides your pocket knives, consider a fixed blade knife. There are lots of things you can do with a larger fixed blade knife that will destroy a pocket knife.
Learn to use a baton with a knife. You can split a 5 to 8 in round with a sheath knife with a little effort. You are not going to be able to do that with a pocket knife. The combination of a baton with a good knife will allow you to cut wood that you might not have expect to cut.
Consider a pocket saw or a camp saw. I have a small pocket saw that works like a human powered chain saw. Slow and hard work, but I’ve used it to cut through 8 inch rounds.
A real camp saw can work better. I’ve also put a weird combination knife/saw in my kit, the SOG Revolver Hunter. It works, it is light and is a multi-purpose piece of gear.
You can go down to the local hardware store and pick up an axe or hatchet. You can choose from dozens of different axes from online stores. Regardless of which you buy, make sure you can use them and can sharpen them.
I’ve actually cut down trees with my axe. Not big, only 10-12inch diameter. It didn’t take that long but it was a work out. My daughter, with the same axe, could not. A year prior, I attempted to fell a tree with my “cheap” axe. After an hour I gave up. I believe that the axe was too dull to do a good job. I wouldn’t even attempt it with a hardware store axe.
The small forest axe is easy to carry.
- Entrenching tool or shovel
It is often easier to dig out a small shelter or to make a space just a little bigger by digging or scraping down. A good entrenching tool can be used as a mattock or as a shovel or as a saw or as a chopping tool.
If you don’t carry an entrenching tool, consider a small light weight folding camp shovel.
- Construction Grade Garbage Bags
These can be a wonderful addition to your gear. They can be stuffed with dried leaves to create an insulating layer under you as you sleep. They can be cut open on two sides to create a large plastic sheet that can be used the same as a tarp or mylar blanket. Just remember to use the wart method to attach cordage.
People will fill them with leaves and then climb in to stay warm. Not something I want to do, but it can work.
You can cut holes and make yourself a rain cover, either as a poncho or as a rain coat.
What’s in your pack?
At this point you are in a balancing act between weight and equipment. We have bags that are cross body that are carried when going on short hikes. We have EDC bags that look like a messenger bag or briefcase. We have bags that are fanny packs and some that look like purses.
A pack is something that you will be carrying on your back. You need to be able to comfortably carry the full load for as many miles as you expect to move.
A normal walking pace is 3 miles per hour. My walking pace is about 0.5 miles per hour as I’m that out of shape. When you add 45+ pounds of pack your ability to walk any distance is going to be reduced.
You can find tents that are designed for backpacking. They are very light. They are often only 3 season and they trade weight for durability. If you ever buy a backpacking tent, the salesman will immediately try to sell you a ground cloth because a single sharp rock can cut the floor.
As the weight of the tent goes down, the price goes up.
Tents are normally of brighter colors. It is easy to find your camp after you leave it. It is also easier for others to find your tent.
Putting up a tent requires a cleared space and time. One of my childhood memories is camping with my parents. We arrived in a pouring rain storm. Dad was tasked with getting the tent put up as the rest of the family stayed dry in the van. By the time dad got that “easy up” tent setup, he was soaked to the bone and was using words that were new to me.
Modern tents are easier to put up. Fast up tents weigh more, so again, trade offs.
There are a number of companies that make these now. I have a couple. It was part of my standard EDC when I would go out on my motorcycle. They first company I knew about was Hennessy Hammock.
These are light, they string up between any two trees about the right distance apart. They are quick to put up. I’ve put mine up in a hurricane induced storm. It took less than a minute. I was under cover and drying out very shortly thereafter.
They don’t need cleared space. I’ve seen videos of people using them in swamps. They canoe up to a tree in the swamp, tie one end of the hammock, paddle to the other side, tie off the other end. Then tie off the canoe, get into position and climb in.
You can’t do that in a tent.
Finally, there are a number of ways to use them when there aren’t tie points available, sort of as a tent/bivy set-up.
- Bivy Sack
These are one man tents that aren’t much bigger than a sleeping bag. Mine is part of a USGI sleep system. The sleep system consists of a light weight sleeping bag, a heavy weight sleeping bag, a bivy sack and a stuff sack/compression sack.
It is freaking heavy as far as backpacking is concerned.
The benefit is that the bags can snap into each other giving you a cold weather sleeping bag and they snap into the bivy sack.
Put your sleep pad down, put the bivy on top, climb in, zip up and ignore the weather. The bivy is water proof and wind proof. You will sleep cozy. If it is hot weather, you can sleep in just the bivy. Modern bivy sacks allow you to close them completely, blocking mosquitos and ground bugs. You can use supple branches or a metal frame to keep the “roof” of the bivy off your face.
- Sleeping bag
Today you can buy a good sleeping bag for less than thirty dollars. It will be light and come with a compression sack. There is no reason not to have at least a sleeping bag with you. Add a poncho/tarp/mylar blanket/plastic sheet and you are going to be pretty happy.
As long as you can keep the rain off and the snow from wetting it, all will be good. If it does get wet, you’ll need to find a way to dry it. Even a cold wet sleeping bag will be better than nothing.
- Sleeping pad
Once you are dry and out of the wind, heat loss via conduction will be your next biggest issue. The ground you sleep on will suck the heat out of you. Getting an insulating sleeping pad under you will keep that from happening and provide some comfort.
I promise you that a 1/16 (1mm) pebble sticking up under your sleeping bag is impossible to find when setting up. But you’ll find it as soon as you start to fall asleep on top.
If nothing else, you can fill that aforementioned contractor bag with leaves and lay on top of it.
Setting and Keeping Goals
When you head into the woods, you should have a goal. If your goal is to “make it home” or “make it to rendezvous point” that means you are traveling light and making the least impact possible on your environment.
If your goal is to hide in the woods, then your requirements change considerably. You need to have a low impact, low visibility solution. It means that you are going to have to transition from surviving in the woods to living in the woods.
You are going to have time to put into improving your new home. In this situation, your skills are going to become much more important than what you carry with you. What you carry with you will make things easier, but you need to know how to use it all.
We have a small hand crank mill that is designed after a Roman grinder. We can use it to grind coffee or spices, but we can also use it to make flour. If you are harvesting things that can be turned into flour, this is a tool that will save you hours and hours of labor.
If you are heading into the woods to live, you need a huge set of skills in order to build what you need. Nothing you carry with you will last forever. That wonderful “survival” knife you brought with you is great, up until the time somebody, yourself maybe, uses it to pry and it snaps in two.
My lady accidental did that to a pair of high quality pruning shears. I asked her to cut a small branch that was in my way. She placed the shears at a slight angle, closed the handles and it didn’t cut like she wanted. Without pausing she twisted the handles to finish breaking/cutting the limb. Snap. One jaw broke off.
She didn’t mean to, it was something she had been doing for years with cheap shears that didn’t cut well. But on these, that original positioning of the jaws for the cut determined the failure.
Learn the five minute fire drill and try it.
Learn to make a fire, full stop. The number of people that think they can make a fire and the number of people that can are vastly different. Learn how to make a fire in high wind, safely. Learn how to make a fire when it’s wet or snowy.
Learn to use every tool you have. That wonderful camp saw will do a great job of cutting a round. But do you have the time and energy to cut two eight inch rounds? There is a huge difference between cutting a four inch round and an eight inch round.
Learn what your tools are capable of doing.
Learn how to care for your tools. Leaving a modern garden rake with a fiber handle out in the weather is no big deal. It shouldn’t be done, but you aren’t going to ruin the tool. Leave a wooden handled hoe out and the handle will die in less than a year.
Learn how to set up a shelter with minimum gear. A few years ago I did a five minute fire drill. I allowed myself to take 10 yards of 440 cord and a couple of garbage bags. I went out into the woods behind the house with my USGI poncho and my normal pocket carry.
In 10 minutes I had a simple lean-to from the garbage bags with a small fire going that I started from a ferrosteel and striker. I was under shelter warming up.
I could have done the fire in five minutes, but the shelter took longer.
If you think you are going to hike somewhere, put your gear on your back and walk a mile. See what you are feeling after that. Then consider a hike from your office to your home. Do you really think you can make it that far? My lady started hiking with her pack holding only the water she needed, and her IFAK. Then she loaded it with half the stuff she wanted to carry. After a few weeks of practice, she could make it a number of miles carrying her full pack (about 45 lbs). She definitely couldn’t do that on Day One, so she practiced.
Previous: Shelter in Place – Part B
Edited to answer editor comments. Remove an extra header. Wish I could find the “you” where it should be “your”.