Dr. Siddall is an outdoor enthusiast, author, and activist. He has traveled widely and enjoys sharing his adventures with the public.
Emergency Hiking Shelters
The unprepared hiker faces a serious risk when the weather changes. Hyperthermia leading to death can result when the temperature rises and there is limited access to shade and water. Such a case was illustrated by the recent, tragic death of a couple, their infant child, and dog that all perished on a short hike in the desert. In contrast, hikers without insulated clothing and rain gear can develop hyporthermia when the sun sets, the wind increases, or a storm front moves in.
It is estimated that a hiker confronted by temperature extremes, can only survive about three hours without shelter. Therefore, the prudent day hiker or backpacker needs to be prepared with an emergency shelter included among the “ten essentials” for survival. *The updated list of ten essential survival items that every hiker should carry is listed at the end of the article.
You are on a day hike on a snowy winter day. The route you have chosen is much more difficult and time consuming than expected. As a consequence, you won't be able to complete your hike in the daylight and you need to make camp for the night. Fortunately, the danger of hypothermia is averted because you carry an emergency shelter. Your shelter is easily erected with paracord tied between two trees, on an insulating platform of dry leaf litter. Your shelter, which is waterproof and windproof, resembles a pup tent with three walls and a floor. The insulating inner layer is heat reflective mylar. Outside of the front door you build a small fire which adds another degree of protection against the falling temperature. When the morning dawns, you pack up and make a safe return home after spending a reasonably comfortable winter night in the woods. The results could have been much worse including life threatening hyperthermia. The lesson learned is whether you are a day hiker or a long distance backpacker, an emergency shelter, included with your basic survival gear, can save your life.
Types of Emergency Shelters
Simple emergency shelters called debris huts can be constructed out of natural materials such as branches, leaves, and pine boughs. Common designs include the lean to, a-frame, and t-pee. An insulating layer of leafy duff is used to create a sleeping platform. A framework of limbs and branches are used to form the shape of the shelter’s roof and walls.The structure is completed with a covering of insulating leaf litter.
By far the most efficient method of erecting an emergency shelter is to carry and deploy a commercial product made for survival. These products include a space blanket, tarp, bivy bag, tube tent, or camping hammock.
- Space Blanket: Space blankets are constructed of a thin layer of ultra lightweight, mylar that is rain and wind proof. They reflect up to 90% of heat that would normally be lost. They can be used as a body wrap or incorporated into a shelter against the wind and rain.
- Tarp: Backpacking tarps are usually erected as protection over campers prepared to sleep on the ground. Most tarps are lightweight and are shaped to accommodate a variety of configurations.
- Bivy Bag: A bivy bag is a weatherproof sack that fits over your sleeping bag. They are lightweight, easily fit in a pack, and provide an inexpensive alternative to a tent. Some designs provide a head covering to protect against rain and insects.
- Camping Hammock: is a comfortable sheltering system that includes a hammock, mosquito netting, a tarp for rain protection, and a suspension system to hang it all between two trees.
Siting Your Emergency Shelter
Your campsite should be located near an adequate supply of leaves, forest litter and wood to build a shelter and to supply fuel for a fire. Your site should be situated on a gentle slope to drain rainwater and facing the southwest to maximize warmth from the sun. If you can erect your shelter against a rock wall, tree, mound of earth or an artificial windbreak, you can further mitigate cold weather by blocking the wind.
My Favorite Shelters
- The lightest and least expensive emergency shelter is the space blanket. Weighing just ounces and costing a few dollars you can’t beat the regular mylar blanket for insurance. Swiss Safe Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets are good quality and come four per package. I carry one in my day pack, one in my first aid kit and one in the glove box of my car and truck.
- The tube tent usually shelters 1-2 people and provides a higher degree of comfort and weather proofing. The SE Emergency Tube Tent is a compact, tough and weather sealed to keep you dry and sheltered from the wind. It is easily erected in a few minutes and can be used repeatedly. This tube tent is my favorite all around emergency shelter based on cost, durability, and ease of use. I carry this tube tent on any overnight hike.
- The Oak Creek Camping Hammock bundle gets my vote for comfort and durability.This, all-in-one, shelter kit includes mosquito net, rain fly, tree straps, carabinerss Stakes, and guy Lines and a handy a compression sack. I prefer the camping hammock for hikes spanning several days or when operating from a base camp.
The prudent day hiker or backpacker needs to be prepared to build a natural debris hut or carry a commercially available shelter among the “ten essentials” for survival. The most efficient method of erecting an emergency shelter is to carry a space blanket, tarp, bivy bag, tube tent, or camping hammock. These shelters are discussed and evaluated for hiking and backpacking.
*10 Survival Essentials Revised
- Navigation/Communication: map and compass, cell phone and charger, GPS/ PLB- Personal locator beacon, extra batteries
- Light: flashlight/ headlamp with and spare bulb and batteries
- Sun protection: sunscreen, sunglasses, sun-protective clothing
- First aid: waterproof first aid kit, insect repellent
- Knife: folding/ fixed blade knife or a multi-tool
- Fire: butane lighter/ matches, fire starters such as a supply of vaseline cotton balls and dryer lint /small stove
- Shelter: hammock, mylar tube tent/ space blanket/ bivy bag/ or large plastic trash bag, cordage, duct tape
- Extra food: ready to eat meals/snacks.
- Extra water: carry at least two liters of water per day/ water filter/ water purification pills
- Extra clothes: rain gear, extra clothing for cold weather such as long johns, a wool cap, and an insulated jacket
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 James W Siddall