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My Bushcraft Journal: Part #1 Building Better Shelters

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #1 Building Better Shelters

Hello folks. My name is James and I am an outdoor activity leader at Woodland Classroom, where we pass woodland skills and nature knowledge onto others with our sessions. Bushcraft is an element of what we do, fire-lighting, den building and campfire cooking etc but mostly it’s at a basic level. For a while now I’ve been wanting to improve my bushcraft skills and really go much further in depth not only because I love being out in the woods but also so that I can pass these skills onto others someday and continue to inspire children to fall in love with nature and being outdoors.

So, I’ve taken the plunge and enrolled on a 2 year Bushcraft Instructor training course which is going to really push me to up my game which is not only going to be a lot of fun but will also help me to offer so much more to our customers in the future.

Fire by friction, wild food, whittling, advanced shelter building, natural cordage and plant identification are just some of the skills I’ll be covering over the next two years. I’m quite excited.

Who knows, perhaps I’ll be able to call myself a proper bushcraft instructor when it’s all done. Saying that though, you never stop learning and with any good subject worth getting your teeth into, bushcraft is one of those fields of learning that the more questions you answer, the more questions there are. I imagine I will never stop learning.

Part of my training includes keeping a journal of my time learning bushcraft skills, so I though why not make it a blog and you can share my journey, my successes and my inevitable failures too.

As an old teacher once said to me though, “There are no mistakes. Just learning opportunities.”

So without further ado, here is my account of a day spent shelter building.

bushcraft leader with shelter

Building Better Shelters

Aim of the Day: To construct a one-person shelter using only natural materials, preferably with no cordage, which would be rain-proof.

I had a dry and sunny winter day to do this with no distractions which was good because proper shelter building is a lengthy task. From my training I knew that it took 6 of us a couple of hours to construct an effective shelter from scratch, so I would have my work cut out if I as to get it done all in one day.

There had been some recent tree felling work in the woods, cutting down young hazel stools under the power lines, so this as perfect material with which to construct the frame with as hazel is strong, flexible and being freshly cut it should have a longer life span than using older, more seasoned wood from the forest floor.

I wanted to build a classic kennel shelter, sometimes called the a-frame shelter, which uses just 3 sticks to support the whole structure. The shelter also has little room for movement once you’re inside so that there is less air space to be warmed up.

building a kennel shelter

Above: In Ray Mears’ Outdoor Survival Handbook, he describes the stages of building the kennel shelter.

The first task was to find a piece of ground that is flat, no mean feat in Wales. Another tip I had been given was to get down low to the ground so that you can see the small undulations that make up the lay of the land. This way I could pick out a spot that was not only flat, but would not be a pool for water if the weather turned wet and also was slightly raised from the surrounding land, again to shed ground surface water if needed.

My tutor had told me the importance of of ensuring that the triangular frame is locked together well and that each pole is well supported. The most effective way to do this (without using cordage) is using the method seen in the next picture.

shelter build - interlocking polesHere, the ridge pole is resting on both forked sticks and these are also interlocked. This should help prevent slippage and ensures that the weight of the shelter is evenly distributed. I don’t want it all coming down on me in the middle of the night. For some additional support, I saw that there was a convenient stump which I could rest the base of the right-hand pole against. This is certainly not essential, but a bit of added piece of mind.

Next up I started placing the uprights on either side of the shelter frame. These were no closer than a good hand span apart as if they were too close then I would have trouble weaving between them later when building up the walls of the shelter.

I had also been advised to not allow the uprights to stick up too much above the ridge pole as this would encourage rainwater to run down poles and then drip through into the shelter – which I imagine could be very annoying at 2am.

For weavers between the uprights I mostly used birch branches that were lying around the woodland, as when green they are still flexible. Any that were too far gone and dry, went in  a separate pile for firewood. It was time to start a fire for a well earned brew in my billy can. Think birch is quickly becoming my favourite tree because the more I learn about it, the more uses it seems to have – perhaps that’s the subject of a future journal entry.

Birch’s associations with fire are well known in the outdoor pursuits world and it makes great kindling for getting a blaze going. As soon as the fire was going I felt like I had arrived properly.

building a natural shelter in the woodsAbove: Burying the end of the ridge pole into the earth to help prevent it from slipping. Resting one of the forked poles against a convenient stump for added stability. And getting my tea on with my new billy can.

During my Bushcraft Instructor training we had plenty of bracken around us to use as a thatched covering for the weavers on the roof. You can see an example of that in the first picture on this blog page. But at my local woods bracken was not an option so I would have to go with the less effective (so I’m told) leaf litter – which was in abundance at this time of year. There was plenty of beech trees about and their leaves make a carpet on the woodland floor and I know these leaves to last pretty well rather than rot away quickly so this seems a good choice.  Using a blanket I could gather up lots of leaves quickly and then drag the full blanket over to the shelter.

This was still much more work than I had anticipated though and I had been advised to have a full arm’s length depth of leaf litter on the shelter to make it effective against the worst the weather could throw at it. This was a real eye opener as it soon became apparent just how much material I would need just for my little one-man shelter.

shelter building in the woods of wales

Above: The complete naked skeleton of my kennel shelter, complete with weavers from fallen birch with some hazel brash too for good measure.

Another thing I noticed when using the leaf litter was that leaves had a habit of tumbling down to the base of the shelter so that I was ending up with a lot of material close to the ground and hardly any on top. Stuffing handfuls of leaves between the weavers seems to help this to an extent as it gave the leaves something to grip to. But I wonder if this is also a common problem when using leaf litter like this and whether with enough depth of material you eventually over come it? I wasn’t going to find out today.

The day was drawing on and I still wasn’t complete. By the time the light was failing I had to accept that the shelter would not be completed today (the luxury of not actually being in a real survival situation) and I would have to return another day. I had got one side of the shelter completely covered with a fair depth of leaves, but by no means enough, and I was satisfied that I could return another day and complete the job, ready for a trial sleep out.

My last job was to put out my small brew fire and scatter the cold ashes to leave no trace – an important philosophy in bushcraft.

So, what were the main learning points for me:

  1. Shelter building takes longer than you think.
  2. It’s important to get the 3 main poles locked together correctly to maximise stability and strength.
  3. Don’t put the uprights too close together.
  4. Don’t let the uprights protrude too far above the ridge pole, so avoiding night time drips.
  5. If using leaf litter – allow for A LOT of material.
  6. Stuff the leaves into the weavers to encourage them to group to the shelter sides.
  7. Get up earlier in the morning and start sooner *laugh*

half built shelter

Above: The end of a day’s work.. well a leisurely days work anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to complete the job and test it out.

That’s all for now. I hope to keep my Bushcraft Journal up to date with regular posts, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

James K

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