The key to a peaceful and fulfilling trip into the wilderness is having appropriate shelter to protect members of the party from the elements. You do not want to be too cold or wet in winter, nor too hot and humid in the summer. If you are traveling far away from civilization, it is important to keep your shelter to a minimum weight, and, therefore, easy to carry. Otherwise, be prepared to obtain shelter from the natural elements available freely at the campsite.
Many travelers, going into the wilderness spend too much time planning for food, water, and fire requirements. It is also important to think about shelter. While it is true that water is probably the single most important consideration in trip preparation, shelter is, without-a-doubt, the second most important factor. Shelter needs are magnified by the climate of the terrain you plan to tackle. Either hot dry desert wilderness areas or cold high territories can present serious shelter issues. Failing to find shelter from the elements is the prime cause of fear and irrational behavior in case of an emergency.
Simple Shelter to Pack
The simplest shelters can be made from a large waterproof sheet of plastic or other lightweight material. Saving expense and sacrificing durability of the fabric is a classic fault. This plastic sheet or tarp can be used along with a rope, some stakes, sections of a tree, or walking stick to form a triangular shaped tent. If the weather is cold, try closing one end by keeping it pegged to the ground to keep in heat. Face the open edge toward the fire, and away from the prevailing winds.
When planning your itinerary pay special attention to known caves, natural shelters, and public agency provided wilderness shelters. Before starting the trip be sure to have the appropriate map, which shows these shelters. Ask about existing natural shelters when talking to wilderness management. Know how long you will be in the wilderness and plan your route realistically. Do not assume you will be able to locate shelter if the weather or other conditions turn against you.
Making a Debris Hut
If you find yourself in a situation with no natural shelter, and your packed shelter provisions are inadequate, debris shelters can often be built. The idea is to take the building materials you find in the wilderness and transform them into a suitable weather tight shelter. To construct a debris hut, plan to make it big enough to cover your body but small enough to allow very little extra air space that would allow the cold air to get to you inside.
Form a frame with some larger branches so you can crawl inside at one end and extent your body full length. The amount of free space should only be that which is needed for you to make this trip into and out of the debris hut. Cover the large branches with smaller branches, pine boughs, ferns, large leaves, and anything that is hearty enough to stay on the pile and retain the heat. If you find a tree stump, it can often be the closed end portion of the debris hut, and a perfect place to start the placement of the first large branch. Avoid spots where there are large protruding rocks on the surface of what will be the floor of the hut.
A completed debris hut should be about eight feet long, and four to five feet tall. The opening should be two feet high and three feet wide. If you are using a fire for heat, remember to place the hut far enough away from the flames to keep it from burning. Test the fire safety by starting the fire, getting it burning at its maximum level, and checking the edges of the hut to see if they are warm. If they feel much more than body temperature, the fire is too big or the hut is too close. Safety should be your first priority.