The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 159: Wild Shelters

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Before apartments or flats, cabins, trailers, or tents, people lived somewhere. And that place was a lot like what we call wilderness. This week on The WildeBeat; Wild Shelters

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one-fifty-nine.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: I'd like to ask you to do a little daydreaming here. Picture yourself in a place without manmade buildings. You're in a wild, natural setting and you need a place to stay. Can you imagine what kind of place you'd be living in?

NORM KIDDER: It depends on where you lived and what you needed shelter from. The basic purpose of shelter is to keep your body at ninety eight point six degrees. And if you can do that in any way you've succeeded with shelter.

STEVE: That's Norm Kidder. But before I continue with this week's show, I've got a favor to ask.

STEVE: The WildeBeat is a nonprofit public service. Our mission is to educate, and inspire people to appreciate America's wild public lands. Our hope is that if you discover a wild place, explore it, and develop a love for it, you'll want to take care of it. We distribute these programs free to you, but they cost us real money to produce and deliver. That's where you can help.

STEVE: Our job is to help you get into the wilderness. That's different than some for-profit media, who's main job is to sell some advertiser's goods and services. By supporting the WildeBeat, you'll help inspire new people to discover wild places. You'll help people to do it more safely and to minimize their impact. You'll help people discover why these special places are so important to preserve. To do all of this, the WildeBeat needs your financial support. Please listen at the end of this edition for more details on becoming a member.

STEVE: Norm Kidder is the vice president of the Society of Primitive Technology, and an instructor for the educational group, Primitive Ways. We heard from Norm about the appeal of learning stone age technologies, or "First SKills" as he calls them, in our edition one-forty-one.

STEVE: Norm says stone age man was good at using what he found to shelter himself from harsh conditions.

NORM KIDDER: So in some places your clothing is your shelter. Even the eskimos, a lot of their houses were merely wind screens, and their clothes where what kept them warm. But in places where you live in the desert you need shelter from the sun, so you need to keep cooler. Some places where you have ...cold rain and wind, that's a real killer so you need protection from that... And in the old days, the first thing you did is you find the place that needed the least shelter. So you didn't camp down in the hollows where the damp, cold air would collect. You didn't camp in windy places if you had a choice. So you'd find that spot a little bit up above the water; not too far 'cause you wanted to be able to go down and drink. But you want to get just far enough above the water and out of the wind, and morning sun was usually preferred.

NORM KIDDER: The old caveman days almost every occupied cave faced the morning sun, so that it would warm up; get you started. So it really depends on what conditions you're in, and what you have available. So people started with caves, rock shelters, that kind of thing, and then gradually added structures to that to increase the sheltering qualities.

STEVE: The main skill that indigenous people had, that most of us have lost, is observing and understanding our local environment.

NORM KIDDER: One of the main differences between modern people and native people is that modern people try to make every place the same. You know, you pave it, you put in a MacDonalds, a WalMart, a Costco, a gas station, and you're set. In the old days you moved in and you became part of the local landscape. So the landscape changed you. And so your whole life became a part of that, and you even saw yourself as being part of that landscape... We're always transient, and so we make the place like the place we used to be in. Where as they would go in and meld into the landscape and learn it and find just those right places where the land would take care you. So part of survival in a primitive sense is that paying close attention. Where is the wind blowing now? Where will it be blowing later? Think about what's heating up and what's cooling. Think about where the water is. All of those issues affect where the best shelter is. If you build your shelter based on the daytime wind direction it'll be the opposite at night in many places. So local knowledge is a key to survival.

STEVE: Indigenous people never wandered very far from an area. They got to know the terrain, the plants, the animals, the rocks, and the seasons. Making a comfortable home took more knowledge of location than architecture.

NORM KIDDER: And I know when I went down the Yukon River one summer many years ago, one of the things I noticed was that indian village sites seemed to be in the places with the fewest mosquitos, so people were picking spots with that in mind.

STEVE: Indigenous stone age people lived in the same areas, often for many generations. So they had a lot of time to find the best places to settle. But what if you don't have that much time. What if you need to improvise shelter on short notice in a place you're not very familiar with?

NORM KIDDER: Shelter is really dependent on finding that spot. Finding the spot for shelter is dependent on knowing the wind, or having a pretty good idea of where the wind is going to be because you want to have something that blocks the wind. So if you can find rock outcrops or boulders, ...that's a good start, ...but given that the wind often changes, you can enhance that by building a lean-to against a big boulder or a rock wall. Barring that, if you have trees, you can simply put a shelter between two trees, making your lean-to. If you made it lightweight enough, you could probably even switch its direction if you absolutely had to.

STEVE: The lean-to shelter Norm is talking about is basically a single flat wall or roof, made out of plant materials.

NORM KIDDER: I find about a forty-five-degree angle gives me the best combination of wind protection, rain angle, and space underneath it to sit, and it also, if I could build a fire in front of the lean-to, then it reflects the heat back down on me. So my goal is to make a panel that's at least as long as my body, ...not totally square, ...then I can set that up against a tree once I've made it on the ground.

STEVE: To build a lean to, you'll need some tools.

NORM KIDDER: The things that we have that are the most critical would be our cutting blades, our knives, because you can do all kinds of work with those, and of course for most of our history as humans we didn't have that, so people used simple stone edges. So if there are rocks available, if you're really lucky and you can find flint or obsidian type rocks where you can get a super sharp cutting edge, that's wonderful. But even sandstone, if you break it, has an edge like a file and that will cut most of what you need. The trick is knowing how to use the tools that you've got.

NORM KIDDER: But if you have nothing, just remember our ancestors, you know, had what they found for millions of years, so if you can make any kind of a basic cutting edge, you can cut a tree down. The trick to cutting a tree down with a stone is not to use it as an ax, but to use it as a saw. Especially with things like sandstone and basalt, they have a rough edge, and the trick with that is to bend the tree over that you're cutting, and then cut it at the middle of the arc that you make by bending it. So you want to cut trees that are an inch, inch-and-a-half diameter that are easy to bend over, and then you saw back and forth with your rough edge, and by continuously bending the tree further over you make space for that triangular shaped blade... And even if you have a knife there's better ways to do that. If you try to hack a branch off, especially with a pocket knife, it'll take you forever, it'll whittle it off. But if you simply find a tree branch about, oh, two or three inches thick, and lay your blade against the tree branch and smack it ...with your handle, it's like making an ax. An ax has a sharp blade and a certain amount of mass that you ...hit against the tree branch, but if you hold the blade against the tree branch and then hit it with the mass you get the same effect as an ax. So you can drive the blade completely into the branch, and using, you know, two angles or so you can cut through a branch pretty quickly, just like you would with an ax. So ...that's called "batoning". So knowing how to baton your pocket knife, or if you even lost your pocket knife, knowing how to make a stone saw you can cut down some trees.

STEVE: Here's how it works.

NORM KIDDER: So I've got a branch here about three-quarters of an inch thick. I've got a piece of broken chert, which is a common rock that gives a fairly good sharp edge. I'm bending the branch over. I'm sawing and continuing to bend. And I'm halfway through. Bend it the other way. Find my line there.

NORM KIDDER: And sawed through. It doesn't look all that much different than a steel cut except that it's a little bit more, uh, a little bit rougher, and sometimes it's a little bit split more, but it does a fairly decent job. If that's all you got, it'll do it.

STEVE: You need three kinds of materials to make a primitive shelter. You'll need structural pieces, such as tree branches. You'll need cord to tie it together. And you'll need thatch to act as shingles.

NORM KIDDER: If the sap's running you can peel the bark off the trees and use that for cordage. Bark and small flexible branches are the quickest cordage... if you're in the desert, yucca leaves can be used for quick cordage, ...and then using flat strips of tying material, you'll find that most knots are a little bit hard to tie, so if you're going to learn one knot, you want to learn the clove hitch. Which works the best with flat, native materials.

NORM KIDDER: So you can tie most everything together with a series of clove hitches in the form of lashings. So a few basic bits of knowledge that can be applied most anywhere, ...would be good to carry with you. And then you just have to adapt those to what you find, to what materials are at hand.

STEVE: You mentioned thatch several times and we all sort of have pictures of the thatch in the pacific island huts that are made with palm fronds. Could you describe the range of materials you could use in mountainous areas of the U.S.? How would you recognize what is a good material to use as a thatch?

NORM KIDDER: There's sort of a hierarchy in my mind at least of what is good thatch, and at the top of that is tules and cattails... And one good thick layer of either of those, you know, two or three inches thick over a lean-to, will pretty much do you... If you're up in the woods, if you can find ...large slabs of bark, a lot of quick shelters and even permanent shelters were made from redwood and cedar bark laid over a pole framework. And so that's ideal because it would be very quick if you can find a down tree where the bark's popping off. Next would be all other forms of vegetation. Basically, Ishi built houses thatched with bracken fern. Again, bracken fern tends to grow in meadows where it's thick so you can get a lot of material quickly. If you can find tall bunch grasses or any grass that's three feet tall or better where it's growing thickly. The trick is you have to be able collect a lot of material in a short amount of time. If you can't find any of those things then can also go with tree branches.

STEVE: So once you have the materials, building the your lean-to is pretty simple. At least in concept.

NORM KIDDER: I'm going to lay maybe three fairly heavy poles on the ground that are going to be ground up. Over the top of them I'm going to lay the horizontal pieces that will run the long way of the panel... and I'll lash at all points so that it is fairly stable. And then over the top of that I can lay my thatch onto ...the middle and upper poles and tie it on with binder poles at all three levels. So I want my horizontal poles to be on top so I can tie my thatch to them. Using a second set of long poles, to actually pinch the thatch between the main frame and what I call binder poles. Once you've got it all tied on, in either one or two layers, then you can raise that up, and lean it against two trees.

STEVE: Using what you find might lead you to a number of interesting variations. For example, in the snow, a snow cave or igloo is really the best primitive shelter. Humans survive in adverse situations because of our ingenuity and creativity. But if your need for shelter is really urgent, then you'll have to do something very quick and simple.

NORM KIDDER: What you want to do is just create a pile of debris. Just collect all the stuff you can, all the leaves, grass, moss, anything, bark, whatever heap it together, throw the bark on top, ...tunnel yourself in there, and then the next day, go for something better. That's... really what a true survival shelter is. Just, kind of like a, if you think about a wood rat nest, you know, something along that line. The biggest pile of stuff you can heap together, and you're in the middle of it.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experiences using primitive shelters, and we always want to hear any other comments you might have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to more information about learning primitive skills, and download an extended high quality version of this show, on our web site.

STEVE: WildeBeat members can download an extended version of my interview with Norm Kidder from our WildeBeat Insider web pages.

STEVE: As a free, listener-supported service, we depend on you to help support our work. You can help by making a tax-deductible membership donation to our project. Membership levels start at sixteen dollars a year, and full membership is forty eight. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get a weekend's worth of meals from Alpine Aire foods, books from Wilderness Press, access to bonus audio content, and more, as thank you gifts.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham and Kate Taylor, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one-fifty-nine. Thank you for listening.

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