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Episode 101 S3-20

Emergency Shelter: Building a Debris Hut


Special Guest:

The Walls of Freedom Ch 20

James E. Hart

The Walls of Freedom adventure continues as Erika, Vince and their children build a shelter from the rain to take a much needed break. Here to discuss building a debris hut is James E. Hart, author of Urban & Wilderness Survival, Emergency Preparedness.

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A great shelter for a short stay is a lean to structure. You can always keep adding to it. Make a canopy on the front or enclose the sides to make the shelter more permanent. 


Check out how the Native Americans were living in your area for a clue on how to build a survival shelter appropriate to your weather. 


If you build a debris shelter right, large enough, and maintain it, you could survive four to five years in it. If you use the right materials and keep adding to it, you could eventually have a permanent home.

To build a debris hut, you start with larger logs and limbs to construct the frame. Then you use smaller limbs as cross members that are weaved into the larger ones. After that use small bows, leaves, grass and mud over the top to start forming a barrier from the weather. As a final step you can cover it with sod harvested from the surrounding area. This should add a water proofing that will keep you dry and concealed.


When harvesting sod, be sure to brush debris over the areas you have harvested it from to try and return the forest to the original state. Using this sod, scraped from the ground, and packing it in tight will create a rain barrier and help keep it cooler in hotter temperatures. 


When you are building this shelter you are going to get muddy, cold and wet if it's raining so make sure you have someone starting a fire as soon as possible. Fire can be a source of danger around the debris hut so you need to exercise caution. The lean to is a good shelter because the fire can be build outside with a backstop behind it to direct the heat back into the lean to. Figure out which way the rain is coming from and put the back of your lean to into the wind and rain. Then you can build a cover that extends from the lean to so the fire is partially protected from the wind and rain. Your wood pile can be stacked on one side. That way it will help to create a wind barrier and give you a place to hang wet clothes to dry. The inside should be dry and snug, reserved for blankets and sleeping purposes. 


Carrying a tarp helps to make your shelter building task much easier. You can make a lean to and use the tarp as cover. If you are worried about camouflage, cover it with debris so it is hidden. 


Using a small trench to supply oxygen to an inside fire is a useful idea, as long as your shelter is big enough to accommodate a fire. Dig a small trench that extends to the outside of your debris shelter and cover it with small sticks, tightly packed together. Then cover that with mud. Traditionally this type of trenching system was used with Native American dome shelters that were twenty foot in diameter, give or take, depending on the side of the family. 


Dakota fires, digging two holes and connecting them with a tunnel, are better for small shelters because the flames are located in a hole in the ground. make sure your secondary, outside hole, is not downhill where it will collect rain water.


You will need to use wood that is strong but bendable for your debris hut. Cottonwood, Willow, Birch and other soft woods make great shelter material.


Teepees are also easy structures to build, especially when you have a good sized tarp. It is easy and safer to maintain a fire in it.

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The Walls of Freedom Ch 20

James E. Hart

A veteran of 2 tours of duty in Vietnam, James began his survival training at the age of 7 when he was stranded in the Mojave Desert for 7 hours without food or water during a family move in 1954. Since then he has been through the scouting program where he attained Life scout, served as Scoutmaster, Assistant Scoutmaster, Venture Advisor, and earned the Badden Powell Award. An avid outdoors man, he has winter camped in Utah and northern Quebec, Canada, snow shoed in upstate New York, Utah and Quebec, and camped in the Mojave Desert of California, the Uintah Mountains of Utah, and the Piney Woods of East Texas, among numerous other locations. James has traveled and been through 42 of the 50 states of the US. Three provinces of Canada, sailed the Pacific Ocean, and crossed the Equator and 35 countries from jungles of South America to the Himalayas of Nepal. Having earned an Associates of Photography Degree from Houston Community College, he has beautifully captured many of his travels with his camera.


Now retired from a career with the Trinity River Authority of Texas, James resides in Dallas, TX, where he lectures on Wilderness and Survival Training. He is the author of SWET Survival & Wilderness Experience Training, Urban & Wilderness Emergency Planning, 35 other booklets on wilderness training, monthly articles for Survival Life Magazine, and a column and articles for The Garland Messenger Newspaper. James also does workshops and speaking engagements.

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