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Survival Priorities: Shelter is Key!

When you head to the hills for a weekend backpacking excursion, you are not typically thinking about what you would do if you were in the middle of nowhere and your pack accidentally sailed off a cliff.

This happened to one poor student that took a survival course with an organization I used to work for in Southern Utah. It was day one of a three-day traveling solo in cloudless 90-degree heat. After navigating and scrambling through the desert slick rock alone, the student took a picturesque lunch break on the edge of a rocky cliff band. When it was time to leave, he accidentally knocked his pack off the cliff, which was much too high and treacherous to down climb, leaving him with nothing but the clothes on his back. Because it was day one of a three-day traveling solo, nobody would be looking for him for at least another 2.5 days.

Whether you are in the desert or in the mountains, there are some crucial survival rules that come into play. Some refer to it as the Survival Rule of 3’s, which says that, in general, you can live three minutes without oxygen three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

Knowing your survival priorities can help save you precious time, energy, and calories in a survival situation. Some people panic and immediately start thinking of food. If you spend the first few hours of a survival situation looking for food, you could neglect other more important priorities like shelter and water and go down on the books as another search and rescue statistic.

Whether it is –20 in the mountains during the winter or 100+ in the desert heat, shelter is #1. It is easy to see how you could freeze to death in 3 hours in the winter without shelter and warmth, but even in the summer heat, shelter is key. With water being your next priority, you need shade to conserve your energy, slow the speed of dehydration and conserve your fluids, and to stay out of the relentless heat of the sun until a cooler part of the day to begin your search for water. Look for a natural rock outcropping, build an impromptu lean to with sticks or other debris, or weave a sun hat out of Yucca leaves, but find shade as soon as you can.

The mountains of Colorado can be much cooler in the summer depending on your elevation, so you may not be seeking shade like you would in the desert. Many people think of the classic debris shelter as the perfect 3-season survival shelter, but this can be a very labor/calorie intensive shelter to build if you don’t have adequate water to stay hydrated and maintain your energy. The last thing you want to do is “bonk” in a survival situation when your life is on the line.

If you are caught out in the mountains alone before dark with nothing but the clothes on your back, you may consider making a pine needle bed to make it through the night. You can then continue to improve your shelter and convert it into a debris shelter if your survival situation is prolonged over several days.

To make a pine needle bed, scan the environment to find a good location, taking the direction of the weather, the depth of pine needle duff on the ground into account, the proximity to your water source, widow makers towering above, and creepy crawlies into consideration. You don’t want to spend a lot of energy on a shelter and realize you built it over an underground hornet nest or on an ant pile or you will have the most uncomfortable night of your life to say the least. 

Begin by piling up pine needles so you have at least 1 foot of insulation between you and the ground. This is important so you don’t sleep directly on the ground and lose heat through conduction. Then continue to pile up pine needles on both sides so you make a bathtub the length of your body. Crawl into your pine needle bathtub and start covering your feet, legs, torso, and the rest of your body with the pine needles you piled up on the sides. You want to have 1-2 feet of pine needles on top of you because this is your insulation that will trap your body heat the same way your cushy down sleeping bag works.

Pine needles are not quite as comfy as down feathers, but they do the trick. They will trap your body heat, keep you warm, will shed rain, sleet, and snow, and will even keep you warm if it gets wet. If you get caught in a survival situation, remember the Survival Rule of 3’s and remember that shelter is key!

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