Lessons from a Primitive Shelter in February

A recent overnight gave me the opportunity to experiment with a primitive shelter in mildly cold weather. The results were eye opening.

Primitive shelter

This primitive shelter served its purpose adequately on a fairly cold February night.

Time sure does fly. Days that seemed endless as a boy, now slip by in the blink of an eye. Weeks slide into months, and entire seasons pass by in what seems like a breath. Maybe it’s my middle-age starting to catch up with me, but the fleeting nature of life is beginning to sink in. Time wasted is just that; wasted. That doesn’t necessarily mean wasting time isn’t good for the soul every now and then. It just recognizes time is not something you get back, and you must strike while the iron is hot.

With that being the case, I recently decided now was the best time to practice living outside in the cold. I’ve always been curious as to how people of the past felt, adapted, and handled primitive cold weather camping. These day, most people, myself included, are getting further and further away from these types of trips. I’ve done a few cold weather trips, but all of them had been with modern gear. If I ever wanted to experience a semi-primitive cold weather camp, I needed to take advantage of the winter I was living in. I didn’t want to have to wait again until next year.

With a cold weather camping trip as the goal, I just needed to find a good weekend. I didn’t want my first trip to be in ultra cold temperatures of below zero temps. Call me timid I guess. I also wanted it to be cold enough to actually put me to the test. It happened to work out that my wife was taking our girls to her parent’s house one weekend in February. As luck would have it, the night temps were going to be right at 20˚. This fell smack dab into a Goldie Locks zone for me. Not so cold I might get in over my head, but still plenty cold enough to figure out if my approach was working. With everything coming together, I kissed my girls adios and got my limited gear in order.

I headed toward my favorite camping spot with high hopes. Although my primitive shelter building experience is certainly what you’d call limited, I had what I thought would be a good design in mind. I was actually going to steal my design from a bushcrafter on YouTube. The design was simple and I really felt like it would be a suitable shelter for the conditions. For the cold temps I was bringing along a Hudson Bay wool blanket and an oilcloth I made myself. Both of these were items used by longhunters of the 18th century and mountain men of the 19th century. I figured the trip would offer me a better understanding of their lives.

Once I arrived at my camp, I began straight away with construction. The structure used a tripod design with an extended rear leg. The rope that lashed together my blanket pack also held my tripod together. I figured this was a way to make what little gear I brought more versatile.

Framed out structure.

The basic frame and bedding. At this point is is still lacking the tunnel entrance.

With the tripod made, it was time to start putting the shelter up. It started with a row of sticks up the rear of the tripod. I started with very small sticks and gradually they got longer and longer. When it was all done, the original tripod looked like it had a ribcage. At that point I started to fill the structure with bedding. For this task I gathered dead cottonwood leaves that were lying all around. I filled the interior of the structure with dead leaves about two feet deep. These leaves not only gave me a soft bed to lie on, but insulated me from the worst heat-thief out there; the cold ground.

With the interior filled, it was time to start piling dead leaves on the structure’s exterior. I aimed for a depth of 2 to 3 feet covering the entire shelter. This provided obvious protection from the outside, but also served as a good way to trap heat on the inside. As I piled the leaves on, I was thankful there was no wind. I didn’t figure the leaf shelter would stand up very good against high winds. Before long that theory would be put to the test.

Gathering the leaves for the structure took quite a while. This chore consumed the bulk of the time it took to build my structure. However, it wasn’t the last task I needed to complete. I built a little tunnel off the front of the tripod. This tunnel would trap in more heat, and allow me to somewhat close the gap at the front of the tripod. I used more small sticks for the tunnel frame, and then once again blanketed them with leaves. All told, the structure took me around 3 hours to build. I put my oilcloth and blanket inside while I still had some light. My other camp gear went inside as well.

With the structure complete I made a quick and unsuccessful hunt with my longbow. As dark descended I turned back toward camp. I was looking forward to spending the night tucked away in my night’s home. As I returned, I started to get worried as the wind picked up at dusk. Soon, the air was rushing all around me and stirring things up. Not only that, but I had faced my tunnel entrance to the east, doing my best to avoid a direct wind coming in my hut. Wouldn’t you know it, the wind not only picked up, but was dead out of the east. I guess it was just putting my experiment to the test.

Although the wind was high, I didn’t notice too much damage to my leaf exterior. Sure enough, it was holding up adequately to the wind. Also, it was still cozy enough with the blowing wind. As the night marched on, I eventually climbed into my shelter and wrapped myself in the wool blanket and oilcloth. I was anxious to see how the night would go in the fairly cold temperatures.


This photo shows the interior ready for sleeping.

I got an adequate night’s sleep under the brilliant full moon. As morning approached, and gray light shone in the east. I emerged from my lodging to start my day. At this point, I was a little disappointed. I had hoped to test out the shelter and blanket/oilcloth combination in cold weather. It was hard to say for sure, but I didn’t think it had even dropped below freezing during the night. Thinking I had lost an opportunity to test my gear, I crawled out into the awakening world.

After emerging, I checked my water. To my surprise it had frozen almost solid during the night. I guess my setup had proven more than adequate for the cool February night. My pickup was close at hand, and curiosity was now getting the better of me. I opened the door, and turned the key to check the thermometer. Sure enough, it clicked on and 20˚ appeared on the glowing green lights. It had actually gotten much cooler than I had thought. The overall test was a success to me and was a pleasant surprise.

In truth, I did have a bit more than just the shelter, blanket, and oilcloth for warmth. Under my regular clothes I had knee high wool socks and a full set of long underwear. Not only that, but my young pup Huck accompanied me all night. He crawled right in the blanket with me and cuddled up. I’m sure the extra heat had something to do with my comfortable sleep.

All in all, I was satisfied with how my overnight primitive camp went. I had showed up with much less gear then I’ve taken on summer trips, but I had managed to stay comfortable. It helped teach me a little about staying warm in the winter, and put some of my historically proven gear to use. Although I couldn’t call the trip an accurate historical recreation, I can say it taught me a little more about ways of the past.

More than anything, I’m glad I made the trip because I capitalized on the moment I had. Had I let the opportunity slide past, I could have gone another winter without actually experimenting and learning. I know I’ve let plenty of learning experiences slip by in my life, but hopefully I’ll grab ahold of more as they come. I’ll look forward to doing some more primitive camping should I catch a free weekend.

Thanks for giving this post a read! If you enjoyed it and like to learn about the past, you may enjoy a similar post about Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.


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