About Featured Expert: Joe Robinet is a bushcraft fanatic from Canada. His interest in the outdoors began at a young age. Most of his childhood years were spent outside building shelters and watching animals. Always determined to improve his understanding of the wild and hone his skills, Joe began to participate in various bush crafting classes, where the skill sets ran from basic foraging and gathering of wild edibles to the more advanced principles of fire construction. His biggest adventure came when he was able to spend several days alone in an igloo in subzero temperatures in Northern Ontario. Joe was a participant on the History channel’s reality television show Alone, in which participants entered the Vancouver Island wilderness carrying only what they could fit in a small backpack. He and can often be found in the woods (with his dog) practicing his outdoor survival skills. You can find videos about building outdoor shelters and other handy survival skills and tips on his YouTube channel, Joe Robinet Bushcraft.
The following is a condensed version of the full audio interview, which can be found in the above link at Science of Skill’s SoundCloud station.
Coach Dan: Hey there folks, Coach Dan here with the science of skill podcast. In this recent series we’ve been delving into the domain of self reliance, more specifically survival.
Today we’re going to be talking about constructing a shelter outdoors. What does it mean? Where do people go wrong? Where can we go to learn to build one? I went to YouTube when I didn’t know anybody within my own network and found Joe Robinet’s channel on YouTube. Saw a lot of what he was up to and figured he’d be a great guy to be able to explain some of these concepts with us.
I think shelter is a big part of this, you got fire, you got shelter, the procurement of food and water and things like that, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions around constructing a shelter in the wild? Some things that almost everybody will get wrong on their first go around that you see time and time again?
Joe Robinet: Probably underestimating the amount of time that it will take to build the shelter. In all honesty if you’re out there and you’re planning on building a shelter, if that’s your goal for being out there, you’re not in a survival situation. You’re going to want to stop doing what ever you’re doing, be it traveling, fishing, whatever at least by mid day, I’d say by noon to start building your shelter.
Also, not putting enough, whatever you’re using for thatching be it debris, be it spruce boughs, bark any that stuff. A lot of times people will throw some stuff on top and call it good and say it’s great but any kind of light that you can see through your patches or your shingling, that’s going to allow water to come through so what you really want to do is put a thick, thick, thick layer…
CD: I’m going to get into basic skills and maybe basic designs that people can look up and Google and sort of learn more about when it comes to fundamentals of shelter construction. Ground wise, what do you advise, sort of generally speaking, in terms of better alternatives to curling up on cold soil?
JR: Right, if I had my option I’d use spruce boughs or balsam fir boughs all the time. The problem with pine boughs, for people who don’t know – boughs are just the limbs of the confers, the evergreen trees that I’m speaking about. Pine boughs are very sparse and they don’t have a lot of needles per grouping, so spruce needles would be a lot more dense and balsam fir needles are awesome as well, but they’re flat. Spruce is right about the perfect thickness you want, you’re going to put them in a fashion where, you don’t really have the big ends of twigs like where they would be growing from the tree, you just want the tips. They’re very nice and small and you’ll have things jabbing you in the back. You’d want a good ten inches down….
Other then that, some other things, it’s all the same principal with just different materials, you can use, if you are in a hardwood environment if you have a cottonwood tree or a big poplar tree, sometimes they shed their bark. You can use that bark, it’s very corky, very thick but I’d also be putting some dead grass or even live grass on top just being careful for ticks and other sorts of bugs and nasty stuff like that….
CD: What are some of the more popular shelter constructions that you see in the U.S. that maybe have broad utility? I can imagine people can go out and learn the fanciest-danciest one or learn something crazy and wild and you can probably learn 400 of them online. What are the basic designs for beginners that you advise that they learn to build first?
JR: As far as natural shelters, Michigan kind of area and places like that, my favorite and the most useful, easiest are going to be a debris shelter or debris hut. Basically you’re building a small framework of sticks almost like a ribs and you’re throwing anything you can find on top of it to pack it in to blocks rain, wind, snow, all that stuff…If you’re going to plan on building a shelter and you want to have some fun with it, a lean to is my favorite. A lean to can be used anywhere from Northern Canada, anywhere man, anywhere you were saying as well. A lean to is an open faced shelter, picture a steep A frame with only one side done. One side down, very steep and then one side open because you’re going to have a fire in front of it…You can also build a bed, which I do, I build a raised bed, a bush bed by placing four big logs on the ground and laying to thinner logs going long ways, parallel to each other and then on top of that stacking small short logs…across it and you can go up as high as you want or as low as you want. That gets built right inside of the shelter…
Another thing too, for shelter locations, you’re deciding on predominant wind, your checking, anything dead fall above you, where the sun is going to rise, where the sun is going to set, all this stuff. For this shelter, for a lot things you want the wind running parallel to your shelter. If the wind is coming right at you, you’re going to get smoke filled, if the wind is coming from your back, all it does is it hits that leaves, it comes down, grabs that smoke and swirls into your shelter.
CD: Maybe some other tenants and principles that no matter what kind of darn shelter you want to be constructing you have to bear in mind. What are some of those other concepts?
JR: In all honesty the big one is looking for dead fall above you. I can’t even mention how many times I’ve gone camping, these aren’t even natural shelters just where people have set up tents, and you look up and a tree’s half fallen down, it’s the most sketchy thing in the world. You can’t predict what’s going to happen with that tree, even if it’s not windy, maybe it’s just time for that tree to go. You need to make sure where you’re camping is safe that way.
Fire would be the other thing that I would make sure, in order to pick out a campsite. If you’re camping in a field and there’s a ton of dead grass around you or something like that, maybe it’s not the best place to camp or maybe you’re going to have to take a little bit of extra time to dig out that fire area, to dig it out pretty well too considering if wind whips up you don’t want it spreading.
CD: In this case, obviously constructing a shelter, real deal outdoor survival is just as much of a skill as driving a truck or learning jiujitsu, if people want to go find an instructor and actually get better at this stuff, what do they look for in criteria, credentials, recommendations, how do you find somebody that really knows what they’re talking about in this space if you wanted to learn from scratch?
JR: When I started I didn’t know, I was reading books man; I was reading books and learning myself because I didn’t have easy access to people or things online. There might have been a couple old friction fire videos on YouTube when I started, but nowadays everything has opened up. What I say to people when they’re asking these things is, research these things online. You’re going to see a thousand survival bush craft schools popping up every year now because it’s so mainstream, it’s so current.
Image credit: Joe Robinet Buschraft
Coach Daniel is the founder and head publisher at Science of Skill, LLC. A martial arts black belt and self defense instructor, Dan has spent years training with and interviewing some of the world's best self protection experts. His passion lies in encouraging others to train smart and to improve the skills that make them safer and stronger.
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