When an adventure ride goes pear-shaped and you suddenly find yourself stranded, priority No.1 is seeking shelter, says survival expert John Fenna
It’s a sad fact that most ‘disasters’ happen when external factors are against you. Adverse weather and diminishing daylight are two of the worst variables to affect riding conditions. It’s also true that in an emergency you’re unlikely to be at your best. You’ll probably be tired, possibly even injured to some degree (if only a bruised ego) and you may be cold, wet, and hungry. If all this is against you, you need shelter that is quick and easy to construct, and as efficient as possible.
Cold and wet…
If all you have on you are the clothes you stand in and the pocket baccy tin survival kit which we covered in last issue (if this isn’t ringing any bells, scrounge a copy of ABR issue 3 off a mate) you’ll be looking to find shelter in what you have around you. This could be as simple as getting out of the worst of the wind and rain by hunkering down in the lee of a large rock/tree/bank/, but the more you can do to make your shelter wind and waterproof, the more comfortable and protected you’ll be.
In tree-less areas, your best option is to pile up rocks or soil, to give more wind protection, but if you’re in an area with vegetation you can build a more substantial shelter from natural materials. A small framework of fallen branches (no bigger than is necessary to cover your body) covered with leaves, turf or whatever you can find, and filled with dry (or as dry as possible) vegetation should do the trick.
Natural hollows, such as where the rootball of a fallen tree leaves a dip and in itself forms a sort of wall are an obvious start point, but be sure to select a spot that isn’t going to flood with rainwater! Even fallen branches piled against a tree trunk to form a tipi-type nook that you can only just sit in will offer a measure of shelter. We’ll be looking more at building natural shelters in future issues of ABR.
If you are fortunate enough to have your larger bug-out bag survival kit with you (again, if this sounds unfamiliar, talk nicely to that mate of yours with a copy of issue 3) then your options are extended.
The emergency poncho, although no fashion item, will help keep you dry and warm while you get your shelter constructed, and once you have your shelter made, it can be used as a groundsheet to protect you from damp earth. If not needed for protection from wind and rain, then it can be used to collect and carry dry insulation for lining your shelter. The poncho is not very robust, so treat it with care.
The big orange survival bag, which you’ll also find in the bug-out kit, costs very little but is very versatile. At a push, you can wear it by slithering in headfirst and making a small tear in the plastic, so you can breathe and see out; then sit on something to give you ground insulation, such as your helmet or tank bag. Positioning yourself against a rock or tree may give extra protection from the elements, but be sure to insulate yourself at any point of contact – the spine protectors in good bike jackets work well here.
Photo: John Fenna
If you’ve managed to make a more substantial shelter, the survival bag can be used in the form of a sleeping bag – a more comfortable but less efficient option, and one that allows you to use your arms to do things, such as feed a fire. Both the poncho and survival bag will get damp from condensation inside, and both are very flammable, so take great care around any open flames.
The silvered space blanket from your bug-out bag can be wrapped around you and offers good protection as long as it’s not too windy. Use the tape from your survival kit to stick it closed; this will prevent warmth escaping and free your arms.
You can also build a useful ‘basha’ (military roof-type shelter) out of the space blanket by carefully tying pebbles, nuts or pinecones into the corners of the blanket and attaching guylines to them. Peg the loops to stretch the blanket into a decent shelter and tie it off to trees/rocks, bushes or even your bike on one side, and peg it down to the ground on the other. A springy stick can be positioned in the centre, like a bow, to stop this makeshift roof sagging, holding water or flapping around too much.
If you can then put down an insulating layer of dry vegetation (the deeper the better), perhaps on a groundsheet made from the emergency poncho, you can then stretch out comfortably in your survival bag protected from wind, rain and cold. A fire and reflector in front of the shelter would complete the five-star survival shelter’s appointments!
Photo: John Fenna
Hot and dry…
In hot climates you’ll need protection from the heat and sun. During the day, deserts and savannah can be scorching, but at night the temperature can plunge. Finding shade will be your main daytime need, and the space blanket can be set over a depression in the ground to provide this. At night, insulation and protection from the cold will be priorities. Be aware that the conditions you are creating are also favoured by such things as scorpions.
In the jungle you will want to try and get off the ground as much as possible to avoid the attentions of wildlife, as well as wanting to be as dry and as cool as possible, so well-ventilated, raised platforms are the best choice, while hammocks are also an option. It’s possible to rig hammocks from the survival bags and paracord in the bug-out kit by employing the basha pebble-tying technique, but take care – improvised hammocks are not the strongest around!
By carefully choosing your survival kit contents to suit your environment, your shelter can in itself help attract rescuers to your location. The space blanket can act as a giant mirror, reflecting the sun to flash out your position – this is particularly useful in open areas – the bright orange survival bag will stand out well against the greens and browns of natural vegetation, and even your emergency poncho can be sourced in bright colours.
Good-quality paracord is also available in neon colours, while other cordage can be found that incorporates reflective materials, to make your shelter more visible to night time searchers. Don’t forget to maximize the reflective surfaces on your bike, too.
Photo: John Fenna
Hot and cold hazards
(Information taken from St John Ambulance First Aid Manual www.sja.org.uk)
This is caused by loss of salts and fluids.
Signs and symptoms: The casualty feels tired, but restless, may have a headache, be dizzy and nauseous and may experience cramps. They may look pale and feel cold and clammy with fast, shallow breathing, a rapid weak pulse and a normal or lower temperature. Casualty may faint on sudden movement. The only treatment is to give sips of water – if the casualty is conscious – with half a teaspoon of salt if they have cramps or are vomiting or have diarrhoea.
This is caused by high environmental heat or a fever, when the body can no longer regulate its temperature by sweating. Exposure to high heat and humidity or just a hot atmosphere can cause a sudden onset of heat stroke.
Signs and Symptoms: can include headache, dizziness and feeling hot, restlessness, sudden and deep un- consciousness, a body temperature of 40°C (104°F) or more, flushed and dry skin, a full and bounding pulse, noisy breathing. Treatment includes rapid cooling that can be achieved by being wetted and air currents directed over them to promote evaporation. Medical aid is needed rapidly. This is on top of sunburn, an ever-present danger in hot climates and which should be treated by cooling the skin by gentle sponging with cold water.
Photo: John Fenna
This condition arises when the body core temperature drops below around 35°C (5°F) and can usually be reversed and recovered from unless the core temperature falls below 26°C (75°F) when it is likely to be fatal. Hypothermia is most likely to occur in temperatures of +6°C to –6°C in wet and windy conditions.
Signs and Symptoms: These include shivering, cold, pale, dry skin, irrational behaviour, slow pulse, slow breathing.
The casualty may become unconscious and pulse and breathing become hard to detect. Shivering may cease as the condition worsens.
Casualties should be re-warmed at around the speed that cooling occurred. Conscious casualties can be given warm drinks and high-energy food. Support a casualty with your own body heat if this is not going to endanger you.
This is a condition where body tissue actually freezes and can be superficial or deep.
Signs and Symptoms: The area affected progresses in colour from pale to waxy white, through mottled blue to black, and may blister. At first painful, the part becomes numb. The skin becomes hard and stiff. Casualties can be re-warmed if the frost bite is minor by sharing body heat or using a warm part of their own body to re-warm an affected part, ie. putting frozen fingers in their armpits. Do not rub the affected areas, burst blisters or re-warm the affected areas with fires or other heat such as hot pads. Do not thaw frozen feet if you need to walk out, or any part if it is likely to refreeze. Dress the areas with dry gauze and loose bandages or enclose it in a polybag.
Shelter location hazards
Shelters built close to water, be it rivers, lakes, tidal estuaries, the sea or in dried-up stream beds, may be in danger of flooding in storms or high tides. Flash floods can occur in waterways well away from rainfall higher upstream.
In mountains or other areas of steep ground, mud slides, avalanches, rockfall etc are possible at any time, but especially during and just after storms.
In dessert conditions, shelters which only allow you to lie down could leave you choking on low, swirling sandstorms
In forests and woodland, dead wood and even whole trees can fall during high winds. In the jungle it would seem that more people are killed by deadfall than predators.
Animal trails are not ideal choices for shelter location. Even if they do not belong to predators, animals have been known to invade camps to find food and even trample you and your shelter while you sleep. I have had shelters wrecked by semi-wild ponies and cattle.
Shallow cave entrances can act like spark gaps in a spark plug for lightning strikes – a shocking choice of loaction!
Snakes, scorpions and other nasties can lurk under rocks, branches and other shelter-building materials. Be careful when collecting material in known areas of snake and scorpion habitation
Photo: John Fenna
All activities described in this series of articles could be construed as hazardous. No responsibility for any injury or accident occurring while practising any of these activities is accepted by the author or publisher – always do your own risk assessments!
John has been involved in outdoor education for over three decades. He has diplomas and certificates in everything from fashion design (he turned it to designing outdoor activity clothing – honest!) to canoe coaching. He’s led expeditions in Eastern Europe, several African countries and Thailand, as well as literally walking the length and breadth of England. John started riding motorbikes at 16 and finally passed his car licence in his late 30s. Married to a very understanding wife, John lives in west Wales, but spends as much time as possible in wild(er) places.