Wilderness Survival Skills: Building the "Debris Hut"

By Ken Davison

Imagine finding yourself far away from shelter, with night only a couple of hours away, and with no blanket or sleeping bag. Maybe you walked further during the day that you planned and only later realized that you would not make it back before dark. Should you try to continue on after dark and risk getting lost or suffering a serious injury? Should you build huge fire and huddle round it all night? While the second choice is better than trying to walk crosscountry in the dark, there is a much better solution. In my younger days I have sat around a fire, unable to catch more than short naps, because I had to keep feeding wood into the fire. As "the night that would never end" wore on, my fire consumed incredible amounts of wood and the pile that I had expected to last all night was gone almost before I noticed it. I had to range further for wood as the night went on. Morning found me bleary eyed from lack of sleep, but at least alive.

On another night I faced a similar experience in the woods. But this time I only had a small fire, which I allowed to go out after a few hours. I slept through the night in comfort, with my only complaint being that a few bugs crawled on me during the night. I was warm all night long and woke up well-rested and with a very real sense of accomplishment. I had spent the night in the woods, without sleeping bag or blanket and was comfortable. I will admit that the night was not terribly cold, somewhere in the 40's I think, but the method that I used would have worked for much colder weather. A couple of years later, while hunting in Montana, I used this method along with a light sleeping bag in order to stay warm at only 10 degrees above zero.

The method is called the "debris hut". Before I tell you how to build one, I will explain how and why they work. Your expensive sleeping bag keeps you warm because of the "dead air" space in the insulation in the bag. This means that the air in the insulation is unable to move, which keeps it from allowing the cold to move though. The more "dead air" space, the better the insulation. The thicker the insulation, the more dead air space. That is why your sleeping bag will keep you warm and just a blanket won't. So what is a debris hut and how is it built? Imagine a huge pile of dry leaves. Now imaging that you carefully wormed your way to the center of this pile of leaves. You might have a little problem breathing, but you would be warm and snug. That is until the wind blew and you thrashed around in your sleep. In doing so, you would spread-out the pile of leave all around you, and wake up only to find yourself laying shivering on top of them all instead of under them, where you should be. But the idea is still a good one. The debris hut is just a pile of leaves, grass, ferns, and whatever else is around, fixed under a hut so the wind can't blow them all away or spread them out and there is enough space under it for you to lay under the pile comfortably and still breathe.

Remember me mentioning that little problem with crawling into the imaginary huge pile of leaves? First look for something to hold the main beam of the hut off the ground. A rock, stump, log, sturdy sapling, anything can be used for this support as long at it is about the right height and strong enough. The height should be about crotch high for the person who is going to use the debris hut. If two people are going to share one hut, build it to the largest person's size. Now find yourself a long sturdy pole. This pole should be as tall as the same person(s) can reach above their head. Brace one end of this pole on your support, with the other end resting on the ground. Lean smaller poles against both sides of your main pole or beam at about a 45 degree angle to make a framework. Place them close together and fill in around them with smaller branches.

About this time the person who is going to be using this hut should crawl inside to see if they will fit. It is supposed to be snug. Then lay a layer of fine brush over the framework and collect as much debris as you can find and pile it on top of this framework. Dead leaves, dry fern, evergreen branches, grass, anything that will make dead air space. Dry material won't flatten as much as green will, but use whatever you can find. Keep piling stuff on until you make have a domed structure. When you have enough debris on you hut, (up to four feet thick for extremely cold weather) then lay enough small, light branches over the outside of the hut to keep all your insulation from blowing away. Then stuff the inside full of debris. Try to choose stuff that you would like to sleep on. Crawl in and check out your work. You will probably need more stuffing on the inside, because your body weight will compress the debris a lot. You will want at least three inches of compressed debris under you and maybe even more. Pick out some debris to lay by the door of your hut, to close-up the entrance with once you are inside. Crawl in feet first and close the door as much as you need to sleep warm and snug. If you have a fire, keep it well away from the debris hut. The debris hut is a bond fire waiting to happen.

That's all there is to it! Sound simple? Sure enough it is, but until I learned about it, I spent more than one night freezing on one side and roasting on the other, laying near a camp fire. It really would not hurt to have the whole family practice building one of these and then take turns laying in it, just to see how it feels. You can make a hut for two people, or even more, but if you try to fit too many people into one hut, it won't keep anyone as warm as the single hut will. If it rains long and hard, you might get a little wet, but you will still be warm. It should take about 1 hour to build a hut so don't wait until it gets dark to start building!

Ken Davison

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Last Updated: June 20, 1997