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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Building a Debris Hut

When I was a child, we used to build our own playhouses and forts and pirate ships out of whatever we could find. Back then, you didn’t have to pay to raid a city dump. You could walk in, rummage around, and haul your finds off to create whatever you wanted – including bicycles, parts to repair the bicycles, and parts to build little bicycle trailers to haul those goodies off in. The skills we learned building those playhouses, forts, and ships are important survival skills because one of the things you need to survive is a warm, dry place to sleep.
Later, when I had children of my own, we had to pay to visit city dumps and there were zoning codes that prevented the children from wantonly building playhouses, forts, and pirate ships. In order for my children to get the skills I naturally learned, I had to artificially teach them in places far from home using only what we could find in nature instead of raided materials.
Things are even more restricted now that grandchildren are coming along – most wilderness areas are off limits or cost to visit, city dumps are regulated and visitors are rarely allowed, and zoning laws are even more restrictive and less child-friendly.
But – you can still manage to learn these important shelter building skills if you’re willing to scatter the materials very soon after building the shelter. Mind you, most of what I talk about here are for urban and suburban areas. Those who live in rural areas or have access to rural areas won’t have to go through the same procedures a city-dweller would.
The lack of access to wilderness areas and city dumps, and the harshness of zoning codes in cities and suburbs makes life – interesting – for those who want to learn how to survive without trekking far, far away or buying or renting more land – usually far away, but not too remote. For city folk, the best times to learn and practice these skills are fall and winter. That’s when trees shed leaves and branches and you can practice building debris huts.
A debris hut is pretty much what it sounds like – building a small shelter from debris, usually tree debris. The first thing you do is erect the frame – find one or two fallen tree branches or pruned tree or shrub limbs that are a couple of feet longer than you are tall and some shorter ones that are a bit longer than the distance from you bottom to the top of your head if you were sitting (I call these “torso tall”). Then find a bunch of shorter ones in varying lengths. The torso tall branches form the opening and the longer ones the spine of your hut. Make an upside down “V” from the torso tall branches and lean a longer spine branch from those to the ground. You’ll get a very elongated empty triangle with the ground forming one side and the spine and opening branches the rising edges. This is the skeleton of your debris hut, the frame that will support the rest.
Now, all along the sides of the spine branch, lay the shorter branches you gathered. This forms your walls. Pile it on thick – you want to fill it in as much as possible. Branches with leaves still on them are good, as are evergreen branches you pruned. You should end with a mound of tree branches that has an opening at one end and space for you to crawl inside feet first, so your head is at the opening end. This kind of shelter may be OK on a dry, still day, now you have to insulate it for warmth.
To do that, you pack the inside of the hut with leaves. You pile more leaves all over the outside of the hut and lay more branches on them to hold them in place . Leave the opening visible and don’t cover it up – that’s how you’ll get into the hut.
Getting into the hut the first time takes a bit of wiggling. Push your feet into the leaves you packed inside. They’ll crush around you as you push your way in. Once you’re all the way in, you shouldn’t feel any breezes at all. If it rains, you shouldn’t feel any wet spots inside. As the leaves pack down on the inside, you can add more. The leaves are your insulation that will keep you warm and block the wind and rain. For added warmth, find a shrubby thickly leaved (evergreen is best) branch to form a “door” once you are inside.
Kids love building and playing in these and once spring arrives, they can be chipped for garden mulch or bundled up and set at the curb for Big Trash Pick Up. Adults (in my experience) enjoy having a cookout with a few of these debris huts circling the (in a fire pit) bonfire. The huts can be built large enough for two. They make a fine party prop that is easily disposed of afterwards.
My kids built an entire neighborhood of these in my backyard – “homes” , “offices” , a “fort”, and a pair of “battleships”. Snow and ice only improved them as playhouses. By spring, most of them were usually mulched up enough to scatter around the yard and garden to feed the soil and the larger branches chipped right down so there was nothing to set curbside.
As you get experienced in building these debris huts, you can see how you can use other found materials in making them. Practice each fall and if you ever need to build yourself an impromptu place to sleep, you can do so with confidence. The same principle apply whether you’re using tree branches or rebar or framing lumber from a ripped apart house. Broken bricks, rocks, sheet rock sections, plywood, or cardboard can be used for the sides, and torn clothing and rags and damaged sofa cushions, leaves and newspapers and more cardboard can be used for the insulation. Wherever you are in the world under whatever circumstances, you can build a temporary shelter.
All this, from the humble little debris hut.