Let’s talk about shelter in the Rockies. Now I have been on backing trips where someone has forgotten a piece of their tent, poles, fly, or maybe the whole tent. If you forgot everything maybe just pack up head home and think about your life choices. However, in any circumstance that you end up without a tent in the woods, not all is lost. While sleeping out under the stars is possible in the Rockies you may find yourself faced with oncoming storms or the weather is already bad. Knowing a few survival skills like building a shelter can come in handy.
Building natural improvised shelters from materials around you is not that hard. In this particular case, I am going to cover building a lean-to. I know the structure in the picture looks like a teepee but, what I built in the Lost Creek Wilderness was actually a lean-to in a wiki-up style. A lean-to is defined as a structure supported on one side by a tree or posts with an inclined roof. These can be built in all different shapes and sizes. With the primary motive to be protecting you from the elements and keeping you warm.
Lean-tos and other improvised shelters have been used to protect man from the elements really for as long as time goes back. The idea of a caveman in a cave only existed where there were actually caves. All other populations had to rely on their ingenuity, or die. While these structures have been around for a very long time we have seen them here in America as recent as in the American West post civil war.
Although known for their signature teepees, several Native American tribes lived in more permanent structures like Lean-tos and Wiki-ups. I have built several natural shelters to sleep in over the years and a lean-to is by far the easiest to build. To start building one you need to find a steady tree, post or rock (support piece).
From there you will need some small to medium (6 to 10 ft.) deadfall trees to begin leaning against your support piece. You have the option here to start lashing these poles to your support piece if you have rope and you feel that wind and weather may knock your structure down. You want to keep in mind that you will be laying down pine boughs and vegetation onto these beams later so spacing is important. I would say your small poles need to be spaced no more than 2 feet apart.
Next line the bottom of the lean-to with larger logs or rocks to help break the wind and prevent the poles from falling. You also have an option to work in a fire pit with a chimney at this point. NOTE* do not be an idiot here. You need to make sure your fire pit has a large area for the smoke to escape and it isn’t close enough to anything to set it on fire. Seriously, dying from smoke inhalation or Carbon Monoxide poisoning would be all too easy. Going down in a fiery ball of flames in a backcountry shelter you built sounds kind of cool, but let’s avoid that ok? Something else to consider is building your fire pit with large rocks on one end to help throw the heat towards your sleeping area. I decided to leave a 3 foot by 4-foot hole directly above my fire pit and it worked great.
Start placing smaller branches and poles (2 to 4 ft.) as cross members on your medium sized poles mentioned above. These will serve to help hold your roof onto the structure. Now you need to start gathering pine boughs to create your roof. You should not go and cut all the boughs off one or two trees. Take from several surrounding established trees. Only take one or two lower boughs from each tree and avoid smaller trees. Once you have a large pile of boughs next to your shelter start layering them onto the outside bottom of your shelter. Then
work up in successive layers until you have covered the entire shelter. This should help keep sun, rain, and snow off you. Start a fire, throw down your sleeping bag, and enjoy sleeping in a warm shelter all night. Ours was large enough to sleep three and since we weren’t worried about rain only a light covering of boughs were placed on top with no real regard to the order of placement. I think that you will agree that the result was a nice home away from home. – MU
Photos by Alexis Ortega