Emergency Shelters

There may come a time when you have to spend a night out that you hadn’t planned on.  It may be because of weather, darkness, injury or more commonly, getting lost!  Regardless of the cause you are now faced with nine or ten hours of discomfort at best and, at worst, the loss of your life because of your lack of preparedness for the event.

No one wants to spend a cold, wet, hungry, lonely night out away from family and friends but it happens!   And it happens all to frequently.  It happens to both to the experienced and the novice – none are immune from the possibility of having to survive cold temperatures, high winds and precipitation sitting under a tree waiting for the sun come up the next morning.  It is more likely that the experienced person will be better equipped and ready for a night out. It is also true that more experienced people, based on their know-how and past successes are prone to over-estimating their skills and abilities to spend a night out and underestimate the impact of the environment and the weather on their ability to survive.

On the other hand, novices, ignorant of the hazards they might face, venture of into the wilderness blissfully ignorant of the dangers that they are exposing themselves to.  And, when confronted with the setting sun and the realization of a long, cold night ahead, are terrified by both real and imagined dangers.

Protection from the environment begins with the choices you make at home before you depart.  The selection of both the clothing you will wear and have available and the selection of the equipment you will have with you.   Your clothing must keep you dry and warm when you are inactive!  The equipment you carry must include a means to shelters yourself from the weather conditions and other environmental hazards (insects) that could threaten your life.

For those of you that believe that you will be able to find a cave or other protected nook to take refuge in or that you can build some form of improvised shelter from natural materials that will keep you warm and dry you had better think again!  Let me set the record straight.  Survival experiences often begin at the end of the day, as the sun is setting.  The need for additional shelter only becomes apparent when it is already snowing or raining.   It takes time, skill and natural resources to build a shelter using whatever natural materials are available.  It also takes a fully ambulatory person to be able to erect the kinds of survival shelters that are advocated in most survival books and articles.   These are criteria that are hard, if not impossible to meet and it is because of these criteria that I encourage all outdoor people to carry with them waterproof, wind proof sheltering material that they can either crawl into for protection or crawl under.


Ever since the Luna Lander, with its Mylar skin, set foot on the moon “Space Blankets” have been promoted as the solution to the survival shelter problem.  They are lightweight, inexpensive and provide the person in trouble with the protection they need to survive until rescued – or so the manufacturers would have you believe!  The realty is something very different!   Space blankets, and bags, are made from Mylar plastic or Polyester.  They come packaged in everything fro heavy-duty vinyl plastic to cardboard boxes that disintegrate quickly when they become wet.   According to the information given on the container the material “reflects back 90% of the body’s heat!” 

Let’s look at the pluses and the minuses.


–       Light weight.  Where weight is an issue, and it always is, the ounces that a space blankets weighs is often a criteria that tips the scale in favor of it being selected.

–       Compact.  Space Blanket material is very thin and can be compressed into a small package that is easily carried in a survival kit, vest or pocket of a jacket.

–       Barrier. The fabric does make a good barrier as long as it is intact.

–       Can be used for uses other than sheltering

–       Insulation.  Space Blanket material enables the survivor to trap some of the heat that the body is producing within the cocoon created by blanket


–       Light weight.   Because it is made from a very thin material it is easily punctured, and once punctured tears very easily

–       Compact.  The thinness of the material and the many folds needed to make it as compact as possible create a problem for the survivor – the need for the use of both hands to open the blanket and to unfold it.   A cold, injured survivor who only has the use of hand or arm would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to open the packaging, spread out the material and then wrap it around their body.

–       Barrier.   Assuming that they were able to wrap up in the blanket the blanket is an effective barrier against the wind and precipitation.  This assumes that the survivor is able to constantly hold the edges together.

–       Insulation.   Space Blankets provide no inherent insulation.  Rather they help to minimize heat loss as long as the material is intact and the survivor is able to hold the edges of the bag together.

–       Noisy.   The materials used to manufacturer Space Blankets are very noisy when moved.  So much so that when the blanket is placed over your head (as it should be to minimize heat loss from the head and neck) it becomes impossible to hear because of the constant crackling of the fabric as it is moved either by the survivor or by wind.   Survivors have reported not hearing the approach of rescue aircraft because of the noise.  In addition, my own experience with Space Blankets convinces me that, because of the noise, psychologically, it would be very difficult to remain enveloped in the bag for very long.

So if Space Blankets aren’t the answer what other commercial options are available.

Thermal Blankets are a tougher version of the Space Blanket.  They come in a variety of colors, blue/silver, red/silver, camouflage/silver etc., and have grommets in each corner.  Fiberglass threads reinforce the fabric making it much more resistant to tearing and if punctured, are not as likely to tearing.  As with all “blankets” Thermal blankets require the use of both hands to pull the material around your body and the use of at least one hand to hold it together.   Thermal blankets are not large enough to provide the average sized adult sufficient protection from precipitation.

Plastic Tube tents are available in two thicknesses and can be used either as a “pull over” shelter or can be used as a tent by running a line through the tube and tying the line off on either end to an anchor.   The one-mil thick, yellow variety often found in commercial survival kits is very flimsy and tear easily. They are best used as a pullover shelter.   The larger, heavier variety sold under the Coghlan’s brand can be used as either a pull-over cover however are better used as a pup-tent style shelter.

International orange or blue, heavy-duty plastic bags are the best of all of the materials and styles of shelters available to the potential survivor.  Sportsmen’s Warehouse, Kmart, Wal-Mart and other similar stores  occasionally sell these bags. They are also available from www.outdoorsafe.com


–       Tough enough to withstand a lot of abuse.

–       Very visible to searchers

–       Inexpensive – usually $2 – $3 each

–       Large enough to cover an adult

–       Quiet

–       Totally waterproof and wind proof

–       Versatile – the bag can be used for many uses other than shelter

–       Lightweight


–       A little bulky

–       Heavier than a space blanket

–       Hole to exhale through must be cut

Regardless of which emergency shelter you select TEST IT!  Wait until you have some really miserable weather in your backyard and then, wearing the clothing that you would typically wear on an outing, go out into the wind, cold temperatures and wet and test your shelter.   Evaluate the shelters ability to keep you warm and dry through a night out!   If it works there it will probably work when your life is on the line.  But if it doesn’t work in your backyard start looking for something better because it surely won’t work in a real world survival situation.






This Post Has 7 Comments

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  2. This hits most of the basic food groups concerning “portable” sheltering. I bought several of the large plastic bags last year – both orange ones and blue ones (blue being more visible in the woods in the fall when everything else is orange) – and have used them twice as shelters when caught in sudden rainstorms. I also carry several 3 mil 55-gallon trashbags (from Lowes, Home Depot, etc) but while they are heavy enough for sheltering, they are not large enough. I use the 55 gallon bags as a complement for the OutdoorSafe bags – as ground cloths, as something in which to keep my feet dry while the larger bag covers my head, torso, and most of my legs), or as an extra insulating layer under the larger bag.

    The standard space blankets are a waste of time. As noted they tear very easily – a problem in the woods – and they are so noisy that they make it difficult to sleep. You need rest in a stress situation, and the space blankets are not helpful in that regard. The space blankets do make very effective reflectors for use around a fire.

    I saw a YouTube video where a space blanket was glued – using 3M spray adhesive – to a WalMart nylon tarp. I now carry such a modified tarp and use that as a basic element in my shelter. Spread between trees (there are lots of YouTube videos on how to handle tarps) the tarp provides the outer layer of protection against water, snow, etc. Under the tarp – there I am – in a big OutdoorSafe plastic bag, lying on my 55 gallon bags – drr and warm.

    The whole arrangement – WalMart tarp modified with a space blanket, two OutdoorSafe bags, four 55 gallon bags, paracord, six NiteIze clamps, and four ABS tent pegs – fits in the two larger pockets of my cargo pants or in one outer pocket on my medium and large backpacks.

    The key ingredient is the OutdoorSafe bag.

    I also carry a TubeTent on most trips, but use that to protect gear instead of me. They are not especially rugged and will tear when you’re crawling in and out or moving around inside. My gear doesn’t move that way so the tube tent becomes a long plastic bag. It works very well in that regard.

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