Bushcraft and Wilderness Survival vs. Long-Term Wilderness Living (Part 6-Gear Selection: Shelter for Scout Kit)

by Justin Lowthorp on June 10, 2020

This section will just be on the temporary shelters we might choose to carry into the field with us. The tools and materials for building permanent camps will be covered in future posts under the subjects of general tools and materials. I have two basic kits I head out with; my scout kit which I use for exploring new areas or on overnight hunting excursions, and my long-term kit which consists of cache items. 

In this post we'll cover our scout kit. There are 3 basic components to a shelter system; the ground cloth to prevent moisture from rising from below, your insulation in the form of blankets or a sleeping bag and perhaps some kind of pad and lastly, the outer membrane to protect you from the above ground elements. Depending on the environment and time of year, you might substitute the ground cloth for a hammock.

For the ground cloth, it needs to be more than just water resistant. This is where modern, man-made materials are very beneficial. Many types of treated canvas will still have moisture seep through, such as tent canvas. If using a treated canvas, the best in my experience is a tightly woven waxed canvas. If you experience some leaks, a lot of times applying heat will reseal those areas.

A coated canvas, such as a rubber, silicone or vinyl backed tarp would be my next choice. These are very heavy though but are by far the most durable. To use a straight vinyl or plastic ground cloth would be very short lived, they have no durability and are very susceptible to the slightest rock, twig, root or seed. The ground cloth needs to be very robust and because of this, it will have a lot of weight per surface area.

The best considering weight, durability, waterproof-ness and repair-ability is the waxed canvas. Due to the weight of the material, only have enough that will cover the floor of your tent or tarp shelter. A 6'x8' or 7'x7' is a good size for your sleeping area and gear. If you need smaller, simply fold it. Better to have a little too much than not enough. The edge should have grommets at least every 2' to stake down and to use as a pack system, which is how I like to set up my frame pack. Multi-functionality is a must to keep the weight down, especially when building a robust scout kit.

Continuing from the ground up, next would be some kind of pad. Instead of a dedicated mat of some type (which are quite bulky if they are in the slightest effective), I prefer a browse bed. It is a simple bag made from light-weight canvas that you stuff leaf litter, grass or some other type of debris into. It looks like a giant pillowcase and makes a great mattress and when not in use, an additional storage bag.

If you do not wish to carry the additional material for a browse bed, there is another way to make a good mattress out in the field. It is not as quick to set up as the browse bed, but it will work about as good. Go to the area where you'll collect your litter and clear the ground bare, enough to completely lay out your ground cloth. Pile as much litter as you can onto it, being sure to pick out any sticks, rocks, pine cones, etc., and carry it to your site in which you'll camp.

Next, dump it out and shape it to the size needed for a mattress. Gather more litter if needed and then lay your ground cloth over it. Do not center it but leave it to one side as much as possible so you have an area for your gear parallel to the mattress area. Then line the edge of the litter pile with large stones or 4 logs holding down the sides of the ground cloth on the edge of the leveled out litter pile. 

Pull tight the ground cloth from under the logs or stones to keep everything tight and in place forming a frame to hold all the litter together. You can also just make the frame, pile litter into it and the lay the ground cloth over it, tucking the edges under the litter like a fitted sheet. If you try to sleep on litter without some method of containing it, it will work it's way out from under you while you sleep and before too long you will be sleeping on the hard ground with no cushion beneath you.

In the warm, dry months when all I carry is a wool blanket and 2 sheets (1 sheer, 1 high thread count), I use the above method without the browse bed or ground cloth. After all the litter is within the frame, I tuck the wool blanket like a fitted sheet and then lay high thread count sheet over it and this is my mattress. If I know it is not going to rain, instead of laying the sheer sheet directly on me, I make a little tent with it to give me breathing space and to keep out the bugs.

With that, let us now cover our blankets and, if needed, our sleeping bag. My foundational kit no matter the weather is a wool blanket, 2 sheets (1 sheer and 1 high thread count). I always carry the wool due to it's thickness for use in the litter mattress above, for sudden cold showers, to use in combination with my tarp to make an insulated shelter, or for wrapping my sleeping bag in very cold weather along with countless other uses.

The sheer sheet I use for over top of me in warm weather, a Bedouin-style cloak for the desert sun, a shade for over my sleeping area or tarp shelter, a towel, you name it. The high thread count sheet I use as a barrier between me and the wool blanket, a wind block, a water filter, hauling leaf litter, a fanny or day pack tied about the waist, again a multitude of uses. Truly, sheets of cloth are about the most utilitarian items you can have in the wilderness.

Depending on the time of year I will then add either an additional wool blanket, a quilt or both. Lastly is a sleeping bag, or if you want to go a more traditional route, furs. Ultralight sleeping bags will not last. Selecting your bag based on the record low temperatures in your home territory is always the safest bet, though certainly not the lightest.

Military issue bags are an excellent choice. I prefer a rectangular design so I can have some leg room or have the ability to use it as a blanket if I need to share my sleeping space. Whatever I choose, I try to keep it as least bulky as possible while being robust and adequately warm.

If using furs, they need to be actual fur, not hair (with a few exceptions). Deer hides shed profusely and are prone to mites. Bear, buffalo and sheep would be my first choices, though a bag lined with coyote of wolf sounds quite nice. If I was to carry furs (I plan to eventually), I would prefer them incorporated into my clothing. With that I would not even bother with a sleeping bag.

Going back to the subject of clothing, I always wear on me what I would need if I had to sleep out that night without any bedding. Bedding should be considered a luxury in all honesty. A good, lightweight sleeping system should take into account utilizing your clothing. 

Lastly is the outer membrane to protect us from the above ground elements. For a scout kit, a trap is hard to beat for it's variety, utility, ease of repair and set up, and weight. I see quite frequently people using far too small of a tarp to protect from precipitation. What is the point of setting up a tarp against the rain if it will blow in at your head and feet? I would not carry anything smaller than a 10'x10' tarp.

My favorite materials are waxed light-weight canvas or high thread count cotton oil cloth that has beeswax incorporated into the treatment. I am currently working on a design that uses Egyptian cotton (1,000 thread count), reinforced with mule tape and treated with a mixture of beeswax, flax-seed oil and turpentine.

If using waxed canvas, do not be convinced that edge grommets are a bad idea. If the edges are reinforced and properly sewed along with heavy grommets installed every 2' minimum, it will function fine and last as long as the material. In either my tarp or ground cloth, the more grommets the better. This will allow for them to be functional for far more uses than just shelter.

If you are going to use a tent for your scout kit, do not use a conventional lightweight backpacking tent. A small Baker style or Lavvu made from light waxed canvas is your best option. Poles can be cut when needed.

A hammock is a great option in warm and(or) wet weather. For speed of set up when combined with a tarp, it is hard to beat. If you use a hammock, a net one might sound high speed and ultra-utilitarian but it is a poor choice for sleeping. A net hammock can be useful as a "survival" gill-net, for hanging gear and supplies away from critters or to haul resources. Remember though; if it is warm enough for hammocks, it is warm enough for bugs. A nylon 2 person hammock with a no-see-um grade mosquito net is by far the best choice.

With a 2 person hammock you can extent it's use into the cold months by using your browse bed in it. A LOT of heat is lost on the bottom side of the hammock due to it being so exposed to the air, which is why it is so great for the warm months. In the cold months to use your hammock, you need more insulation under you than you would for on top.

Line it with your ground cloth, toss on your browse bed then one of your wool blankets and sheet. Then hop in dressed for winter in fresh clothes (minus the boots) and put the remainder of your bedding on top of you. Pull the wool blanket and sheet under you up around your sides so that the extra is on top of all your blankets. Even in the winter time an attached mosquito net is handy, since it will help keep the blankets from spilling out.

Another way to help insulate to hammock is to build a tall crib of logs like you would for a log cabin fire lay under where your hammock will be set up. Make it tall enough for your hammock to completely hang down into it. Stake the corners inside and out of the crib where the logs overlap to keep it all in place, the same method many use when building a fire reflector or bed frame. Then fill the crib with litter and now when you get into the hammock, you have insulation and a windblock from the ground up.

For all these set-ups to work throughout this post, you need to bring adequate cordage. My favorite for the heavy lines is mule tape and for everything else, tarred mariner's line. Paracord is over-rated in my opinion. Pretty much everything it can be used for, tarred mariner's line would work better. Instead of getting paracord for smaller lines, I carry waxed nylon thread. It was far more uses than paracord guts.

In conclusion, I will list for you my ideal shelter kit:

Mule Tape - (2) 20' & (2) 10' lengths

Tarred Mariner's Line -  #36 (12) 6' & (1) 20' lengths

Waxed Oil Cloth Tarp - 14'x14' (Egyptian cotton-1,000 thread count) reinforced w/ mule tape, w/ ties every 3 1/2' (I know, it is huge, but for good reason)

Waxed Canvas Ground Cloth - 7'x7' w/ heavy rolled edge & grommets every 6" 

Browse Bed - 3'x7' light canvas bag w/button closures

Wool Blankets - (2) medium weight, similar to Italian military surplus

Cotton Sheets - (1) sheer & (1) high thread count, king size

Quilt - (1) medium weight, same size as wool blankets w/button closures to make a sleeping bag

Optional - Nylon 2 person hammock w/attached no-see-um grade mosquito net

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