Tactical Notes – Shelter

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Using a space blanket, ground cover, bivy sack/sleeping bag combo, and poncho as shelter

Using a space blanket, ground cover, bivy sack/sleeping bag combo, and poncho as shelter. Large rocks on the left are a natural barrier.

Shelter: Emergency Ultralight Alternatives

Carrying standard (heavier, bulkier) gear is an essential requirement for an overnight or multi-day hike. What about when you’re out for just a day? Are there other gear options?

Read on for a discussion of ultralight alternatives.

Space Sleeping Bag

Space Sleeping Bag

Space Sleeping Bag

An ultralight Space Sleeping Bag is an emergency substitute for a standard, nylon-shell/polyester-fill bag. A space bag folds into a compact 4x4x2 inch package, and only weighs 3 oz.

Pros: Compact and lightweight.

Cons: For emergency use only. Doesn’t breathe at all, will trap condensation if you’re not aware.

Care must be used because of general flimsy construction, is prone to punctures and tears.

Traps warmth, but is not as warm as a dedicated standard sleeping bag. Absolutely requires a ground pad or similar device between you, bag, and ground.

Abbreviated Ground Pad

A full-length or 3/4 length ground pad can be cut down, to say, one-half size to save space.

Pros: Can be folded and placed inside a pack because of smaller size. Gives one something to sit on.

Cons: For emergency use only. May not be long enough for comfortable long-term use.

Very small pads may be useful only to sit on, requiring you to lean back against a tree or other support with your legs bent. Works for survival/hypothermia prevention, but not the most comfortable sleeping or long-term position (try it and you’ll see what I mean).

Pocket Space Blanket


Pocket Space Blanket

An ultralight Pocket Space Blanket is an emergency substitute for a standard, heavy-duty space blanket. The pocket blanket folds into a compact 3×5 inch package, and only weighs 2 oz.

Pros: Saves space, one or two can be kept inside a pack. Silver reflective surface is useful for signalling.

Cons: For emergency use only. Thin silver-colored mylar film isn’t as durable as a regular space blanket’s reinforced fabric. Care must be taken against tears or punctures, not as effective when used as a ground cover. Not grommeted as are full-size space blankets.

Learning the Hard Way

Many of us have to learn things the hard way.

At one time, I went through a rather obsessive “ultra-ultra-light” phase. I decided the required individual shelter gear was too heavy and took up too much space in my pack.

Most SAR incidents were over and done with during the first 12-hr. period; I figured two pocket space blankets were all I needed. What the hay, if an overnight stay was required, a fire, bough-bed, and extra clothing would get me by. If a definite overnight was in the cards, I could always throw in extra shelter gear before responding.

All went well for a while (actually quite a while) until one incident that went unexpectedly awry. We had to spend the night due to a combination of darkness and treacherous terrain in a boulder field. No wood, no trees for boughs. Just a couple of pocket space blankets on cold rock, one under me and one over me. Fortunately it was clear and calm, but frigid. Spent a very miserable night until we could move again at first light. What a difference a ground pad, sleeping bag, and bivy sack would have made!

The incident was assessed at debriefing, and some questions came up. What if the stay was forced due to an injury to one of us? What if there had been wind, precipitation, or other environmental issues? We were taking unecessary chances. Why had no one taken the time to test the pocket space blankets for ultra-ultra minimum shelter use prior to the incident?

Hence, the minimum individual basic shelter requirement. Regular or ultra-light, your choice. Test it out first! You may not always need it, but if you do…

Minimum Basic Shelter

Displayed in the top picture is what I consider to be minimum basic shelter gear. As deployed, it keeps dew and rain off the user, and is reasonably stable in wind if staked low to the ground and sheltered by natural barriers.

Be a Human Tent

The bivy sack is shelter, wind-protection, and another layer of insulation. A bivy can be worn around you in a hurry, even sitting upright (with your posterior on the pad, up against a rock or tree or…). No time to stake out the poncho shelter-fashion? Wear it over the top of you poncho-fashion. Kinda like a tent.

Keep Yourself Well Grounded

The ground pad keeps you off the ground (and the cold). Anyone who’s ever spent a night outdoors sleeping on the ground can relate to this. Laying or sitting on the ground, without anything between you and the surface, is miserable. The fact that it’s hard and uncomfortable is bad enough, but the cold will permeate your body without care or reason, no matter how warmly you may be dressed.

Test it Out

You’re strongly encouraged to test your personal basic shelter gear. Sleep in it, in field conditions, and see what you think. Need more? Now’s the time to find out. As you start going on overnight hikes, let others sleep in the tent while you experience your basic gear. Fine tune as needed.

Why is a tent not on the list?

Simply stated, a tent’s not always necessary during the hiking season. Many dispense with an individual tent due to the weight. Groups may have one person carry a multi-person tent; others in the group plan on sharing the tent.

What if a group member gets separated from the main group? The lone member, if not equipped with minimum basic shelter gear, would have no shelter option, since the larger tent is carried by someone else.

Shelter Perils and Pitfalls

Getting shelter set up could be a challenge. A little shelter-deployment practice and preparation before your trip will help you overcome the following obstacles…

Shelter, Naturally-Enhanced

Shelter needs generally depend on the time of year and anticipated (or actual) weather. Conditions in the mountains, however, even in summertime, can be variable. Hot days that require sun protection readily turn into cool nights, and storms that equal fall or even winter weather may occur.

To augment your basic shelter gear, look for natural barriers that block wind and protect from rain and moisture.


A large coniferous tree (pine, fir, spruce) that has branches extending close to the ground is a quick source of shelter. The trunk and branches help shed rain, and provide protection from wind.

Look for a tree that has a tree well (large ground depression or sunken area at the tree’s base). The well’s funnel-shape gives extra protection.

Choose a healthy tree in a stand or group of other healthy trees, on a gradual (not steep) stable slope rather than a ridge-top (high winds, lightning) or terrain depression (colder temps, flooding).

Do not locate beneath rock outcrops, dead snags, unstable soil or ground-cover, or anything that will come down on top of you.

Be Visible

A shelter in an open area or clearing can be best seen by air or ground searchers. That’s the ideal situation. Most of the time, it’s not possible, such as when using the tree well or similar methods due to weather or environmental factors.

To offset this, Leave a static signal (bright article of clothing or equipment, or signal formation of rocks or loose wood) on the ground in an open area or clearing closest to your shelter. Be ready to move into the open if you hear aircraft.