After 70 or so kilometers of travel, humping a 100 pound large Alice pack over mountainous terrain for the previous several days and living on minimal food I was a walking zombie. I had just finished navigating my small element to a road intersected by a large river, “Sgt this is our point”. Our Cadre looked us over then took off walking down the road. The concept was foreign to us, we hadn’t walked trails or roads for the past week. We followed after him at a trot our Alice packs squeaking. “If we move quickly we might leave today” the Cadre said in a nonchalant manner. Elation surged through me. Another phase down in SERE Specialist Training. We hit our rally point a half mile down the road and found some other elements from my class leaving in a truck with very minimal gear and sour expressions. Psychological warfare at its finest. We were rolling directly into a 4 day solo evasion living exercise.

I cannot recall the exact list of items I was allowed to take with me on my solo evasion exercise but it was something akin to the following; USAF Survival Knife, Leatherman, 8-gores from a C-9 emergency parachute (common in ACES II ejection seats), Line kit (10 lines of 6 foot 550 cord, and 10 lines of 15 foot 550 cord), Sleeping bag and bivvy, And several other misc items. We’d had a similar exercise during SERE Specialist Selection though less intense. The point of these exercises is that in a survival situation whatever you have on you is all you have. Improvisation is key to ensure your survival in many cases.

SERE Survival | Finding Shelter
Shelter made during the Coastal phase of training utilizing driftwood.

You need to first determine a need. When I first got out to my area for solo survival during SERE Specialist Selection I had little cover from the sun and would likely expire from heat exhaustion unless I got a shelter erected to protect myself. Once the need is determined you should inventory those possessions that you have and also look at the environment to see what it has to offer. Your manmade items are limited, however nature provides a variety of resources available to you in order to build a shelter. In certain tropical climates for example banana leaves can be used very effectively to shield you from the rain. Once you’ve seen what you have and what nature offers you need to select an option that is going to be a good use of time, materials and energy. If I find myself in terrible weather with pelting rain and I’m going to make a more expedient, simple shelter than if I find myself in a survival situation in the early afternoon in good weather. The same goes for the situation I found myself in after rucking through the mountains. I was exhausted. Be realistic with how much energy you can spare and don’t try and make yourself a mansion.

SERE Survival | Finding Shelter
Shelter made during Familiarization phase of SERE Specialist Training. Framework was made of branches at a 60 degree angle then built from the bottom up utilizing boughs from trees.

Make sure when you plan your shelter you make something that is safe and durable. A shelter that collapses on you and kills you is a hell of a way to go. In general there are two types of materials you can use to make a shelter; permeable and non-permeable to water. The parachute I used to make my shelter during selection was a permeable material. To help ensure that water won’t get through you can do two things.

  • Pitch (Angle of the material 45 to 60 degrees)
  • Tightness

Together these two elements will help ensure that water will not get through the permeable material and it works quite well. With non-permeable materials such as a poncho or rain tarp, pitch and tightness are important however be careful not to over-tighten the material to the point where it tears. Make sure you build your shelter on flat terrain unless you like sliding down a mountain while sleeping, be near water but not so close that you get annihilated by insects. I prefer 300 meters.

SERE Survival | Finding Shelter
Shelter made during SERE Specialist Selection by a buddy when he went through. Notice usage of parachute and how pitch and tightness are used very well. Also of note are the rather large stakes which I wouldn’t recommend, but which we were instructed to make in order to make us work harder.
SERE Survival | Finding Shelter
My shelter site when I went through utilizing the same shelter though at an earlier time.

I survived both solo living exercises because they weren’t going to let me die but also because I made a shelter that protected myself from the environment. This helped me maintain that 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Be smart and safe – building a survival shelter has been the deciding factor between life and death for many people. What’s going to help you most is being prepared. Having a tarp or poncho in your bag is essential regardless of the weather.


This article is courtesy of Mike Jones from The Loadout Room.