You’ll notice I’ve used the words Emergency Shelter here, not tents. That’s because shelters are nothing like tents. They’re only really there useful in an emergency, or to get out of the wind for ten minutes. You can also slide down wet grass slopes on some of the tougher Emergency Shelters.
Emergency shelters are mostly used when you’ve completely messed up. Either you’re tent’s broken, blown away, or you’ve ended up in the wrong place in the wrong weather and can’t put it up.
There are a few types of non-tent shelter.
Personal Bivouac Shelters
At it’s basic, emergency shelters can just been a bivvy bag (personal bivouac shelter, or bivvy). These are big plastic bags that are almost always bright orange. They’re meant to get you a bubble of warm air and dryness around your sleeping back. You’re face still sticks out, so it can be pretty morale zapping, but it’s a lot better than nothing.
Divvy bags are designed to take one person. If all is calm enough they’re great for running a ‘wet and dry routine.’ This is where you keep one set of clothes in ziplock bags deep inside your bergen until you’re reading to get your head down. You then whisk off your sodden gear from the day, put on the dry stuff and get in to your sleeping bag/bivvy bag combo.
You can also use these as a way of reheating someone with hypothermia. If you can get out of the wind and both squeeze in, it gets toast pretty damn fast. It’s a bit tight, but that’s the idea.
There are other non-standard uses for divvy bags. For example giving your sleeping back an extra layer of waterproofing if you’re going to sleep in a lean-to. It can be used to make your bergen float – more useful than it seems if you’re trying to ford a river. Probably best not to keep your food in there though as it tends to get quite rank.
One step up from basic Emergency Shelters is the bivouac itself. This is a temporary emergency shelter which you kind of whittle together on the fly.
You can make it out of bushes, branches and ferns, but that takes time. You’ll probably need about 1 or 2 hours and a local supply of materials to make one. Also, if you can do this you’re probably in a forest or lower slopes. Probably you’re not actually in the sh*t – spend the time trying to get out unless you really can’t.
But if you can’t (say someone’s injuries), then building a bivouac can be effective. Concentrate on three things: wind direction, pooling of water and water run-off. Essentially you want a dry bum, a dry head and to be out of the cold wind.
Alternatively, hike out of the forest to the nearest bothy/pub instead. It’ll feel better.
The Group Shelter is a large nylon bag which you can pull over a few people and give them some rest for the rain. Best way to use them is to get the tallest members of the group and stick them in the corners. They then act as posts in four-post bed style, and hold the material off everyone else’s head.
Of course, you don’t need to have them stand there awkwardly. They can sit and this still works, or you can use kit bags.
These shelters are amazingly effective. They’re can be put in up seconds in a howling gale, and can get a bubble of warmth around you seconds later. If you happen to also be out of the wind it can be quite snug. Guess that’s why penguins do it.
As well as the benefit to your core temperature, group shelters are also great for morale. It will completely turn around a miserable, cold, tired and wet situation. You end up feeling more like a cohesive group, more optimistic and end up in better physical shape next morning or after the storm.
Couple of words of warming though. Never cook anything under it – you’ll die. Either you’ll be overcome by carbon monoxide, or will have your face melted off.
Second is, check that it’s big enough for everyone. If it’s not, someone is going to have be be left outside, or a few of you will need to take turns. Alternatively if you try to squeeze everyone in, there’s a good chance you’ll poke a hole in the fabric and it’ll rip, making it useless.
Bivouac shelters can also be used along with the group shelter, for double benefit. If you happen to have both along and need to deploy them, there’s a good chance that nothing the Scottish weather can throw at you will get through. You really will be bomb-proof.
There is a half way house between all of these that actually works very well, and is a favourite of the British Armed Forces.
If you have access to two short sticks, some paracord or bungee and some tent pegs, and have brought with you a couple of ponchos, then it’s perfectly possible to make a bivvy almost anywhere, in no time at all. The sticks are the uprights, each poncho is one side of the tent shape, and the paracord holds it down. Stick your packs in the openings, a ground sheet down and get in your sleeping bag + bivvy bag combo, and your set. This is the way the armed forces usually camp when out and about as a matter of choice.
In many ways it’s much better than a tent in that sort of situation. If you’re camping for a few nights it can be a bit rubbish as it’s way more windy and wet than a normal tent. Good skill to have, though.
Wouldn’t be tempted to wear the ponchos as ponchos though – they’re truly awful as waterproofs.