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Lost In The Woods? Here's How To Stay Warm And Dry Overnight

Christopher Biddle
Primitive skills instructor Marie DiBenedetto stands beside the emergency shelter she constructed.

The weather has finally turned colder. The fall foliage makes it a great time to get into the woods after work for a nice late evening walk. But what would happen if you got lost and had to spend the night?

Marie DiBenedetto is a primitive skills instructor and youth mentor at Earthwalk Vermont in Plainfield. She gave Vermont Edition a lesson in how to build an emergency debris shelter out of twigs and branches that will keep you warm and safe.

"Typically you wouldn't want to get yourself in a situation where you'd need to build a debris shelter," says  DiBenedetto. "But you never know. Sometimes you're on a casual walk in the woods, and it's getting dark and you're lost, and the best you could do to keep yourself safe is to build a debris shelter. Luckily here in the northeast we have all the materials we need to stay warm and dry in that situation."

DiBenedetto encourages shelter builders to maintain their positive attitude, as well as keep in mind the "five w's" of shelter building: wind, water, wildlife, widowmaker and weather.

"This is a good shelter spot because we're above ground on the crest of a hill, and so I know that if we get a serious rain storm it's not gonna come wash away my shelter and I'm not gonna wake up in a pool of water," says DiBenedetto. "Thinking about the natural wind direction of a place. I'm looking around for signs of wildlife. Definitely if I see bear or coyote scat I don’t wanna sleep there."

"Looking up to make sure there are no widowmakers - I do not want a tree to fall on me while I'm trying to sleep,"
-Marie DiBenedetto, primitive skills instructor

"Looking up to make sure there are no widowmakers. I do not want a tree to fall on me while I'm trying to sleep," says DiBenedetto.

"And the fifth W I'm looking for is water.  I'm making sure  that I'm near a water source if I would need water. But I don't want to be too close to the water source because it could be breeding mosquitoes. Animals will be attracted to that spot.

"You want your shelter to be pretty small, just a little bit larger than your body because you want to utilize all of your body heat and trap it in," says DiBenedetto. "So you want to find a notch that is around your waist level I would say would be appropriate for a ridge pole."

The ridge pole should be a foot or a couple feet taller than your body size. It will serve as the backbone for your shelter.

The ribs are shorter sticks that you are going to lay diagonally on your ridge pole. "You, you know if you can picture human ribs that's what you want  to create on the sides of your shelter. So you'll start with small sticks that are just a few inches and then they'll get taller as you move up towards the notch of the tree," says DiBenedetto.

"After that you're just going to want to start piling as many leaves and sticks as you can. From the tip of your middle finger to your armpit," says DiBenedetto. "That's about the thickness of leaves that you want. And you just pile, pile leaves you'll be tired of piling leaves and you just keep piling some more."

"It's just really cool to be able to go out into the woods, any woods in all of New England, and you have everything you need right there to stay warm and stay dry," - Marie DiBenedetto

The shelter-building process will take a few hours, and thus it will keep you preoccupied. "So there’s the psychological aspect of it, of giving you something to do for a few hours so you’re not sitting there freaking out saying, ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! I’m lost I’m never going to get out of here," says DiBenedetto.

"It’s just really cool to be able to go out into the woods, any woods in all of New England, and you have everything you need right there to stay warm and stay dry," says DiBenedetto.

"It won't be as comfortable as your own bed, but you definitely won't get in a situation where you're suffering from hypothermia, and you can stay very warm in a debris shelter overnight."

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