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Emergency Shelter and Protection From The Elements
The famous survival "rule of 3's" dictates that you can only last 3 hours without shelter. While I'm pretty sure that most of us have sat on park benches for longer than that without any consequence, there is definitely some merit to this saying. In the harshest of conditions (both hot and cold), it certainly holds true. And in several other conditions, while the elements may not kill you in exactly 3 hours, it can still happen quickly.
Your defense against the elements needs to include forethought and a few different critical components.
Cold Weather Clothing - Your First Line of Defense
When people think about emergency shelters, they usually think about underground bunkers or off grid cabins in the mountains. However, the first line of defense with emergency shelter is actually your clothing.
The clothing you wear protects you from the elements, be they heat, cold, wet, or dry. When disaster strikes, it would be great if you were already dressed to best handle the situation, but if not, you should at least make sure that you have some comfortable clothes set aside that can protect you from the elements. After all, many of us could be wearing a uniform at work, dress clothes church, workout clothes, or any other number of things.
For most of us reading this, that means that we need to have some winter clothes ready to go. In the upper and lower latitudes, the temperature lows on many nights out of the year can be life threatening. A beanie, gloves, good socks, boots or other good footwear, and a sturdy jacket are mainstays (of all these, a beanie and good socks in particular!).
As opposed to having a some elaborate bug out retreat in the woods, having good winter clothes ready to go is a very minimal and safe "investment" to make in terms of shelter. Even if a crazy emergency never befalls you, having some extra warm clothes is always a good idea.
Sleeping Bag, Bivy, or Other Sleep System
After your clothing, the next closest layer of "shelter" is a place to sleep. In an emergency situation, a sleeping bag is the simplest and easiest version of this. Compact, portable, and versatile for several situations, sleeping bags are designed to keep you warm and comfortable when you don't have a bed.
Hypothermia and its relatives are a much faster killer than starvation or dehydration, so you should budget your money and backpack space accordingly. Because of the dangers of "the elements", and the importance of keeping your body temperature right, this is an area that is worth spending a little money on. It's also worthy of a significant amount of space in your bug out bag or your home or car preps.
Tents - If You Have the Money and Space
Like a sleeping bag, a tent is a makeshift shelter in the absence of a better one. It falls slightly lower on the list than a sleeping bag, because it is less immediately responsible for regulating your body temperature. If you could have your choice of a sleeping bag but no tent, or a tent but no sleeping bag, I would choose the former every time.
Still, if you have the money and the space to keep/carry it, a tent is a great addition to your sheltering preps. They provide protection from sun, rain, and bone chilling wind. Not to mention that they keep some critters at bay (mosquitos, spiders, rodents).
In addition to the physical shelter that tents provide, there is just something psychological about being able to shut out the world. It's easier to relax and sleep when you can feel like there is at least some barrier between you and everything else.
Another critical aspect of protecting yourself from the elements in a survival situation is the ability to make a fire. The heat of a fire can keep you warm in freezing temps. It can also act as a signal, and ward off animals. And, as was mentioned above with tents, a fire can also provide a comforting psychological boost. A warm, crackling fire helps you relax and remain calm.
When it comes to getting a fire going, there's pretty much no substitute for a lighter. What kind of lighter? How about a regular-ass, plain ol' Bic lighter that comes from the grocery store check stand? Yep, the kind that you can get in a 3 pack for a couple bucks.
Of course there are fancier versions of this, such as the lighters with the longer necks and triggers. These can be nice to keep your fingers from getting burnt. But the reality is this--when you are in a survival situation, the point is, you want to have a fire, be it by whatever means it comes.
Matches are the next easiest fire implement. Simple and fast-working, they are not something that requires a lot of fuss. Strike, light, and burn.
They do present some obvious downsides however. The first is that you have a limited time to transfer the flame--maybe 5 seconds. If you can't get your tinder or kindling started in this time, you're out of luck (except you probably have a bunch of matches, so you have a bunch of chances).
Matches can also get wet, if your gear becomes submerged in water, or it's exposed to a serious rainstorm. You can easily waterproof some matches in paraffin wax, but it's another step and a slight vulnerability.
Even with these downsides however, matches are too cheap and easy not to include. If you end up not using them, you will only have wasted a dollar and perhaps a tiny handful of space.
Flint and Steel Fire Strikers
Flint and steel type strikers are more difficult and take longer to use than lighters, but they do have some advantages. The biggest is that they don't require any fuel. You will never "run out" of a striker to get your fire started. This means you have endless chances to get your fire started.
Unlike matches, they will also work when they are wet. They can be dipped in the river a hundred times and be fine.
The big downside with fire strikers is that they are difficult to use. They require some experience, lots of prep time to get your tinder and kindling right, and a bit of finessed technique. These are all things that you might not want to mess with when you need to get a fire going quickly.
All things considered though, it's worth having a trusty fire striker in your preps. Like matches and lighters, these fire strikers are just important enough, cheap enough, and small enough that it would be stupid to omit them.
Of course, it should be mentioned here that you will probably not be using actual "flint" to strike your spark. Flint is a naturally occurring mineral, and extremely rare. You will probably be using one of the cheaper, commercially available fire strikers that you can find in big box stores or on Amazon.
Bug Out Shelters
At the far end of the spectrum, a bug out shelter is the ultimate in emergency shelters. They offer permanent, sturdy protection from the elements (as well as critters and 2-footed threats).
Building a bug out shelter takes forethought, time, and of course, money, so it is not something that will materialize in a day or a week. There are also a million different flavors of what a bug out shelter is--each with their own set of pros and cons, and a group of fans on the internet.
Some people's version of a bug out shelter is a fortress in the mountains. Other folks like the idea of having a bunker, or something subterranean. There are vaults, storm shelters, concrete culverts, and purpose-built shelters to buy underground. Other people rave about the idea of using a shipping container as a shelter (although I think by now, most people realize that it's not recommended to bury them).
I think the smartest way to incorporate a "bug out shelter" in your life is to find a property that can double as a nice vacation getaway, for you to enjoy with your family and friends. If the shit ever hits the fan so bad that you need it, it's there. If not, you still have a great vacation property that can be enjoyed, sold for a profit someday (hopefully), or transferred within your family.
In addition to the "vacation getaway as a retreat" concept, another one that I think deserves particular attention is the idea of converting a storage shed into a bug out shelter. For several years, people have been converting Tuff Shed type storage sheds into livable spaces. And while they might not be the most comfortable or defensible (and certainly not the most spacious), they are pretty affordable. They can be ordered online or at a big box store like Home Depot or Lowes, and delivered to your location.
If you find yourself in the enviable position of having the money to spend on a dedicated backup shelter, you are a lucky soul indeed. Still, with some planning and prioritized action, it is possible for most people make this a reality (notice I mentioned the word "prioritized").