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Article: Shelters, A History

Shelters, A History

Shelter. We humans need it. Not blessed with fur, fat or any of the other animal protective designs we are on our own; it's up to that big brain of ours to figure out how to deal with the elements. Or else we die. Our opposable thumbs certainly help.

My remarks are intended to cover the history of movable shelters. Not the stationary caves of prehistory, nor the permanent houses of people who had settled into an agricultural and husbandry sedentariness. Think hunter-gatherers such as mastodon hunters or our more recent bison hunters, who had to follow the herds. Or consider nomadic herders of the more recent domesticated livestock, who had to keep moving as grazing was depleted. 

Then there were the Traders, who travelled between far flung tribes long before hotels and inns came to be. Armies on the move had to carry their shelters. More recently explorers needed portable shelter. More recently still recreationists had to transport means of shelter-—think Henry Thoreau's canoe trips a century and a half ago. 

We have examples in post-literate times of nomadic shelters. The Yurt and the Tipi come to mind. Both were movable living quarters for whole families Yurts were transported in wheeled carts by horses. North American Indians, lacking the wheel, transported their tipis originally by dogs pulling the hide canopies on the supporting “lodge poles“ in Travois pulled along on the ground. (Tipis, and life itself, got far bigger with the advent of the European’s horses as they became available to the Indians-—a horse could pull a much bigger Lodge) Africans could build family sized dome shaped dwellings quickly from branches covered by boughs to shed rain. All such shelters featured open fire pits inside, with holes in the tops to evacuate smoke. While they could be assembled/built relatively quickly it was assumed the location of their placement was temporary-—until the grass gave out or the herds moved on.

One can assume these methods of sheltering extend back into prehistory. While movable, they usually stayed put for a while-—days or weeks. But some folks needed to move their location daily. Traders, or multi-day hunters ranging from a settled Encampment comprised of the shelters cited above. What did these men do for shelter. We can only guess, as the materials haven't survived. But my experience doing exactly the same thing draws forth some speculation. I'm betting on a carried-with-you Tarp, most likely of light-as-possible animal skin material. Pitched using sinew cordage. Fire out front. Far faster to deploy than bending saplings and covering with boughs. More waterproof. More wind proof. And can be used even where there aren't any handy saplings, boughs, and etc. The skin tarp would have been scraped very thin. It would be carefully, thinly, coated with cured fat for waterproofing, and to keep it from becoming moisture saturated. Or perhaps the tarp was constructed of tightly woven reeds. This tarp would be lighter weight and quicker drying (I would have designed it to hinge midway so that it could be more compact when carried vertically or horizontally on my skin or reed constructed backpack.) 

My point is this: people were smart back then. Brain size was the same as now. We modern folks enjoy the incremental increase in technological advancement, especially regarding synthetic materials. Then, folks had to be very clever with the “naturally” available materials around them. Muscle power moved these shelters. Weight mattered, so earth was the floor. And fire out front was essential, for both warmth and cooking.

Earth was the floor of the encampment shelters too. Perhaps some skin rugs or reed mats were deployed-—depending on livestock availability for transport. Otherwise no. Furthermore, fire inside full size encampment shelters prohibited complete flooring. Shelters with earthen floors endured for millennia. Same for the early permanent houses. As recently as our own pioneer days the Soddy house was common Soddy houses were dirt floored All these people thrived anyway. Or we wouldn't be here. 

I submit that “sealed” tents with sewn in floors have their origin in the Big Mountain and Arctic/Antarctic Expeditions that swept European and American adventurers a century or so ago These endeavors take place above timberline, and copious snow is a constant reality. Likewise high winds. Spindrift (wind blown snow) is a nuisance, a hazard in fact. Spindrift penetrates all but the most purpose-built shelters, covering and gumming up everything inside. Because of the spindrift menace carefully “sealed” tents, of necessity including a sewn-in floor, were created to combat it. A gradual physical decline was assumed on the part of participants. Much like a military campaign, one “survived” till it was over. No external heat, cramped quarters, etc. were accepted for the greater goal of accomplishing the mission. Participants learned to attempt to stay warm by eating lots of calories (internal heat production) and huddling in Expedition grade clothing inside Expedition grade sleeping bags inside expedition grade shelters. I admire and salute these tough, brave adventurers. 

As with many gear items in the early days of official Backpacking-—such as Expedition boots-—Expedition-style tents were thought of as required kit. Meaning floored, sealed tents. The boots gave way to much lighter versions. But while tents for us backpackers got lighter the floored and sealed features stuck. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of Backpacking took place below timberline. And mostly in summer. Those folks who winter camped persisted in using these tents even when an open front shelter with a fire out front would have been safer and much more comfortable I've always called it Cold Camping. And it is. 

Speaking of sheltering in winter, let's discuss Camping in Snow. In general, that is, not necessarily Expedition, terms. I once owned a Survival School. It was known as the Colorado School of Outdoor Living (CSOL). Being a Colorado entity, it specialized in cold weather survival. I taught hundreds of folks how to build snow caves, and snow trenches; the idea being to teach methods of survival in the event you find yourself in snow country without any artificial shelter. For example, you're on a simple day trip, without real camp stuff in your day pack, and get stuck in snow country, for whatever reason.

A properly built snow cave will maintain an internal temperature slightly above freezing no matter what the outside temperature is. (Note: I remember discovering that the “paper” experts recommendation to poke a hole in the top of the cave was flat wrong when I awoke with snow all over my sleeping bag. Instead, the vent hole should be poked through the FRONT of the cave.) As an Instructor and Guide I've built a bunch of the things. The biggest was in ten feet of snow in Yellowstone Park. It was huge. Four of us lived in it for several days, as we toured much of the Park on cross country skis. 

Note: I'm about to head into the hills for some of that winter camping goodness. So let's resume this session when I return....

To view Patrick’s original post and subsequent comments, please click here

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