Survival Beds: How to Get Through the Night

by Shawn O'Neal

Most of us who have spent much time exploring the backcountry have found ourselves lost at times. Well, maybe not fully lost, but being uncertain of one’s whereabouts with nightfall approaching and only day-hiking supplies at hand is an intimidating experience. Knowing you can work with what nature provides to get through an unplanned night outside is an empowering, practical skill. Here’s how to get through the night by making survival beds out of what mother nature give you.

If you find yourself needing to bed down outdoors, start by carefully selecting a site before investing the time and energy in the gathering and construction efforts. Remember the Five W’s of campsite selection and pay careful attention to the availability of the resources you will need to improvise an effective wilderness mattress. You’re going to need a surprising amount of forest debris-think leaf litter or “duff”-to achieve a good result. Therefore, finding a location that has an abundance of these building materials is a worthwhile investment.  

Survival Beds 101: Lots of Logs and Leaves.

The good news is you don’t need any tools to construct a survival bed. Begin by arranging a frame of two parallel logs to create the structure. These should be at least one foot in diameter as this will determine how thick you can make the bed. Size the frame to your body, making it roughly body length and slightly broader than your shoulder-width. If you find a spot that has a downed tree to act as one side of the structure, take advantage of the natural resource and starting building there. Close in the ends as well then start gathering the insulating materials.  

The specific materials of your bed will depend on what is in your environment. Having spent many nights on different types of duff, I have a preference for a dense layer of ponderosa pine needles topped with a generous blanket of oak leaves. It’s the pillowtop mattress of the backcountry. However, every situation will be different and what is available, from crunchy maple leaves to slender spruce cones, will determine what to use.  

The exact materials are not critical with a couple of caveats. Try to avoid wet or damp materials. You will lose heat much faster sleeping on a wet surface. If rain or snow has left few dry resources, search for sheltered locations to gather at least enough dry duff to cover the top of your bed. Also, the entire experience could be jeopardized by failing to identify potentially hazardous plant sources. You certainly would not want to construct your sleeping surface from poison ivy. Learn to recognize and steer clear of such dangers. Layers of evergreen boughs can make an effective choice, but cutting them down can harm live trees and so should be reserved for true emergency situations. 

Make it Thicker Than You Think You Need To.

Constructing a survival bed will certainly make one appreciate a modern camping mattress. While the principle is the same, to insulate you from the cold ground, modern backpacking gear is simply much more efficient. What you are trying to address is the process of conduction, body heat lost through direct contact with the much cooler ground. Without getting in to physics equations, it’s important to understand that the effects of conduction can be mitigated by increasing the distance between you and whatever is colder than you. In other words, a thicker bed is better.  

Consequently, it can take a substantial amount of leaf litter to build an effective survival bed. Using any available resources such as tarps or jackets to gather materials can speed up the process. Pile the debris on an opened coat, secure the sides, and haul it to the frame you have built. Keep gathering until you have a layer at least a foot thick. Then, lay on the bed to compress the leaves and needles.

You’ll likely need to collect more duff after this so get back to work. Repeat this process until your bed maintains a substantial cushion under your weight. Finally, search for twigs, pine cones, and all the other pokey things that inevitably end up in the bed during the building activities. While not necessary for staying warm, efforts to create a comfortable bed can make a huge improvement in the sleep experience.  

Depending on conditions and available assets, this very effective technique can take from a few minutes to hours to complete. So, plan to practice building a survival bed before you actually need one. You might even decide to leave the air mattress behind on your next outing.  

[H/T NOLS]

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