The Earth Skills Correspondence Course is a ten block course that leads students through the skills of wilderness survival, in your own bioregion. It emphasizes the mastery of shelter, water, fire, camp skills, plants and trees, cooking, safety & hazards, attitude & philosophy and instructor training. Ricardo Sierra mentors the course through e-mail, this blog and a private Facebook Group, and students are self-guided. The course provides a wealth of skills and a powerful foundation from which to build and grow in any personal or wilderness study direction.
Get more information about this learning tool here: The Earth Skills Correspondence Course

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Insects and Debris Huts: An Earth Skills Question

And Now, a Question about Debris Shelters!

Dear Mr. Sierra,

Hi, I've been practicing debris hut making for a while and the past several times I've had a problem with spiders getting settled before I do. I've been trying to find out how to get rid of them and came across this quote in the posted comments over You Tube but I don't understand what the instructor is talking about.

"Insects and spiders are driven out by 'smudging' VERY carefully so as not to burn down your shelter with you in it. Maine has no venomous snakes and a few spiders that cause localized necrosis. Even so, follow normal snake protocols as if using a modern sleeing bag in the dessert south west in snake country. The walls, while strong enough to climb on after settling, are easily pushed out for a ginger or explosive escape."

What exactly is "smudging"? "Smudging" with what? If you could give me any other insights into how to get rid of unwanted campers in my huts (ie smoking them out??? or anything else) I'd really, really appreciate it very much. Thank you for all your help!!!
Seriously Suspicious of Snakes & Spider Smudge

Dear SSSS,

First of all, thanks for your question. This is a good one and very important to earth skills students in many parts of the country where poisonous snakes and spiders are a real threat to your safety and health. It only takes one bad spider bite, or a close encounter with a rattler to make anyone run for the Red Roof Inn and stay the heck out of the woods! That being said, there are a few answers to your question that can help you with your situation and concern.

One thing I might add before I begin is to ask where you are located? That does play a factor in this in terms of materials that you typically use for your shelter. Do you use leaves or pine needles? Grasses and cattails? Forest or desert? In any event, you may have to modify these answers to fit your location and available materials.

While I live in the Northeast, which doesn't have many threatening snakes or spiders where I live, I have traveled through the Midwest, West, desert Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, where many of these hazards are real. When I go to an area I haven't been to before, I usually research how the native peoples lived there for thousands of years, studying their shelters carefully, either through books or in the local natural history and native culture museums. In many cases, there are important ways that these shelters protect their people from the local hazards. In the Southwest, many cultures lived in cliff dwellings with clay or sandstone floors which were swept clean, and bedding used was furs or woven rabbit skin blankets, which could be shaken out each day outside to remove spiders or scorpions. Food scraps would be kept to a minimum in these locations, to discourage mice and rats, which attract snakes as predators.

In the coastal foothills of California, tribes like the Tipai-Ipai, Chumash or Cahuilla lived in family dome shelters made from poles of saplings covered by woven palm fronds, mats of grasses, cattails or tules, with shade arbors of brush and sticks. They slept on grass or cattail or tule mats, which could also be shaken and kept clean.

The point I am trying to make is that debris shelters, from a survival point of view, were used in extreme cases, when there was no fur, gathered grasses, cattails or tules were available for long term bedding. They were used in emergencies only. In those environments, all of the available debris is home to insect and spider infestations, including scorpions, too. There just aren't that many options in the foothills and deserts for habitat, and the dangerous critters are predators hunting for food in those areas. Palm trees have lots of fibers, but in the dead fronds, that are clustered along the main trunk, they are loaded with all kinds of insects.

If you build a debris hut with those kinds of materials, it is going to be loaded with 'visitors'. It doesn't matter if you smudge or not. They are going to be there, or move right back in as soon as the smoke clears.

Smudging, by the way, is where you take a bowl, pot, clay pot, wooden bowl or a slab of bark, fill it with hot coals from the fire, then place green leaves, bark, sage, pine or cedar needles or grasses on top of the coals, where they will smolder with intense, thick smoke. Place that container in the shelter and let it fill with smoke so it will drive the insects away. This works very well with mosquitoes and smaller spiders up here in the Northeast.

You have to be very careful, as the coals can heat up the material and then spontaneously burst into flame when it gets dried out. That's when your shelter goes up in a hot, smoldering furnace blast of fire. Not good.

Most native shelters had fires in them, and the smoke from those fires kept the spiders and other insects at bay. It also helped preserve their hides, any food or gear stored there as well. It solved a lot of problems, as well as provided the usual warmth and cooking heat too.

In the wilderness, in an emergency, you might have to make a debris shelter, or a scout pit shelter, and sleep in it right away, and hope for the best. Think good thoughts and hope the spiders and scorpions and snakes don't feel hungry, and make it through the night. If you leave it for any length of time in those kinds of environments, you will have to pull all of the debris out and try to air it out and get the rest of the critters out or you will be unpleasantly surprised.

Native peoples generally had deer, wolf, bear, buffalo or other large animal skins that allowed them to sleep warm and not have to use infested debris.

In 1986, I was living in the high desert plateau forests around Prescott, Arizona, while I was attending Prescott College, and I built a great scout pit in the woods behind our house. I filled it with soft grasses, pine needles and cottonwood leaves and covered it with soil so it was perfectly camouflaged. I built it planning to sleep in it that night, but something came up and I had to wait for about three days before I could head out.

I took a flashlight with me (thank you, backup gear!) and shone the light around inside before I went in. I saw the tell tale crazy webs of about three black widow spiders inside, very comfortable in the almost pitch black darkness. I pushed a stick in to try to hook my wool blanket and get it out, and as it came out, I heard the squeaks of some small mice in the grass, and the telltale sound of a rattlesnake warning. I was glad I checked before going in, and at the same time, I was bummed out that I built a great shelter for a bunch of mice, spiders and snakes! That was a lot of work, but lesson learned!

I hope this answers your question, SSSS, and helps you make a great shelter that you can use for your expeditions and adventures. I invite all readers to add their comments and ideas so we can all learn and grow! Good luck!