Improvising a Home in the Outdoors


Hopefully, you’ll only sleep outdoors because you want to, not because you have to. But having some kind of emergency shelter at the ready can make a big difference in your comfort and well-being, should circumstances force you to spend some time living outside.

The best and most obvious option for an emergency shelter is a tent, whether a lightweight backpacking model or the family car-camping kind. Tents are compact and lightweight enough to store in most homes, and pretty easy to set up when the time comes to use them. They’ll keep you dry and free from insects, and provide privacy. Even if you’re not an avid camper, a tent is a good thing to have. They’ve become very popular at events like multi-day music festivals, for example. You’ll be a hero to young children if you set up a tent for them to play with in the backyard. And yes, a tent can shelter you and your family should an emergency force you out of your home.

Coleman Pop-Up 2-Person Tent

A typical camping tent has walls made partly or mostly of fine mesh, and a separate waterproof fabric cover known as a rain fly that can be attached over the mesh as needed. In warm weather, when there’s no rain in the forecast, sleeping inside a mesh tent allows for a fresh, cooling breeze and a view of the starry sky. If rain, snow, or wind are imminent, or if occupants need privacy, you can snap on the fly in a matter of minutes.

When selecting a tent to serve as your emergency shelter—or as a camping tent, for that matter—consider upsizing. A four-person tent may technically have room for four sleeping bags but, depending on the people using it, it could get very close very fast. A six-person model for four people will definitely be more comfortable, and will allow you to keep some of your gear inside for safety or just for convenience.

Features to look for

• A “bathtub” floor, with sturdy waterproof fabric partway up the sides. This keeps annoying moisture like dew from seeping up, or most importantly, rain water runoff from flowing inside if a flash downpour happens.

TETON Sports Mountain Ultra 1 Backpacking Tent

• More than one door, so campers don’t have to climb over each other when exiting or entering.

Kodiak Canvas Cabin Tent

• Vestibules for the doors, to keep rain out, and as a covered place to stow gear.

Kelty TN2 Tent

• Vents in the rain fly to prevent condensation build-up inside. 

Naturally, lightweight tents such as the Kelty Grand Mesa are popular with backpackers. In an emergency camping situation, you probably won’t trek miles into the wilderness, so portability will not likely be among your top concerns, and a roomier “family camping” tent like the Coleman Montana eight-person tent may be more useful.

Coleman Montana Tent

You’ll see tents described as three- or four-season tents. As an emergency shelter, you’ll probably want a three-season tent. Four-season tents that can be used for winter camping are heavier and more expensive, and meant to be used by experienced campers who seek out challenging conditions. They may be uncomfortably warm for summer use.

Most modern tents are designed as stand-alone structures and do not need to be staked. Even so, if you will use the tent for more than one night, and especially if wind or stormy weather is possible, it’s a good idea to use the stakes and guylines that come with the tent to create a more secure structure. You can always pick up extra stakes if you lose, bend, or break the originals, want to upgrade from plastic to metal, or just want extra security.

Kelty Nobendium II Tent Stakes

It’s important to set up your tent in the right place. Developed campgrounds have sites with appropriately level ground, away from areas subject to flooding; out in the open country, you’ll need to look for these attributes when choosing a site. It may be tempting to locate near a small stream, but small streams can become dangerous torrents during sudden storms. If you’re camping underneath trees, look up and make sure there are no broken-off limbs caught in the canopy that could be shaken loose by wind and fall on your site. They’re known as widow makers for a reason.

If you’re camping out of necessity, you probably won’t be in a wilderness area where larger animals like bears can pose a threat. Still, you don’t want to attract raccoons or other varmints—keep your food in your vehicle, in a bear-proof container, or hanging pack, well away from the tent.

If a tent isn’t an option, you can devise a shelter with a simple tarp. It won’t protect you from insects, and may not stand up to heavy rain or wind, but it’s much better than nothing, and can provide sufficient shelter to get you through a night or two. A blue hardware-store tarp will do in a pinch, but a lightweight, purpose-built tarp like the Snugpak All Weather Shelter, the Grand Trunk All Purpose Rainfly or the Kelty Noah’s Tarp are easier to store, carry and use. These are versatile pieces of gear; even if you don’t need to use one in an emergency, you’ll probably find it handy for other uses, such as a sunshade for a campsite picnic table or a simple lean-to.

Kelty Noah's Tarp

Obviously, in a natural disaster or other large-scale emergency, finding shelter for displaced people will be a high priority for the authorities. Taking advantage of what they can provide may well be your best option. Still, a tent or shelter tarp is a relatively modest investment that could give you an option in the event you find yourself temporarily out of your home.

And when the sun shines and all is as it should be, you can go to a concert, entertain the kids, or maybe even do a little camping.

Questions or comments are welcome, as always, in the Comments section, below.