Constructing A Half Dome Shelter

Many bushcraft and survival text books have chapters full of woodland shelters using straight branches and leaf litter and there are some excellent ones that include the use of flexible saplings to make domed and hooped shelters.

It may well be the case that there is a complete lack of study long straight branches for the typical lean too or A frame shelter say in a very young section of woods but simultaneously you appear to be surrounded by an abundance of uniformly pliable saplings.

The world over this method of shelter construction has been used and goes by slightly different designs and names depending on whom and where it was employed. There is almost no limit to the thatching materials that have been used: grasses, rushes, sedges, annual plant stems, bracken (as in the following example), bark, animal hides and even snow!

Right here in the UK our Romany Gypsy ancestors made woven dome like structures called ‘Gypsy-benders’ referring to the pliable shoots of trees like Hazel being used. Typically these were then covered with canvas or locally sourced thatch. Over the pond in the North American states there existed almost identical structures known as ‘Wickiups’, the coverings depending on the preferences and materials available to the varied native tribes.

A very fast, economical and comfortable shelter can be made by bending and weaving flexible saplings and shoots together, the following photos should give you a good idea of one way this can be achieved for a cosy night out in the woods.

Step one is to select a comfortable and safe area to build as per any shelter construction. Check especially for overhead branch hazards and make sure the ground you select will remain well drained in heavy rain and is free of rocks and roots that interfere with a comfortable bed.

As pictured above scratch a large semi-circle in the leaf litter the straight side of this should be your own height plus as far as you can reach with your arms extended above your head. The width of the shelter should be at least twice your breadth.

Next you need to select 2 long straight flexible saplings or shoots around thumb thick at their thick ends and push these into the corners of the semi-circle until they are a good 2’ in the ground. By cutting Hazel cleanly from a stool you will ensure a future supply of DIY materials in coming seasons. Bend the two saplings towards one another and simply weave them round and round until they form a large hoop shoulder high in the centre.

For the longer curved side of the semi-circle floor plan you will need to harvest a bundle of shorter saplings around 5 – 6’ long and drive these into the ground evenly spaced to fill what will become the back of your shelter. Once securely buried you can bend these forwards and weave them into or lash them onto the hoop that will form the entrance to your shelter.

Your next job is to lock together all the uprights by weaving slightly thinner wands in and out not unlike a giant open-weave basket. Start right down at floor level to provide a locking row an then every couple of feet up add another course of weavers to sturdy up the frame. Initially your frame will seem flimsy and wobbly due to the suppleness of your fresh saplings but as they dry they will harden making the frame much more solid.

The use of withies will be a great help to you as you can see at the near end of the shelter above they form neat, strong ties where the weavers intersect the hoop and can be locked back on themselves.

It is always worth taking a wander before committing to a shelter site to determine your thatching materials which should be a very common, safe and abundant plant that will tolerate heavy cutting back without lessening next seasons’ growth. A favourite material of shelter builders wherever it is found is Bracken although not without hazard*.

Whatever you decide on for thatching will need to be collected in large amounts and then one bundle at a time lashed to your frame starting at the hoop and working round the shelter low to the ground before adding higher and higher bundles. This will create a tile-like effect of bundles ensuring heavy rain is shed effectively.

A great advantage to using this shelter is the energy saved finding and dragging heavy shelter poles.  Virtually every sapling component can be cut from 3 or 4 local Hazel stools and carried in one bundle for the frame. The thatching is always the longest job as for any well-made shelter. A draw back in some situations is this shelter can demand quite a lot of cordage for binding on your thatch – in this example a bundle of jute-like cord was used to keep the natural feel to the shelter. I have used Brambles, Willow and Elm bark for the lashings in the past where B&Q just wasn’t an option.

The really exciting thing about this style of construction is the adaptability of the shape to suit individuals up to large groups. The above photo is a shelter made on our Primitive Skills Year course to provide our students with a waterproof sleeping and working area come their week long test phase in October.

A small fire inside a domed shelter provides a warm dry environment but has a very big risk associated with it if mismanaged so be careful never to light one where your thatch is kindling dry – typically on hot days and nights where you don’t need a fire anyway.

As always nothing new here but hopefully something to whet your appetite for getting out and trying a different style of shelter even if it is simply covered with a tarp until thatching can be collected at a later date.

Adam Logan.

*When harvesting Bracken it is worth protecting your hands with gloves until you develop a healthy respect for its sharp splintery stems and gain the knack of cutting it without it cutting you!

I would never cut this plant on hot dry days around August time where it spores and breathing this in for any long spell can be damaging.

Lastly as always be hyper vigilant for any ticks which frequent this habitat and can end up on you and your clothes when gathering large amounts for thatch.