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Rock Shelters

In the world of wilderness survival shelters, hard shelters like caves and rock formations offer protection that is unparalleled. Rock is naturally stronger and denser than wood. The right kind of rock shelter blocks out the majority of weather altogether.

While caves and rock shelters are not as readily available as building a lean-to, they are quite a find and will offer you a long-term shelter option that takes thousands of years to deteriorate. Unlike a wilderness survival shelter that could succumb to the weather and sunlight in a matter of weeks.

In this article, you will learn all about a variety of rock shelters and how to manage them if you are lucky enough to find one in a survival situation. Managed properly they can be one of the ultimate shelters. However, if you rush headlong into the first outcropping you find and start a great big fire, well, it could cost you.

Possible rock shelter

The History of Humans in Rock Shelters and Caves

As far back as 170,000 years, there were Homo Sapiens that chose to live in caves in South Africa. Thanks to archaeological sites 100,000 years ago Neanderthals lived in some caves in North America, too. It was in the South African caves that some of the earliest rock art was discovered.

In Lascaux, we have found the most beautiful cave art that depicts incredible renditions of animals our ancestors hunted and avoided. We get to see how our ancestors lived and much more about what it took to survive those tough times. They took shelter and built a culture in these rock shelters.

In these sites, we find evidence of stone tools, too. It’s likely that these rock shelters and caves gave our ancestors a safe play to flint nap and master fire without the wind and rain to worry about.

We have also called rock shelters and caves home in times of war all throughout history. During the Siege of Vicksburg, in the American Civil War, people took shelter in caves to avoid the devastating bombardments of the Mississippi city.

When things get too rough for our stick and stuffing homes, we head for the caves!

Rock Shelter
Bhimbetka / India 10 March 2019 Stone age display statue installed inside Bhimbetka rock shelters are an archaeological site in central India at Bhojpur Raisen in Madhya Pradesh

A Few Kinds of Rock Shelters

Rock shelters, rock houses, crepuscular caves, are all basically the same thing. They are small caves that can shelter you from the weather. These caves can often be found behind waterfalls, at the base of a bluff or a cliff, hiding in the woods.

There are also rock shelters that have formed simply from rocks having fallen down from higher places and piled up in a way that you can get inside to stay dry and warm. These rock formations are often sturdy and highly effective as shelters.

There are also simple outcroppings that extend like eaves overhead and contain a small indentation where one might make camp. These can also be very effective as shelters.

The archaeological record shows us that in these shelters our ancestors built fires, made tools, and conducted ceremonies a hundred thousand years ago. Unlike making a shelter from trees, branches, and skins, each rock shelter is unique.

Rock Shelter Safety

When you enter a rock shelter there are a number of safety considerations that you have to make. A good rule of thumb is that no matter where you set up camp or shelter you should take about 5 minutes and look around for any potential hazards and threats to your well-being.

The rock shelter is unique because it comes with some very serious threats. Not the least of which is the fact that the shelter itself, if unstable, could collapse on your head and kill you instantly. Rock is heavy and dense, you likely wouldn’t even be able to call for help if you were trapped under fallen rocks.

If you are in an area where earthquakes occur or the earth is quaking due to some kind of natural disaster then you might not want to jump into a rock shelter. The quaking of the earth could also bring the rocks down on top of you.

Of course, there are threats beyond just the rocks themselves that lurk inside of caves.

Animals in Rock Shelters

An adult Black Bear sleeping in a cave does not make a good rock shelter companion

Natural shelters, like caves, have long been places that animals find just as attractive as we humans. This means that for your safety you have to check these shelters to be sure they are not already home to something else.

Wolves, bears, bats, weasels, snakes, and spiders all like living in caves if they are lucky enough to find one. You do not want to find out that you are sharing your cave with an angry weasel halfway through your night’s sleep.

You do not want to walk in on a mother bear and her cubs or your survival situation is going to change radically! You will be dealing with blunt force trauma and profuse bleeding if you survive the bear’s attack.

A lot of times you can find out what is living inside a cave by what is presented outside or in the front of the cave. If you see things like bones, droppings, or signs like fur then you should choose another rock shelter.

If you are truly facing a survival situation then the last thing you want is to tangle with any kind of wild animal or get bitten by a poisonous spider. So, in order to avoid that you need to be perceptive. Even after entering the cave, you should do an inspection. This can also include the structural integrity of the cave.

Fire Inside of Rock Shelters

One of the greatest safety concerns inside rock shelters, particularly smaller shelters, is how fire affects the rock surrounding you. If you create a large fire inside of a cave the heat could create expansion in the rock above your head

Archeologists find sites that feature fire-cracked rock all the time. Our ancestors used fire to crack rocks to make tools. The heat of your fire can do that to the roof of your cave!

You do not want the stone walls of your cave shelter to crack from the heat of your fire and deliver the roof of that shelter on top of your head.

For this reason, your fire should be built at the mouth of the rock shelter so the heat is not concentrated inside the depths of the cave.

Build your fire at the mouth of the rock shelter

Modifying the Rock Shelters

One of the best things about rock shelters is that they can be camouflaged really well. Earlier we mentioned how some of these rock shelters are hidden behind waterfalls. Even if your shelter doesn’t happen to be hidden behind a waterfall, it doesn’t take a lot of work to drag debris or even brambles with thorns to the entrance of the cave.

If someone is not intentionally looking for your cave they will likely never be able to pick it out amidst the cliffs that are also covered with vines and other forms of vegetation.

Another great way to conceal your cave is to drop trees in front of the entrance. This makes the entrance of the cave smaller and less conspicuous.

A rock shelter is also a great place to build things that will aid you in survival. The safety of the cave can protect and prolong the life of tripods, smoking racks, drying racks, and other things that can be brought out into the sun during the day and then protected inside the cave when not in use.

In many cases, there were actually smaller shelters built inside of the caves that our ancestors lived in. They spent time in the cave itself and worked around the fire at the mouth of the cave but often would retire to smaller structures that were built inside of the rock shelter. These survival shelters were reminiscent of wilderness survival shelters that you would build in the woods.

I am sure these shelters retained heat better than a large open cavern but also had the added protection from the weather and wind thanks to the cave.

Overhanging sandstone rock shelter

Rock Shelters Offer Superb Protection

The rock shelter is one of the best wilderness survival shelters that you can inhabit. A cave can offer protection from threats like weather and exposure but also against massive threats like war and some natural disasters.

We have used caves for just this purpose all throughout history. They offer great protection and for certain circumstances, rock shelters will protect you even better than your own home! Knowing how to manage the heating of that cave is very important and checking things out before you move in will keep you and yours safe.

Now, I would encourage you to head into the woods and wild places to see if you can find your own rock shelter that could be used in an emergency. There are lots more caves and rock shelters out there than you might think. We just don’t spend a lot of time looking for them anymore.