Den-building is surely what forests were made for. Read on to recapture your childhood, reconnect with nature or teach your kids how to build their own forest den.
If you could distil the essence of childhood into a single activity, it would probably be den-building. One of the most popular Forest Ranger activities at Forest Holidays, it is fun, absorbing, and a true team endeavour. We caught up with Bill, the Ranger at Keldy, for some den-building tips. “Everyone loves it: families bond; groups of friends compete; and people of all ages learn real survival skills in the process. Best of all for me as a Forest Ranger, it’s about nature; from scavenging the building materials among the forest debris, to sheltering from the elements within the finished structure.”
It’s time to build a den….
Good den-building starts before you start: planning is everything. Think about who will use the shelter, how long for, and what’s available to you in the forest. This will help you to understand what sort of structure you need, what materials to gather and how to divide up your labour. “People have a tendency to dive straight in, but a little planning goes a long way and keeps everyone working together. Many a den has had to be started again from scratch because a particular material ran out or the structure simply collapsed,” says Bill
Where to build your den
A clearing near the edge of the forest is ideal. “Look for flat, grassy land and avoid slopes and dips if you are planning to spend the night - you don’t want to find yourself rolling down a hill or sleeping in a puddle. Then, get your compass out and make sure your doorway is facing south to get as much sunlight and warmth into your shelter as possible.”
What materials to use
Essentially, all a den needs is a frame and a cover. “Ideally, look for a natural structure to get you started. This might be a fallen tree or a tree with a low branch that could act as a roof support. Then you’ll need branches and sticks to build your frame. Pine woods are great for this as old branches fall naturally from the trees. Look for willow and alder too, which are flexible and strong, giving you more scope and stability.” Use leaves, ferns and moss for your roof and walls but remember that these are the habitats for our little creatures too. “Also,” says Bill, “there is nothing to stop you from bringing your own cover, such as a waterproof tarpaulin. Indeed for many of the world’s nomads and explorers this is the one essential item they carry.”
How to build your den
Small is beautiful. The smaller your den, the warmer and more stable it is, so resist the urge for ambitious construction projects. “Dare I say it, it is usually the men who build big and it is never a good idea!” says Bill with a laugh.
Start with that fallen tree or handy branch. Build your frame around it and weave the supple sticks through it to give extra strength. Cover the frame with the leaves, ferns and moss, stuffing them into every nook and cranny. “The more cover, the warmer and more secure you will be,” explains Bill.
He goes on to describe the types of den structures you could choose: “Your supporting mainstay will usually dictate the form of your shelter but otherwise choose a lean-to or a tipi. A lean-to is your best bet, sloping from the entrance towards the ground. Make sure that the back, rather than the entrance, faces the prevailing wind. Alternatively, you could build a tipi, by leaning your branches into a central point.”
Living in your Den
Once you are happy with your den, line the floor with soft ferns, leaves or hay. Then it’s time to think about your fire. Bill has some tips; “As with a barbeque, it’s not the flames that count, it’s the stored heat. Create a structure to contain your fire or search for stones, keep it small and heat stones for cooking. We use tree sap on a thin layer of tissue as our fire-starter and tiny, dry bits of wood for kindling. Be patient, don’t be tempted to go for bigger kindling, and always use only dead wood. And of course make sure you extinguish it properly and clear the area when you have finished.”
Den-building is a great way to spend quality time together and it’s a true team activity. Bill makes sure that everyone is involved. He says: “Even the smallest children can collect kindling, gather leaves and add decorations. With families, dads will see themselves as chief architect and project manager but it pays to step back and listen to the children, their imagination and natural spontaneity often produce amazing results.”
Time to go
Bill has one piece of advice for when you have finished; simply: “Leave the forest as you found it.” Dismantle your den, heart-wrenching as that may be, and clear all evidence of your activity. “It’s tempting to leave your den standing, but it will become unstable, causing danger to others,” concludes Bill. Don’t worry, you’ll soon get over the loss when you get back to the luxury of your cabin and sink into your hot tub!
In the end, it’s memories that matter; one afternoon, far from the madding crowd, in the company of your favourite people – you built a den.
5 Survival Tips for Forest Adventurers
- Make your den as small as possible and sleep communally for warmth
- Equip yourself with a survival tin: collect water and edible nuts and berries in it, use it for cooking food and boiling water, and carry essentials such as your penknife and eating utensils in it.
- If you become lost, stay put. This will make it easier for you to be found and save you from wasting energy
- Lip salve not only protects your lips from chapping, it is also an excellent fire starter
- Cold is your biggest enemy. Keep a set of dry clothes to change into if you get wet.
Two things you didn’t know about dens
- Research has shown that den-building is an essential part of a child’s healthy development, allowing them to express their independence and sense of self.
- Den-building is an all-round activity, teaching people about the natural environment and utilising planning, problem solving, spacial awareness, team working, creativity and leadership skills.
Image of Forest Den by Pete Birkinshaw