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The basket boat is one of the oldest and simplest boatbuilding methods known to man. They are used all over the world, and range in form from a simple round boat that will support a single person for fishing on ponds, to long, narrow shapes that have crossed oceans.

Boats that can be built in the field are still regularly used in many different forms around the world. On lake Titicaca at 12,000 feet in the Andes, boats are still made by tying large bundles of reeds together to make seaworthy craft. Indeed, if you have an adequate amount of reeds or bamboo this can be one of the simplest boats to construct that does not need a skin.

Perhaps the simplest form of improvised boat is the simple log raft, built by lashing several logs together, although even two logs can provide enough stability to paddle effectively if the water is warm enough, or if the logs are large enough. In Jamaica, simple bamboo ferries are constructed out of giant bamboo. They are durable enough that with no maintenance, they last about six months. How long does it take to grow the bamboo to replace the boat? About six months. You can build boats forever, if you like.

In modern materials, fish totes are used for races in Alaskan waters, and as a substitute for traditional basket boats in Vietnam. And how about the fishermen who used boats made out of junked refrigerators in the aftermath of a hurricane? If you happen to be marooned in an abandoned or heavily damaged industrial area there are all sorts of useful items lying around, but make sure that, for example, the drums that you’re building your raft out of didn’t contain hazardous waste at some point. The residues can linger for a long time, and can injure you directly as well as contaminating the fish you are eating.

An improvised boat can be many things, but the prime considerations are strength and stability – the boat needs to be as safe as possible. An outrigger or two added to any vessel will make it much more stable if you have the means to build one. This is common practice in large parts of the world where small, handmade boats are still used to make a daily living.

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A. This tightly woven basket boat could simply be coated in pitch and used without the need for a covering. An even simpler solution would be to learn the methods of weaving watertight baskets that have been practiced by many indigenous communities around the world, and apply that to boat-building. B. This Bolivian reed boat is an example of what can be done if you don’t have a tarp or other means of covering a boat. The boat is entirely constructed of four bundles of reeds: Two large bundles for the lower hull and two smaller bundles for the hull sides. C. Bamboo rafts such as these are commonly used as small ferries or water taxis in many places around the world, and will serve your efforts equally well. Often in shallow water, as seen here, it is more efficient to pole the raft, pushing off of the bottom with a long pole rather than paddling. These poles make progress against a current possible, which can be difficult to accomplish with a paddle. D. This gigantic basket boat could easily transport half a dozen people as well as a large pile of supplies. The interior illustrates well the basket-like methods of construction.

E. Improvising means of making the best use of whatever material is available. These large plastic tubs were available to these Vietnamese boatmen and they quickly adapted them to fit what they needed. The motorcycle tires around the rim of the tub serves as a fender to prevent damage when coming alongside larger boats.

Building An Emergency Boat in 10 Steps

Materials Needed:

  • Tarp
  • Paracord
  • Sticks

1. Select a smooth area of ground well above the high tide line but with easy access to the beach.

2. Collect about 30 stakes, two feet long. Pound the stakes into the ground in a double row, about six inches apart, in the shape you want your boat to take. Will it be a simple round basket boat, the easiest and most material-efficient type of boat? Or will it be more of a kayak shape, to paddle easier and be more seaworthy?

3. Begin gathering small, supple sticks or reeds. If you happen to have bamboo nearby that’s even better! You stack the sticks between the stakes you set up earlier, making the stack about six inches high. Once the whole shape of the boat has been outlined with a six-inch thick stack of sticks, you take your parachute cord and begin tying the stack together into a bundle, so that it is one solid but flexible piece. Now you have a boat-shaped bundle of sticks.

4. Put in ribs, sticking them through the bundle at an angle and bending them down so they make an arc across to the opposite part of the bundle.

5. Once the ribs are in, you weave stringers through them, forming a loose weave. This doesn’t need to be too tight, as it is just there to give the boat structure. If you had to, you could make it a very tight weave and cover it with pitch to waterproof it, but that approach would take a considerable amount of time. The boat is now about as watertight as a colander.

6. Pull a tarp out and wrap it around the outside of the frame you have built, wrapping the tarp tightly over the top of the bundled sticks and tying it down to the inside of the frame. Double check everything carefully, and float test it.

7. Find some straight sticks about as long as you are tall, and just thick enough to fit comfortably in your hand at the narrow end. Carve a handle in the skinny end, and carve away the thick end to form two flat surfaces. You now have a paddle. Make spares, you won’t get a second chance so you want to make sure it succeeds.

8. Watch the weather carefully. You don’t want to risk your carefully constructed vessel in anything but the most benign conditions. A failure more than a few hundred yards from shore would likely kill you, so make certain you have done all you can.

9. Your might be able to string jackets together between the two spare paddles, and the handheld improvised sail could draw you downwind toward your destination on an opposing shore.

10. You could disassemble the boat, coil up the parachute cord, fold the tarp, and scatter the sticks and paddles back into the water. As you walk up the beach to all appearances it would look as though you simply walked out of the sea.


Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.