Anyone who has grown up in a climate where snow is common during the winter months has definitely spent a portion of their childhood building snow forts. Perhaps you never thought that while you built your ultra-cool kid fort that you were actually learning the basics of a shelter that could save your life if you were in a survival situation. No matter how experienced you are in the woods, the more prepared and knowledgeable you are the better off you will be if something were to happen. But, it is important to recognize that snow shelters can be dangerous and even deadly if built incorrectly. Your sole purpose in emergency situations is to stay alive and be found!
Types of Snow Shelters
The snow cave is a very simple snow shelter in which you dig a tunnel and cave into the snow. This snow cave is best used on a hill or slope where there is an ample amount of snow that has drifted and been compacted. When building this, be aware of possible avalanche danger when deciding where to build your cave.
An igloo requires the use of hard, solid blocks of snow. The shelter is made from cut blocks of snow that are stacked into a spiraling dome. The igloos base needs to be approximately 10 feet in diameter. A quick piece of advice is to cut out the entrance tunnel before you begin assembling your blocks.
Quinzee or Quinzhee Shelter
A quinzee is great for soft snow conditions and when you don’t have a slope. Conceptually, the shelter is similar to the snow cave but you don’t have a slope to use, so it requires that you pile up snow and then dig it out.
This is the fastest of the emergency snow shelters. If you find that you don’t have conditions or time that allows for building the previous shelters, this is the next best thing. You simply dig a rectangular hole into the snow just large enough for you and your gear to fit. It is important that you dig your rectangular trench deep enough so that when you lie down you are well below the surface layer of snow. Cover the top of the trench with a tarp supported by sticks or branches or, if you are lucky and the snow is hard, you can cut out blocks and use the blocks on top of the opening.
Now, Lets Build a “Quinzhee” or “Quinzee”
This is probably the most common type of emergency snow shelter and my personal favorite. I have been known to build quinzees in the backyard just for fun. I will never grow up!
I built my first quinzee several years ago on a winter trip to the eastern High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains in February of 2004. Four adventurous and much younger fellas made a trek to climb Gothics and decided that it would be cool to build a shelter and sleep in it instead of using tents. Turned out to be fun and the process surprised me in a couple of ways: how long it took (over three hours) and how snow can change from simply piling it up and stomping it down.
A quinzee is made by hollowing out a huge mound of settled snow. In contrast, an igloo is made from blocks of ice or hard snow that are cut and then placed into a curved dome. Historically, igloos were built to last the duration of the winter. Quinzees were temporary shelters. They are easier to construct but less sturdy than igloos. To survive a winter night in the woods, a quinzee is your only option when there’s not enough accumulation to build a snow cave, a hollowed out space in an existing, dense snow drift. Building a quinzee will certainly warm you up and could potentially save your life. You only need a flat area with lots of snow, though a shovel certainly helps!
Step 1: A lot of work!
Your first step is to pack down where you have chosen to locate your quinzee. Using snowshoes to stomp out your platform is by far the easiest, although you can use skis. Now for the hard part of the day! You need to make a very large pile of snow approximately 6-8 feet high. The size of the mound is going to depend on how many people you want to fit inside. Consider making the length 2 feet longer than the length of your sleeping bag and be sure to make it wide enough so that you aren’t sleeping on top of each other. Ideally you also want to be able to sit up comfortably inside your shelter. As you pile the snow up be sure to try to break up the clumps. After you get a decent amount of snow, have a person or two stomp on the pile to help consolidate and mix the snow. This will help the snow to compact and solidify into one big pile. You will expend a lot of energy so take turns shoveling and stomping. Also be careful not to get too hot and sweaty as this can become a serious issue later when you need to wait for the pile to sinter.
Step 2: Wall Thickness
Now that you have a mound it is time to address the thickness of the walls. The thicker the walls the better insulated you will be inside the shelter and the safer it will be from collapse. You will need about 24 sticks that that are about a foot long. Insert the sticks randomly around the top and sides of the mound as these will become a guide to the proper depth you will dig. You will want to insert the sticks about 10 inches into the snow leaving 2 inches exposed. And continue to wait for Sintering!
Step 3: What is Sintering?
Sintering is when snow crystals lose their points and become a solid mass due to the pressure of having other snowflakes piled on top of them. This process can take anywhere from 90 minutes to an hour depending on the conditions. The snow will set up quicker if it is colder.
Step 4: Time to Play
Now that you have waited for an eternity, it is time to PLAY! You truly get to act like a little kid again. As you begin to dig out the entrance you will surely be transported back to a time of pure joy and excitement. Your entrance should be big enough to crawl through. Consider putting the entrance on the Leeward side. In other words you want the wind to be hitting the back of the shelter (windward side). The entrance should slope upward because that will help trap warmer air inside your shelter. Start clearing the snow out using a snow shovel designed for mountaineering. As you chip away at the snow you will eventually find the sticks that are poking through from the outside. You have now found your guides for the wall thickness. Those are your signals to stop digging. Tip: If you have a sled that you pulled your gear in to the backcountry with use it to get the snow out of the entrance!
Step 5: Creating a Platform
Be careful not to dig down to the ground level. Instead, create a sleeping platform at least a foot high. Take time to smooth out the interior walls and create a trench around the sleeping platform to the door so condensation has a pathway out and away from you and your gear. Poke a hole about the size of your fist in the top to ventilate the shelter to create air flow. You can use a pack to block off the doorway but take care not to block off air flow completely.
Bring along a candle to use inside of the quinzee. Carve a platform in the wall to hold the candle. You’ll be surprised how well lit the inside will be with just one candle. The temperature will be around 30 degrees and that isn’t too bad if it is well below zero outside.