Snow: Brick and Mortar of the Arctic Circle

Discover the best types of snow to use for building an igloo or other such shelters for protection against the harsh winter elements.


The Aleut and Inuit have many names for snow; to one whose world is made up of snow, it is important to distinguish between the various forms.

The best types of snow to use for building an igloo are snow that has been blown by wind (which tends to compact and interlock the ice crystals) and mature snow (which tends to stick together). The hole left in the snow where the blocks are cut is usually used as the lower half of the shelter, which serves as a cold-air sump. A short tunnel is constructed at the entrance to reduce wind and heat loss when the door is opened. Because of the excellent insulating properties of snow, inhabited igloos are surprisingly comfortable and warm inside. A single block of clear ice can be used for a light window. Natives used skins as door flaps. When used as winter shelters, igloos had beds made of snow, covered with twigs and caribou skins.

The user-friendly design of the igloo features a sump to keep cold air down and living/sleeping quarters higher, where warm air collects. The clever spiral erection technique allows one
man to build a strong dome structure.

The igloo is unique in that it is a dome that can be raised out of independent blocks leaning on each other and fit together without any supporting structure during construction. A properly built igloo will support the weight of a man on the roof. In a traditional Inuit igloo, the heat from the kudlik (stone lamp) can slightly melt the interior surface, and this melting and refreezing forms a layer of ice that increases the strength of the dome.

Materials for shelter are everywhere. Nearly a hundred years ago, Frank Kleinschmidt recorded Eskimos building a family-size, seasonal igloo. 

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