How to Build Snow Caves and Winter Shelters

Learn how to build safe, snug snow caves and winter shelters in winter wilderness, plus helpful information on winter camping.

| November/December 1982

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    You can build a snow cave even in shallow cover. Here, a winter backpacking group has made artificial drifts by pushing the snow down a slope to form deep mounds.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    A finished snow shelter. This winter wilderness home is as safe and snug as any bunny’s burrow.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    How to build a snow cave, Step 1: First, dig a large construction hole into a snow drift or mound, and excavate the dome-shaped area that will be your living quarters.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    How to build a snow cave, Step 2: Then block up the entrance with snow “bricks” and “mortar” made from the material you scooped out of the cavity.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    How to build a snow cave, Step 4: The snow cave entry should be barely body-size. Remember: Practice makes perfect!
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Figure 1. Snow cave front view.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Figure 2. Snow cave cross section.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    How to build a snow cave, Step 3: Use a small shovel or makeshift implement to open up a doorway in the snow wall.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    This igloo was built the Wilkinson way. A snow “overcoat” creates a cozy, weathertight nest.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

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This expert outdoorsman (who was featured in MOTHER EARTH NEWS issue 65's Profiles column) has spent years perfecting-and teaching others-methods of building safe, snug snow caves and winter shelters in the winter wilderness. (See the snow cave photos and diagram in the image gallery.)

During the winter in the northern Rockies, one can sometimes see a ptarmigan making its home for the night: In full flight, the plump white bird will suddenly dive into a soft drift, hunker down in the resulting depression, and let blowing flakes settle on its feathers to form a protective blanket.

Snow, you see, is one of nature's most practical insulators. The falling flakes, each of which may contain more than a thousand loosely clustered ice crystals, can pile up into a fluffy mass (composed of as much as 90% air) that is virtually—in form and effect—the frozen equivalent of goose down.

Many of nature's creatures, in fact, use the heat-retaining qualities of snow for protection from winter's cold. But we humans, in all of our "wisdom", generally cling to our dependence upon technology . . . even in situations such as winter mountaineering trips, where—for shelter—we most likely sit huddled within the frigid confines of thin ripstop nylon walls. Worse yet, some individuals have actually perished needlessly from "exposure" to snow and cold, when a little knowledge of the resources at hand—and an ability to use those materials—could have saved their lives.



That's why, after many years of laboring as a trapper and guide—and after doing considerable search and rescue work here in the mountains of Colorado—I made a special effort to work out effective methods for building snow caves and winter shelters. It's also why, when I now lead a group on a winter survival cross-country tour, I don't allow my students to bring tents. Instead, I teach them to use their wits, and the crunchy substance beneath their feet, to make overnight homes.

Selecting a Site for a Snow Cave

An ideal spot for a snow cave would be a firm bank or drift that's six feet or more deep. But not everyone who needs winter shelter, of course, will find a place where the precipitation is that substantial . . . and even those who do will sometimes discover—early in the season, especially—that the piled crystals are too loose and powdery to make good caving material.






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