Building Emergency Snow Shelters

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During harsh winter conditions, you may not always be able to reach a safe shelter in time, so knowing how to make your own can be incredibly helpful.
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“The Winter Camping Handbook” by Stephen Gorman helps readers safely embrace the wonders of winter camping.

The Winter Camping Handbook (Countryman Press, 2016) by Stephen Gorman gives readers all of the information to making camping safely in the winter entirely possible and fun. Gorman helps his readers properly prepare to face the challenging conditions that come with camping in the winter, and how to overcome the worst obstacles of the harsh season. In the following excerpt, he discusses the techniques of building emergency snow shelters.

While tents are generally more convenient, easier to use, and faster to set up, knowing how to build a snow shelter in an emergency can save your life. Snow shelters can also be a lot of fun to build, and if you’re going to make a base camp for a few days, they can be quite luxurious.

There are advantages to living in snow shelters. For one, they’re very warm. On a night when the mercury has shriveled into a little ball at the bottom of the thermometer (real bragging cold), the temperature will be at or just above freezing inside a snow shelter. For another, when the wind is howling and perhaps tearing down tents (it does happen), inside the snow shelter all’s quiet, peaceful, and calm so that you can soon forget there’s a storm raging outside.

Finally, with a little imagination a shelter allows you to design your own ideal living space—with shelves here and storage compartments there. And when you light your candle lantern, the ice crystals reflect the light, bouncing it off the domed interior to create a bright, cheerful atmosphere.

If you build a snow shelter, just remember to put on your shell garments. You can get wet digging around in all that snow.

Because igloos require a firm slab snow that isn’t commonly found outside vast, windswept areas such as the Canadian Barrens, I’ll leave discussion of their construction to someone else and instead discuss two types of snow shelters that are easy to build wherever it snows.

Snow Caves

The snow cave is perhaps the easiest snow shelter to build—all you need is a minimum of 5 or 6 feet of drifted snow and something to use for digging. You can use pots, snowshoes, even your hands if you’re desperate, but a couple of shovels will make the work go much faster.

Snow collects in deep drifts on the leeward side of fallen trees, boulders, and ridges. Lee slopes along stream banks can be ideal spots for a snow cave. Physical obstruction creates an eddy in the air currents, and the snow tends to pile up behind whatever is creating the eddy. So when you’re scouting around for a likely snow cave location, start by probing the drifts on leeward slopes.

When you find a likely spot, start digging. Make an entrance about 3 feet high by 3 feet wide. Dig straight into the leeward slope, and then start angling the entrance tunnel upward. A rising entrance allows the cold air to sink out of the cave.

When the entrance tunnel is done, start digging out the main chamber of the cave. The interior should have a domed ceiling—a shape that’s tremendously strong and most unlikely to collapse. Make the room as big as you like or, if you’re digging in a small drift, as big as you can. Just be sure the roof is at least 12 inches thick. You can check this as you dig by thrusting a sharp stick upward through the snow. Have someone outside let you know when the stick emerges and then estimate how much of the stick is submerged in snow.

Work in tandem with another person who’s at the entrance of the snow cave, shoveling away all the snow rubble from the excavation going on inside. When you get going, the snow can really start to fly, so take a break now and then and trade positions. It can be hot and stuffy when you work on the inside.

When you’re done with snow removal, for ventilation, poke a hole the size of a small fist through the dome. Now you can start working on the interior touches.

Remember to leave your skis or snowshoes at the entrance to the cave so it can be located in the dark or if it’s snowing. Keep a shovel inside the cave in case you have to dig your way out in the morning. Finally, for additional warmth, put your packs in the entrance and block off the door.

The Athabaskan Snow House

Building an Athabaskan snow house, or quinzhee, as the Athabaskan Indians call it, is an ingenious way to make a snow cave when there are no deep drifts readily available. To build a quinzhee, all you need is snow and a shovel. You can even build one just using a snowshoe for a shovel if you have to. Unlike an igloo, a quinzhee doesn’t require the hard slab snow of tundra regions and is much easier to make. The quinzhee can be built wherever there’s loose snow on the ground.

To build a comfortable two- to three-person quinzhee, measure a circle about 7 feet in diameter. When you have drawn the perimeter of the quinzhee, start shoveling loose snow into the circle, piling it up until the top of the mound is about 6 feet or so above the ground.

Let the snow set up for about an hour. (Depending upon the consistency of the snow, this takes more or less time: more for powder, less for heavy snow.) Then start digging out the living space as though it were a snow cave. Carve out a domed ceiling, punch an air hole, and make the entrance slightly lower than the main chamber to expedite cold air seepage. Once you block the door with your packs, you’re set for the night. Let the storms howl outside! You won’t even know it.

Inside the snow shelter, you can carve shelves for your personal items or for candles and customize the interior any way you like. Place a ground sheet on the snow, and then place your sleeping pads on this. Make yourself at home as you would in your tent.

More from: The Winter Camping Handbook

How to Winterize Your Vehicle
Recognizing, Preventing, and Treating Hypothermia


Reprinted with permission fromThe Winter Camping Handbook (2016), by Stephen Gorman and published by Countryman Press.