Want something fun and productive to do during this whole giant blizzard thing? Why not learn how to build a snow shelter? It could save your life one day but, more importantly, they're just a ton of fun to make. Here's how.
Why Build A Snow Shelter?
Do it right and your snow shelter will maintain a constant 32-degree (F) temperature inside, no matter what conditions are like outside. Lighting a tea candle can take that up to 40 degrees. That's because snow is mostly composed of trapped air and trapped air is what insulates.
So that's not only a better result than your tent, potentially allowing you to survive with inadequate clothing or sleeping materials for the weather, but a snow shelter can be built with minimal equipment and only basic knowledge. The effect to preparation ratio is just too high to be ignored.
Step One: Identify Risks
Don't build a snow shelter some place that's going to be wiped out by a landslide, avalanche, falling rocks, falling trees or similar.
Hiding in a snow cave can prevent Search And Rescue from finding you. It's also easy to lose the location of your snow shelter if you leave it at night or during a storm, in which it could become buried. Making it with a "flag" of brightly colored clothing or similar in such a way that it won't be buried by the snow or torn away by the wind is therefore a great idea. That can also keep you or your friends from walking over the top, which may collapse the shelter.
Snow shelters can also trap carbon monoxide/dioxide, particularly if you're lighting a candle inside. Poke a breathing hole in the roof that's a couple inches in diameter, then leave the stick in the hole. Shake that stick occasionally to keep that hole clear.
Building one also gets you covered in snow and is hard work, so you'll build up a sweat. Strip out of your insulating layers, then put back on your waterproof shells to stay dry. You'll want gloves to keep your hands from freezing.
Step Two: Find A Location
Keep the above dangers in mind and don't try and sleep someplace that's going to get you killed.
You obviously need large amounts of snow to build a snow shelter. You can just build one on any level ground. But, why not make the terrain work for you and try to find the lee side of a hill or rock or similar where snow has naturally gathered? A natural depression can also save you some of the mound-building effort; just pitch snow down it then tunnel into it from one end.
Step Three: Easy Shelter Types
Most of the instructions here are going to be for a quinzee shelter; a hollowed out mound. Those take a good four to five hours or more to make. If you have less time, consider just digging a trench in the snow. Make it big enough to fit your body, then cover it with a tarp, rainfly, jacket, pine boughs or similar to keep the snow off. That won't be as warm inside, but it will protect you from the wind and snow. Or, you can dig something similar to fit your tent. Which is best for you depends on your equipment, the weather conditions and how much time you have to work with.
Step Four: Pile Snow
You'll want to create a mound (or fill a depression or dig into an existing snow pile) that's at least five feet tall and seven to eight feet across, assuming you're building this shelter for one or two people. You can build larger shelters for more people or a more luxurious interior, just scale appropriately.
We use and recommend Black Diamond's range of extendable show shovels. Equipped with tough aluminum blades and handles, they're light and small enough to fit in a pack, but strong enough to be relied on for hard work.
Once you have your mound, pack it down by walking over it with snow shoes or patting it down with your shovel. Then, allow 90 minutes to two hours for it to set. The compressed snow will bind together during this time, making your structure much stronger.
Step Five: Hollow It Out
Gather a bunch of sticks that are 18 inches to two feet long, depending on how thick you want your roof. Poke those in the mound, all over. You'll use them to measure thickness as you dig.
Then identify a good place to put your entrance. If you're just building this for fun, just put a big hole in the side. If you're building it to sleep in, you'll want to find the downhill side (if any) and tunnel in at ground level. Pointing this tunnel upwards, into your shelter will help cold air (which falls downwards) flow out of your shelter at night. Facing your entrance away from the wind is also probably a good idea.
Dig in, then start excavating your cave from the top, down. This is going to take a while and you're probably going to start with your hands, maybe progressing to your shovel depending on how large a shelter you're building. Obviously stop when you hit your measuring sticks.
Step Six: Build A Sleeping Platform
You can do this one of two ways. Either leave a foot or so of snow on the floor as you're excavating, then dig a trench down to the ground, leading out through your door. This will help cold air leave the shelter as you warm it up with your body heat.
Or, you can excavate the entire floor of the shelter, then build a raised bed. Do so about a foot tall to achieve the same effect.
Don't forget your air hole!
Step Seven: Pimp It Out
If you can find some big icicles, poking them in through the roof can create natural light tubes. The snow will naturally allow a little light in, but icicles can really help.
If you have a candle and something to put it in (like a glass jar or lantern), dig a little shelf into one wall for it.
You'll want some insulation between you and the snow when you sleep. An insulated sleeping pad will work best, but in a pinch just use what you can have or can find. Spread out your pack and spare clothing and other supplies or gather pine boughs or similar and pile them up inside.
An empty water bottle makes a great pee receptacle. Leaving your shelter at night is a hassle.
If you plan to habitate your shelter for some time, you can "anchor" an outdoor living area to it in order to block the wind. Just start a wall from one side of it, looping it around far enough to cancel whatever wind conditions you're facing. Or dig a pit outside that accomplishes the same. Build your fire either on the ground or on a little platform made from logs to keep it off the melting snow.
Want to build a fire in cold, snowy conditions? A knife may be your best bet. Carrying a big bow saw, if you have the capacity, will work better though.
Want to melt snow for drinking water? Put it in a pot that already has a little warm water in the bottom, then heat it. That'll prevent your water from tasting "scorched" and will melt snow with much less energy.
We're planning an adventure in the near future where we're going to build and live in show shelters of our own. Stay tuned.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.