First of all
Building a snow shelter will save your life if you need it to. But there are a few things you should consider before embarking on this route.
Here I will explain how I built the Quinzee (snow shelter) that I slept in in -34 degrees Celsius in the Norwegian Arctic, the region is called Finnmarksvidda and it is close to Kautokeino in Norway.
We created two videos for this project. The first shows in detailed, without me talking, how I build and lived in the snow shelter. In the second one you will see more about the project, you will find it at the end of this description.
Always sleep with the shovel inside with you right next to the bed!
A little about SNOW…
Its an amazing substance, it has terrific insulation properties and also sound isolation. Inside the temperature should equalize to about -4 degrees Celsisus and you’ll almost not be abel to hear anything from outside while you are inside.
If used correctly, snow can be very strong, if used incorrectly it can be deadly. And these are the start of the things to consider. Even powdery snow will stick together once it has had time to settle. And once it has settled for long enough it will have compressed and it will turn into ice at this point it takes on a completely different structure and characteristics… But for our purposes here and using it as an emergency temporary shelter, lets assume none of us will be using it for more than a couple of days.
In order for snow to support itself the walls and roof must be curved, this will add strength to the ceiling and prevent it from collapsing. If you make a flat ceiling then it will more than likely collapse in on you. If this happens you will probably not be able to move under the weight of the snow and air will run out extremely quickly… DOMES ARE YOUR FRIEND.
Enough of the doom and gloom, lets get to the fun part and build it.
Let’s build a Quinzee
Firstly work slowly and calmly… You do not want to break a sweat! Its very important as once you sweat then you will get cold, then you run the risk of getting hypothermia. NOT GOOD!
Take off clothing as you warm up to keep cool, once you stop working then add layers back on to keep warm… if you are dry, then you are warm… If you are wet, then you are cold! At least that advice is for the low temperatures I have experienced.
Hopefully you will have at least one companion with you to help build this as its a lot of work and very tiring. I built mine alone and my muscles were very sore afterwards. My companion was “filming” and I had to do all the work alone.
Now you will want at least one shovel… if you are traveling through the snow.. either hiking or skiing you should already have this in your essentials pack. A LIGHTWEIGHT SHOVEL.
You want to find the location (beware of avalanches in the area if building in areas prone to it) for the quinze and this will depend a lot on the terrain you are in and how much snow you have available. Find a relatively flat spot this will be the base of your quinze (if there is a hill remember its easier to shovel down than up hill so try to build at the base).
Once you have your location the next step is quite easy… Start shoveling… shovel shovel shovel shovel… If you are wondering if you have enough shoveled on there: then you haven’t and so keep shoveling. If you can with your feet, snowshoes or skis try to compact the snow as you are shoveling it (this will speed up the settling process and make a stronger structure in the end). Take it in turns with your friend, the size of the mound of snow will be determined by the amount of people sleeping in it….
If it will be more than 3 then I would build more smaller ones (with two people in each ) rather than one huge one.
The base diameter needs to be big enough that you can both comfortably lay down and also move around each other as well as the height needs to be such that you can at least sit up inside.
Snow shelter dimensions
Wall and roof thickness: Basically the thicker the better… It cant be too thick but you will want a minimum of 30cm (1 foot for those of you across the pond) on the roof and getting thicker the further down the walls you go until you reach the ground. And this obviously will be the thickest part of the building. Basically, you don’t want to be able to see light emanating in or out of the walls or roof if you can help it. If there is not enough snow and this happens just know that you are on the thin side and to proceed with caution.
So how to know how thick the walls are then? The easiest way is to break twigs about 30cm long and once you have made a mound that is a size that is big enough the press the twigs into the roof and walls then you can dig out the snow inside until you come across the ends of the twigs… EASY
Let the snow settle
After you have built your snow mount and added the twigs you must let the snow mound settle for at least 2 hours. This allows the snow to stick together and it’ll allow you to form your structural shape.
So 2 hours is up and its time to start hollowing out the inside, determine where you want the door, and try to make it protected and facing away from wind and weather. Start digging as low as possible and make the opening as small as possible, then just slowly start scooping out the snow methodically and working your way deeper into the quinzee. The Snow you shovel out can be place in a wall around the outside of the door opening to further protect you inside from the outside elements.
Creating the inside
The bed/s need to be (optimally) higher than the TOP of the door opening. So you can take this into account when choosing your location and also building the size of the mound. The best way would be to really compact the base layer of snow before you start to make the mound. Make it as thick and hard as reasonable, considering that you will have to dig out out 2 hours later. Then as you are hollowing out the inside of the quinzee you can make a wall with your shovel that is the height of the top of the door opening. This wall will act as the upper level for the beds and the lower level for the door and where the cold air will fall to and sit.
Once you have the inside hollowed out and bed levels finished then you need to add Oxygen inlet holes … OXYGEN = GOOD!. Don’t add the holes directly above where your head will be as the cold air will fall in straight onto your head… COLD = NOT GOOD. Place the holes in the close to the to[ of the height at about a 45 degree angle. 2 or 3 holes 25-30 mm should be adequate.
Home sweet Home
Hopefully you have a sleeping mat with you such as a thermarest… if not.. you are going to need to make something to get you off the snow or you will freeze. A sleeping matt is best and most comfortable but if you don’t have it then its time to go outside and start to make friends with the trees. If you have pine or spruce trees then you are in luck.. if there are only deciduous trees then … your gong to have a shit nights sleep with branches sticking in your back but you’ll survive. What you need to do is break off the thin branches and lay them down on your snow bed, the thicker the better and the more leaves the more comfortable, once you have that down then you can set up your sleeping bag and the rest of whatever bedding you have.
Now you are exhausted and ready for bed… Cover the entrance with your packs but make it easy to get them out of the way in case an emergency exit is required. And ALWAYS sleep with the shovel inside with you.
Never cook inside your quinze, never light a fire inside to warm it up and don’t burn candles… Its just not worth it as all of these produce carbon monoxide… The silent killer
CARBON MONOXIDE = BAD
You cant smell it, it doesn’t make you convulse, It kills you by displacing oxygen in the blood, which means the body cant absorb any oxygen… so it’ll starve the heart and brain and cause you to loose consciousness before you wake up or realise what’s happening if you are already awake… then you will suffocate and die. The end. Its basically a peaceful way to go but doesnt help at all with surviving.
Carbon Dioxide is also caused by fire and what we breath out, will likely wake you up gasping for air and having a horrendous feeling of suffocating.. Also nothing pleasant.
So again NEVER burn ANYTHING inside the quinze!
Dont be afraid from the warnings in this article, Take note and be sensible. If you use common sense then you will be safe and survive
Watch the full video about my quinzee episode, let me know what you think in the comments!