Anyone who has ridden a chairlift to the top of a windswept ski area, snowshoed down a snow-covered trail, or traveled into the backcountry by any means when all is white has imagined a cold, lonely night in the woods. Some people get lost. Others get stuck, stranded, or injured. It happens to even the most experience winter warriors. Knowing how to build a snow shelter could mean the difference between succumbing to exposure and surviving until morning. It’s also a fun way to spend a winter afternoon outdoors with your family.
The most common type of emergency snow shelter is called a “quinzee” or “quinzhee” (KWIN-zee). The word comes from the Athabascans, Alaska’s native people, but the shelter is not exclusive to them. It has been used throughout many northern realms, including Canada, Scandinavia…and New England. Today, many people build quinzees for fun as backyard snow houses or as substitutes for tents while winter camping, as well as to avoid freezing to death.
I built my first quinzee several years at AMC’s Highland Center in Crawford Notch, N.H. The process surprised me in a couple of ways: how long it took (over three hours) and how the snow changed structurally from simply piling it up.
A quinzee is made by hollowing out a huge mound of settled snow. In contrast, an igloo is made from blocks of ice or hard snow that are cut and then placed into a curved dome. Historically, igloos were built to last the duration of the winter. Quinzees were temporary shelters. They are easier to construct but less sturdy than igloos. To survive a winter night in the woods, a quinzee is your only option when there’s not enough accumulation to build a snow cave, a hollowed out space in an existing, dense snow drift. Building a quinzee will certainly warm you up and could potentially save your life. You need only a flat area with lots of snow, though a shovel certainly helps!
Step 1: Build a Platform
The first step is to pack out the area where you want to locate your quinzee. Use skis or snowshoes if you have them, and stomp out a sturdy platform on which to build. Then make a huge pile of snow at least 6 feet high (8 feet high is better), breaking up the clumps and mixing up the snow as you go. The mound should be wide enough for at least two people to lie side by side inside it—approximately 8 feet wide to allow for wall-thickness. It should be at least 2 feet longer than the length of your sleeping bag if you have one, or about 8 feet long.
Step 2: Snow Mound
After making the mound of snow, gather about two dozen sticks, each about a foot long. Insert each of these, at random intervals, 10 inches into the top and sides of the snow pile, leaving 2 inches of each stick exposed to the air. Your snow dune will quickly resemble a giant white pincushion.
Step 3: Sintering
Allow the snow in your dune to “sinter” for at least 90 minutes, though it might take three or more hours. In general, the colder the air temperature, the quicker the snow will set up. Sintering is the process of turning a powder into a solid. Snowflakes become rounded and break due to mixing while building the mound and then from the pressure of having other snowflakes piled on top of them. The granules of snow fuse together, forming larger crystals at the molecular level and a harder mass on the whole. Packing the snow as you stack it isn’t necessary. The key is to make sure the snow is powdery or sugary, not clumpy.
Step 4: Time to Dig
After the mound sets up, it’s time to start digging. Make an entrance on the leeward side big enough to crawl through. Ideally, the entrance will slope upward slightly before entering the main chamber, which will help trap warmer air inside the shelter. Then start clearing out the snow. You’ll eventually come to the ends of the sticks that poke through from the outside. Those are your guides to stop digging in those spots, leaving a 10-inch thick wall.
Step 5: Final Details
As you hollow out the quinzee, carve out a sleeping “step” (platform) about a foot high for each person. Poke a ventilation hole or two into the top of the shelter about the diameter of your fist and then create a shallow trench on the floor between the snowbeds to the door to give condensation an escape route. Similar to winter camping in a tent, condensation forms on the inside of the dome from your breathing and the fact that it’s warmer inside the quinzee than outside it. If you close off the doorway, use a backpack to allow some air flow rather than a solid object or snow. When finished, you should be able to sit comfortably inside your quinzee, but probably not stand in it, similar to a backpacking tent.
The temperature inside a quinzee hovers around 30 degrees, not exactly balmy but preferable to being outside when it’s below zero and the wind is howling. Building a quinzee takes lots of time, from three to six hours. You’ll expend a large amount of energy in the beginning to pile the snow then at the end to dig out the shelter, with several hours of wait-time in between, so it won’t offer instant shelter from a blizzard. That said, the exertion required to make it will help keep you warm. Luckily I’ve never had to sleep in one as an emergency shelter, but they’re fun to build and crawl inside. And it’s toastier than a tent!
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you build a quinzee: