Build a Snow Shelter: Making a Quinzhee for Fun or Survival

Whether you’re an avid winter camper, looking for a fun project for a snow-day, or lost in the woods, knowing how to construct a snow-shelter is great, and in some cases, it could save your life. Contrary to initial impressions, snow shelters are often warmer than tents. Snow is an excellent insulator, and will hold in any body heat produced by those dwelling in a snow shelter. For fun or survival, a snow-shelter, or quinzhee, is relatively simple to make.

You can make an effective shelter, or quinzhee, with only a few inches of snow on the ground, even less if you can utilize an existing mound of snow from wind-drifts or plowing. Here’s how:

Start by piling snow into a large rounded mound. The ideal height for this mound is nearly head-height, as this will give you room to move around, and to keep any gear you may have inside with you. If you’re building the shelter for fun, and may spend time inside with a number of people, bigger is definitely better. I used to make cavernous quinzhees when I was a kid from the piles left behind near my driveway by the snow-plow.

In a camping or survival situation, you will often have to make due with a smaller shelter, due to time constraints and snow availability. Moving snow is hard work, so working form existing snow piles is always preferable to making your own. If you can, let the mound sit overnight before continuing, as that will increase its strength. Obviously, in a survival situation, this isn’t an option.

Break up some small dead sticks, and push them about 4 inches into the mound all around, making a giant snow porcupine. One winter, when I was building a lot of these shelters, I actually cut a bunch of small dowels to length for this use, but that’s overkill. Any sticks will do. The sticks will show you when to stop digging as you hollow out your functional space within the pile, and prevent you from inadvertently punching through to the outside or even collapsing your pile. For this reason, the more sticks you use, the better.

Carefully start digging a small hole in the mound at ground level – you’ll need to be able to crouch/crawl/slither through this hole, but in terms of overall warmth, smaller is better. As soon as your hole is 4-6 inches deep, start expanding it, eventually hollowing out the whole mound. Whenever you hit one of your marker-sticks, stop digging in that section. You’ll want to be slow and deliberate as you get closer to the edge. Once you’ve hit your marker sticks all of the way around, you’re essentially done, and can start enjoying your shelter immediately.

Getting Fancy – If you want to go really hog-wild, these shelters are pretty flexible. Here are a few quick tips for getting fancy with your quinzhee:

Doors – For overnight use, a door or windbreak can make a big difference. As a kid, I would prop a sled up against the door, or else hang a tarp. Either will work well to keep out the elements. In larger shelters, you can simply make a large snowball and roll it into the door hole. Wind-breaks are easy to build, too. Just build a wall of snow on the outside of your shelter near the door. The wall will divert any wind away from your door, and warm things up inside quite nicely.

Fire – I wouldn’t make this modification in any but the largest of quinzhees, as putting a fire too close to the shelter walls will melt your quinzhee pretty fast, but it is a whole lot of fun. In a shelter that’s been standing for a few days, and is quite solid, make a hole in the ceiling of the shelter, dead canter, and at the highest point of the roof. The hole should be about a foot wide. Build a small fire directly under the hole. There will be a whole lot of smoke at first, and you may even need to go outside while the fire gets going, but once it’s burning well, the smoke will be greatly reduced, and should be able to exit cleanly through the hole in the ceiling.

A note on quinzhee strength – Be aware that during the first day or two of use, your quinzhee is at its weakest. The snow pile is fresh, and is being exposed to all sorts of new load-bearing forces. After a day or so, however, the shelter will settle into an impressively strong structure. I spent a weekend in a quinzhee several years ago with two friends. We’re all pretty big guys, with not one of us weighing in at under 220 pounds. After our trip was over, we decided to test out handiwork by climbing up the outside. The shelter easily withstood our combined weight with no problem, and we literally had to jump, kick, and use shovels to break it down.

PLOW-PILE WARNING: Building a quinzhee can be a great snow-day or weekend activity for kids. As I mentioned, I used to use the plow-piles from the plowing of my driveway to build these shelters. Every year, though, the news in New England carries a sad and terrifying story about children being killed in similar situations. If the plow-driver comes while you are in your shelter, it’s very possible for them to either low-in the entrance hole, or worse, collapse the whole shelter by pushing more snow up onto the pile. Watch children carefully in these situations, and don’t use a snow-shelter of this sort if you’re expecting the plow to come by.

Quinzhees are incredible versatile and exciting snow shelters. They can be build anywhere there is snow, and provide entertainment, emergency shelter, and a lot of fun. Enjoy!

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