Over the course of human history, people in colder climates have devised many ways to shape snow into shelter, from simple burrows to elaborate igloos.
In the cold wilderness, it may seem counterintuitive to use snow to warm yourself, but it could be a lifesaver. Used in the right way, snow is a great insulator that can block frigid wind and capture the heat created by your body. Just ask the mice and other creatures that survive the winter by digging tunnels under the snow.
If you want to build a snow shelter, the design you choose should depend on many factors, including the quality of the snow and whether or not you have help from other people. The amount of time you have to build the shelter, the tools you have to work with and the purpose of your shelter should also help determine the design.
For example, if you’re in an emergency situation — say you’re lost in the woods and the sun is setting — you don’t have the time to shape snow blocks to carefully stack into a dome-shaped igloo. But, if you have an abundance of time and are looking to build a roomy shelter in your own backyard, an igloo may be a fun project that could hold up for weeks.
Useful tools for building a snow shelter include a shovel, saw and pick. Many winter expeditionists carry a collapsible shovel with them for emergency scenarios and to help them move snow at any campsites.
Here are some of the most popular types of snow shelters, starting simple and working up to more complex and time-consuming constructions.
If there’s a couple feet of snow cover on the ground, you can quickly dig a trench as a shelter that will block wind. Dig straight down, carving out a rectangle that’s large enough for you to lie down and curl up.
On the YouTube Channel “Nate Large — Woodworking DIY & More,” you can watch an outdoorsman digging a trench and covering the top with a tarp, which will help trap in body heat. He pins down the edge of the tarp with chunks of snow that he shoveled out of the trench. That way, the wind won’t simply blow it away.
If you can find a large snow drift or a snowy slope, that’s the perfect opportunity to carve out a simple snow cave. Start by digging a circular entrance at the bottom of the snow drift that’s large enough for you to fit through, then get to work carving out a cave. This is the typical snow fort design that’s used by children digging in piles created by snow plows.
On the YouTube channel “Treader Tube,” two men build a fairly spacious snow cave in Aviemore, Scotland. Their snow cave included two shelves for their sleeping bags, but their entrance was a bit too large, allowing wind to sneak inside and keep the temperature low. One way to prevent this is by building a wall of snow as a wind block just beyond the entrance.
An evergreen tree, with its bows of densely packed needles, shelters the ground directly below it. In times of snow, this often results in a tree well, which is a space around the tree’s trunk that doesn’t get the same amount of snow as the surrounding open space. This well is the perfect spot to start digging out a snow shelter because part of the work is already done for you and the tree’s branches provide extra cover.
On the YouTube channel “EarthWalker” is a video showing what a tree well looks like and how to build a shelter using both an upright tree and a fallen tree. The man in the video stresses the idea of blending in with the natural world and seeing what it has to offer.
A mound-shaped snow shelter, the quinzhee is of Athabaskan origin and is one of several snow structures used by native populations in Alaska. It’s a great option when you need a larger space, but it may take you a full day or more to construct. It’s also a good option if the snow cover isn’t very deep because you start the project by shoveling the snow into a big pile.
Once the pile is created, stab the pile with sticks, sinking them in about a foot. These sticks will guide you as you shovel out the cave on the inside. When you hit the end of a stick, you know you’re about a foot away from breaking through the wall.
In 2015, Unity College students built a large quinzhee on campus as a project for their winter ecology class. The Bangor Daily News tagged along, then spent the night in the spacious structure.
A beautiful snow shelter that’s meant to be long lasting, igloos are built of blocks of snow that are fit snugly together to form a dome. This type of dwelling was designed and perfected by the Inuit people of Canada and Greenland. Today, they remain an important part of Inuit culture and are sometimes used by hunters as temporary shelters.
You can make a small igloo right in your backyard with a little planning and patience. Inuit people traditionally cut the snow blocks with a special, sawlike instrument. However, this requires an abundance of densely packed snow. One other way to create snow blocks is by packing snow into a rectangular form such as a plastic bin. That is the method used in a video by the YouTube Channel “Exploring Alternatives.” Once they formed the blocks, they arranged them in a circle, building upwards in a spiral-shaped pattern, which is a traditional Inuit design.
With all of these options for snow shelters, you’re bound to find something that’s perfect for you. And if you’ve never built one before, you may be surprised at just how cozy and comforting it is to be surrounded by walls of snow as the cold wind howls outside.