|Where I live, in Ontario, Canada, the ground is covered
with white stuff for up to six months of the year. In other North American
locations the cold and snow of winter may dominate life for more or less
time, but anywhere that winter plays a major role, people owe it to
themselves to know about snow shelters.
Survival snow shelters are actually easier to build than their summer
versions. As long as there is a reasonable amount of snow (instead of just
ice or dry cold), the essential building ingredient will be available.
Whether it be a car breakdown, a wilderness emergency or just a winter
survival camping trip, being able to make an effective shelter from the
materials at hand is a valuable and perhaps life saving skill.
The most publicized snow shelter is the quincey, made by piling up a
mound of snow, allowing it to settle and then digging out the interior.
For many years, as the leader of a youth group focused on wilderness
skills, we struggled with the design of the quincey. During those years we
had a range of experiences which highlighted every one of this model’s
drawbacks which are listed below.
1.) Quinceys take a long time to build. Making a huge pile of snow is a
lot of work, especially if you are using only a snow shoe or your hands.
Then, for best results, it is recommended that the mound be left to settle
for at least one to two hours. Finally, digging out the interior can often
take at least another hour. Total time for building a quincey could easily
top four hours.
2.) Building a quincey is an easy way to get hypothermia. The work of
piling up snow into a sizable mound and then digging out the interior
involves moving a considerable mass of snow. This is tiring work and would
drain important energy reserves in any survival situation. It is hard to
hollow out the inside without getting covered in snow. Furthermore, the
body heat produced by the exertion melts the snow you are touching and as
you overheat, you get soaked. Exhausted and with your clothing totally
useless as insulation, you are now a perfect candidate for hypothermia
once you have completed your shelter. I once had various groups of
students build different models of snow shelters at an outdoor education
centre. Members of the quincey group had to be evacuated to the lodge for
precisely the reasons outlined above. They had produced a nice shelter,
but they were drained, drenched and numb from the cold.
3.) A quincey is not a dependable structure. Sometimes in spite of
being built very carefully, quinceys have a nasty habit of collapsing.
This can have a lot to do with the quality of the snow you are using,
temperature changes and the amount of care that is taken in not making the
sides too thin. A collapsed quincey makes a poor shelter! Perhaps more
importantly, being caught inside when it collapses can be fatal. I
personally had the experience of digging inside a quincey at the time of
its collapse. I was not hurt or suffocated, but I was totally pinned by
the weight of the snow. I could laugh at the experience only because I
knew that my colleagues were nearby and ready to dig me out. Had they not
been there, I doubt that I could have freed myself. There have been
several news reports in this area of children being killed in collapsed
snow shelters, and this danger should not be taken lightly.
After many tribulations with the quincey, several years ago I decided
to abandon it and look for a new design. After a few years of
experimentation I came up with a design that eliminates the problems
mentioned above. I have since seen similar designs in other sources, but
this particular plan began with the idea of a Scout Pit (as taught by Tom
Brown Jr.) and was then modified by trial and error experiences. My
colleagues and I call it a snow coffin.
Step 1 - Choose a location for the snow coffin. It is best to have it
on a slightly downhill slope, but a level surface can be used. Space is
required for the excavation of a rectangle approximately 2 ½ ft. by 8
ft., plus an additional area around it for the building up of the snow
Step 2 - Dig out a horizontally level horseshoe shaped area wide enough
for your body and about 2 ft. longer than your height. Use the excavated
snow to build up the three sides of this depression. The top of the
horseshoe is the head end, while the open side of the horseshoe is the
foot end. Pack down the snow on the floor of the horseshoe.
Step 3 - If you have the resources and in the case of a real survival
situation, line the bottom with evergreen boughs, logs or anything else
that might insulate you from the snow and act as a cushion. This is most
easily done at this stage, but can be done later if necessary. When
practicing or survival camping, use an insulated foam pad instead of
boughs to minimize impact on the natural environment.
Step 4 - Using the excavated snow and any other surrounding snow that
may be necessary, build up the sides of the horseshoe and pack it down
firmly. The final lip around the outside should be about 2 feet above the
bottom of the depression. As with most shelters, size is very important.
Larger shelters are more difficult to heat up. The final shelter should be
just high enough so that you can turn over inside it. Try to make the
connection of the bottom and the wall a 90 degree angle.
Step 5 - Form the foot end of the horseshoe to a bottle neck-like
shape. The neck should be a little more narrow than the main part, but
wide enough for you to slide through. This will be the entrance. The neck
should also slope downwards. Ideally, the top of the neck should be level
with the bottom of the main part of the shelter. This is why the shelter
is best built on a slight hill. Otherwise it is necessary to have the
floor of the shelter somewhat elevated so the entrance can be lowered
deeper into the snow, with a large area dug out at the mouth of the
entrance. This slope in the entrance way creates a heat trap and is the
difference between an excellent and an adequate shelter.
Step 6 - Lay dead branches, sticks, boughs and any other reasonably
straight supports across the top of the shelter. A criss-crossing of
sticks, branches and live evergreen boughs should minimize holes in this
roof, so that it can support snow. (In a practice situation a tarp or
plastic bags can replace live material.) Make sure you cover the entrance
way as well.
Step 7 - Begin to cover the structure with snow, carefully at first so
as not to have the snow fall through into the interior. You can start with
chunks or sheets of hard snow. Once the snow accumulates it will settle
and support itself. Cover with about 1 to 2 feet of snow, being sure to
adequately encase the seams and corners. These are the most common areas
of heat loss.
Step 8 - Using a branch, poke a ventilation hole about the diameter of
a broom stick at the head end of the shelter. Fashion a door from lashed
sticks, a snow ball or your pack. (Just remember that a snow door may
freeze solidly, making your exit more challenging.)