Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How to build a snow shelter AKA quinzhee

Quinzhee by house
 Life dumps a load of snow on you, why not build a snow fort? These structures are great for overnight camping, and thanks to their insulation value, are far superior to a tent. Like most good things, they do take a while to construct.  Unlike Rome, however, they can be built in a day. Best to start early in the day if you're needing it for overnight accommodations.

Polking air holes
The first step of building a snow fort, also known as a quinzhee, is to develop a big pile of snow on a flat surface.  My inspiration for building a quinzhee came from shoveling snow off the roof.  I ended up with a large pile of the white stuff that I used for the foundation. I then used a snow shovel to pile the snow higher, into the form of a dome.  It is best if you can pile the snow around six feet in height. It should be closer to 10 feet across in width to comfortably sleep 2-3 people.

Next, let the snow pile rest for at least a few hours in order to settle, overnight is even better. Then, polk a couple of dozen holes or so, about 12-16 inches deep, into the snow all around the fort. These holes will serve a couple of purposes.  First, they're indicators as to when to stop digging, when sunlight comes them them, which helps avoid making the walls too thin.  These holes also help with the fort's air circulation.

Digging with shovel
Next step is to dig out the  interior of the fort.  This is the most challenging part of the job.  I used a spade shovel and gradually worked my way deeper into the fort, one spade load at a time.  For insulation purposes you  don't make the entryway too big, it should be just large enough to crawl though. It is important during this digging out process to watch for holes that were polked into the fort earlier. This is best done in the daylight, so you can see light coming through once you've reached a hole.  Another approach is to dig until a faint hint of light is seen through the walls of the fort. 

For safety purposes it is best to have at least a couple people involved in the digging process, in the event of a collapse.  It is also desirable, when digging from within the quinzhee, to stay on one's knees, and avoid being one's back, should a collapse occur while digging.

It is ideal to leave a 6 inch layer of snow on the ground for insulation.  As for the height of the quinzhee, you don't want to make it too tall, e.g. standing room height, in order to keep the warm air closer to the ground. I would recommend at least enough headroom to be able to sit up straight.
One candle gives light to quinzhee 

As the digging out nears completion the walls should be formed into a dome shape, and smoothed out as much as possible to prevent dripping when the fort warms up. 

To avoid carbon dioxide poisoning please don't ever cook in the quinzhee.  A candle, however, is a nice touch.  You will be amazed at what a wonderful ambiance it brings to the fort, along with warmth.   

In the event of a big snow fall you may want to keep your shovel inside the fort with you, should it be required to dig out in the morning.  For sleeping, a tarp should be layed on the ground, then isolated pad and finally a winter sleeping bag.  You will discover one of the wonderful aspects of a snow fort is the absolute silence inside, due to the snow's insulation.

Happy winter camping!

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