When icy blasts and nuking snow make setting up—and sleeping in—a tent seem like less than Type-2 Fun, think about building a snow shelter instead. With snow’s natural insulating properties, no matter how gnarly conditions get outside, the inside of a well-built snow shelter will hover around or above 32 degrees. And the more people piled inside, the warmer it will get.
Snow shelters take a little more time and effort to build than setting up a tent, but a really simple one can take just a half hour to build. And if you’re setting up a base camp to stay in for more than one night, a snow shelter will stand the weather better, and keep you warmer, than the thin fabric walls of a tent. All you need is one or two lightweight shovels, some spare energy and maybe a snow saw.
Here are three different types of shelters to try on your next backcountry trip.
Snow Trench With A Roof (1/2 hour to 2 hours)
1) If you’re in a pinch and need a quick emergency bivy, a snow trench is the fastest option. But with a little more effort, it can become a big, comfy lounge space.
2) Mark the outline of your trench on the surface, making it just slightly wider than your shoulders and a couple of feet longer than you are tall, multiplying by the number of people. Shovel out the snow—or cut out blocks with a snow saw—until it’s between waist and armpit deep. Set aside the snow blocks to use for the roof.
3) If you’re building it larger, for two or more people, cut out or build in sleeping benches on the ground. If the snow’s not deep enough, or it’s too icy or hard to keep digging, boost the shelter’s perimeter height by adding your cut-out blocks in a wall around the edges.
4) If you’re in a hurry, or short on usable snow, lay your skis, poles, tent poles, or other items to span the top of your trench. Cover them with a tarp or tent fly, and then weigh it down around the edges. Insulate the top with a light layer of snow, but not enough to cave it in.
5) For a snow roof, lean snow blocks in an A-frame shape, blocking one end with a single block and staggering the leaning blocks for extra strength. Fill in gaps and holes with snow afterward, carving one three-inch-wide vent hole with a ski pole or ice axe.
Snow Mound or Quinzhee (2 to 4 hours)
1) The snow mound method might be even easier than the trench method, and can result in a round, cozy shelter perfect for more than one person.
2) Throw all your gear, backpacks, etc., in a pile where you want your shelter to be, and then shovel snow on top of the pile to bury it all. Keep patting down the snow to keep it strong, building the pile until it’s about two feet thick all the way around.
3) Dig an entryway on the side away from the wind, digging downward first, and then back up toward the gear pile. If more than one person is helping, they can dig another temporary opening on the other side to speed the process along, and then fill it up afterward.
4) Pull all the equipment back out through the entrances and shape the inside of the shelter smoothly, deepening the floor and shaping the ceiling until you can see blue light coming through—at about a foot thick.
5) Be sure to carve out a vent hole in the leeward side of the shelter, a few inches wide.
Snow Cave (3 to 4 hours)
1) Building a snow cave requires scouting a spot where the snow is naturally sloping upward, and is nicely compacted but not too hard to shovel. It’s the simplest of all the shelters, but requires the right conditions and a little more elbow grease.
2) Dig an entrance into the snow drift, a bit wider than your shoulder width, and three feet deep, before you scoop out a level platform slightly higher than the entrance. This will keep the cold air sinking outward.
3) Keep shoveling snow out and hollowing out the ceiling until you have enough room for your gear and everyone who will sleep inside. Then don’t forget to poke a three-inch wide vent hole through the roof.
Tips to Keep in Mind:
- Smoothing out bumps and irregularities on the inside will help keep melting drops from dripping down onto you as the interior temps warm.
- Shaping the ceiling into a contour instead of a flat roof will make is stronger, less likely to sag.
- A snow cave can be super strong in cold temperatures, but if it’s warming near freezing, its strength can be compromised—and the roof can collapse. Pay attention to temperatures to know whether it’s better to just set up a tent.
- Don’t waste time digging out the most roomy cave possible if you’re concerned about staying warm. The smaller the shelter, the warmer it will be.
- Carving a small channel around the base of the walls will help any melting water or condensation drip away from the floor.
- Keep all your tools inside through the night, in case you get snowed in.
- Mark the area with skis or a trekking pole to help keep potential passersby from walking on top and caving it in.
- For more details, check out the Snow and Winter Camping chapter of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.