Being stranded outdoors without adequate shelter during winter can quickly become life-threatening. Building a snow shelter by hand is often your best option for preserving body heat and safely waiting out a storm overnight.
With the right location, tools, and techniques, even novices can construct durable snow shelters capable of shielding them from hypothermia, frostbite and windchill until help arrives.
This comprehensive beginner’s guide covers everything you need to know about building different types of basic snow shelters for emergency winter survival.
Introduction to Snow Shelters
Snow shelters protect against the main elements that steal body heat during winter— conductive cooling from contact with snow, convection from wind, and radiant heat loss to cold surrounding surfaces.
Well-constructed snow shelters can maintain temperatures 20-40°F warmer than outside ambient air temperature. They insulate by trapping your body heat to keep a small internal space surprisingly warm and comfortable, even when it’s below freezing outside.
The key factors in an effective snow shelter are:
- Wall thickness – The thicker the shelter walls, the better they insulate. Aim for 12+ inches.
- Density – Compacted, consolidated snow packs down into dense walls that resist conducted heat loss.
- Location – Build your shelter in a naturally wind-protected spot or excavate into a snowdrift on the leeward side.
- Ventilation – Some airflow prevents dangerous buildup of exhaled CO2.
- Entrance – A small, low opening helps retain warm air. Block wind by constructing an entryway.
- Insulation – Use any available materials like emergency blankets, evergreen branches, bark or gear under you for insulation.
With practice and the right snow conditions, a snow cave, quinzhee or trench shelter can be built by hand in 1-3 hours. Let’s go over the various types of snow shelters and step-by-step building instructions.
Snow Cave Shelters
Snow caves make excellent emergency shelters when constructed in deep, consolidated snow banks or drifts. The hardened snow provides structural support to carve out an inside chamber where you can sit up comfortably.
Snow caves offer superior insulation and take less time and effort than a quinzhee to build. But they rely on finding an existing deep snowdrift in the right place.
How to Build a Snow Cave:
Step 1: Choose a Site
- Look for a steep, deep snowdrift at least 3-4 feet thick, preferably on a north-facing slope or gully that avoids sun exposure.
- The site should be elevated but near trees for added wind protection and insulation material.
- Avoid sites at the bottom of an avalanche path or under heavy snow loads on ridges.
Step 2: Dig the Entrance
- Start digging a tunnel into the slope horizontally at the base of the drift.
- Make the entrance tunnel 2-3 feet high and wide. Keep it fairly level and smooth as you dig inside the drift.
- Angle the tunnel upward gradually as you dig deeper into the slope.
Step 3: Excavate the Interior
- Once 6+ feet inside the drift, begin excavating upward and outward to form a dome-shaped chamber high enough to sit up in.
- Make sure to leave at least 1 foot of packed snow on all sides for good insulation.
- Smooth the inside walls and ceiling. Remove any loose snow or debris which reduces insulation.
- Poke a ventilation hole with a ski pole to the surface from inside the top of the chamber.
Step 4: Build an Entrance
- From inside the cave, dig a 2-3 foot long entrance tunnel into the chamber, with smooth walls and ceiling.
- Make it small (1.5 feet high and wide) to trap warm air inside.
- Dig an entrance trench outside at a right angle to help block wind.
- Wall off the tunnel entrance with gear or blocks of snow at night.
Step 5: Add Insulation
- Line the floor with evergreen boughs, bark or any insulating materials. Use a foam pad or pack under you.
- Fill any cracks or holes in the walls/ceiling with loose snow.
- An emergency blanket stretched overhead provides additional heat retention.
- Plug the entrance tunnel with gear at night and snow blocks or an insulating plug during the day.
With practice, a basic snow cave can be dug and finished in under 2 hours. The effort invested pays off once inside the warm, sheltering space you’ve created using only snow!
Tips for Snow Caves:
- Seek out north-facing tree-protected slopes and gullies as sites.
- Let gravity help dig – excavate up into the overhanging drift. Smooth the ceiling.
- Make the entryway crawl-space small – heat escapes through openings.
- Ventilate to avoid CO2 buildup but block openings at night.
- Use a shovel to speed up digging and shaping if available.
Quinzhee Snow Shelters
Quinzhees are essentially artificial snow caves built by tunneling into a mound of piled loose snow, which then hardens into a structural shell.
Any open snow-covered site can work, giving you flexibility compared to natural snow caves. But constructing the mound takes more time and labor.
How to Build a Quinzhee Snow Shelter:
Step 1: Pile and Shape Mound
- Choose a flat, open site with deep snow, preferably sheltered from wind.
- Trample down a circular floor space about 6-8 feet in diameter.
- Pile loose snow onto the floor space at least 4-6 feet high in a dome shape.
- Let sit 1-2 hours until the snow consolidates and stiffens (or overnight if very cold).
Step 2: Excavate the Interior
- Carefully poke ventilation holes into the top and sides with a pole.
- Start tunneling straight into the side about 3 feet above ground level, creating a low crawl-in entrance.
- Excavate inward and upward, hollowing out a dome-shaped chamber high enough to sit in.
- Leave at least 1 foot of packed snow walls for insulation. Smooth the inside.
- Dig a right-angle trench outside the entrance to trap warm air.
Step 3: Add Insulation and Final Touches
- Line the floor with evergreen branches, a foam pad or pack.
- Fill cracks in walls with loose snow. Allow ventilation but block openings at night.
- Drape an emergency blanket or tarp overhead for additional heat retention if needed.
With some physical effort, a quinzhee can provide emergency shelter and superior insulation from only loose snow. Just be sure to give the mound adequate time to harden before tunneling inside.
Tips for Quinzhees:
- Let the piled snow sinter and stiffen for 1-2 hours minimum before excavating.
- Shape the initial mound taller and narrower than your planned interior for structural integrity.
- Smooth walls and ceiling to improve insulation and reduce conduction.
- Make a small, low crawl-space entrance and trench to trap warm air.
Trench shelters are the quickest and easiest type of snow shelter to construct in a survival situation. A basic trench provides insulation by getting you below snow level and out of the wind.
How to Build a Trench Shelter:
Step 1: Choose Site
- Pick a long, deep drift or snow-covered flat area, out of avalanche paths and protected from wind.
Step 2: Dig Trench
- Dig a trench in the snow about 3-4 feet deep, 2-3 feet wide, and long enough to lay in (6-8 feet).
- Widen one end for your upper body and one side to enter from.
Step 3: Insulate and Take Shelter
- Line the floor with evergreen branches, bark or a foam pad for insulation.
- Cover the top edges with blocks of snow or gear to block wind.
- Wrap yourself in emergency blankets or a tarp for additional heat retention.
Trench shelters are quick shelters requiring minimal effort. But they offer limited space and insulation compared to snow caves or quinzhees. Still, a basic trench can provide life-saving refuge in a winter survival emergency when time or energy are short.
Tips for Trench Shelters:
- Make the trench long and deep enough to get as much of your body below snow level as possible.
- Insulate the floor from conductive heat loss to snow underneath you.
- Block any openings with gear or snow blocks to reduce windchill.
- Have a shovel for excavating and a probe or ski poles to check snow wall thickness.
- Stay hydrated – melt snow for drinking water.
- Wear waterproof outer layers. Avoid getting insulation materials like bark wet.
- Set up camp early to finish the shelter well before sunset.
- Bring a flashlight or headlamp if spending the night.
- Do not build a fire inside – sparks can cause the shelter to collapse.
- CO poisoning is a hazard if ventilation is blocked. Watch for signs of headache, dizziness or nausea.
- Know potential signs of hypothermia like shivering, confusion and slurred speech. Keep active.
- Snow shelters require proper site selection, construction, and precautions. But they can provide emergency winter insulation and shelter.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long does it take to build a basic snow shelter?
Expect a snow cave to take 1-2 hours to excavate and finish. Quinzhees require 45-60 minutes to pile, shape and harden the mound, plus another 45-60 minutes to excavate once hardened. A basic trench shelter can be dug in 15-30 minutes. With practice you can construct emergency shelters in 2 hours or less.
2. What tools do you need to build a snow shelter?
A snow shovel makes excavating snow caves much easier, but sturdy branches, skis, poles or any implements for digging and shaping can work. A probe helps check snow wall thickness. Insulating materials like evergreen boughs, emergency blankets and foam pads add comfort.
3. How do you ventilate a snow shelter safely?
Leaving a few holes open at the top and sides allows dangerous CO2 to escape, but make them small to retain heat. Plug openings completely at night when sleeping. Watch for signs of CO2 buildup like headaches or dizziness. Open up holes if affected.
Snow caves, quinzhees and trench shelters all require proper site selection, construction techniques and some physical labor. But they can provide life-saving insulation and shelter in an emergency winter survival scenario. Learning how to effectively build different types of snow shelters gives you valuable survival skills. With preparation and practice, you can create durable, heated refuge using snow alone that just might save your life.
The key is staying dry inside well-insulated shelters. Remember to conserve energy, stay hydrated, watch for hypothermia, and avoid CO2 buildup when taking refuge inside snow shelters during winter emergencies. With this comprehensive beginner’s guide, you now have the knowledge to construct multiple snow shelter types using only the snow under your feet and your survival skills.