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How to Build a Quinzhee Snow Shelter

Quinzhee Snow Shelter
Quinzhee Snow Shelter

As I was following the discussion of the expense and weight of winter tents, I thought of a shelter I used for an overnight backpack I did a couple of years ago. The total weight of everything I needed for my shelter was less than two pounds and it cost less than twenty dollars. Basically, all that I needed to build my Quinzhee shelter was a collapsible shovel.

For about a decade now, I have been helping with the Boston Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Winter Hiking Program.  As part of the program, we spend a weekend at Cardigan Lodge in New Hampshire. We do day hikes from the lodge up Mt. Cardigan and Firescrew Mountain using crampons and snowshoes, play with winter tents and stoves, go sledding and, sometimes, build snow shelters.

One of the most common shelters we build is called a Quinzhee. Every year, I would extol the comfort and convenience of these shelters as my group returns from our hike. Invariably, someone would ask if I had ever slept in one. I had to sheepishly admit that I had not, until a couple of years ago.

Every February or March I go on an overnight snowshoe trip with an old friend and our sons. Our daughters like to think that they are sane enough to stay home where it is warm and dry. Often we go to an established trail shelter, but every other year or so we will use tents.

Two years ago, I decided to try to sleep in one of the shelters I had so often seen made at Cardigan. We started by stomping out the perimeter of a circle, about twenty feet in diameter.  We then took my shovel and began making a large mound within the circle.  The snow was mostly powder, but there were thin layers of ice as I dug down.  We kept piling up the snow until it was about four feet high.  You do not pack it down.  That would compromise the insulating capability of the snow.  I let time and gravity work on the millions of snowflakes I had just piled up.  After about two hours, gravity pulled the snowflakes together, interlocking those beautiful arms of each flake until I had a mound that I could be reasonably sure was not going to collapse on me.

It was biting cold the day I built my shelter.  Even though I would be the only one sleeping inside, my nephews were happy to help create the large mound of snow using their snowshoes as shovels.  The digging helped keep us warm.

While gravity was starting to lock the snowflakes together, we dug down into the snow that was in front of the mound to make about a ten foot square and three foot deep kitchen area.  At the back of the kitchen area would be the front door to my shelter, leading into the mound of snow.

Once the kitchen area was built and the snow had settled on the mound, I inserted three sticks into the top of the mound so that I would know when to stop digging upward to make the ceiling inside my shelter.  I started with a stick that was about two feet long.  I made a notch in the stick about eight or ten inches from the end of the stick and inserted the stick in the top of the mound until the notch was even with the level of the snow on the outside.

We then began the process of hollowing out the mound of snow.  From my front door, in the kitchen area, I dug into the mound of snow inclining upward for about three feet and then leveling off.  I, more or less, dug a three-foot wide cylinder about twelve or fifteen feet into the mound.  I made the cylinder larger as I went in.  That made it much easier for me to turn around to pass shovels full of snow back out the door to my nephews and son who were outside.

It would have been much more difficult to build the structure if I did not have at least one assistant.  For safety reasons, I do not think one of these shelters should be attempted by one person.

I was now in the center of my mound, under about five feet of snow.  I started digging upward to expand the size of my bedroom.  I continued to hollow out the mound to make a space that was easily larger than that you would find in a three person winter tent.  I wore my rain gear, but still got damp.  I was wearing the clothes I had hiked in with and I changed into dry clothing later.  I continued to go up until I found the three sticks that I had placed eight inches into the snow.  I now knew my roof was only eight inches thick, so I just smoothed out the surfaces.  I took the orange trowel I use for digging cat holes and cut three small holes in my roof, where the sticks had been, for ventilation.

My shelter was not too fancy.  I was going to spend most of my time in camp outside near the fire my friend had made.  I just had a level floor and a roof about four feet over my head.  I have seen some shelters with benches that can serve as raised sleeping platforms.  The only embellishment I added was a small shelf for my candle lantern.  Even that was not used for very long as the little candle caused too much snow melt. My headlamp gave me all the illumination I needed anyway.

I slept on top of my sleeping pad that was on top of an emergency tarp/blanket that I used as a groundcloth.  Even with all of that digging, there was still more than four feet of snow and ice between my sleeping bag and the ground.

An aluminum telescoping avalanche shovel, weighing 1 lb. 13 oz., costs $37 in the Campmor catalog. That, or its equivalent,is all you need to make one of these shelters. I learned to stay away from the lighter plastic shovels you can buy at Target for automotive emergencies. I used one of those and it had to be thrown out when I got home because of the cracks that had developed in it.

It probably took about three hours to build the whole structure and kitchen area, but that was time we spent moving around and staying warm. I was concerned about the possibility of someone walking on top of the mound in the night and collapsing it on me, so I ringed my shelter with a parachute cord cordon.

Most importantly, I slept fabulously. The shelter was warmer and far quieter than a tent. The wind outside was howling, but I never heard it. I did not need the added warmth I would have saved by zipping the bivy sack closed. I stayed dry. If I needed to, I could have easily passed another night or three in the same shelter without soaking my down bag.

My companions were envious of the comfort that I spent the night in. I would never use this shelter if I were by myself, because of safety concerns. If the shelter had collapsed for some reason, I would want my friends nearby. I felt compelled to try this Quinzhee shelter due to guilt, but when I do it again my guilt will be gone and I have little doubt I will have to enlarge the shelter because my son and friends will also need space inside.

By Mark Warren, Instructor, Boston AMC Winter Hiking Program

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  1. Thanks for the interesting article.

    When would this type of shelter be useful? I am assuming that in "deep cold" situations the insulating properties of snow make this a real alternative but three hours is a lot of labor.

    I would be concerned about the amount of sweat and energy it would require to build a qunizhee. For an emergency shelter, would a snow trench or snow cave be a better choice?

    Thanks again.

  2. I think a Quinzhee, like an igloo, is best if you're going to spend a few days in an area, making the energy expenditure worthwhile. It is also a good option for multiple people, vs a trench, which is usually single user. I wouldn't classify this as a fast, emergency shelter, but a lot depends on the depth of the snow around you and other, slopes, etc.

  3. A quinzhee excels in areas with limited snow depth. Even with only a couple of inches on the ground, there's usually enough to make a quinzhee if you're willing to haul the snow to your building site.

    I would think, given enough snow depth a cave would be a better option, but in many places, like the Midwest, there just isn't enough snow for a cave. I've seen plenty of quinzhees built in the BWCA and along the Superior Hiking Trail. They're usually built by people spending a few days in the same campsite–but not always.

    They're plenty warm.

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