I'm still at it this winter, building practice snow shelters and caves in my front yard. This time, I built a simple snow cave featured in the Revised Edition of Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book, which is the illustrated bible of traveling and camping skills for winter environments.
This one is really easy to build with an avalanche shovel and provides plenty of protection from the wind, in addition to thermal insulation. To start, dig a hole large enough to stand and turn around in about 2-3 feet deep, below the surface of the snow. Then tunnel into one side of the hole and carve out a long narrow cave, long enough to lie inside, up to your rib cage, without compressing the loft of your sleeping bag.
When you dig your hole and tunnel, pile all removed snow the on the windward side of the open hole, to create a bigger wind break, and not on top of the tunnel, to prevent its collapse.
Level the surface, and lay down a foam sleeping bag on top of the snow, part way down the tunnel. Put your sleeping bag and a second foam or insulated inflatable pad inside your bivy sack and lay them on top of the first pad. Unpack your pack and food, and then crawl into your sleeping bag and bivy sack until the end of the tunnel covers your ribs, down to your feet. As you're warming up in your bag, you can start to carve away at the walls around your head and upper torso to make more space for your gear or accumulate snow to melt into water.
Torso Deep Snow Cave
What's nice about this shelter is that it goes up quick and you can build it just about anywhere. It provides an excellent wind break and ventilation to let you cook or melt snow, as well as added torso insulation. If you're with a partner, they can dig a torso tunnel in the opposite direction and reuse your hole.
I think of all the expedient shelters I've practiced building this winter, I like this one the best.
I built snow shelters as part of a Winter Mountaineering course in the Cairngorms, Scotland recently. However, that was with an ice-axe and it is damned hard work! Ours were deeper, enough to sit in and be sheltered, with lintels across the top dug from snow as well. It must've taken an hour to do it properly – it depends on the condition of the snow. However, they were surprisingly warm inside, as were some of the snow holes we stumbled upon whilst doing it. It really is an essential winter skill. I have really enjoyed your winter posts this last few months and your emphasis on developing skills – something I have an affinity with lately. Thanks, Philip.
Thanks Maz. I just finished a 3 day avalanche rescue and prediction certification this weekend, which integrated many of the things I'd been previously trained on or taught myself. Wonderful stuff! The cairngorms must be the ultimate place though to learn winter skills. You'll have to tell us about the setting and what you learned.
This is definitely the best looking emergency shelter concept I have seen so far. It definitely suits my standard winter emergency gear and I like how quickly it can be constructed.
As an aside, how do you like the ID bivy?
I agree – this one is very easy to build and just requires a wind crust to tunnel under – lord knows we have those in the Whites! Stay tuned – I review the ID Micro Bivy on Friday.
Philip: it's all there already – take a look and see what you think. Parts One and Two have been published and Part Three is to come. 3 days of avalanches? That's an awful lot of work in that area so it must have been very comprehensive – any chance of a post on it at some point?
I'll probably do half a dozen in the next week or so. It was a very comprehensive course, but the real learning begins now when I try to apply the skills. Problem is, you can't get it wrong, but the course is excellent at teaching risk mitigation for anyone on a 25 degree slope or higher, and not just skiers.