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Building a quinzee snow cave…fun for kids and adults

Dad and his helpers heaping the snow for the quinzee snow cave. (Darron Laughland Photo) (click for larger version)
March 10, 2011
How to build a quinzee

Unlike an igloo, which is made from cut blocks of hard pack snow, the quinzee snow cave is made by first heaping the snow in a pile, preferably soft powder, and then after it sets up, carving the inside out. It typically takes about three hours over two days to make a two to three-person shelter, a bit longer if one is looking for a swank setup. Construction is much faster with two or more people, although it can be done by one person. Here is my "recipe" for a quinzee:

Step 1: Pick a location with level ground in an area where people sleeping inside are safe from vehicles etc. Pack the snow down with snowshoes in a circle fifteen feet in diameter. This insures that the snow pile won't crack while settling.

Step 2: Using a shovel, heave snow into a pile, periodically "whacking" it with the shovel to pack the snow down. Once the pile is head high, shape it into an even dome and take a break from construction, as the snow crystals need time to bond and setup.

Step 3: After the snow settles for several hours or overnight, carve an entrance near the bottom, shoulder wide and as low as possible. Using a small shovel (car shovel or avalanche) excavate the snow, tossing it onto the dome. This part of the project is the most challenging as it is awkward to dig inside before there is a large enough cavity to crawl inside and dig.

Step 4: In order to make sure that the walls or ceiling are not too thin, take a dozen sticks and drive them into the sides about seven to nine inches deep, and all around the dome. As the inside is carved out, the shovel hitting the end of a stick will give the person shoveling inside a heads up that they are carving close to the surface and are about to punch a hole in the roof or wall. Later some of these sticks can be removed and the holes used for ventilation.

Step 5: Once the digging from the inside has started, use a sled and a helper outside who can haul snow out and spread it on the dome. The helper should keep the entrance clear. Use the shovel to shave snow off the sides of the interior, eventually smoothing them out. If the dome is shoulder high at the start, it can be dug out inside large enough for an adult to kneel straight up without bumping the ceiling. Continue to shape until the inside is an oval or circle large enough for three adults to sleep comfortably.

Step 6: Using the sticks placed in the top and sides to guide shaving, shave the inside roof of the dome to six to eight inches thick. This is more for safety than anything, in the unlikely event of a collapse; it will limit the amount of snow falling in.

Step 7: Level the floor. "Real" quinzees have a raised snow floor so that cold air will flow out and trap warm air in the sleeping chamber, but building a level snow floor takes time; doubled up sleeping pads create a similar effect.

Step 8: Smooth the interior and exterior walls, tidy up the outside near the doorway, and remove a few of the sticks to leave holes for ventilation.

For five star accommodations, use Frisbees or bucket lids to create one-inch thick ice circles. Using a snow saw or flat stick, cut circles in the roof and sides, making the hole several inches smaller in diameter than the ice. Place the ice disk over the hole, gently packing snow around the edges. Create shelves using the shovel and add a dazzling light fixture by placing a candle lantern or headlamp behind a row of icicles.

Safety considerations: Stoves inside are not recommended, and if the quinzee is going to be used for sleeping, make sure that there is adequate ventilation and that the door is not blocked. The inside will remain fairly warm even in very cold weather. Placing young kids in their own sleeping bags doubled with an adult bag, or in two "zip together" sleeping bags with an adult, will keep them cozy warm. Place hot water bottles at their feet, have them wear fleece or wool hats, and place adequate insulation underneath them. Above all, do what you can to make sure that they enjoy the experience.

Since that first night, we have had several requests from both boys to go out and play as well as sleep out in the quinzee. When the warm weather arrives, we'll dig out another entrance and make a tunnel. Looking to spice up your family's regular recreation pursuits? Kids getting cabin fever? Build a quinzee. They'll love it!

When not out sleeping in his quinzee, author Darron Laughland can be found out skiing while he looks forward to warmer weather and spring kayaking.

Salmon Press
Martin Lord & Osman
Alton School
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