Beginners Guide to Winter Camping, Part VI: Advanced Snow Shelters

Quinzhees and Igloos
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Quinzhees and Igloos

Alright campers! Just in time for your weekend practice, here’s my penultimate installment to the Beginner’s Guide to Winter Camping: Advanced Snow Shelters – meaning quinzhees and igloos.

By ‘advanced’ I mean they take some practice to build correctly. It's probable that your first attempt will not end up in a usable campsite, but your second attempt probably will. This isn’t rocket science, and once you waste some effort on a failed shelter, you’ll definitely remember mistakes the second time around. But snow shelters are often worth the trouble, especially in subzero conditions, where they're much warmer than a four-season tent. Since imitation is the easiest form of learning, I’m hyperlinking to some great footage of quinzhee and igloo building – including the classic 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, one of the milestones of in-the-field filmmaking history.


Quinzhee is an Athabaskan native term for a hollowed out mound of snow, kind of like a beginner’s igloo. They work great for areas where the snow is fairly shallow, or isn’t firm enough to make blocks. This is because you can gather loose snow from wide areas, and once it’s been shoveled, piled and packed, and allowed to set up, powder snow hardens through a process called sintering. The downside is that quinzhees are twice the effort of a snowcave simply because first you have to dig and pile. Then you have to hollow it out. It takes two people about 3 or 4 hours to build a quinzhee, which makes them better for multi-night camps than travel-thru overnight use.

First, find a spot where you know the underlying ground is flat, mark out a circle, and pack it down hard or dig it to ground level. Then shovel snow onto the circle to form a pile about six feet high and 10 feet wide, packing each layer down a bit as you go. Once you’ve gotten the pile big enough, put small sticks into the snow mound, shoving them to a one-foot depth. Let the snow harden for at least an hour, and then begin digging out the pile, using the sticks as a guide to make the snow walls thin (and hence safer if they collapse) while also keeping them thick enough to stay up. You should be able to see some light through the walls, since snow is fairly translucent.

If you’ve built on deep snow, you can dig the entrance tunnel upwards to trap heat, as with a snow cave. Otherwise, you can create a long tunnel entrance using a second, smaller snow mound. Use the dug-out waste snow to create wind walls around the door, or a sheltered kitchen space. Finish your quinzhee with vent holes, just like a snow cave.

Safety note: Occasionally quinzhees collapse, usually while they’re being built, the temperature rises suddenly, or someone climbs onto the pile foolishly. This can be dangerous. Soloists shouldn’t build quinzhees, and don’t let children dig them unsupervised. Never climb onto a quinzhee when people are inside. Since roof stability is critical, make sure you keep the roof strongly arched.


Simply put, igloos are cool, and fun to build once you've skilled up. They're eminently practical too.They’re just as warm as a snow cave, but have more interior light, and you stay drier making them.Experienced builders working with good snow can slap up an igloo in 30 or 40 minutes, as in this time lapse from Svalbard, a large arctic island northwest of Norway..But snow conditions are critical to igloo building. You need deep, wind-packed, frozen snow (think squeaky like styrofoam). And you'll need the right tools, meaning a small shovel and a snow saw or two. (Carpentry saws like keyhole and cross-cut saws work well too.)

For your first attempts you’ll want at least two people to build an igloo, so you can efficiently handle the blocks while they’re placed, and one or two people can quarry while the other does the masonry work. Three-person igloos are about as large as practical for anyone but true experts.

Your first objective is to find solid, hard frozen snow that can hold together in blocks 8-12 inches thick, 1.5- to 2-feet tall, and 2-3 feet long. Walk around with your shovel and saw and prospect until you find an area that can provide 100 blocks or so. You build igloos where you can, not where you want to. Then site your igloo on top of that quarry drift, or immediately adjacent to it. Lay out a circle for the interior dimensions. Determine where the door will be.

You can build the door several ways, but I usually do it first, by laying two blocks on edge, pointing outward and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Then I lay a large, strong block across them to form a roof. This arch will be about knee-height, but you’ll eventually carve the door deeper.

With the bricklayer working from the inside of the structure, begin the dome by laying blocks, on edge, in a climbing ramp/spiral pattern. The climbing spiral is critical because it's much stronger, and easier to roof over, than layers of blocks. Start just “down-spiral” from the door site. Tilt the first row of blocks slightly inward, and as you go, shave the top platform on each block to lean in slightly more, otherwise you end up building a tower with no roof. You can lay the first layer of blocks rough, then shave the ramp into shape once you've set them.

Important point alert! Carve the blocks slightly concave on their top, bottom and sides, like ‘starved’ rectangles rather than straight-sided ones. This causes the block corners to lean against each other better, and the pointy corners seat more firmly against neighboring blocks. The key to stabilizing these inward leaning blocks is to make sure their upper corners brace solidly against each other. Set each block with a firm shove, then pack loose snow like mortar into the gaps between blocks.

Work systematically, concentrating on evenly-sized blocks, overlapping the seams ala good brickwork, making each row lean in a little more, and making sure each block is firmly stuck to its neighbors before moving to the next placement. If you suffer a collapse during building, just cut your igloo back to where it was structurally strong, and re-build the collapse. If the snow is soft, you can let blocks harden by setting them in a shady or windy spot before adding them to the walls. Once the walls get too high to step over, dig or cut out the door.

If you’ve paid attention to leaning each row in, the toughest part will be closing the last hole in the top. Cut and custom-shape the final keystone piece slightly larger than the closure gap, and make it tapered, like a bottle stopper. Lay it gently atop the dome, then wiggle, shave, and settle it in place from the inside. Finish the igloo by packing snow over all the gaps and cracks, poking vent holes through the roof, and smoothing the dome interior so that irregular points in the roof won’t drip.

O.K., enough for now. You’ve got packing to do for the weekend escape. Since much of the U.S. is now deeply buried in snow, this is a perfect opportunity to do some real winter camping, or at least practice these shelters in your yard. So bust out the shovels, grab a saw from the hardware store (or borrow one from your toolhead uncle without telling him what it's for), and go get busy. I’ll offer one final post on winter camping in a couple days. Until then, dig safe - and don't lick your metal snow saw there, Nanook. – Steve Howe