Pass/Fail: Build an Igloo

Can our guy construct a winter shelter that’s strong, roomy, and warm?
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Can our guy construct a winter shelter that’s strong, roomy, and warm?

Being sound of mind and body and having a few hours to kill on a hut trip—and being the sort who will accept most any challenge—I decided to build a house of ice blocks. But this would be no mere survival shelter for one or two to spend a winter night. I was going to build a frozen castle, big enough for eight.



I’m not going to say I wasn’t cocky. I’d seen plenty of igloos go up in TV time-lapses. Just don’t make the walls too steep or too slanted. How hard could it be? Before me lay a vast stretch of deep, frozen, and untouched snow—the only key ingredient and I had it in spades. I got out the shovel and the ice saw, which if you’ve ever held one you know how suddenly you feel capable of doing anything, and started what I was sure would be a quick project. We’d all be sitting inside this afternoon, I’d thought, toasting the awesomeness of my little winter cabana—the Château de Glace—and, naturally, its architect.



You should know, I am a hardworking man. I’m descended from the Lyons clan of south-central Ireland—farm-and-factory folk—and raised to toil like a New Englander. Empowered by the almighty ice saw, I cut huge blocks of firm snow from a donor site, muscled them into a sled, and man-hauled them 25 yards to where my imaginary château sprawled 10 feet across on the Montana snow.



If I may, a montage: Saw, muscle, haul, place. The soundtrack to Top Gun. Blocks angled slightly, enough to come together at a height of about 6 feet, by my reckoning. At some point, I realized I could build the roof lower if I sunk the floor into the snow, because, in addition to being a hardworking man, I’m also always on the lookout for shortcuts, which is definitely not laziness. There is no laziness in igloo-making. Saw, muscle, haul, place. The theme music from Rocky. When “Eye of the Tiger” wrapped up I expected to celebrate, arms raised in a triumphant V, all-powerful ice saw sticking securely yet somehow menacingly in the snow—like someone could pick it up and do anything.



Instead, after an hour, I saw a few blocks of ice arranged in a deformed circle around a ditch—barely enough cover for snowball trench warfare. No matter, for in addition to being hardworking and definitely not lazy, I am a patient man.



But I had a problem: I thought the montage would take care of whatever voodoo physics allow the walls to slope inward without falling. But the montage was over and my walls were structurally iffy. Plus, the temperature was rising, turning my once-firm ice the consistency of soft-serve ice cream.



Still, I toiled. Le Château creeped up around me, five, now six blocks high. Still, the temperature rose, to the high 30s. What happened to the subfreezing temps in the forecast? Still, I toiled. For in addition to being a hardworking, definitely not lazy, and patient man, I’m also stubborn as a bloodstain. Hours passed in what seemed like days. My baselayer and gloves wet out with sweat and snowmelt. The heights of Le Château now rose over my head, but daylight still flooded in. The walls were no closer to solving their own mysterious physics.



At some point it occurred to me that my snow ditch wasn’t unlike a grave in which I’d buried the last four hours. I stepped out. The walls drooped inward like a fat candle, the roof hung open like a stadium. Defeat. But not for lack of effort. I laid down the ice saw. For there was beer inside the hut, and dry layers and a wood fire, and friends who wouldn’t care if Le Château’s skylight was deliberate or not.



I’m a lot of things, it turns out, including a realist.



THE VERDICT
FAIL
Warm temps and lack of preparation (and yes, maybe a touch of overconfidence) doomed me. But with the right conditions, you really can build a sturdy, large, insulated igloo in just a couple of hours.

Make a House of Snow



1.You need deep, consolidated snow—think squeaky like styrofoam. (Create your own packed snow: Stomp snow, pile more snow on top until several feet high, stomping as you go. Let sinter.) And you’ll need the right tools: a small shovel and a snow saw.



2. Mark your circle and pack it down for a stable platform.



3. Make snow bricks. Cut blocks 6 inches wide, 18 inches tall, and 30 inches long. They should be of uniform size. Carve them slightly concave on top, bottom, and sides, like “starved” rectangles. This causes the corners to seat against each other better. You’ll want a partner, so one can cut blocks and one can place them.



4. Make a door: Lay two blocks on edge, pointing outward and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lay a block across them to form a roof. Later, you’ll dig the entryway deeper.



5. Begin the dome by laying blocks, on edge, in a climbing ramp/spiral pattern (stronger and easier to roof over than even layers of blocks). Shave the blocks’ height to achieve the ramp effect. Offset corners of new blocks so they don’t sit directly on top of those below. Tilt the blocks inward, more with each row; you want a 45-degree angle by row three.



6. Make sure the blocks’ upper corners brace solidly against each other. Set each block with a shove. Once the walls get too high to step over, dig out the door. Close the hole in the top with a custom-shape block, like a bottle stopper.



7. Finish the igloo by packing snow over 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.



More info, plus instructions on making an easier quinzhee: backpacker.com/igloo