– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Snow shelters part 2 – Quenzees

Here comes the other second part on snow shelters. In my earlier post I wrote about reasons why everyone should try a snow shelter and about my opinions on them. Check it out if you are interested in snow shelters. In this post I’ll describe the techniques I’ve used to build quenzees. There will be a third post on snow caves.


As I told before, quenzee (or quinzee or quenzhee or what ever you like to call it) is basically a pile of snow with room covered inside of it. The difference between a quenzee and snow cave is that the snow cave is built to naturally formed snow bank or pile but building a quenzee also involves piling the snow for it.

I have built several quenzees as the conditions in Southern Finland usually favour making one. And what would be a better way to spent a Friday or Saturday evening than building a snow shelter with friends? Piling some fresh powder, cooking on open fire while waiting the snow to settle and then having a good nights sleep in a completely silent shelter built with your own hands.

A quenzee. The sticks used to measure the wall thickness are clearly visible. During the night the somewhat large doorway was closed with a reindeer hide. The snow dug out from the inside was used to build a wall to protect the doorway.

Here are my simple instructions for building a quenzee:

1) Find a place with a lot of (soft) snow. I have usually built my quenzees on shores of frozen lakes at it is easy to gather the snow from the ice and there is often deep spin drift meaning plenty of snow.

2) Draw an oval marking the wanted floor area and add about 0,5 meters to every direction. I usually do this by standing on the middle of the to-be-quenzee and then spin a big shovel around myself.

3) Start piling the snow on your oval. It might be good idea to start a bit further away closing in while you pile gets higher. A pile about as high as you are and looking a bit like the pointy end of an egg  is good.

4) Stick some 40cm long stick around the pile to mark the wanted wall thickness. These might not be necessary if you built the quenzee in daylight because when you start to see some light glowing thru the wall, you should stop carving it. I have usually used some 30-40cm thick walls and they work well.

5) Let the snow settle. Many instructions say that it should settle and harden over night. In my opinion that is bull shit, especially if you are  building it as an emergency shelter! Even if the snow is soft and it is very cold (well below -20 Celsius) the snow settles surprisingly quickly, some two hours has been enough. If it is warmer or there are also hard blocks of snow, then it might be good idea to let it settle a bit longer. In my opinion optimal situation is when only the top 30-50cm of the pile have hardened to make supporting walls and the snow inside is still soft and easy to  dig and shovel away.

6) Start carving the snow pile. Make an entrance as small as possible to preserve heat but big enough to extract the snow while carving the inside. You can use a tarp, pulka or something similar to extract the snow. A friend is very helpful at this. The optimal shape would be again an arch resembling the pointy end of an egg. If you see the light glowing thru the wall or see the end of the measurement sticks, stop carving from that place.

7) When ready with the carving, make a ventilation hole to the ceiling, light a candle to monitor the oxygen levels, get your stuff inside, seal the door with something and get comfortable. I use candles intended to be used on graves. It is a bit dark humour but they burn for a very long time and have a cap to protect the flame. I have used an extra sleeping pad or rucksack to seal the door.

A view inside a quenzee from the door. This one would have easily slept three. Candle visible on the wall.

Before going to sleep, wait for a while to ensure that the candle burns properly. This means that the oxygen level inside is safe for human. It is also good idea to take a shovel with you inside the quenzee. It is especially helpful if snow blocks the doorway during the night.

Some people advice placing your gear on the bottom of the snow pile but I am not quite sure about this. I don’t like the idea about burying my gear in a snow pile, especially if in emergency situation. Instead of using my own gear, I have occasionally used some plastic trash bags filled with snow as they make the carving a bit faster (especially in the beginning) but it doesn’t make a huge difference.

A larger quenzee with sleeping area higher than the door way. It was comfortable for two but without the sleeping shelf would have fitted at least four in emergency.

You could leave a sleeping shelf higher than the entrance hole thus creating a heat seal inside, but this requires a bigger snow pile and I don’t usually do it because of the extra work required. Sealing the door with some gear works equally well. Even without the heat seal the inside temperature is quite warm. I have measured outside temperature being -28 Celsius and two people and candle heating the inside temperature to -5C.

Building a quenzee for two with a lot of soft snow and proper big shovels takes some time: the piling takes less than an hour, the hardening takes from hour to three and the carving takes far less than an hour (especially if the snow inside is soft). Staying warm while working is easy but the downtime in between is a bit problematic. If you can make a fire, it is good to sit by the fire and eat and drink. Other options would be retiring inside warm clothes or a sleeping bag (watch out getting it wet if it is snowing outside) or doing something else to stay warm while waiting.

A quenzee that collapsed while carving. The night in the snow trench wasn't nearly as warm as it would have been inside a proper quenzee...

Then there is always the risk of the quenzee crashing while carving it. This has happened to me. Usually it is not dangerous because you don’t bury too deep in the snow but it can cause serious problems if you are tired and cold  in emergency situation. So, let the snow settle enough and dig carefully. And it would be good idea to work on you knees while carving, as it makes getting up easier in case of a collapse. And a friend makes the building a lot safe and easier!

A view inside a quenzee about two weeks after carving it. A proper arched shape slows the sagging dramatically. This one wasn’t that well-built.

And as a bonus: The Wilderness Guide students at Niittylahden opisto built probably the biggest hand-made quenzee in Finland. The pdf file is in Finnish but at least you can look at the pictures. The outer height was 3,2 meters and outer circumference 28 meters. Inside height with raised level for sleeping was 1,75 meters and inside diameter 6 meters…

If you have anything to say on the topic, feel free to comment. I am especially interested in the use of snow shelters in real emergencies or if you have experiences about building an igloo from snow blocks!

Oh, and you have still some time to win a free meal! There are only couple of guesses so your chances to win are quite good!


9 responses to “Snow shelters part 2 – Quenzees

  1. Alastair Humphreys 25/03/2011 at 00:36

    This is brilliant – I’d love to do that!

  2. korpijaakko 26/03/2011 at 19:22

    Thanks! I’d really, really love to hike and packraft through Iceland! I’d change that for a night in a snow shelter at any time. 😉 (And actually, I spent last night in a tarp covered snow trench that I dug out of curioisiyt and for exercise.)

    And for those, who don’t yet know Alastair Humpreys, klik here and enjoy.

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  6. Jillian 22/04/2013 at 04:31

    excellent points altogether, you simply gained
    a new reader.

    What would you suggest about your post that you made some days ago?
    Any positive?

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  8. Andy 20/08/2019 at 02:03

    Do you not make a air hole to ensure you do not suffocate e during the night from excess co2…?

  9. Korpi-Jaakko 22/04/2020 at 08:57

    Almost a year late but a quick reply: Yes I do. A hole in the roof and some sort of intake lower (usually the doorway). Allthough if you have a level floor and leave the doorway open there will be plenty of ventilation. A candle is excellent monitor for safe oxygen levels.

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