– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: emergency shelter

Snow shelters part 3 – Simple emergency shelters

Instead of writing about snow caves as I promised before, this post will be about simple emergency snow shelters as I happened to build a couple of them last weekend. I was not in an emergency but there is still a lot of snow out there and I had time – so why not? I will write about snow caves later as they are, in my opinion, the superior snow shelters. But when you are in a pinch in bad weather without tent or with broken tent, you need something quick and simple to get you sheltered.

Two simple snow shelters and tools used for building them.

Covered snow trench

I wrote about snow trenches in my earlier post but by that time I had never tried to make one. Last weekend I first tried making a snow trench for two, covered with cut snow blocks. It didn’t work as you would need optimal snow to make the blocks. Snow should be hard packed but dry and light. The snow in Southern Finland has a frozen icy layer on top that van be cut into blocks but it doesn’t work too well for building things that should support their own weight…

I came to conclusion that the 1,5 meters times 2,5 meters snow trench was too big and built a smaller one about 1 meter wide but as long. As my girlfriend had decided to sleep indoors anyway, a smaller shelter would be adequate for me. I started the project by cutting two parallel rows of snow blocks (about the size 20 x 20 x 50 centimeters) and placing them on the edges of my to-be snow trench. This way I could build a bit higher shelter even though there was only some 70cm of snow on the ground. After getting the blocks in place I started to shovel the remaining snow away from the trench.

The covered snow trench from above. Snow blocks placed on top of the skis clearly visible. Doorway on the left.

After having the snow removed I tried t o cover the trench with snow blocks from the earlier shelter but it didn’t work. The snow just didn’t work. Instead I used something that I’d most likely have with me if needing to build an emergency shelter: a pair of skis, pair of ski sticks and tarp (not a fancy silnylon one but a cheap one sold in utility stores for two euros or so…) I placed the skis  across my trench and ski stick on top of them, covered the whole thing with the tarp and placed snow blocks on the edges and on top the skis to prevent the tarp from flapping in the wind. If done by the book (or the way I am told) ski stick should be used as a cross supports and skis as longitudinal supports to make more supportive structure but this time it worked better the other way round… I also placed some placed some snow bricks to the open end of the trench to make a small doorway. In addition I cut a big block of snow to seal the doorway as I didn’t have a backpack to use as a door.

I think that this kind of shelter can be built in half an hour or so, maybe even faster if well practised. Then on the other hand, in real emergency there would likely be a blizzard and you would be tired so it would be a bit slower. But still this is maybe the fastest snow shelter to make and still provides the shelter needed and enough space for living (sitting up, changing clothes, using a stove, sleeping, etc.)

An inside view of the snow trench shoving the supportive structure built from skis and ski sticks.

The shelter can be easily enlarged for two if you have two pair of skis and ski sticks. Just dig a bigger trench, place skis across it and ski stick on top of them. About 1,5 meters wide trench should be easily enough for two.

Covered  snow trench in a nut shell:

1) Dug a trench of adequate size.
2) Cut snow blocks from or pile loose snow on the edges of the trench to give more height and speed up the process.
3) Leave a small crawl-through door way to the other end of the trench.
4) Place your skis and ski stick on top of the trench to form a supportive structure.
5) Cover the trench with  a tarp, tent fly or some other fabric and place snow on top of it to keep it in place. It is extremely important to secure the fabric in high winds! It might be a good idea to stake the fabric if possible.
6) Crawl in with your gear, close the door way, lite a candle and get comfortable. Surviving is about attitude and panicking doesn’t help.

Very simple snow cave

While cutting the snow block for the snow trench door I decided to try another approach to build a snow shelter: to make a very simple and quick shelter that could be done without any tools. In appropriate snow conditions this kind of shelter could be quickly built even without tools and it would enhance changes of survival a lot (think about getting surprised and lost while snow-shoeing in the fjells or some other worst case scenario like not finding your way back to your camp while making a little day trip in the evening).

The very simple snow cave viewed from above.

First I simply dug a whole down to the ground level. Then I started to carve a small snow cave below the frozen t op layer of the snow. I carved the cave with my hands and by kicking the snow. I cheated a bit and used a shovel to remove the snow, but this could also be done without tools. I piled the snow on top of the roof of my cave to add insulation as the roof was quite thin (maybe 10-15cm). After less than half an hour of kicking and digging I had a snow cave about 2 meters deep, 80 centimeters wide and 50-60 centimeters high. I could fit sleeping in it and could even turn around but couldn’t sit up. It would have been an adequate shelter in a pinch. I could have sealed the doorway with a backpack, a snow block or just simply with snow-covered from the inside after getting there. In blizzard or heavy snow fall the entrance hole might get filled with snow, so it is good idea to make the cave big enough to dig your way out or just break through the ceiling when you don’t need the shelter anymore. At least in Finland there are no enormous snow dumps and you could pick a spot where wind would sweep the snow from the top of the cave, making sure that you can get out.

A view inside the simple snow cave.

I didn’t make ventilation holes to the roof as I didn’t plan to sleep in it. But if you would have to sleep in one a ventilation or two would be compulsory if you seal the door way properly. It is a good idea to use ski stick to make the ventilation hole and leave it in place so that you can keep the hole open even if it is snowing heavily. A candle would be, once again, necessary to monitor the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels inside the shelter…

Simple snow cave in a nut shell:

1) Dig a hole down to the ground level.
2) Start carving a snow cave from the bottom of the hole. Remember to leave enough snow on top to form a supportive roof.
3) Make a ventilation hole or two through the roof.
4) Get your stuff inside and seal the door with rucksack, snow block or snow and wait out the storm or just have a restful night.

The night in a snow trench

After building three snow shelters in some three hours I was surprisingly exhausted. I hadn’t drunk anything during the relatively labour intense process and hadn’t eat anything for a while. And kicking away a cubic meter of snow while lying on your back and wearing felt lined rubberboots weighting about one kilo each, that is quite hard work. So I stumbled back inside, hydrated myself, ate, went to sauna, drank and ate some more and then took my sleeping pads, sleeping bag and a candle (always remember to have a candle burning in a closed snow shelter to monitor the oxygen level!) and headed to my snow trench. I sealed the door with the big snow block, lit the candle watched it burn for a while and fell a sleep… I woke up at some point in the night as it was too hot in my sleeping bag. I removed my wool socks, opened the zipper a bit, cursed myself for forgetting to take a water bottle and continued sleeping until the morning. Even though it was windy, the tarp didn’t flap a bit and it was quiet inside. It was once again a good night in a snow shelter: warm, quiet and cozy.

Yours truly in the snow trench while taking the photies in the morning. The candle is still burning in the corner.

Go out and make a snow shelter as long as the winter lasts! It is a useful skill and great fun. Just remember to drink and eat while playing with the snow…