Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: quinzhee

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.

Quenzee

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!

Snow shelters part 1 – For safety and fun

We just got some 10-15cm of fresh snow here in Finland so I’ll continue with winterish topics.

I was writing another monster post but decided to split it in two. This post has some information and my opinions about snow shelter in general . The second half will include detailed descriptions on how I have built quenzees and snow caves.

Why?

It is warm, silent and cozy inside a snow shelter. This picture is taken inside a snow cave built March 2011.

Being able to build a snow shelter is very useful and fun backcountry skill that can even save lives. I can’t help to think that some of the lives lost during the storms in Norway this winter could have been saved, if the people would have known how to build a proper snow shelter and had been prepared to make one…

As with many other skills, practise makes perfect and luckily building snow shelters is very fun. There is no reason for not to build one if you have the chance. It is still full winter in Finland so there is time to try a snow shelter. I spent last Saturday night digging a snow cave in a snow bank built by snow blows driving by. All you need is enough snow, shovel or few and preferably waterproof clothing. Ski stick and candle are also useful in the later phases of building.

Here is an overview on snow shelters, building equipment and some of my own experiences about them. This post is written with the emergency use in mind but the advice works of course for recreational building.

General information and opinions about emergency use

Snow is very good insulator and often the temperature inside a good snow shelter is around 0 degrees Celsius, despite the freezing temperatures outside.In addition to insulation snow shelter should protect you from wind and snowdrift. And it also unbelievably quiet inside the snow. Usually, the smaller the shelter the warmer it is and naturally smaller shelter is quicker to build. But it is good to bear in mind that if you build the shelter for emergency use, you might have to spent a long time in it so it is good idea to build it well at once. Cramped and inadequate snow shelters have led to lost lives in prolonged storms. There should be enough room for at least all to sleep in their sleeping bags in comfortable position and maybe room to sit and use stove to melt snow. The other option to get water would be to melt snow in bottle in sleeping bag with your own body warmth. It works if you have enough food to keep your body warm but is not that comfortable.

It is good idea to always have a candle burning inside your snow shelter to measure the oxygen level. While you breath your body turns oxygen into carbon dioxide and if the shelter has inadequate ventilation, carbon dioxide level will rise to a dangerous levels, possibly causing even death. Luckily, the oxygen level drops accordingly and a fire needs oxygen to burn. If the candle dies, the oxygen level is too low, but still enough for a human to stay conscious and do something about it. To sum it up: lite a candle, as long as it burns everything is fine. If the candle doesn’t burn properly or dies, add ventilation.

Inside a snow cave in Sarek. The burning candle means that the oxygen level is adequate.

It is good to keep in mind that the work required to build a shelter will likely keep you warm but you can also get wet and sweat a lot while working (especially while carving the inside of a quenzee or a snow cave). So preferably wear waterproofs while digging, remember to drink during the process and try to keep some of your clothing dry to be worn when inside.

It is often advised to collapse the snow cave or quenzee after use. This might be a good idea on some areas but on most occasions, I have left my snow shelters standing and sometimes returned later to sleep in them. Sometimes it is also advised to mark the snow shelter with crossed skis or with a colorful cloth tied on a ski stick I haven’t done this and I know that properly done snow cave doesn’t collapse even if driven over with a snowmobile. But marking the snow cave might be a good idea, especially in emergency circumstances.

Opinions about tools

Tools used to build a snow cave in really hard snow.

The optimal snow shelter depends on conditions and need. In addition different snow shelters require different tools and some are more comfortable than others. If working with soft snow you need a big shovel and if cutting blocks you need a saw but you can also use long bladed knife like the Inuits. A regular wood saw works just as well as a specific snow saw. A snow probe is useful for measuring the depth of snow bank if building a snow cave but a tent pole fixed with tape or maybe ski stick without basket works also.

I am quite sceptical about the small plastic shovels of avalanche safety sets or things like the Snowclaw. Of course they are better than nothing, but they are not meant for building snow shelters. They are too small to pile and dig snow fast and might even break on really hard snow. If you can take several tools for shelter building: a big shovel is good for piling snow and extracting it from a sow cave, a small metal shovel is good for digging and saw is good for cutting blocks. Then on the other, train with the equipment you carry with you in the backcountry. That is what you will use in an emergency.

If I’d had to choose only one tool for shelter building on long skiing trips in Lapland, it would be a shovel with decent size steel or aluminium scoop, a telescopic shaft and D shaped handle. It would work for piling and digging snow and could be also used to cut snow blocks. For example Voile has some very nice shovels.

Snow trench

Snow trench is the most basic of snow shelters. You simply dig a big hole of prefered size and depth in the snow and then cover it with something. The trench can be covered for example with snow blocks or some fabric. Skis, ski stick and sleds are useful to give the cover a structure. A tent that has broken in a storm can still be used to cover a snow trench keeping you protected from the storm. The length of the structures supporting the roof somewhat limit the size of the trench.

In my opinion, optimal size for a snow trench would be so that you could sit and sleep in it comfortably. For me this would mean a minimum of 220cm in length and 80 cm in width so that my sleeping bag wouldn’t brush the walls and get wet and some 90-100cm of height to able to sit. A good size for two would be about 250cm long and 150cm wide. In addition you can leave a shelf in the trench so that you sleep higher than the bottom of the trench as the cold air sinks to the bottom. When building a trench for two you can dig the middle part deeper and leave shelves on both sides. Often there is not enough snow to dig a meter deep snow trench, but you can raise the trench by piling the snow from inside to the sides.

A snow trench is not likely to be as warm as a quenzee or a snow cave because the structure is not as tight nor as well insulated but it will still provide proper shelter from a storm and is quick and easy to build.

Section hiker has a nice writing about snow shelters including photos about snow trenches covered with a tarp. Also Scandinavian Hiking has some pictures and experiences about tarp covered snow trenches.

Quenzee

A largish quezee I built this February on a shore of a lake.

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. To get the basic idea of a quenzee you can take a look Jukka Tammisuo’s instructions – though I disagree with some parts.

Quenzee might be the only working snow shelter design in the early winter or in forested areas where only powdery snow is available. Quenzees take some time to build as you have to pile the snow and let it settle before carving it but when done it provides good shelter. And if you need to build one as an emergency shelter on forested area, you can usually make a fire while waiting the snow to settle. If you can’t you have to stay warm in some other way.

I have built several quinzees and will tell more about them on my next post.

Snow cave

Digging a snow cave in strom in Sarek, March 2010. We made snow caves for six and for four people and then connected them.

In my opinion, snow cave is the ultimate snow shelter: it is warm, comfortable, quiet and quick and easy to make. The down side is that you a lot of preferably hardened snow to build one so the areas to build a snow cave are somewhat limited. There are several different ways to make snow caves with different architectures. I know too good ways, one that works well for hardened snow banks and one for softer snow. I will describe the techniques in my next post.

For training, you can carve a snow cave even in hardened banks or piles of snow built by snow blows but be sure that there wont be any machines operating on the snow pile while you working on it or sleeping in it!

As I wrote earlier, I spent last Saturday night digging a snow cave. The snow was rock hard and had ice chunks up to size of a big rucksack so the digging was a bit hard. We used iron shovels usually used for digging sad and dirt and had to use an iron bar to make the ventilation hole but the result was incredibly cozy.

Igloo

Igloo is a dome-shaped snow shelter built from blocks of hard snow. Igloo might be the only snow shelter doable on glacier like areas were all snow is hard and wind packed. Igloo is the traditional shelter of the Inuits and can be very spacious and comfortable.I’ve been told that experienced Eskimos can build an igloo in an hour or so but if you don’t have the proper routine the building will take a lot longer. I have never built an igloo myself but maybe I’ll still find time to build one before the spring arrives.

Igloos are not as warm as snow caves or quinzees because the structure is not as sealed and usually the walls are thinner. I have also been told that it is not necessary to make a ventilation hole in an igloo as there is always some ventilation between the blocks of snow. But I highly recommend the always burn a candle inside any snow shelter.

There are also special tools like the Icebox that can be used to build an igloo from soft snow. I haven’t use these but I think they might be fun way to build a snow shelter but are not suitable for emergency use. They are heavy and the building takes quite long time. And I don’t think I’d bother carrying one with me when on longer winter outings.

What are your experience about snow shelters? Have you some experience about using them in emergency? Maybe tips on building na igloo? Do you disagree with me about something? Please, feel free to leave a comment!

And come back later to check ou the second part of the post!