Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: snow shelter

Monthly highlights of January: -38,5C!

Monthly highlights” is a series of post concentrating on a 10-month wilderness guide course I am taking this year at Niittylahden opisto near Joensuu in Eastern Finland. These posts try to summarize the best parts of each month and are naturally published at the end of each month (or few weeks after…) Hopefully you enjoy it!

The lesser highlights of January: snowmobile course and hare hunting

The school started in the mid January after a six-week internship period (of which I spent four weeks at a small husky farm at Taivalkoski). The first week was filled with entrepreneurship lectures and exercises in the classroom that didn’t get especially good participation. On the second week we had two days snowmobile course in Nurmes but as I see snowmobiles as tools and don’t support leisure driving and the course wasn’t especially good either, it didn’t make it to the highlights of the month. The course was more like a short snowmobile safari followed with a longer safari with no special emphasis on teaching how to use the snowmobile as an efficient tool in different situations. But after the snowmobile course things got better…

Early start for the longer snowmobile safari.

The snowmobile course was followed with a hunting course that gave enough the information to participate to a Finnish hunting license test on the following week. But as I already had a hunting license I was just hanging on the lectures and learning some new things and recalling a lot of things I had already forgotten as I haven’t been actively hunting. The information about animals and legislation was very useful even if one is not intending to get the hunting licence. On Friday, at the end of the course, we went for a hunting trip to hunt some hares. Our teacher, few local hunters and one of the students were equipped with shotguns while the rest of us skied through forested areas driving the hares out of their hideouts. We didn’t get any hares from the first three drives but from the fourth one we got two big European hares. We disemboweled the hares on spot, skinned them on the following week, put the meat into freezer and prepared a tasty dinner later.

Our teacher returning with the first European hare.

Preparing dinner...

The highest highlight of January: My coldest trip yet

On the last week of January we were to have a four-day hike in the woods. The hike or course is known as “Talvierätaidot” meaning winter wilderness skills and concentrates on hiking in forested areas in winter. I was very excited when the meteorologists were forecasting temps below -30 C. Then it changed to much milder but luckily it changed back to even colder just before the trip. And cold weather was what we got!

The hike took place near Patvinsuo National Park near the Eastern border of Finland. To be able to build fires (which are big and important part of the Finnish hiking and wilderness tradition) we didn’t camp in the national park but did a round trip from the North-Western edge of the national park. The plan was to ski a little bit every day and spend most of the time in camp concentrating on surviving in the cold and having good time. We skied about 2-3 hours every day covering about 3-5 km in the soft snow and occasionally dense woods. Everyone was hauling a sled and everyone else was skiing with traditional Finnish “metsäsukset” (I was using the Altai Hok 125 fastshoes).

We started the trip with sun shine, blue skies and relatively mild temperature of -24 C or so. After few hours of easy skiing we got to our planned camp spot on a small lake. The first night was to be spent in tents. Most of the people pitched their tents on the ridge as the air up there is slightly warmer because of inversion. Me and my buddy T pitched our tent on the lake ice to get most out of the cold weather as the first night was forecasted to be the coldest night. Most of the people spend their time sitting and cooking by fires while me and T spent most of our time in my Hilleberg Keron 3 GT warmed with white gas stoves in the expedition style. We had hearty dinner followed with some Ben&Jerrys icecream and generally had good time. Surviving in the cold is easy with the right kind of equipment. We also participated in fire wood gathering and hanged out with the other people before retiring to our sleeping bags. While going to sleep the temperature was already below -36 C on the lake ice and -32 C up on the ridge. To make most out of the cold we opened all the tent doors making it effectively only a tarp. During the night I woke up being uncomfortably warm and sweaty and decided to check the thermometer which was showing -38,5 C! I removed two pairs of woollen socks and went back to sleep.

We woke up at 07:00 and started the stoves to get the tent warm. I had a little problem with the pump of a MSR XGK as it was too cold for the standard O-rings (they fail around -40 C) but I got the other stove (MSR Dragonfly) running without pumping and when the tent warmed up the other pump stopped leaking and we got on with our morning chores. It also became obvious that in temperatures near -40 C you can’t work for long periods in thin fleece gloves. Morning chores outside were executed in 30 second intervals of working nad then warming fingers on the neck or groin. After breakfast we got news that two students were to be evacuated because of the cold (no cold damage  and we would stay in the camp untill noon. After the two students were evacuated from the road side we continued with a short skiing with sun and -25 C or so. The second night was to be spent under tarps by a fire so we pitched our 3×3 m Erätoveri tarp and found a good place for fire with plenty of firewood available nearby. During the evening the thermometer crawled back towards -30 C and below. We made a big pot of popcorn to share with the group and went to sleep after some chatting by the fire.

In the morning we got the fire going ans started to prepare breakfast in -32 C. Me and T were acting as the day’s guides with me orienteering in the front and T skiing last checking that everyone stays with us. We departed from the camp a bit after 09:00 and saw fresh wolverine tracks just after few hundred meters of skiing. It’s a wild place! Maybe it was bad navigation or just simply bad terrain but the terrain was occasionally challenging until we arrived to snow-covered gravel road and as the hares and moose were also using the road, so did we. We continued along the road to a sunny lake ice were we had lunch break in relative warmth of about -24 C before crossing the little lake to our next camp.

In the camp we piled snow for quenzees and while the snow settled we learned to make a fire from fresh birch. This was new to me and though I knew the technique in theory it was nice to see that it worked also in real life. it’s good to know that usually when you make fire you’ll get warm: you walk around in snow gathering and chopping fire wood and then you get a big nice fire. You stay warm during the whole process. When making a fire from fresh birch you sit on your butt snapping and sorting little twigs and in the end you have a smoking and hissing pile of twigs that can boil water… But it works!

After the fire making exercise we gathered some first class fire wood for a proper fire, carved the quenzees, had dinner and made some improvised brownies on frying pan. I walked to the lake ice to admire maybe one of the best full moons I’ve ever seen. Standing there alone in the bright moonlight breathing crisp cold air under the starry sky was quite an experience! Then it was time to retire to the quenzee for the night. Inside me and T had cups of tea and ate the rest of the ice cream. Outside the temperature was once again plummeting  below -30 C but the inside temperature was around – 10 C meaning that it was nice and warm.

We had decided that we’d make the breakfast inside the quenzee instead of getting out and making a fire. After good nights sleep we punched a hole to the side wall and placed the roaring MSR stoves under it and prepared breakfast. Not very smart if you’re going to use the quenzee for several nights but in this case with cold outside temperatures it was a good move in my opinion. After packing all gear we tested the durability of our quenzees. The roof hold over 100 kg weighting T easily. He went through the roof on his first jump but only made a whole to the roof and was not able to collapse the thing.

After playing destruction derby on our shelters we started the last short skiing session back towards the road and the cars. We ended up in some pretty fucked terrain with dense woods and little rocky cliffs, generally a bad place to be with a pulka. The progress was so slow that my toes got cold despite wearing Sorel Caribou boots and I didn’t get them warm until we got on easier ground and I got to ski in the point with good pace.

When we arrived to the cars everyone was probably very warm but the cars were not. It took some time to charge the car batteries and warm the cars with a generator we had with us but after an hour or so we got both cars running and headed back to civilization. It was my coldest trip yet but very enjoyable none the less. I would have liked a bit more skiing but who cares when you have great weather and beauty of nature surrounding you.

Few words on gear

For this trip I had mostly my typical tried and true winter kit. It was mostly the same stuff that I had for the Ultima Thule 2011 expedition. Few things were different or performed differently so here are couple word about them:

For the whole trip I wore military surplus synthetic fill puffy bib pants instead of the typical Goretex. They worked very well: warm enough for the camp and not too warm for the short daily transitions because of good ventilation options. And I started to think if a synthetic buffy overall with good venting options, good hood and a drop seat would actually be near the optimal shell clothing for this type of trips…

I was using the Altai Hok 125 short skis, or fast shoes, instead of the 2,5 meter long traditional Finnish “eräsukset”. The Hoks were a lot more maneuverable and doubled also as snowshoes in camp but they were slower on easy ground. More of my initial impression here.

Because of the X-Trace universal binding I could use my Sorel Caribous, the warmest footwear I own but even they were not warm enough towards the end of the trip when energy levels were low and progress was slow. They also caused small blisters to my heels. The good thing is that they doubled also as camp shoes. Maybe I should have tested vapour barrier socks with them.

The 168 cm long Fjellpulken pulka was a bit of a trouble in the dense woods just as I had expected. Probably the optimal system for long trips in dense woods would be the Altai Hoks (145cm long ones for soft snow), a small pulka with crossing shafts (or an incredible rulk?) and a small backpack if more capacity is needed.

Just before the trip I had changed my incredibly warm Cumulus Alaska 1300 based down bag to lighter Marmot Couloir bag. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough when combined with my Carinthia Explorer Top MF XL synthetic topbag but the combination was easily warm enough down to the -39 C we had. But because of changing to thinner sleeping bag the 10 mm CCF and regular Ridgerest combination wasn’t warm enough anymore and I had to use my puffy pants as an extra insulation between the pads though that wasn’t a problem when recognized and fixed.

Even though sitting by a fire in the middle of a silent forest lighten up by the pale moonlight is an incredible experience, I prefer the expedition style warmed tent in harsh winter conditions. Nothing prevents you from sitting by the fire even when hauling the tent and stove with you but having them makes life a lot easier. And for prolonged trips and expeditions in challenging winter conditions I see it as the best way to go. Not ultralight but ultra-well-working.

Technique regarding snow shelters

I have few posts about building snow shelter from the last winter. They seem to have quite some typos and the series is still missing the posts about building a snow cave (the superior snow shelter if snow conditions are favourable) and an igloo. The posts seem to be full of typos and I’m planning to polish them at some point when completing the series. But as I consider snow shelter building as an essential winter skill (and training it to be a lot of fun!) I’d recommend checking them anyway before I get them polished for “re-blogging”.

For fun and safety
Quenzees
Simple emergency shelter

Please, share your experiences and ideas about snow shelters!  I’m very interested in the topic, especially about experiences about building an igloo (not the one with the box-tool but cutting the block from hard snow).

– – –

There are no overnight trips or hikes for February but we already had a nice animal tracking trip in school and we will be doing some winter fishing on the next week which should be interesting… I’ve been quite busy with the preparations for the Vatnajökull expedition and by working hard you get results so things are looking quite good. But there might be some quiet time in the blog because of preparations and upcoming exams. Hopefully you’ll tolerate it and I can make it up later with nice photos from the Europe’s biggest glacier.

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…

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!