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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Winter Survival Shelter Criteria

The Old Way
When people first started building snow caves the basic forms were the Tree Well, were you dug under a tree to form a shelter.

And the standard Snow Cave where you dug into a snow bank to from a cave. Both methods worked to keep you alive, but they were crude and primitive and as experience grew there became better ways.



So now let's take a look at the criteria of a good winter shelter.

Here are the 7 criteria for a successful snow shelter:


  1. ROUND - The arch is one of the strongest geometric shapes and the one we use in winter shelter building. The goal is round and smooth.

  1. Round
  2. SMALL - The smaller the shelter the easier it is to build and heat. Most beginners build their shelters way to big.

  1. Round
  2. Small
  3. VENTED - You should always put a vent hole in snow shelters. Vent holes prevent asphyxiation because snow shelters do not breath. The hole should be about the size of a softball. The vent should be placed at a 45 degree angle halfway up the wall and preferably over the doorway, so as not to have snow roll down on your sleeping area. [NOTE: One trick is when it's snowing to place a ski pole, branch, ice axe or something long in the hole to shake and clean out the hole every so often throughout the night. That way the hole doesn't plug up]
  1. Round
  2. Small
  3. Vented

  4. COLD AIR SUMP - There should always be a low spot in the shelter that is lower than your bed or sleeping area because cold air settles or goes to the lowest spot. So give it a place away from you.




  1. Round
  2. Small
  3. Vented
  4. Cold Air Sump

  5. DOORWAY SMALL AND ROUND - The arch is still the preferred shape and the door is no exception, so keep it arched. Also, the door should be small and only big enough to climb through, otherwise it becomes hard to plug with a backpack or branches. NOTE: when you plug the doorway your goal is not an airtight seal, so it's ok and preferred if a little air gets through. Also, it's a good idea to face the door on the leeward side away from the wind.




  1. Round
  2. Small
  3. Vented
  4. Cold Air Sump
  5. Doorway Small and Round

  6. DOORWAY LOWER THAN BEDS - You want to make sure that the top of door is at least 5 inches lower than the bottom of your bed or sleeping area (as seen in the photo). This way the hot air will be trapped in and not escape out the door (the only exception is in the Fighter Trench). Just as cold air settles, hot air rises and we can use that to our advantage. NOTE: don't let your boots sit in the cold air sump or they will become frozen bricks by the morning.



  1. Round
  2. Small
  3. Vented
  4. Cold Air Sump
  5. Doorway Small and Round
  6. Doorway Lower than Beds

  7. BUILD AWAY FROM TREES - When building with snow, we want to use fresh snow that still has a formed crystal. When snow falls it collapses the crystals and then becomes hard. This is a good thing for creating strong shelters, but if it is already collapsed then you lose that bidding strength. Let me give you a familiar example; when you first shovel a sidewalk the snow is light and fluffy, but when you come back later the mound of snow that was shoveled to the side becomes rock hard, this is an example of snow crystals collapsing. So in order to get fresh snow stay out away from the fall line of the branches were the snow falls off.


Tools
The most important piece of equipment for shelter build is a Shovel.



Now you can always improvise one, such as a snowshoe, hub cap, bowl, pan, etc..., but before I head into the winter wonderland I always try to make sure I have a shovel in my pack. And, with the new designs they can break down into a very small space.


The other tools to be considered are a saw for block cutting in Igloo's (although a shovel can be used for this) and a tarp for snow removal and protection for your sleeping area.



The other piece of equipment I would recommend and should already be in your survival kit is a stick candle. They help to warm up the shelter and provide excellent light with the reflective qualities of snow. Also stick candles don't heat up the bottom and disappear into a hole. You wouldn't want anything bigger either because it might cause the shelter to melt and could possibly cause asphyxiation. NOTE: NEVER COOK INSIDE A SNOW SHELTER, IT COULD KILL YOU. Trust me, one candle is all it takes (that's steam in the photo).




Finally, as you learn how to build snow shelters by practicing building them, I would recommend you bring a pair of cheap rain gear and gloves, so you can get them soaked and then take them off when you're done building and change into warm dry clothes to enjoy the night (Just throw the old wet ones in a bag to be hauled out, they'll be a frozen brick by morning. Better them than you.). When you first start building shelters you always get soaked and as time goes on, you get faster and more efficient and not as soaked. So when you practice just change into the cheap stuff (I call them the rubber ducky ones), you would be surprised how warm and sweaty you can get building these things and especially once you're inside digging (They say you get warm twice with a snow shelter, once while you build them and once when you climb in the finished shelter).



Final Thoughts
In conclusion, here are the 7 snow shelter criteria:
  1. ROUND
  2. SMALL
  3. VENTED
  4. COLD AIR SUMP
  5. DOORWAY SMALL AND ROUND
  6. DOORWAY LOWER THAN BEDS
  7. BUILD AWAY FROM TREES

Once you understand the basic criteria and tools for a successful snow shelter it becomes easy to build one and you'll not only survive but be comfortable doing it.

Now that you understand the criteria, in the next few posts, we'll take a look a the 3 basic designs of snow shelters and how to build each one...


See you on the trail,

---Greg



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5 comments:

  1. nice work!!!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
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  3. Excellent work i am doing a project and very much appriciate you putting the effort in this site. It has helped me out so much and also helped me understand more about how to make a decent shelter. Thank-you.!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thankyou for the helpful information! A group of my friends and I are going snoeshowing at Snoqualmie pass, and this will be really helpful for the hike! We just picked up our Pieps Dsp beacons, just to be safe, so I'm sure will have a good time, and I'm excited to try out the new beacons!

    ReplyDelete