How to build a Quinzee Snow Shelter

Picture of How to build a Quinzee Snow Shelter under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills

The Quinzee is a shelter that was built by the Inuit Indians of Alaska and is basically known as the “snow mound” shelter. Its advantage is that it can be built in just about all locations and in any snow conditions (light, fluffy snow to wet snow). You can build it in 10 feet of snow to 6 inches, so it’s a method I suggest everyone learn. In short, you basically mound snow and then tunnel out a sleeping area, and with a few tricks, I’ll show you it can be pretty easy. Let’s take a look…

1. Step One

Begin by stomping out a circle the size you want it to be, depending on your height. A 6-foot wide circle is about right for the average adult. Some people will use a ski pole to get a reference by lying the handle in the middle and just rotating the basket end around in a circle. Now just stomp down the circle to help with crystal collapse. [NOTE: One trick is to pick a site where the door will face downhill, so when you dig it out, you can pull the snow out and down the hill, as opposed to out and up to get out of a hole]

Picture of How to build a Quinzee Snow Shelter under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills

2. Step Two

Go around the perimeter of your circle and shovel snow into the centre, forming a mound. [NOTE: One trick is that you will also be going down as you build up the mound, so it’s like working double time and multiplying your effort. You only have to build half as high of a mound.] The Inuit used to put a pole in the centre to find the centre when digging out, but I’ve got a better trick below.

[NOTE: Trick number two is to take your packs and put them in the middle of the circle, cover them with a tarp and then bury them (see picture). When you tunnel and pull them out, half your shelter is already dug out.] Ensure you take out the food, water and gear you’ll need during the building process. Otherwise, you won’t be seeing them for a while. I learned that one the hard way.

Picture of How to build a Quinzee Snow Shelter under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills

Here was an experiment; the idea was to dig into the valve and then just let the air out. The valve froze solid, and we had to just stab it with a knife to let the air out.

Picture of How to build a Quinzee Snow Shelter under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills

Besides, it just made me think of the Beach! Not the focus to have out here. Let’s get back to the task, shovelling snow to the middle.

3. Step Three

Once the mound is about shoulder height, begin patting the mound to help collapse the crystals and smooth out the surface. Then take a break and have some snacks and water to give it a few minutes to become harder.

Here’s a student using a snowshoe. Remember, You can improvise many different digging devices. The shelter will be a three-man, but it’s still a little too big, even for that many.

4. Step Four

People always ask how thick should the walls be on a snow shelter, and the answer is around 8-12 inches. The problem is, how can you tell? [NOTE: Here’s the next trick, take some sticks and measure 12 inches past your hand and then push them into the shelter roof and walls until your hand hits the snow]. Bingo, now all you do is dig until you hit the sticks and have a 12-inch thick wall.

5. Step Five

Now cut a small door, tunnel into the backpacks and pull them out, then begin forming a dome shape until you hit the sticks and stop (notice the sticks in the top).

When you first get to the packs, try to come up under them, and when you pull them out, you’ll have a small jagged-looking cavity that will eventually become home. Just start hollowing it out until you get to the sticks you stabbed into the walls.

You can see the sticks in the ceiling in this photo, which means stop digging. [NOTE: Another trick is to use a tarp (as shown here) to drop the snow from the ceiling on, and then you just pull it out like a skid]

[NOTE: Trick number two is if the beds are not high enough above the doorway, you can just drop the snow from the ceiling onto the beds to raise them up instead of shovelling it out of the shelter. What really stinks is if you have to shovel it back in to raise the beds higher, this trick can save you a lot of extra work]

6. Step Six

Now smooth out the ceiling by just rubbing a glove over it; jagged points like you see here drip at night. After you climb in for the night, the walls start to glaze over with a film of water, and then it freezes overnight to make a rock-hard shelter.

That’s just way too smooth.

7. Step Seven

Now vent your shelter over the doorway, so you don’t have snow rolling into your bed. Put the hole halfway up the wall, the size of a softball, at a 45-degree angle.

The hole is right above the door, about three feet up.

8. Final Thoughts

I am nice and comfy, laying in my Quinzee, ready for bed. [A tip is to ensure a good insulating pad under you. Research shows that what you have under you is more important than what you have over you for warmth. Otherwise, your body tries to warm up the surface under you to 98.6 degrees (one of the heat loss mechanisms called conduction). On snow, that’s definitely a losing battle. In a true survival situation, you could use your pack, pine bows, the seat of your snowmobile, etc…]

Remember to keep the door small and the top at least a few inches below your bed level to trap heat. This is the view from my bed. Notice also the candle on the left with the reflective qualities of snow. All you need is one stick candle, and you’ll have all the light you need, not to mention a nice little warming of the shelter that comes from them.

Here’s a condominium with one shelter behind the other and a tunnel between the two shelters. You can become quite creative once you get the hang of it. Notice also the kitchen area outside the doorway.

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