Winter Survival Shelter Criteria

The Old Way

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

Picture of Winter Survival Shelter Criteria under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills

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

Picture of Winter Survival Shelter Criteria under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills


So now, let’s look at the criteria for a good winter shelter. Here are the 7 standards for a successful snow shelter:

  1. ROUND – The arch is one of the strongest geometric shapes we use in winter shelter building. The goal is round and smooth.
  2. SMALL – The smaller the shelter, the easier it is to build and heat. Most beginners build their shelters way too big.
  3. VENTED – You should always put a vent hole in snow shelters. Vent holes prevent asphyxiation because snow shelters do not hold breath. The spot 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 pit every so often throughout the night. That way, the gap doesn’t plug up]
  4. COLD AIR SUMP – There should always be a low spot in the shelter lower than your bed or sleeping area because cold air settles or goes to the lowest spot. So please give it a place away from you.
  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 block 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.
  6. DOORWAY LOWER THAN BEDS – You want to ensure that the top of the 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 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.
  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 has already collapsed, 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 shovelled to the side becomes rock hard; this is an example of snow crystals collapsing. So to get fresh snow, stay away from the fall line of the branches where the snow falls off.


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 you can use a shovel for this) and a tarp for snow removal and protection for your sleeping area.

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

Finally, as you learn how to build snow shelters by practising 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 (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 watery. So when you practice, 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 make them and once when you climb in the finished shelter).


Picture of Winter Survival Shelter Criteria under Winter in Wilderness Survival Skills

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, here are the 7 snow shelter criteria:

  1. ROUND
  2. SMALL

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.

6 thoughts on “Winter Survival Shelter Criteria”

  1. 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.!!

  2. Thank you for the helpful information! A group of my friends and I are going snowshoeing 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!


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