Do Something New: Build a Quinzee

quinzee, quinzhee, snow shelter

When I came across the word “quinzee” several times within a short span this winter, it got my attention. I first had to do an internet search to determine exactly what it was, but knew right away I not only wanted to learn how to build a quinzee, I also needed to try sleeping in it. This seemed fun, but carried out in my own yard at home, it was an easy way to try something I might like to use in lieu of a tent on a future wilderness trip. 

A quinzee (alternatively: quinzhee) is a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of snow, as opposed to an igloo, which is made by piling blocks made of snow. The word “quinzhee” is reportedly Athabaskan, though it is not clear to me if the structure itself is inherently of the Athabaskan peoples. My guess is that this type of temporary housing has probably been used by people all over the snowy parts of the world. At any rate, it is a simple shelter which takes advantage of the rigid yet insulative qualities of packed snow. 

How To Build a Quinzee

After a short survey of websites on the subject, construction seemed a fairly straightforward procedure:

  • Pile snow. (I opted to also pack mine, for strength and to break up chunks)
  • Allow pile to sit and firm up (sinter) for a couple hours
  • Insert footlong sticks into the top and sides to help achieve uniform thickness
  • Begin carving from the bottom, working up and out until encountering inserted sticks

This all went quite well, and I was done carving out my shelter and grooming a flat sleeping pad in about an hour and 15 minutes. Tools and materials were few, and I had a lot of snow to work with. Since it was right in my front yard, it could not have been more convenient. 

When it came time to go to bed for the night, I grabbed my foam pad to put on the snow, air pad to put on top of that, my -15 degree bag, and bag liner. Since I’ve been underdressed in the past, I wore a long underwear layer as well as a fleece layer on top of that. I was determined that my experiment would not be cut short by the cold. 

As it turns out, it did not go below 23 degrees that night, which was actually a disappointment. In fact, I was almost too hot inside my bag. When I woke up in the middle of the night and sat up, I noticed how warm it was in there. When I crawled out into the night air, it was remarkably colder outside than inside. At that point, my experiment felt like a clear success. 

My Quinzee Design Elements

Shape: Not having previous quinzee-building experience, I was a little apprehensive about laying on my back under hundreds of pounds of snow. The best insurance against collapse seemed to be a narrower structure with walls thicker than the ceiling. So, while I carved all the way to the sticks in the ceiling, I only carved enough off the sides to get the room I needed, leaving the sticks embedded in the sides. 

Entrance: I imagined beforehand that any wind would be felt if the door was flush with the side. Therefore, I built the classic turtleneck kind of entrance you’d picture on an igloo. It worked; I did not feel a whiff of air exchange. In the case of extreme cold, I suppose a person could pull some spruce or fir boughs behind them to cover the doorway and slow down air movement further.

Elevated floor: When I carved the entrance, I started at ground level. Therefore, when I built up the platform to sleep on, my pad was about six inches up, and when I looked to the entrance from inside my sleeping bag, my eyes were even with the top of the hole. I think this contributed to the retention of heat inside; I imagine if a person built it up enough, it could be quite cozy. This is a decided advantage over sleeping in a tent in sub-freezing (not to mention sub-zero) temps.

Furthermore, the frozen ground would have sapped my heat energy quite efficiently. Such a snow mattress is an important consideration whether on the ground, ice, or any cold surface.

quinzee holeVentilation hole: I had been worried about the ceiling dripping down on me. While doing my cursory research, I found one mention of putting a hole in the ceiling for ventilation. I’m glad I did; the next morning, I could tell by the frost that had grown around the top (as pictured) it had indeed let out some warm moist air.

Considerations for next time

Size: Although 10 feet long and 5 feet high seemed more than adequate, this structure would have been more comfortable if it had been larger. I was surprised when I excavated to the back end and started to see sunlight coming through; it seemed a little soon, and it was just barely long enough inside to lay my sleeping pad down. Additionally, it was hard not to flake snow off the sides while getting situated for the night; I also sprinkled snow across my face when I reached up to adjust the hood on my sleeping bag. In this case, bigger is better.

Shovel: My little pack shovel was perfect for carving the inside of the quinzee, but I could never have piled that much snow- or more- with that diminutive thing. My big aluminum scoop shovel was great for that, but it is impractical to tote along on a wilderness adventure. Perhaps there is a lightweight happy medium out there. 

Clothing: Since this experiment was carried out in my front yard, there was little inherent danger involved. My clothes, though fairly waterproof, did not keep me completely dry from over an hour of rolling around on barely-thawing snow. I suspect part of that was from snow creeping up under my coat. All this despite wearing less layers for the task, and pacing myself to avoid sweating. (That’s why this was a worthwhile experiment: I learned a lot.) If on a wilderness trip, I would have needed a dry change of pants, mittens, shirt. Optimally, I would have been wearing waterproof bibs, jacket, gloves/mittens, with wrist and ankle areas sealed tight, and all pockets zipped! 



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