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How to Build an Emergency Snow Shelter; Quinzee Snow Shelter

Updated on February 7, 2014
cam8510 profile image

Out of personal experience, Chris writes articles about how to make items and accomplish tasks which are practical, helpful, and proven.

Quinzee emergency snow shelter
Quinzee emergency snow shelter | Source

Snow is a Good Thermal Insulator

Snow is an interesting substance. It appears only when it is cold outside, therefore we associate snow with cold. But actually, snow is a reasonably good insulator, meaning it can hold heat inside a confined space. Animals seem to understand this concept, since many of them create shelters out of snow. Here are some quick snow facts.

  1. Fresh snow is 90%-95% trapped air. This immovable air is an excellent source of insulation. As an animal lies in its snow shelter, it generates heat which is absorbed and held by the trapped air in the snow.
  2. The average insulating R value of snow is R-1 (one). The insulating R value of wood is R-0.75. The insulating R value of brick is R-0.2.
  3. In a climate where it is -40 degrees, a properly built snow shelter should be about -7°C (19.4°F). It could get considerably warmer in isolated spots of the shelter.
  4. New snow on top of the snow pack is exposed to the cold air. Snow nearer the ground is warmer as it extracts heat from the ground. Researchers at Rutgers University have shown that there can be a 42 degree variation between snow near the ground and snow at the surface of the snow pack. For example, if the air temperature is -14°F, and there are 9 inches of snow, then the ground temperature would be 28°F.

A Flash Fiction Story: On Our Own

My son, and I are enjoying a weekend vacation together in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I just bought a refurbished snowmobile and we are anxious to try it out on some great trails.

We’ve rented a nice cabin near the snowmobile trail head. It's already afternoon, and we're ready to try this sled out. We won’t be out long, but I think I should still bring an emergency pack of basic first aid, food, blankets and fire starters

Off we go! Wow, this is great. The trail is perfect, the sun is shining and it's a moderate 22 degrees F. We are opening this new machine up on the straight parts of the trail and putting it through some serious testing.

It's getting late, so we should head back to the cabin. We haven’t seen another sledder in quite some time. What’s that? The engine is stalling out. I'm checking the fuel tank and it’s empty. There must be a break in the fuel line.

No one seems to be out this far today. We need to make a camp and hope help comes. There's no cell phone reception, so we're on our own.

I keep a small snow shovel on the snowmobile just in case. Well, that decision is paying off now. My son and I take turns piling the snow up in a heap. We are making a quinzee, an emergency snow shelter. It is going to save our lives tonight.


What would you do?

What would you do in this situation? The bottom line is that these two needed to either be rescued or have shelter for the night. They couldn't count on immediate rescue, so shelter was a must. I am going to share with you how to make an emergency snow shelter called a quinzee, just like the one in the story. It is simple in design, and offers shelter and warmth that saved the lives of this father and son.

How to Build a Quinzee Emergency Snow Shelter

The audio for this video is very low, so turn up your volume quite a bit. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Compact 65-piece Winter Road Assistance Kit By AAA and LifeLine First Aid.

Step By Step Instructions for Building a Quinzee

  1. Pile up the snow. This father and son don’t have a snow shovel. Scooping with their hands will work, but finding a big piece of birch bark would help.
  2. Tamp the pile of snow down firmly. Pile more snow on top until you feel you have made a shelter large enough for your needs. Tamp this down just as you did the first time.
  3. Let the pile set for at least one hour, preferably two hours. This is known as centering. Now that the snow isn't being moved, the process of re-crystallization is taking place.
  4. Collect about thirty sticks that are at least the diameter of your thumb. Shorter sticks are pushed into the upper third of the dome and longer sticks into the sides. These will be guides about when to stop digging from the inside.
  5. Dig out the cave after allowing the structure to center or crystallize. As you do so, dig until you hit the sticks you pushed in from the outside.
  6. Carefully poke a hole in the center of the top of the dome. This should be about three inches in diameter. It will let out moisture as a result of respiration.
  7. Collect pine boughs with very small branches to be used as a floor for the shelter. They will keep you off the cold surface of snow or frozen ground. Tarp or a Thermarest would be better.
  8. Build a wind barrier using the snow which was dug out of the shelter so that a fire can be started. Do not build a fire inside the structure.

Thumbnails of interior of Quinzee

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Entrance to the Quinzee.Floor and sides of Quinzee.Hole in top of Quinzee to release moisture.
Entrance to the Quinzee.
Entrance to the Quinzee. | Source
Floor and sides of Quinzee.
Floor and sides of Quinzee. | Source
Hole in top of Quinzee to release moisture.
Hole in top of Quinzee to release moisture. | Source

Other Uses for a Quinzee

  • A routine winter camping shelter.
  • A shelter at a favorite sledding hill that will last all season.
  • A fort in the yard for children and grandchildren.

Putting the Quinzee to the Test

The temperature on Sunday, February 3, when we made the Quinzee, was 13°F. After we made the video, Dan and I sat in the quinzee for a few minutes and it quickly warmed up. Dan slept in it Sunday night and the temperature dropped below 10°F. He was comfortable.

I believe a structure like this would have saved the lives of the father and son in the story who were stranded in the cold north woods of Michigan.

Thanks, Dan.  Nice job on the Quinzee.
Thanks, Dan. Nice job on the Quinzee. | Source

A Quinzee Poll

Would you consider building a quinzee for one of these practical purposes? Which one?

See results


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    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      LongTimeMother, sorry I took so long to get back to you. The sticks are about eight to twelve inches which of course is the wall thickness. As for the entrance and bad weather/snow. Look at the photo of the finished quinzee. There is a wind wall which blocks wind and blowing snow and keeps it from getting into the quinzee. Also, a fire can be built out of the wind alongside the wall. Thanks for reading and for asking the questions.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      The chances of me needing to build one of these are pretty slim, given that I live in Australia but I travel a bit so it doesn't hurt to learn about them. :)

      I really enjoyed this hub, but I have two questions. Firstly, how long are the sticks? In other words, how thick are the walls? And secondly, do you need to cover the doorway? Presumably not if the weather is still - but what about in strong winds?

      Which raises another question ... If it is extremely snowy overnight, I guess y0u have to dig yourself out. So therefore, would it make sense to build like a 'step' out the front and have the entry slightly higher from ground level, so hopefully you'd only have to dig the step width to get out - assuming the snowfall wasn't too high.

      Hmm. And you thought you were writing a nice easy hub that would make sense to everyone. lol. Voted up ++.

    • Dannell profile image

      Dannell 4 years ago from Washington

      This is very useful info. Thank you for sharing it!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Mckbirdbks, So you don't think this would work in Texas? haha, Thanks for reading. I do appreciate it.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Very interesting hub. Good to know survival skills that work in your area.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Thank you ignugent17, I'm glad you fount it useful. Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      ignugent17 4 years ago

      Interesting hub! It is also very useful.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      But Becky, It's warm and pleasant inside. Well, if 30 degrees all night long on a bed of ice is pleasant. :) Thanks for reading and sharing.

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

      Very useful information. Since I try my best not to get into situations like this, I will never need it. I avoid being out in the snow like a plague. I still will share it for anyone who does go out in the snow.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hi Eric, Actually they are NOT cool. That's the point. Just kidding. They are "Cool" as you say. Thanks for reading.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hi Bill, Thanks for reading. These are the way to go for snow camping, no doubt. Nice to run into you.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hi Dan, Thanks for reading the article. It surprises people that quinzees can be so warm compared to the outside temperature. My son and I have built several of these and they serve their purpose well.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great suggestions, Chris! I have made these in the past when I did a lot of snow camping and they are as good as you say they are.

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Nice Hub! I've lit a candle in my quinzee and had the temperature inside rise to right around 30 degrees. This despite being zero outside with general howling frigid wind.