How to Build an Emergency Quinzee Snow Shelter
Snow is a Good Thermal Insulator
Since snow appears only when it's cold outside, we tend to associate it only with cold. But actually, snow is a good insulator, meaning it can hold heat inside a confined space. Animals understand this concept, and many of them create shelters out of snow. Here are some quick snow facts.
- 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.
- The average insulating or R-value of snow is R-1 (one). The R-value of wood is R-0.75. The insulating R-value of brick is R-0.2.
- In a climate where it is -40°C (-40°F), a properly built snow shelter should be about -7°C (19.4°F). It could get considerably warmer in isolated spots of the shelter.
- 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 snowpack. For example, if the air temperature is -14°F, and there are 9 inches of snow, then the ground temperature would be 28°F. This means that building the shelter near ground level could heat it even more.
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're anxious to try it out on some great trails.
We’ve rented a cabin near the snowmobile trailhead. It's already afternoon, but we're anxious to try this sled out. We won’t stay out long.
This is awesome! The trail is perfect, the sun is shining, and it's a moderate 22 degrees. We open our new machine up on the straight trails and put it through some serious testing.
It's getting late, so we head back to the cabin. We haven’t seen another sledder in quite some time. The engine stalls out. I check the fuel tank. Empty. Dripping fuel shows me where the line is broken.
Darkness settles in as the sun sets and clouds gather overhead. No one seems to be out this far today. We need to either hike back to the cabin or make a camp and hope help comes. There's no cell phone reception, so we're on our own.
Hiking back seems too dangerous. The temperature is dropping and we may get more snow. I keep a small shovel on the snowmobile just in case. My son and I take turns piling the snow up in a heap. We're making a quinzee, an emergency snow shelter. It will keep us warm and safe through the night. It might even be saving our lives.
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.
Step By Step Instructions for Building a Quinzee
- Pile up the snow. This father and son had a snow shovel. That was good planning. Otherwise, a big piece of birch bark might serve the purpose.
- Tamp down the pile of snow, then pile more on top until you feel you've made a shelter large enough for your needs. Tamp this down just as you did the first time.
- Let the pile sit for two hours. This is known as centering. Now that the snow isn't being moved, the process of re-crystallization is taking place.
- Collect about thirty sticks that are at least the diameter of your thumb. Push shorter sticks into the upper third of the dome and longer ones into the sides. These will be indicators for when to stop digging the inside out.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 would be better.
- Build a wind barrier using the snow from digging out the shelter so that a fire can be started. Do not build a fire inside the structure.
Thumbnails of interior of QuinzeeClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 outside 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 forest of northern Michigan.