I love living in a place that has four seasons. Making our home as far north as we do, we experience six months of cold weather each year. If we are lucky we’ll have snow for four or five of them.
Many of the people I know would be aghast to read that statement. Lucky to have five months of snow? What? The fact is that while I do get cold when the temperature dips I have learned to dress for it. And if the weather is going to be cold, well then, I would definitely hope to have snow to go along with it.
I loved to play in the snow as a child and I love it just as much now that I have children of my own. We sled, we ski, we snowshoe and build. Snow forts, snowballs, snowmen, you name it — if it can be built out of snow, we do it.
I remember seeing a segment on Sesame Street when I was a kid — a time-elapsed video of an igloo being built. I was mesmerized. It looked so simple yet when I tried it myself it was anything but. Cutting and stacking snow blocks was utterly impossible for me so I learned to make do with piling up icy chunks that were discarded by the plow. That suited me just fine. Any structure at all was better than nothing.
Many years later, working as an outdoor educator in a very snowy location, I still did not learn how to make an igloo but I did take my snow structure building up a notch. I learned how to make a quinzhee. A very simple and very sturdy structure, easy to make with two people or twenty, we usually made one each week as long as the snow kept falling. It was a wonder to watch snow shoveled into a pile transform into an overnight fort. I loved doing it then and I love doing it now, especially with my kids.
If you’ve never tried it and you’re interested in having a go, here is how to make a quinzhee:
:: Using your feet, mark out a circle that will be the size of the base of your shelter. For a first time, 6-10 feet across is good start but you can go as big as 20 feet across, or more. (Keep in mind, the larger the base the larger the pile of snow required later.)
:: Shovel the snow out of that circle down to the grass. We need all of the snow that gets piled up to be uniform in texture and the snow that has been around for a while can be crusty. Scoop it up and toss it away.
:: Now make the pile. Shovel snow from outside of the circle back in. The idea is for this snow to all be light and fluffy- no icy chunks or packed snowballs. Pile this up as high as you can. Don’t use your shovel to pack it down at all- you need air to be mixed in with the snow. The chunks that were shoveled out before can be broken up and tossed back in. We often wander to get enough snow. The bigger the pile the better.
:: Once the pile is as high as you want it, (and in case you’re wondering, it’s always worthwhile to go higher) leave it. Do not let the kids or the dog climb on top yet! Easier said than done, I know, but this is really important. Now you need to let the snow sinter for a few hours, or even overnight. The idea is to let the snowflakes settle close together and form a hard crust. They transform from being a pile of individual flakes to being a solid pile. This is what will give the structure its strength.
:: An optional, but very handy step is to gather many foot-long twigs. This is a great job for an adult who is really tired of shoveling, or for a child who desperately wants to jump on the snow pile. (If you do not have access to twigs where you are building, then you can just skip this step. We often skip it anyway.) To use those twigs, grab them at their halfway mark (6 inches on either side of your fingers) and poke them into the snow pile up to your fingers. Now there will be 6 inches of twig sticking out of the snow and 6 inches poking in. Do this all over the structure, leaving ample space in between twigs. When you’re done the snow pile will look like a giant white porcupine. These sticks will come in very handy later.
:: After the pile has had a chance to settle for at least a few hours, hopefully overnight, it’s time to dig your quinzhee out. Decide where you want your door to be, and start digging. Using a shovel, a trowel, a hockey stick, a large kitchen spoon- whatever you can find- dig that snow away. It may be a bit crusty and that’s good- it’s proof that the pile is ready for digging.
:: As you dig you do not want to break a hole through the wall. That’s where the porcupine twigs come in. While digging you will encounter the poked in edge of your twigs. Once you reach them leave that area of the wall alone. The walls will be 6-inches thick and that is just right. If you’re not using twigs then you have to eyeball the width. Once I see light shining through I know the walls are getting thin and I leave them.
:: Keep on digging. This part is the most exciting for one of my sons and the least exciting for another. (Our third son spends all of his quinzhee time trying to sneak on top of it just because he knows I don’t want him to and because I told him, three years ago, that once it has sintered it is strong enough to stand on. Now he insists on trying that all of the time. Sigh.) Depending on the size of the pile you may need to form an assembly line with a digger and a snow mover, one scraping it down and the other scooping it out of the way. I have seen 2 men work for hours to clear out a really large structure. I feel quite claustrophobic in that tight a spot and as a result, so far, our family structures have been smaller than that.
::Dig it out until you think you’re done or you just don’t want to anymore. That’s it! It is possible to use this as a snow shelter. Make it a bit bigger, choose a sheltered location, put the door out of the wind, and away you go. It is possible to dig the door so that it is an upward angled tunnel that will help keep your warm air in all night. You can build sleeping shelves that are a bit higher still, bring in a candle lantern for light and extra warmth, and away you go.
We haven’t slept out in ours yet. I’ve helped with the build and prep for a sleep out with a group of adults but sleeping inside was not the right choice for me. Just thinking about it now makes my gut churn. I very happily did sleep outside in the snow with a foam pad and a bivvie while my compadres were in the quinzhee. Possible snow falling on my face was a much more desirable evening wake up than being in the snow shelter.
Spending time in a snow shelter is enchanting. Sound is dampened, the air smells so crisp, and the temperature really does warm quite quickly. This demonstration of how a cold substance like snow can be an insulator is quite magical.
My children love quinzhees and so far, having built at least one together each winter for the past five years, we always end up putting on another door. We have been able to lie inside and read books together, share snacks, hang out. It has become a truck garage, a drive through tunnel, and a hang out spot.
I don’t know if we’ll ever sleep out in one. I have a feeling that if I offer to sleep outside with the boys while they snuggle up in the quinzhee we’ll just end up with all of us snuggled in the snow. This may sound like a really unattractive option to a lot of people (my husband included) but it sounds just fine to me. Either way, whether we sleep out in it or not, we will head out with our shovels as soon as we get our first heavy snowfall to build a simple, sturdy quinzhee to play in together.
Sonja Lukassen used to get paid to bring city-folk into the forest. Now she does it with her family and friends for fun in rural Ontario, Canada. She blogs about their exploits and shares ideas at Forest Kids.