Winter camping is something I absolutely look forward to every year! There are no bugs or crowds, and who doesn't enjoy playing in the snow? Winter outings offer different challenges than summer camping and can be a great test in survival. With a little preparation, you might be surprised at how comfortable it can be. My favorite way to camp in the winter is in a snow shelter! Snow is actually a great insulator - there is more air in snow than water, lending to these insulating properties. Even when we only get 3-4 inches of snow, there are different temperatures within the snow from top to bottom, so a properly built snow shelter
can be warmer than a 4 season tent!
A lot of people may be familiar with Igloos, but here in Iowa we don’t get enough hard-packed snow to carve out bricks to make a proper igloo. We often get more than enough snow to make a good snow quinzhee! Pronounced kwin-zee and of Athabascan origin, a quinzhee is, in essence, a large pile of snow that has been hollowed out for a place to sleep.
Quinzhees can take several hours to build but are an effective way to stay warm when camping in the winter. Due to the time and energy required, quinzhees are a good choice for multiple night excursions, or a great backyard adventure!
The beauty of quinzhee building is that you can use almost any snow, but the best and most effective is when the outside temperature is below 25F. When beginning to make your quinzhee, you first want to step out a circle 9-12ft in diameter, depending on how many people the structure is intended for. Then, you simply start shoveling snow into the circle piling it enough to reach a height of 5-7ft. This is a great activity to keep you moving and warm but can easily generate too much heat, so you need to really regulate your temperature by removing layers as to not letting your base layers get saturated in sweat. Once your pile is big enough, you can pack and shape your quinzhee into adome shape.
Now, the quinzhee must sit for 1.5 to 2 hours to allow a sintering process to take place before you can dig it out. All the different temperatures in the snow are now all mixed up in the pile and need time for both temperature and moisture in the snow to homogenize in which the snow crystals will bond with each other. While this is happening, it’s good to gather a number of small sticks 1ft in length to push into the structure all around from top to bottom to be used as guides when digging it out. About 1ft is ideal for the thickness of the walls, so when you’re digging the quinzhee out and come across a stick you know when to stop digging in that location.
After sticks are placed, it’s best to stay active, grab food and water, go snow shoeing, xc skiing or digging out the rest of camp for cooking and a spot to hang out by the fire!
When ready, start by digging a small entrance on the downhill side. Hollow the shelter out from the top down, using the snow from inside to build a wind break outside the entrance. Smooth out the walls and ceiling using snow shoes or small shovel, reserving the last foot of snow to the ground for sleeping benches. The walls should be 1ft thick. Dig a narrow trench between the beds all the way to the ground, this allows cold air to flow down and out of the quinzhee. Poke a small ventilation holes near the top of the dome.
For added comfort, carve a few shelves in the wall for small candles. They’ll provide some lighting, but also go a long way toward a warmer quinzhee. Just be sure to blow them out before you go to sleep.
Quinzhees are an incredible winter camping shelter but also a great way to bring some adventure to your yard so get out there and have some fun!!