7.1      Camping on Durable Surfaces

Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of low-impact back country use. It requires the use of judgment and information and often involves making trade-offs between minimizing ecological and social impacts. A decision about where to camp should be based on information about the level and type of use in the area, the fragility of vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts, and your potential to cause or avoid impact. Winter camping allows camping in remote areas, see few visitors, and have no obvious impacts. In setting up camp, disperse tents, cooking areas and storage of backpacks on durable snow sites. Use removable tent anchors, such as ice axes, ice screws, and poles rather than moving rocks or tieing to trees.

Selecting a comfortable camp site is a useful skill for all campers, regardless of the season. While orientated towards three season backpackers, here are ten things SectionHiker looks for when evaluating different camping locations:

  1. Is the site close to a water source?
  2. Is your campsite safe from hazards such as rock falls, flash floods, high tide or avalanches?
  3. Is the surface free of stones, broken branches, and roots?
  4. Is your campsite situated on compacted ground?
  5. Is the campsite fairly level?
  6. Is the campsite set off from hiking trails and game trails?
  7. Is the campsite private and quiet?
  8. Is your campsite 200 ft away from a water source? (Opps, reference photo.)
  9. How hard is the wind blowing?
  10. What’s on the ground?

There are many alternatives for shelter each with their own trade offs.

7.2     Winter Camping Shelter Alternatives

Shelter Description Advantages Disadvantages
Snow Cave Relatively warm Construction takes time, can get wet in the construction
Quinzee Construction takes time, can get wet in the construction Can get wet in the construction.
Igloo Relatively warm Construction takes time, skill or experience is needed. Can get wet in the construction.
Adirondack Lean-To Three sided roofed enclosure with a plank floor usually made of logs Spacious: room to change clothes, room for cooking, can sleep 6+ Largely limited to NYS Adirondack Park, expensive to build, large open face makes it susceptible to wind. They aren’t particularly warm – even if you close off the open side with a tarp. They are usually situated in high-use areas. Sleeping arrangements can leave you laying wide awake between two prodigious snorers.
Tent Solo or multi-person tent Readily available, wide variety
Hammock Light weight, easy to pitch in wooded areas, no level ground necessary Accessories needed to “winterize” otherwise a hammock can be cold
Hot Tenting – Tent or tipi made of silnylon with packable sheet metal stove and collapsible stove pipe Warm. Stove provides cooking and enables drying of clothing. Stove & stove pipes are an additional item (and weight) to transport. Most fireboxes are limited and require hourly attention
Bivy Light weight, camp anywhere, easy to set up Can be constricting, no shelter for gear
Tarp Light weight, easy to set up

7.3     Lean tos

The Lean-to is an open faced camping shelter found throughout the Adirondack Park back-country areas and along the Appalachian Trail. They are also found in the Nordic European nation of Finland, although in Finland they are called “laavus” instead. These Finnish lean-tos serve as temporary housing for people on hiking, camping or fishing expeditions out in the wilderness. They are especially common in the Pukala national forest of Finland.

Lean-tos are built mostly by hand with chainsaws and chisels and the logs are assembled using a scribe notching technique that results in a very tight fit of joints and allows the use of the entire length of logs. The floor space usually measures 12′ x 8′ in size.

The original plans for building a lean-to were published by the New York Conservation Department – Bureau of Camps and Trails in March 1957 entitled as Plan # 184. The original plans can still be found here.

New York State maintained lean-tos are open to any and all comers up to the marked capacity of the shelter. As is the case at other campsites, you may not stay at a lean-to for more than three consecutive nights without a free DEC permit. When using a lean-to, don’t hammer nails into the logs or make other “improvements.” It’s even illegal to set up a tent inside a lean-to!

There are benefits to winter camping in an Lean-to. Foremost, is that you don’t have to carry your shelter with you. They are spacious; although each lean-to can be different typically there is adequate room for 5. The lean-to provides a level, dry platform for changing clothes, setting up a stove, mixing food, or just plain sitting.

On the other hand, lean-to’s aren’t particularly warm – even if you close off the open side with a tarp. They are usually situated in high-use areas. And the sleeping arrangements can leave you laying wide awake between two prodigious snorers.

In the past 12 years of winter camping only once have we encountered a lean-to in use by others. On Martin Luther King weekend in 1997 at the popular John Pond lean-to in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area a boy scout troop had hiked in before us and were staying at the lean-to, so we tented.

7.3.1        Appalachian Trail Lean-tos

WhiteBlaze, a forum dedicated to the Appalachian Trail, has a forum devoted to Shelters & Lean-tos where users share their shelter experiences and discuss issues related to shelters of lean-tos from Georgia to Maine.

7.3.2        NYS Lean-tos

DSettahr over at Adirondack Forums posted a spreadsheet of all the lean-tos in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. He stated it was his “(long term) hiking goal… to spend a night in every single lean-to in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.”

The spreadsheet has two pages: one that has all the lean-tos listed in alphabetical order and one that lists them by the management unit in which they reside. Currently, there are 295 lean-tos on the list. Subsuquent posters noted corrections where lean-tos no longer existed. You can download the file from here or here. You can read the whole discussion here.

7.3.3        Sharing Lean-tos

I culled through a long discussion at ADKforums.com on the guidelines and rules for sharing lean-tos. Basically there are guidelines stating that it is nice to share lean-tos, however, there are no regulations requiring they be shared.

WildRiver stated “There is no regulation compelling lean-to users to share the shelters with latecomers. Latecomers have no regulatory right to move into lean-tos that are currently being occupied, even if there is room. On the other hand: No one can claim exclusive occupancy of any portion of state land, whether it be a lean-to or an off-trail campsite in the middle of nowhere. Basically, the state’s land use regulations are completely mum on the topic of sharing campsites. No matter where you go in the Forest Preserve, you have no guaranteed “right” to solitude, nor do you have the “right” to intrude on someone else’s.

However, there is by all means a valid expectation for solitude. The word is an integral part of the legal definition of “Wilderness Area,” meaning that solitude is a feature the state is officially trying to promote and perpetuate. In fact, the Five Ponds Wilderness UMP specifically addresses people “who go into the wilderness primarily as a social excursion seeking the company of others and facilities where they might congregate” by stating: “Users” in [this] category are not really seeking a wilderness or the experience of it. Therefore, the accommodation of user group 5 is not a goal in the management of this unit.

So there is an official obligation to provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” and in fact this is a key part of the wilderness experience. Most people that you meet in the back country are in search of privacy to one degree or another, and it is to everyone’s mutual benefit to give each other space when choosing a campsite.”

The formal DEC regulations can be read here.

7.3.4        Lean-to Registers

Decided to sleep in lean-to, floor like C-ment. To those who come behind us, bring a mattress. – Griffin Rapids.

Finally, there is always the added benefit of reading the lean-to register for entertainment as captured in No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-tos by Stuart Mesinger. Stuart took several years and read hundreds of registers to compile his book. Stuart received permission (and sponsorship) from the ADK to go through the register archives. Stuart flagged the interesting entries, had a High School student type them up and then organized the book into themes: love stories, tall tales, partying, complainers, weather, critters, bugs, food, the privy, the campfire, the long walk, adventures, culture clashes, hunting and fishing, companions, religion and solitude.

There are over 200 lean-tos in the Adirondacks and we have all read the lean-to registers. Stuart took several years and read hundreds of registers to compile his book. Stuart received permission (and sponsorship) from the ADK to go through the register archives. Stuart flagged the interesting entries, had a High School student type them up and then organized the book into themes: love stories, tall tales, partying, complainers, weather, critters, bugs, food, the privy, the campfire, the long walk, adventures, culture clashes, hunting and fishing, companions, religion and solitude.

7.3.5        Adopt a Lean-to

Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to program began in 1985 with the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Adopting a lean-to does not entail major reconstruction work, and adopters do not need to be ADK members. The adopters hailed from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Canada. Although adopters drop out of the program each year, it’s remarkable how many don’t: seventy-three individuals and groups have adopted lean-tos for at least five years; 44 for at least ten years; 20 for at least fifteen years; and 4 for at least twenty years.

7.3.6        Lean-To Rescue Efforts

Lean2Rescue – a group of hard-working hikers, climbers, hunters, skiers, paddlers, and all-around good people – have restored, rehabilitated and rescued more than 30 of these Adirondack icons since 2004. Started by Paul DeLucia of Baldwinsville, NY, the all volunteer group works closely with the DEC to identify and complete suitable projects – from roof repairs to entirely new structures. Most of the work is carried out using non-motorized tools and vehicles, and the bulk of the building material is carried into the woods via canoe, portage carts, and human pack mules. And perhaps most impressive of all, Lean2Rescue operates year-round, not even breaking for the harsh Adirondack winters.

Below Mark wields a saw, Matt practices his gang signs, and Sparky breaks up kindling for a night time fire in front of the lean-to at Cascade Pond.

7.4     Tents, tarps & Tipis

Hot or cold tenting? Each style of winter camping has it’s proponents.

Hot tenting usually involves packing a wood stove along with a more substantial tent – since one is spending time in the heated tent and it is not just a sleeping berth. Hot tenting may entail bringing your gear on a sled, toboggan or pulk. Advantages include lounging in comfort, the ability to dry out clothes and cook in the shelter. Disadvantages include an increased weight, set up time and the need to cut fuel. Hot tenters often establish multi-day base camps.

Cold tenting usually involves a lighter load that can be easily backpacked, permitting more mobility. Cold tent-ers rarely stay in the same place more than one night. The disadvantage being that it gets tough to dry out gear on trips of long duration.

Tim Jones has a nice article entitled “Cold Can Be Warm: Two Ways to Winter Camp” comparing cold and warm camping, otherwise known as hot tenting. From Tim’s article:

Cold camping means camping without a heat source, relying on a tent or tarp to shelter you from wind and falling or drifting snow, and warm clothes and a good sleeping bag to keep you comfortable. Though “cold camping” doesn’t sound all that appealing, you can be surprisingly comfortable in a “cold” camp.

The big advantage of cold camping is that your pack is lighter and you are more mobile. Almost any trail you’d backpack on in the summer is fair game for a winter cold camping trek. With a free-standing tent, it’s easy to travel on snowshoes or skis, reach your destination and, an hour later, be well fed and snug in your sleeping bag for the night. The only moment of potential discomfort unique to cold camping is hauling yourself out of that cozy sleeping bag in the morning. But, if you planned it right, you’ve already had something warm and comforting to eat and drink before you have to get up and get dressed for the day.

Warm winter camping is something of a misnomer, since it isn’t warm all the time. You spend your days and nights in the same cold as cold campers. Typically, the only “warm” in warm winter camping is in the evenings and perhaps again in the morning when you are awake and in camp to tend to some sort of heat source. That heat source might be a campfire in front of a tarp shelter, a woodstove inside a tent or even a candle lantern inside a snow cave or snow shelter – which can be surprisingly cozy. It would seem that gas-fueled catalytic heaters would be ideal inside a tent, but I’ve never found a stove/fuel combo that’s light and efficient enough to carry backpacking.

The advantage of warm camping is obvious – you aren’t confined to your sleeping bag when you aren’t moving. You get to dress and undress, eat and relax in a warmed space.

Warm camping also has its disadvantages. Warm setups are usually – but not always – heavier than cold camping. And it usually takes a lot more time to set up a tarp-and-campfire site or a woodstove-heated tent or to build a snow shelter than it does to pop up a free-standing tent. Then there’s the time and effort it takes to find wood for a campfire or stove – not always easy when the snow is deep.

Warm camping works better when you spend more than one night at a campsite rather than moving camp every day. A warm camp is perfect for a long weekend. Pack in and set up camp your first day, leaving plenty of time to find wood if needed. The following days you can explore out from there, knowing you can return to a snug haven.

Warm or cold, winter camping is something everyone should try at least twice. Why twice? Because the second try is almost always easier and more fun than the first.

Tim’s article can be read here.

7.4.1        Four Season Tents

Defining features of a four season tent are:

  • All vents can be closed during storms.
  • Tougher materials than three-season tents.
  • Multiple guy-out points for anchoring.
  • For mountaineering and winter backpacking.

Despite what the name implies, four-season tents are actually one-season tents: winter. Both the canopy and body feature stronger materials than three-season tents, and the body shape maximizes resistance to high winds and heavy snow loading. There is a corresponding increase in both durability and weight.

Size – You should get a tent for the exact number of users where weight is an issue. Some weight-obsessed alpine climbers even use tents that are too small to save weight, but you don’t want to spend more than one night in a row packed together like sardines. If you’re planning for a base camp or spending a week skiing laps in the same cirque, then consider a larger tent than you need. Every extra inch counts when you’re sitting through winter’s long nights.

Single or Double-Wall Tent? Get a single-wall tent for long backcountry ski tours or lightweight alpine climbs. Get a double-wall tent for trips where you will be in the same camp for several nights (base camp).

1 Door vs. 2 Doors? For winter tents the door question usually gets answered when you think about how much time you’ll be on the move. In base camp, a second door can be pretty key. On a steep alpine route, a second door just adds weight. However, some find the convenience of a second door to be well worth the extra few ounces, especially for tents that hold three or more people.

Vestibule? Vestibules provide a place to store gear and put on your boots without exposing the inside of your tent to the burly snowstorm brewing outside. When camping on snow, you can dig out the below the vestibule to create a plush porch and storage area. Four-season single-wall tents often do not have an integrated vestibule because the people using these tents tend to focus on saving weight.

Venting. These tents include just enough venting to reduce condensation, but every speck of mesh can be sealed to keep out the snow during a storm.

Footprint: Footprints add extra water resistance and durability for long stays in camp, but they usually get left behind if you plan to move camp every night. Get yourself one and use it whenever you can afford the extra weight.


7.4.2        Tipis

I bought this Black Diamond Megamid Tipi Tent as a 2nd (off color) from Campmor with thoughts that it could be used for emergency shelter when canoe camping, but especially for winter camping. The tipi sets up easily on snow and over uneven ground.

The four person Megamid is supposed to sleep 4 persons, but I am sure they never made those calculations with 6′4″ campers in mind. However, we found it was palatial with 2 and fit 3 sleeping forms quite well.

The Megamid provides 51 square feet of floor space, one door and measures nearly 5′ (57″) tall. Total weight of the tent, pole, stakes and stuff sack is under 4lbs.

On our maiden voyage with the Megamid – having little experience with tipis at this point we didn’t stamp out a large enough footprint. However, the tipi worked fine. The tipi form sheds snowfall providing a soothing shooshing sound through the night as accumulated snow slides down the side.

Without a floor we packed a space blanket to provide additional coverage below the sleeping pad, so I am not too sure about the weight savings. However, it is nice to be able to enter the tipi with boots on and not worry about tracking snow in. Cooking inside is an option, however, like any single wall tent condensation can be an issue if there isn’t adequate ventilation.               Hot Tenting with a Tipi

A nice compromise is the lightweight Kirafu Tent. We love the Kirafu Tipi for winter camping. It is light and easy to set up. It accommodates 4-5 campers with a wood stove and wood. If you want to be warm – it can get very warm.

The Kifaru 8 Man Ultralight Tipi weighs 12 lbs for an 8 man tent with the large packable wood stove. The tipi is made of an ultralight fabric which resembles parachute material. The tipi material itself is very light and easily stuffs into a small sack. It has one aluminum center pole and several stakes.


Set up is easy. If there is a lot of snow, however, we recommend digging or stamping out the area first for easier set up, especially if you don’t have the longer tent stakes. Taking the time to clear out the snow saves a lot of time and trouble in the end.

We have several campers that average between 6’4” and 6’6” tall. What is touted as an eight person tent will comfortably fit five with the wood stove and a supply of wood. Without the stove the tent will fit six persons.

The wood stove is stainless steel and weighs in at just over 4lbs. When folded up it is roughly the size of a laptop and comes in its own carrying case. We recommend rolling the stove pipe a few times at home first in order to loosen it up a bit and to get the hang of it. We did not do this the first trip but hindsight is always 20/20. Once set up it is time to build your fire.

The firebox is 8×9×20 so you will have to keep the wood small since the door only allows wood of approximately 3.5 inches in diameter. Burn time is about an hour, however, you can easily warm the inside of the tipi up into the 70s. The sides of the stove and stovepipe do become red hot so you will want to make sure that the sleeping bags, packs, bare skin, etc. stay well away. If you wish to have a fire going all night it is important to position a light sleeper near the stove. Burn time is roughly an hour so unless you just plan on re-lighting it in the morning you need someone to who sleeps lightly to keep waking up and throwing a few pieces of wood on every hour or so. We have found the stove to be an adequate cooking stove. The stove is sturdy enough to hold pots of boiling water, frying pans etc.

7.4.3        Tent Color Considerations

I have never given tent color much thought when purchasing a new tent. Unlike buying a pair of pants, there aren’t color options when selecting a particular tent model. However, there is a lot of thought that goes into the selection of a tent color by the manufacturer. This is from Oware, who makes tarps and other goodies.

Navy – NOLS color choice for blending in. Pros-blends in well at dusk and semi-darkness, doesn’t attract attention from people or animals. It dries quickly in sunlight. It makes the best shade if an ample insulating air distance (3 ft) is kept between you and the tarp. Best projection from snow blindness. Cons-lets less light through, dreary in dreary weather, can be hot in hot weather if fabric is close to the body.

Purple, Brown, Royal – Pros-blends in well at dusk and dark, doesn’t attract attention from people or animals. It dries quickly in sunlight. It makes the best shade if an ample insulating air distance (3 ft) is kept between you and the tarp. Best projection from snow blindness. Cons-lets less light through, dreary in dreary weather, can be hot in hot weather if fabric is close to the body.

Grey – Most popular with backpackers. Pros – blends in well in many settings. It doesn’t attract attention from people or animals. It lets lots of light through. Cons – dreary in dreary weather, lets radiant heat through in hot weather (doesn’t give very dark shade) gives little protection from snow blindness.

Bright Orange or Chartreuse – A favorite of Search and Rescue and survival kits. Pros – cheery in dreary weather, easily spotted in emergencies or when returning to camp in stormy weather. It lets lot of light through. It provides hunting safety. Cons-shows dirt, may attract unwanted attention from people or animals, gives little shade, and gives little protection from snow blindness.

Leaf green – The bow hunter’s choice. Pros- It blends in well in many settings. It lets some light through, good compromise for all around use.

Gold – The boaters pick. Pros – cheery in dreary weather, easily spotted in emergencies or when returning to camp in stormy weather. It lets lot of light through. Cons-shows dirt, may attract unwanted attention from people or animals, gives little protection from snow blindness. One thing to consider if you do snow camping and spend time inside during the day, yellow lets in a lot of light which can lead to snow blindness on a sunny day. Years ago REI did tests of colors and decided a dark orange was best for mountaineering tents- they were cheery and easy to find, but cut down on light more to help stave off snow blindness.

  • Most folks prefer-
  • bright colors if they snow camp,
  • navy, black, green or gray if they trail hike (to hide from the crowds),
  • black or navy for desert for better shade with high pitch,
  • orange or yellow for emergency shelters and search and rescue,
  • yellow for river trips for mood enhancement on rainy days,
  • blaze orange, green or gray for hunters (depending on the type of hunting military tactical) gray or green for those in bear country ( to avoid visually attracting them)
  • photographers like a bit of color in their photos.


7.5     Tarps & Bivy sacks

Tarps are lighter to carry than winter tents and can fulfill a variety of functions: wind break, snow moving, dining fly, ground cloth, or a roof on a partial snow shelter.

While not as warm as a tent, using a tarp as your primary shelter can be rewarding.  You are offered a variety of pitching options, a tarp ventilates well, and you can position yourself to be able to see the night sky if desired.

A bivy bag is intended for a bivuoac, an emergency camp, and is designed for a very short stop. It is something you do when you are caught out without full camping gear, either by choice or in an emergency. A bivy is not intended to be a comfortable rest and is often in a location where you normally would not stop.  Your gear stays outside in the weather as there is no room in the bivy sack.

There are many single wall tents which are available in the 3 lb range.  In my opinion these offer more convenience than a bivy sack.  Having said that, many people use a bivy bag for protection when camping in a snow shelter or directly on the snow or to add comfort range to their sleeping system as a bivy sack adds 5-10 degrees.

7.6     Snow shelters

Snow is a very good insulator that keeps heat in and the cold out. Snow also is a very effective windbreak – if your shelter is constructed so that the snow you use doesn’t blow away in the wind. Snow shelters include quinzees, snow caves and igloos.

Quinzee: Fairly quick to build but does require a fair amount of energy to construct. Build an A-frame shelter out of sticks and bows, cover with a good 3 feet of snow, build a door to plug the open end and you are good to go. No sticks or branches available, build a big pile of snow, allow the snow to settle and compress and then hollow out the pile to create a cavity that is uniform and at least 12 inches thick all around and voila a quinzee shelter. The actual techniques to build this type of shelter can be found elsewhere with the use of a search engine so I wont detail them here.

Snow cave: Find a suitable location, usually on the leeward side of a small hill or natural rise in the landscape where snow drifts tend to form. Dig into the drift creating a hollow and you have a snow cave. Remember digging into the snow drifts created by the plows at the end of the driveway as a kid? Same idea here. Digging caves requires a lot of energy and usually results in a lot of sweating – not good in cold weather. Having several people on hand to take turns digging and wiping snow off of clothing is usually a good idea when considering to build a snow cave. If you take your time though and take lots of breaks to prevent over heating, a snow cave can be an effective shelter option for a single person. Finding a suitable location however, is often a hit or miss proposition. Snow caves in areas where the snow is not really deep enough will limit their insulating properties and result in you being colder than you would prefer.

Igloo: By far the best option for all around protection from the elements. It is possible to build snow blocks from just about any type of snow that is available. Using a mould to pack the snow into the right size and shape makes building a top quality igloo anywhere just what a survivalist (or your kids in the back yard) needs. Using a snow mold allows even a novice winter architect to construct an adequate shelter in as little as four hours. An igloo is a very sturdy shelter that can last for months and gets better with every snowfall. People who have built a few igloos can accomplish the task in 2 to 3 hours. A uniform shape maximizes stability and insulation and wind stopping power. Temperatures inside an igloo often hover in the 3C to 5C degree range with the addition of body heat and a small candle/flame.

7.6.1 What is a Quinzee?

A quinzee (also quinhzee) is a combination of an igloo and a snow cave. Quinzees are suitable in marginal snow conditions, or when a crust is not available for igloos, or when there is not enough deep packed snow for a snow cave. On the flip side a quinzee won’t last an entire winter season as do some igloos. Usually quinzees are made for 2-3 sleepers.

Quinzees require a fair bit of work to complete and are usually used when spending more than one night in the same spot. If built properly a quinzee will be warmer to sleep in than a tent.               WinterCampers.com Experience with a Quinzee

On our dog-sledding winter camping trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness we established a base camp on Eskwagame Lake. While our guides slept out in bivouac and 4 of us slept in the tipi, Jason and Paul decided to make and sleep in a quinzee. They constructed a quinzee using the steps described below – except they might have made it a little on the small side. At 2am those of us in the tipi heard a “I’ve GOT to get out of here!” followed by an explosion of nylon and snow as Paul was overcome by claustrophia and exited the quinzee in a rush. Jason reported sleeping comfortably, but admitted that space was tight.               How to Build A Quinzee

  1. To build a quinzee one shovels snow into a pile the shape and size of an igloo and then waits for the snow structure to sinter. Sintering is a process whereby snow crystals adhere to one another and form a bond making a harder structure. The sintering process may take a couple of hours to complete. If you are really organized you can bury your backpacks and then pull them out later in the tunneling process to reduce the amount of digging that has to be done. However, the items in the backpacks will be unavailable for a few hours, so make sure you have the items (e.g. stove, hot drinks, extra clothes) that you might want during the interim.
  2. Gather sticks approximately 12″ in length and jab them all over your quinzee. These sticks will be the guides for the thickness of the cave walls.
  3. Dig an entrance at ground level and as you tunnel inside, slant upwards to create a raised sleeping platform. Warm air rises, so this will allow the cold air to flow down and out while you’re sleeping.
  4. As you uncover the ends of the sticks, you will have a 12″ wall at that location. This step will take the most time as only one person can excavate the inside while others outside move the snow away from the entrance (and stand around and get chilled). Expect the tunnel person to get snow-covered and/or wet when building the quinzee so make sure you have alternative clothing.
  5. Try to keep your structure rounded. If you have a flat roof the quinzee will sag and eventually collapse
  6. Pile up the excavated snow along the sides of your entrance to create a windbreak.
  7. Smooth the ceiling as much as possible then light a candle or other heat source to glaze the interior surfaces.
  8. Punch ventilation holes with a stick. Check the ventilation holes frequently and keep them clear.
  9. If you have a tarp lay it down on the floor. If the weather is really nasty you can use your backpack to partially block the entrance door from drafts. Temperatures inside a snow shelter can be 32 degrees or warmer even when the outside temperature dips into negative digits.               Links to Other Articles about Quinzees

  • Boys Life has a short illustrated article entitled How to Build A Quinzee Snow Shelter
  • How to Build Winter Shelters and Survive
  • Pete Schmitt has a nice blog entry on his experience building and using a quinzee. He has statistics on the length of the process and how much the quinzee sagged overnight.
  • JJ Murphy from www.WriterbyNature.com sent a short article on building his quinzee entitled “A New Word: Quinzee“
  • Wikipedia “Quinhzee”
  • Instructables has a photo instruction series where illustrating two quinzees joined by a shared kitchen area.
  • Call of the Wild Adventure Consultants in Algonquin Park have a short discussion: How To Build a Quinzee
  • Backyard Bushman built a quinzee in his (of all places) backyard for his kids to play in.
  • Adventures of Burgess shows his 3 person (cramped) quinzee
  • Your Wild Child blog has a Building a Snow Shelter post

7.6.2        Snow caves

This is an article by Ernest Wilkinson from the Mother Earth News Issue # 078 – November/December 1982. Touted as “Learn how to build safe, snug snow caves and other havens in winter wilderness, plus helpful information on winter camping. “ From http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/1982-11-01/Snow-Caves-and-Other-Shelters.aspx

During the winter in the northern Rockies, one can sometimes see a ptarmigan making its home for the night: In full flight, the plump white bird will suddenly dive into a soft drift, hunker down in the resulting depression, and let blowing flakes settle on its feathers to form a protective blanket.

Snow, you see, is one of nature’s most practical insulators. The falling flakes, each of which may contain more than a thousand loosely clustered ice crystals, can pile up into a fluffy mass (composed of as much as 90% air) that is virtually—in form and effect—the frozen equivalent of goose down.

Many of nature’s creatures, in fact, use the heat-retaining qualities of snow for protection from winter’s cold. But we humans, in all of our “wisdom”, generally cling to our dependence upon technology . . . even in situations such as winter mountaineering trips, where—for shelter—we most likely sit huddled within the frigid confines of thin ripstop nylon walls. Worse yet, some individuals have actually perished needlessly from “exposure” to snow and cold, when a little knowledge of the resources at hand—and an ability to use those materials—could have saved their lives.

That’s why, after many years of laboring as a trapper and guide—and after doing considerable search and rescue work here in the mountains of Colorado—I made a special effort to work out effective methods for building snow shelters. It’s also why, when I now lead a group on a winter survival cross-country tour, I don’t allow my students to bring tents. Instead, I teach them to use their wits, and the crunchy substance beneath their feet, to make overnight homes.               Selecting a Site

An ideal spot for a snow cave would be a firm bank or drift that’s six feet or more deep. But not everyone who needs winter shelter, of course, will find a place where the precipitation is that substantial, and even those who do will sometimes discover—early in the season, especially—that the piled crystals are too loose and powdery to make good caving material.

Fortunately, one of the characteristics of snow is that it tends to compact itself (and harden) once it’s been disturbed. So when the cover is too shallow to accommodate a cave, you can build yourself an “artificial” drift in which to burrow: Find a hill that’s 10 to 20 feet high and covered with 24 inches or more of snow, and then—with a shovel, your feet, or whatever—push the white matter down the incline to form a large pile at the bottom. With that done, wait 10 to 20 minutes to let the material “set”, and then proceed to dig your cave.

Likewise, if you find a site where a drift is sufficiently deep but not firm, you can tromp around the area and poke the powder repeatedly with a stick or your ski poles perhaps also mounding more snow on top and stirring that up a bit—to encourage the mass to harden.

In any case, it’s important to remember that if you’re in an avalanche-prone area, you need to be very careful about choosing a site. Always check with rangers for snow condition reports before venturing into the wilds . . . and be aware that the lee—windless—sides of mountains are particularly dangerous, and that new snow on the ground increases the danger of a slide.               Construction

Virtually every book I’ve read on the subject of snow caving recommends carving a narrow tunnel into a drift or bank, and then hollowing out a larger living area—at the interior end of the shaft—by scooping out the material and transporting it through the burrow to the outside. I’ve found, however, that the method is very time-consuming . . . and that a digger is likely to get a kink in the back—and snow down the neck—in the process.

Therefore, I’ve come up with what I believe is a much better technique: First, open a large vertical hole (about four feet on a side, working from “ground” level up) directly into a drift or pile of snow. You can use a lightweight folding shovel—a tool that I think all winter back-country enthusiasts should carry—or, in a pinch, some kind of make-do implement . . . such as a snowshoe, ski, or flat stick.

When the “doorway” is done, go on to excavate your living quarters by digging out a rounded, dome-shaped area (a flat roof will sag and collapse) that’s somewhat wider and higher than the entrance itself. The exact dimensions of your abode will, of course, be up to you . . . and will depend upon the number of people you intend to house. Given the right snow conditions, you can construct caves large enough for six or more individuals . . . but a smaller shelter—such as the two—person model shown in Figs. 1 and 2—takes less time to build, tends to be more stable, and is a more appropriate project for beginners.

Once you’ve hollowed out the cubicle, take some of the loosened snow and pack it up to form a sleeping bench (or two or three) that’s 20 inches or more high, a bit wider than a sleeping bag, and as long as its occupant-to-be is tall. If you’re building a one-person shelter, you can dig a fairly shallow chamber and position the single platform parallel to the opening. If you’re making a two-person grotto like the one in the accompanying illustrations, you’ll need to excavate a deeper cavity and place a bed on each side of the doorway.

After you’ve finished contouring each bench to your satisfaction, lay a thick “mattress” of insulating material-spruce or fir boughs, dry grass, or a backpacking padon top, and cover that with your sleeping bag. Be careful not to put any substantial weight on the bench just yet, however . . . you’ll need to give the snow a chance to settle before you take your first nap.

Since the next major step in the cave construction is to block up the original 4′ X 4′ entry hole, it’s a good idea to move the rest of your gear inside first. (This is another advantage of my snow-caving technique . . . you don’t have to push, pull, and squeeze your equipment through a tiny, confining burrow to get it under shelter.) You may also want to carve a shelf or two in the cavern’s interior surface, to hold a candle and other small items . . . and thrust a short stick partway into the wall to make a handy clothes hook.

Now—using your shovel, a snow saw, or just your hands—fashion “bricks” from the material that you scooped out of the cavity. For starters, try to make a number of cakes that are the approximate size (precision isn’t required here) of a standard 8″ X 8″ X 16″ cinder block, and then—as you build the wall—custom-tailor whatever others you need to fit specific spaces.

To fill the opening, lay the bricks in courses just as a mason might. Start with a horizontal foundation of end-to-end bricks across the entrance, and then position each block in the succeeding rows so that—whenever possible—it straddles the juncture of the two cakes below it. Remember, too, to spread a handful or so of snow “mortar” between the chunks as you work. The final product will be a sturdy wall that completely closes off the cavity, bottom to top.

At this point, take a break (gather firewood, get some camp chores done, go on a hike, whatever) and allow the wall a chance to firm up. After 20 minutes or so, you and your domicile will be ready for the last few construction steps.

Using a shovel or flat stick, cut a small entrance hole (this one should be just big enough to crawl through) in the bottom center of the snow-brick wall. Ideally, the highest part of the opening should be lower than the top surface of the sleeping benches (rising body heat will then be contained inside the cave), so dig down as close to “floor” level as you can when you cut this cavity.               Other Snow Shelters

Although a cave is certainly one of the most effective shelters you can make from snow, it is by no means the only kind. In fact, there are a number of ways you can use snow to obtain protection from the elements.

If there’s deep cover, for example, you can build a home simply by digging a 3- or 4-footwide trench to a depth of 4 (or more) feet. Then put skis, snowshoes, or tree boughs across the opening . . . place brush (or a sheet of plastic) over that . . . and pile an insulating layer of snow on top. Some folks also cut blocks and stack them around the trough (to make raised walls) before installing the roof, and others actually carve additional underground chambers—for storing gear and such—into the sides of the trench.

In forested areas you’ll often find a funnel-shaped “bowl” in the snow on the windward side of a tree . . . and this can be fashioned into a snug home by lining the floor of the depression with boughs and covering the cavity with a roof made from layers of whatever materials are available, finished off with a thick coating of snow.

Of course, there’s also the igloo . . . the classic Eskimo shelter, which—unless you’ve had considerable practice—can be pretty difficult to build. Here again, however, I’ve developed techniques that, I believe, make the task easier.

The traditional method involves cutting blocks and placing them end to end, on their narrow edges, in a circle that gradually spirals upward, round and round, one layer over another. In order to accomplish this, however—and to achieve a dome shape rather than just a vertical wall—each block must be carefully trimmed and positioned so that it both slopes in the ascending direction of the spiral and leans inward slightly.

To simplify the process, I place the rectangular blocks flat on their broad sides . . . make one circle of bricks . . . and then—on successive go-rounds—merely move each layer of blocks inward a couple of inches, so that the desired cupola shape is gradually formed. I use snow “mortar”, too . . . both as I work and to fill any cracks and holes in the final product. Then, about half an hour or so after closing in the igloo, when the structure has hardened, I carve out a small entrance door.               A Few Final Pointers

Experience, they say, is the best teacher of all . . . and that’s certainly the case when it comes to developing a proficiency at building (and camping in) snow shelters.

After a few winter back-country outings, for example, you’ll acquire a sensitivity to the different kinds of snow—in terms of texture, moisture content, and “packability”—and to the degree to which varying conditions will affect the type of shelter you should (and/or can) build. New precipitation, for instance, is often too fluffy to make good material for a large cave . . . but might be just fine for a one-person chamber.

You’ll also learn, rather quickly, that it’s important to pace yourself as you work . . . making sure that you don’t perspire excessively and—as a result—become overly (and perhaps dangerously) chilled. Always dress in layers, too, so that you can adjust the amount of clothing you’re wearing to suit the weather and the activity at hand. And remember: To stay dry is to stay warm.

In addition, you may find that it takes some time to accustom yourself—both physically and psychologically—to life in a snow cave. You can’t expect such a shelter to be the Waldorf-Astoria, but the grotto’s temperature will hold at a range of 30° to 38°F (once you’ve been inside for a while), and neither you nor such items as jugs of water will freeze . . . even if the mercury outdoors dips to 30 below. Should you be caught in an emergency situation without a sleeping bag, then, a snow cave will still keep you relatively warm. If necessary, you can use a few isometric exercises (tense the muscles in your legs, hands, and feet for several seconds, then let them relax, to stimulate blood flow) off and on through the night to avoid frostbite.

Some folks find that the darkness and silence inside a snow cave can be disturbing . . . so be prepared, when you blow out your candle that first night in your shelter (and do be sure to extinguish the flame, so that it doesn’t consume oxygen while you’re sleeping), to cope with an instant attack of claustrophobia. Most people get used to the quiet and close quarters in a very short time, however.

During the day, if you leave the cave—to go for a hike or gather firewood or whatever—be sure to mark the entrance conspicuously so that you’ll be able to find your home when you return. Remember, too, that snow has a way of “swallowing” camp litter . . . trash that, come spring, will show its ugly face all too plainly. Be sure to keep all refuse and waste in one place, and to pack it out with you when you leave.

And finally, I strongly recommend that you practice building snow shelters before placing yourself in a situation where you might need such a structure. A wilderness emergency—such as getting caught in a sudden blizzard—is not the ideal time to try to construct your first snow cave. And reading the information in this article and in other books is not, by itself, sufficient preparation for—say—going on an overnight cross-country tour without a tent. I always show my students a detailed narrated instructional slide program prior to an outing . . . but even then the participants generally take three or four hours to build their initial cave or igloo.

After you’ve had some experience, however, you should be able to carve out a shelter in an hour or less . . . so take some time this winter to teach yourself the art of snow caving. Find an appropriate site close to home, and spend an enjoyable afternoon or two practicing construction techniques. Once you’ve polished your skills, you’ll be able to explore the wonders of winter’s wilderness with confidence . . . knowing full well that a warm, comfortable home is never more than a few feet—of snow—away.

7.6.3        Igloos

The following is reprinted from “The Complete Wildnerness Training Guide” written by Hugh McManners and published by Dorling Kindersley. From Chapter Three, “Living In The Wild”

Provided temperatures remain below 32 degrees F, constructing snow shelters is relatively easy. Sheltering from the wind is the first priority, since the wind can drastically decrease the air temperature. Temperatures below 14 degrees F become increasingly unpleasant, so that it becomes necessary to construct shelters in which heat can be retained extremely well. These can range from a simple, hollowed-out heap of snow to an igloo, which can take a few hours to construct. In a long-term shelter, such as an igloo, heavy, cold air can be diverted away from the occupants by digging a cold sink to channel the air down and away from the shelter. It is important to allow for adequate ventilation in all snow shelters in order to prevent suffocation.

1. Cut blocks from dry, hard, hard snow, using a snow saw or large knife. Each block should be about 3 ft. (1m) long, 15 in. (40cm) high, and 8 in. (20cm) deep.

2. Form a circle with blocks around the hole created where you cut the blocks. Cut the circle in a spiral from the top of the last block to the ground ahead of the first block. This will make it easy to construct a dome.

3. Build up walls, overlapping the blocks and shaping them so that they lean inward. Cut a hole under the wall for the cold sink and entrance. Put several blocks along one wall as a sleeping platform

4. The last block must initially be larger than the hole. Place the block on top of the igloo, then, from inside, shape and wiggle it to slot exactly into the hole.

5. Hot air from your body and stove rises and is trapped inside the dome. Cold air falls into the sink and flows away to the outside. It is essential to cut ventilation holes in the walls with an ice ax.

Finished Igloo. With warmth inside the igloo, the surface of the walls will melt and freeze over, to form a smooth, airtight ice surface. The roof over entrance tunnel prevents snow from blowing into igloo.

It is vital to make at least one airhole in the roof to avoid suffocation. The igloo will get very warm inside with heat from your body, even if it is cold and windy outside. Without ventilation, lethal carbon dioxide will build up. Also, the use of stoves in an enclosed shelter is not recommended due to dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide.