Photo 57

All About Quinzees

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.

photo-57 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.

JJ Murphy from sent a short article on building his quinzee entitled “A New Word: Quinzee

The Hawk Circle advertisement reads:
Two Feet of Fresh Snow | 17 Degrees Below Zero | No Tent | No Electricity | No Problem.

The reason: a quinzee – an Inuit word for a snow shelter made from compressed snow, which is then hollowed out.

Hawk Circle has snow, which made the construction of this shelter possible. The area also has had an overnight air temperature of -9 degrees Farenheit. I can now add the quinzee to the list of wilderness survival shelters I have spent a surprisingly comfortable night sleeping in.

Unlike an igloo, which is made of blocks of snow, this shelter was relatively easy to build. My snowshoes make a reasonable substitute for a shovel and with the right amount of stomping and stirring, packed powder snow can be piled and pressed into a sturdy mound.

I might have saved myself a bit of work by piling the snow on top of my backpack, giving me an automatically hollowed out chamber. But I learned that after creating the structure, one way to figure out where and how to hollow it out is to poke it full of stalks of dried goldenrod. As I dug in, the goldenrod stalks served as a guide to keeping the hollowed out area from getting too big.

It looks like a snowy porcupine, but if I ever did find myself wandering around in winter without a backpack, at least I know how to dig this out so that I don’t collapse the walls and undo all my hard work.

This was just a test run. Next, I plan to work with my classmates to build a group shelter, which we will inhabit for four days. In the meantime, I have to re-learn firemaking with a bow drill, gather the dried nanny berries, wild grapes and rose hips still poking up through the snow, and steep yellow birch inner bark in water for tea. Beyond a lesson in wilderness skills, this will be a lesson in cooperation and group dynamics. I’ve always fantasized about what it would be like to have lived 500 years ago. This is as close as I’m going to get to that experience.

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.
  • 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

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March 14th, 2013 | Tags: quinzee | Category: Cold Weather Camping, Snow Hiking, Winter Camping, Winter Camping Skills

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