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How to Build an Emergency Quinzee Snow Shelter

Out of personal experience, Chris writes practical and helpful articles about how to make items and accomplish tasks.

A Quinzee, or an emergency snow shelter

A Quinzee, or an emergency snow shelter

What Is a Quinzee?

A quinzee is a snow shelter made from loose snow that is packed, shaped, and then hollowed out. You can make them for fun—kids will likely enjoy playing around in one—but they can also be life-saving if you find yourself in snow and in need of shelter.

In this article, I give both step-by-step instructions and a video demonstration on building a quinzee. I've also written a flash fiction short story on a hypothetical situation you may find yourself in where a quinzee would be helpful.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 nine 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 end up 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 of when to stop digging the inside out.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
Entrance to the Quinzee.

Entrance to the Quinzee.

Floor and sides of Quinzee.

Floor and sides of Quinzee.

Hole in top of Quinzee to release moisture.

Hole in top of Quinzee to release moisture.

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.

Thanks, Dan.  Nice job on the Quinzee.

Thanks, Dan. Nice job on the Quinzee.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 07, 2013:

LongTimeMother, sorry I took so long to get back to you. The sticks are about eight to twelve inches which of course is the wall thickness. As for the entrance and bad weather/snow. Look at the photo of the finished quinzee. There is a wind wall which blocks wind and blowing snow and keeps it from getting into the quinzee. Also, a fire can be built out of the wind alongside the wall. Thanks for reading and for asking the questions.

LongTimeMother from Australia on December 03, 2013:

The chances of me needing to build one of these are pretty slim, given that I live in Australia but I travel a bit so it doesn't hurt to learn about them. :)

I really enjoyed this hub, but I have two questions. Firstly, how long are the sticks? In other words, how thick are the walls? And secondly, do you need to cover the doorway? Presumably not if the weather is still - but what about in strong winds?

Which raises another question ... If it is extremely snowy overnight, I guess y0u have to dig yourself out. So therefore, would it make sense to build like a 'step' out the front and have the entry slightly higher from ground level, so hopefully you'd only have to dig the step width to get out - assuming the snowfall wasn't too high.

Hmm. And you thought you were writing a nice easy hub that would make sense to everyone. lol. Voted up ++.

Dannell on February 06, 2013:

This is very useful info. Thank you for sharing it!

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 06, 2013:

Mckbirdbks, So you don't think this would work in Texas? haha, Thanks for reading. I do appreciate it.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on February 06, 2013:

Very interesting hub. Good to know survival skills that work in your area.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 06, 2013:

Thank you ignugent17, I'm glad you fount it useful. Thanks for visiting.

ignugent17 on February 05, 2013:

Interesting hub! It is also very useful.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 05, 2013:

But Becky, It's warm and pleasant inside. Well, if 30 degrees all night long on a bed of ice is pleasant. :) Thanks for reading and sharing.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on February 05, 2013:

Very useful information. Since I try my best not to get into situations like this, I will never need it. I avoid being out in the snow like a plague. I still will share it for anyone who does go out in the snow.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 05, 2013:

Hi Eric, Actually they are NOT cool. That's the point. Just kidding. They are "Cool" as you say. Thanks for reading.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 05, 2013:

Hi Bill, Thanks for reading. These are the way to go for snow camping, no doubt. Nice to run into you.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on February 05, 2013:

Hi Dan, Thanks for reading the article. It surprises people that quinzees can be so warm compared to the outside temperature. My son and I have built several of these and they serve their purpose well.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on February 05, 2013:


Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 05, 2013:

Great suggestions, Chris! I have made these in the past when I did a lot of snow camping and they are as good as you say they are.

Dan Human from Niagara Falls, NY on February 05, 2013:

Nice Hub! I've lit a candle in my quinzee and had the temperature inside rise to right around 30 degrees. This despite being zero outside with general howling frigid wind.