Now that wintertime is truly here in full force, it’s finally time to play in the snow. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to increase my outdoor skills while frolicking around this winter wonderland.
One of my favorite ways to do this is building myself a snow fort. Knowing how to build a snow shelter is critical for a winter mountaineer; in the right circumstances, it can save your life.
The air trapped in between the millions of snow crystals is an amazing insulator. Construct your shelter right and it will stay at a comfortable 32 degrees inside, no matter how much the wind is howling outside. Body heat can add another several degrees to that.
Below are a couple of types of snow shelters you can build to keep your toes toasty, even in the worst conditions.
You’ll need a lot of snow to dig a big enough shelter, so you should look for areas where snow has collected, such as the lee side of a rock or natural depression. Having a lightweight mountaineering show shovel with you will make your life considerably easier.
1. Snow-trench trenches are your quickest option. Most snow-mound structures can take five hours or more to build. Trenches, while not as warm, take considerably less time. Knowing how to make yourself this quick shelter can truly be a life-saving skill.
Make a somewhat shallow trench in the snow, long and broad enough to fit your body and gear. Cover it over with a tarp, jackets or pine boughs to keep the wind off and some of the heat in. This will not fully insulate you, but can keep the worst of the wind and weather off of you and give you a much better chance at surviving a night of wicked weather.
2. Snow mounds are an overall structure by which you create a mound (or preferably, start with an existing area of deep snow) that is ideally 5 feet tall and 7 to 8 feet across. This will accommodate one or two people.
Once you have the general shape, pack it down by walking over it with your snow shoes or pound it into shape with your shovel. Give it a couple of hours to set. This compression and the following set time are critical for the strength of your shelter by allowing the ice crystals to bind together and crystallize into a solid structure.
Hollow it out by poking a bunch of 18- to 24-inch sticks through the top and sides to mark the thickness of your walls. This will tell you where to stop digging as you hollow out your shelter.
Find the downhill side and tunnel up and inwards at ground level (if possible) for your entrance. Since cold air moves downward, this will permit the cold air to flow out of your shelter as you sleep. If possible, it’s also a good idea to face your entrance away from the prevailing wind.
Leave or create a 1-foot raised sleeping platform above the floor. This will keep you above the cold air as it drains out of your shelter at night.
• Mark your location. Flag the top of your shelter with brightly colored clothing or fabric. This can help you get spotted by search and rescue, and keep people from walking over the top and collapsing it in on you. (Not fun.)
• Poke a breathing hole in the top of your shelter to allow excess carbon monoxide and dioxide to escape. Keep it clear. Suffocating also isn’t fun.
• Construct your fort in a safe spot. Watch out for avalanche areas, dead-fall from trees and other natural calamities.
• Stay dry. Be careful not to sweat through your base layer. Getting your clothing wet in winter conditions can be deadly. We lose heat 25 times faster through water than just air. Strip out of your base layer while you work (keep your jacket on).
• Hiding yourself away in a snow cave can prevent search and rescue from finding you, so wisely balance your comfort against your visibility when employing this technique. Trust me, SAR teams don’t like to play hide and seek.
Have a good time building your shelter. It’s a great skill to master for winter survival.
Besides, it’s fun. Who doesn’t want their own snow fort?