Winter survival skills are important for Canadian children to learn. Not only are they important for safety and emergency preparedness when embarking on outdoor pursuits, they are also fun to teach and fun to learn!
I attended an outdoor education camp when I was 12 years old and the activity I remember the most was building a snow quinzhee. A snow quinzhee is a snow shelter that is kind of a combination of an igloo and snowcave. If built properly, they are warmer to sleep in than a tent. They are usually built for winter camping, or when you are going to be staying in one spot for a longer period of time.
They do require a good amount of hard work, so if you plan on building a quinzhee at your winter camp make sure you have the campers in groups and that you have more than one day to build it. It doesn’t really matter what condition your snow is in to build a quinzhee. By mixing snow at different temperatures into one mound you’ll start a sintering process that can cause even powdery snow to harden up.
How to Build a Snow Quinzhee
Mark out your diameter by tromping through the snow. Make sure your circular area is at least 2.5-3 metres so that you can have thick walls. Mix up the snow in that area before piling more snow on.
Start piling snow on top of the circled area from outside the circle, making sure you are mixing the different layers of snow as you go.
When you think your pile is about 2 metres high, flatten off the top a bit to give it the dome shape, but don’t pack it down too much.
Gather a dozen or so 30-45cm long sticks and poke them through the top and sides of your snow pile. These will be an indicator of wall/ceiling thickness when you are digging out the quinzhee.
Now you have to wait for your mound to sinter. This could take a couple of hours. The colder it is, the faster it hardens. This would be a good time to take the kids in for a hot chocolate, a meal, or to play an indoor game for a while to warm up.
Let’s start digging! It works best if one person is digging and others are helping clear away the snow. Start with making an entrance at ground level and then as you make your way inwards start slanting upwards so you have a bit of a platform inside. Keep hollowing it out until you reach the end of your marker sticks. You should have a dome shaped ceiling.
You want to make sure you have good air circulation. Make a ventilation hole, or two, in the ceiling.
Sleeping in the Snow Quinzee
In many cases, building and playing in the quinzhee is often fun enough for kids. If you are running more advanced outdoor programming, you might be planning on actually sleeping in your quinzhee. Most quinzhees are big enough for two or three people, so if you have a large group you’ll have to build more than one.
If you’re sleeping in the quinzhee, scoop out a shelf for candles on the inside wall. Build a windbreak around your entrance out of snow to keep brisk winds out and help prevent large snow drifts over the entrance. You can use a piece of wood or your pack to block the entrance, but keep it unsealed to encourage air flow.
Make sure you have a few shovels inside with you just in case there is a big drift in the night and you have to dig yourself out in the morning.
It’s not a good idea to cook inside your snow quinzhee as you can build up a lot of carbon monoxide. Try to do your cooking outside the shelter.
Put a tarp or ground sheet underneath your thermal pads and a warm winter sleeping bag on top of that. You can put a tarp or cover over your sleeping bag to prevent wetness if parts of the ceiling fall or drip down on you while you’re sleeping.