Video: How to Build a Quinzhee Shelter (a.k.a. Snow Cave)

Here's a scenario for you: The wind is howling. It's 20 degrees below zero. And a blizzard destroyed your tent.

What do you do for shelter?

Build a quinzhee, of course.

The word "quinzhee" comes from the Dene language, and for the first stretch of my journey across Great Bear Lake to the tree line I'll be in traditional Dene territory. So I think it's a good bet that a quinzhee should do the trick.

In this video, you'll see me practicing my quinzhee-building skills. I've made this kind of survival shelter couple of times before, and each situation was a little different. But basically you just pile up a big mound of snow and then dig into it to make a cave. If you have packing snow you can roll a snowball for a door. Otherwise, just use a big pile of snow or some snow blocks--even your pack will work. For this trial I started (and then quit to protect our camera gear) during a day of driving rain. But overnight the temperature plummeted, and when I went back out the next morning I had a lot of light fluffy snow to work with. This meant I got to practice in different conditions.

What I Learned:
1. The heavier the snow, the smaller your pile of snow has to be…but the tougher it will be to dig out.
2. If I have to build one north of the tree line, I will do so very slowly. It's easy to work up a sweat when you build a quinzhee and without wood to build a fire that can be a killer.
3. Don't keep piling the snow you dig out on top unless you compensate with thicker walls. I've had one collapse on me in the past.
4. Use a small shovel for digging out the inside. A large shovel will cause all kinds of problems, although it's good for getting it started.
5. Although I didn't dig out the shelter while it was raining, I realized that for a while, it would even work as a rain shelter to keep you dry.
6. Piling up the snow I dig out of the shelter on either side of the door does a good job at keeping the wind out.

A quinzhee is definitely a good thing to know how to make if you plan on venturing off the beaten path in winter. It doesn't take a lot of skill to build and it does a great job at blocking the wind and insulating you. It's pretty fun to make, too, just like building a snow fort when you were a kid--only, you know, practical.