Snow caves or snow shelters are not only fun (if hard work!) to build and a real experience to sleep in, but the knowledge may one day be essential if you find yourself in a winter survival situation.
In this article, we give some basic pointers to consider when constructing your snow cave/snow shelter:
Snow caves can be built with just hands (or with improvised digging utensils such as snowshoes), but a snow shovel will certainly make the process much easier and more enjoyable!
Where to build your snow cave:
Ideally, you should have snow of depth of at least 1.5 metres. If this depth is not available naturally, begin by gathering together snow from the surrounding area into a large pile.
The number of people who will be sleeping in the cave dictates its size – bear in mind that you will be hollowing out a space big enough to sleep the required number. Start with more snow than you think you may need! If you are a large group, you should plan to build a number of smaller shelters.
A good snow cave takes patience, and you should wait at least an hour to give the snow pile time to settle before beginning any digging – the time needed for the snow to begin to bind together may be longer depending on its consistency.
If snow depth is naturally around 1.5 metres, you can look for a suitable site near banks or trees. Choose a leeward spot (away from the wind) if possible for additional protection and be careful to site your cave well away from any danger of avalanche.
Digging out your snow cave:
If the snow is deep, start by digging a trench angled downward into the snow. Excavated snow should be placed on top of the cave. Continue until you have made a trench roughly as long as you are tall.
Then, begin digging your tunnel, making it a little wider than your body width, starting about knee height above the entrance. If snow conditions are suitable, dig the tunnel so that it slants slightly upward, aiming to make the “cave” end of the tunnel about 30cm higher than the entrance end (as warm air rises, this helps to keep warm air inside the cave).
Try to make the tunnel about the same length as your body, then begin to create a space about the same size as your body. Push the excavated snow out behind you into the tunnel and out through the entrance.
Once you have created a whole of suitable size, begin to shape the inside of the snow cave into a dome, aiming for a space large enough to allow you to sit upright comfortably. The shovel can be used in the initial stages, finishing off by smoothing the surface with gloved hands – the smoother the surface, the less likely you are to be made wet (and cold) by drips.
The walls of your snow cave should be at least 30cm thick, both for stability and warmth.
Making the perfect snow cave:
For those special snow cave features, consider some of the following upgrade options!
- Warm air rises, so elevating your sleeping position will help to keep you warm. Building in a sleeping platform will raise you above the floor of the cave.
- Make a small shelf on which to rest a candle – just a single candle can raise the temperature inside significantly.
- Using a ski pole or trekking pole to make a small hole in the top of the cave is very useful for ventilation, preventing buildup of carbon monoxide from breath or cooking.
- Use packs or equipment to block the entrance and keep warm air in.
Digging a snow cave always carries with it the risk of collapse, especially if the snow is granular. Build your cave with at least one partner. One person should remain outside at all times during construction to rescue the person digging in the event of a collapse.
Under general conditions, and if properly constructed, once completed a snowcave will not collapse. As night falls and temperatures drop, the snow cave is likely to become more stable.
Always keep your shovel next to you when inside. If there is a storm in the night, you may need to dig yourselves out.
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers two winter holidays in Sweden where it is possible to try building and sleeping in a cave or snow shelter under the instruction of an experienced local guide.
Dog Sledding and Winter Bushcraft is a 6-day experience in the company of a bushcraft guide, combining the challenge and adventure of dog sledding with the chance to learn winter bushcraft skills including shelter building and cooking over open fire.
For those with some experience of ski touring, Ski Touring and Winter Mountaincraft is a private tour with wild camping for groups of min. 4 persons led by a local guide with extensive experience of extended expeditions in harsh winter conditions.