Believe it or not, sleeping inside a properly built quinzee is warm and comfortable! Snow is amazing stuff and it’s an incredible insulator.
Outdoor Education was an awesome class (see my high school article about how great of an experience it is for kids.) One year we snowshoed into the forest, built a quinzee, and slept in it. With a roaring fire at night, friends, and good food, it was so much fun!
Unlike a snow cave or igloo, quinzees don’t have as many requirements and can be built in any kind of snow: just find a sheltered spot and pile up the snow!
Did you know: The word “Quinzee” is an Indigenous word of Athabaskan origin, and is a type of shelter consisting of a mound of snow with a hollowed-out chamber.
Supplies for Building
- Shovels: large sizes for shoveling and piling up snow
- Small scoops: smaller hand shovel, snowshoes, pots…whatever works for scooping out the snow!
- Change of clothes for when you are done scooping out the snow (you will be sweaty and wet!)
- 12x wood sticks/branches about 1.5’ feet long
Supplies for Sleeping
- Warm clothes, socks, toque (that’s traditional Canadian winter head gear) TIP: wool clothes or moisture wicking are the best – see Science Project in Snow Camping Ideas below.
- Some tarps (to put under sleeping bags)
- Sleeping mat if desired
- Warm blankets (one for top and one for bottom)
- Warm sleeping bag (rated for subzero temperatures, don’t just use a summer sleeping bag)
- You will get wet – it’s snow after all, and you will sweat a lot shoveling and scooping it – be sure to change your clothes soon after so you don’t get chilled
- It’s important to have an adult around and two other people, especially when scooping out the snow, just in case of a collapse
- Don’t cover up the entrance with plastic – you want carbon dioxide to escape and oxygen to enter!
- Keep a small shovel inside if you need to dig yourself out 🙂
- Keep the ventilation holes open when you are done (see Step 6)
- Don’t make it too big. Quinzees are pretty sturdy once built, but keep them around the size to sleep four people, not bigger, or they can become unstable (dimension sizing below in Step 1)
Pick your spot (sheltered if possible, to keep the wind from blowing inside.)
Base Layout: the total length of the pile should be about four feet longer than the tallest person in the shelter.
Lay down on the ground, mark the length and width, then trample down the area with your boots or snowshoes.
Shovel a pile of snow into a mound about as high as a tall person (7 to 8 feet high for adults) and big enough around to hold two people once it is hollowed out.
Tip: If you mix snow of different temperatures (like from the top and then bottom, or from the shade and in the sun), and toss the snow a little or flip it when shoveling it into a mound, it will harden better, and will help build insulating air pockets.
Shape the mound into a dome – a flat roof will collapse, so be sure the mound is rounded.
Allow the mound to rest (or “sinter”) for a few hours, or overnight is even better. This is important to allow snow to set so you can hollow it out later without it collapsing.
Did you know: You know how you can’t make a snowball from powdery snow? Letting the snow rest allows you to build a quinzee out of powdery snow. This is because the energy released during the movement of the snow as you piled it up helps bond the snow crystals together so they have structural integrity. Cool, eh? Well, cold, eh 😛
Time to make your mound look like a snow porcupine. The roof and walls should be 1.5 feet thick (18″ inches approximately) to allow oxygen to enter. Poke guide sticks through from the outside of the mound, so you will know to stop hollowing out the inside when you see the ends of the sticks. This helps keep the roof a consistent thickness, or sometimes it can collapse if too inconsistent. Leave them sticking out a couple of inches so you can pull them out later.
Dig a small entrance, just large enough for the biggest person to squeeze through. If you can, dig the entrance “down” into the snow before you start digging upward and into the big chamber area. The lowest part by the “door” helps trap the warm air inside the quinzee. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t.
TIP: The larger and higher the entrance, the colder the quinzee will be inside.
Keep excavating: you will end up laying down to dig; then keep digging upwards and inwards like a miner! When it starts getting lighter inside and you can see a little light coming through the walls, dig a little slower until you reach the end of the guide sticks.
TIP: Leave an elevated sleeping area, since heat rises. Having a little trench between the ‘beds’ will allow cold air to flow down and then out of the quinzee, which helps condensation, air quality and warmth.
When done, smooth out the walls and ceiling with your hands (so you don’t get dripped on with droplets during the night.)
Finally, remove a few of the sticks near the top of the dome and make the holes a little bigger for ventilation (maybe the size of a small fist). IMPORTANT: Be sure these holes stay open, especially if it’s snowing! And do not block the entrance with anything, be sure it stays wide open. We need air!!
Lay a tarp on the bottom of the quinzee (or one per bed).
Put a foam sleeping pad down, then your sleeping bag on top. For extra warmth, you could put a blanket under your sleeping bag and one on top too.
Some do dig out a few little “shelves” if you want to light some tea candles to provide a little light and warm up the inside but ONLY if there is parental supervision. Fire can be dangerous! If sleeping inside, be sure to blow out the candles before going to sleep.
If you are nervous about sleeping overnight, just spend a few hours in your cave with some snacks, hot chocolate and some books!
WINTER CAMPING TIPS
- If you need to go to the washroom (that’s the polite Canadian term for toilet break) in the middle of the night, eat a snack afterward to help warm up your body and get back to sleep.
- The best part for campers: don’t worry about keeping the snacks in your quinzee — when you camp in winter, you don’t have to worry about bears. However, racoons are still out 🙂
- Bury your water jugs in snow. The snow insulates the water and keeps it from freezing. Or, like us, keep your water at the bottom of your sleeping bag 😛
- If you are chilly, you can always fill a hot water bottle with some warm water, or warm a bean bag and put it at the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep you toasty until you fall asleep.
Here are a few articles for other ways to have fun in the snow! Or check out the IDEAS-OUTDOOR-SNOW page for even more ideas like creamy edible snow cones, ice bubbles and more!
Did you know: Natural wool still retains warmth even when wet, and it’s an amazing insulator. Did you know some types of wool aren’t itchy?? (Hint: Merino). The science behind how wool insulates and how it can keep you warm even when wet is pretty cool…well, hot.
Some describe this bread as a hockey puck made of carbohydrates. It is traditionally cooked by mixing ingredients into a large, round biscuit and baking in a frying pan. Most Indigenous nations in North America have some version of bannock: It’s called palaugaaq in Inuktitut, niitá’pihkiitaan in Blackfoot, bakwezhigan in Ojibwa, and in Scotland it’s called bannach in Gaelic, meaning morsel. See Baking Bannock.
Just use your imagination! Large, miniature, people, creatures, forts, and slides! See Snow Creations for some ideas.
Winter Animal Projects
Taming birds, photography ideas, and even making plaster animal casts (you can do this in the snow!) See Winter Animal Projects for ideas, tips and instructions.
Maple Syrup Taffy
Easy, fun, and a timeless Northern tradition! See Maple Syrup Taffy for the recipe and instructions.
How do marine mammals keep warm? Imagine swimming in the icy waters of the Arctic!
Make your own science experiment to learn how blubber works!
Check out the instructions here
The Big Sis