Saturday, March 14, 2009

Winter Camping: Building My First Snow Shelter

There are a few different ways to build a snow shelter. I did some reading on the subject and watched a few on-line videos. I decided to go with a “snow mound” type of snow shelter.

My Voile avalanche shovel (left) strapped to my back (right)

But first I needed to get a shovel. The avalanche snow shovel is a very popular item to have if you enjoy any kind of winter activity in the mountains. They are not cheap, most run from $36-$60. I found a very good deal on-line ($15 off retail price) on a Voile avalanche shovel. It weighs just a pound and the handle detaches from the shovel for easily carrying. Having used this shovel for about 4 hours I have to say I’m very happy with it. Comparing it to others, it’s very light and the actual surface of the shovel is larger then some of the other brands.

My mound is on the bottom left, my hole is where I'd be building my snow "cave"

The hole and the stairs

Posing inside my hole to show how deep it is

I also fell inside a deep hole in the snow just on the other side of my mound, those holes are usually located next to trees

The opening to my snow "cave"

My snow cave is done

The first thing to do when building a snow shelter is to pack down the area you are going to build on by walking on it with snowshoes. Then start building the “mound“. The mound is the part where you will end up sleeping, once you hollow it out. Mary built a classic type of “mound” snow shelter. Packing down the snow on the mound makes the snow hard and easy to hollow out.
I don’t know what went through my head when I starting to make my mound. I was planning on building a “mound” shelter but as I was digging a hole to get snow for my mound I decided to build a “cave” instead. The original snow pack was about 5 feet deep and in my opinion way more packed down then the mound I would making.

Mary packing down her snow mound with her shovel

Mary's finished snow shelter

Mary inside her snow shelter

So my plans changed. I dug out a hole all the way to the ground. Then I had make stairs to get back up to the surface. Then I started to dig out the “hole” or "cave "where I would be sleeping. This was the hardest part of the whole process. Especially carving out the ceiling. I wanted the interior of the cave to be lager then the door way, this was hard to do. There was no way of not getting snow all over me in the process. The deeper I dug the more snow I got on me. Half way through the digging of the hole I became uncomfortable, thinking what if this thing collapses on me, my head was deep inside the cave and my legs were sticking out of the entrance . So I turned around and finished digging out my “the cave” with my feet. I basically just kicked snow with my boots, loosed it up, then scooped it out with the shovel. Then at the end I smoothed out the ceiling with my gloves as best as I could. The smooth ceiling would mean less dripping of condensation.

Tom using a saw and cutting blocks out of the snow

Tom's snow shelter is a trench with igloo type blocks for the roof

Tom's roof is almost done

I wanted to build a small hole on the other side of my “sleeping quarters” to store my backpack in since it wouldn‘t fit in to my “sleeping quarters“ but my back and shoulders were already getting sore from shoveling snow so I decided just leave my backpack on the ground and step over it. I should have made a hole for it, stepping over the pack was a pain, especially since it sitting in front of the stairs.

So lets talk about the mistakes. I made a few in building my shelter and honestly I can’t wait to do this again. The next time I build a snow shelter it will be way better, I’ve learned so much by building this first shelter. Although, I can wait until next March to do this again. I’m not in any hurry.

The first mistake was digging out the “sleeping quarters” at the ground level. The next shelter I will build, the sleeping platform will be elevated, off the floor. It will be warmer this way.

Another mistake I did, I built my shelter too close to the trees. I ran in to the tree trunks when I was digging out my “sleeping quarters”. It actually worked out for the best though. I originally was going to dig a hole straight in to the wall, but when I ran in to a tree trunk I had to make a “L” shape cave. This was nice because I could face the door when I was laying down.

The biggest mistake I made was making my ceiling too low. I did that by mistake. I basically just wasn’t thinking. When I finished my “sleeping quarters” I climbed in to it and checked to see if I fit. I did fit, the cave was perfect for me, snug - I wanted it that way, thinking snug would be warmer. What didn’t occur to me at that time was that my sleeping pad was 3” thick, and I was going to be sleeping on two sleeping bags and a bivi, adding even more bulk.

I didn’t think of that at the time I was making my cave and didn’t make any extra space. So my cave was tight, really tight. My head was very close to the ceiling, and getting in to my cave was a pain. I basically had to pull my sleeping pad out of the cave, climb into my sleeping bags and bivi and then pull myself and the sleeping pad into the cave. It ws hard but I finally managed to get in there but by then the bivi was covered in snow, which was falling off the walls and ceiling of my cave as I scraped up against it trying to push myself back in.

In the end I didn’t even use my sleeping bag liner, because getting into two sleeping bags and a bivi in such tight quarters was problematic enough, the extra layer might of made it impossible. Too bad, I needed the extra warmth. That’s the thing about tents, you can sit up in them, so getting in to one or two sleeping bags isn’t a big deal. The next shelter I will make will be larger inside, I’d like to be able to sit up inside like in my tent.

In the end my snow shelter was like a deep trench, which is way warmer then sleeping on the surface. The cave gave me protection from the elements, although I was sleeping very close to the door way, so cold air still managed to enter my shelter. In the end I was pretty happy with my shelter But next time I think I will attempt to build a “mound“ shelter.

My snow cave

There are pros and cons to each snow shelter design. By me sleeping 4.5 feet under snow, an animal like a deer would not be able to fall through the roof of my shelter. The roof was very thick. A mound shelter with a thin roof would collapse much easier with any weight on top of it.

A diagram of my snow cave, it's not exact but you get the idea

But if it did collapse the person wouldn’t have that much snow on top of them. If my shelter collapsed on top of me I might be trapped, but I thought of that before climbing in it to sleep. Having my face by the door way would save me should my roof collapse, it wouldn’t be hard to break through someof the snow to exit. I purposely left my shovel by the door way in case of any emergency.

1 comment:

jawbone said...

OMG!! This is the absolute coolest thing! I come for the motorcycles and I get snow shelters...I loved this post!! I never thought of doing this, I mean since Scouts. What a work out though, huh? I imagine a couple days of soreness, no? I love how much fun you have had over the the past we've had to wait to the spring to get your first ride posts, now its weekly entertainment (daily sometimes)...THANK YOU so much.