The Best Clothing For Digging Out Snow Shelters

by Paul Kirtley

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Paul Kirtley in the snow with a shovel

The author displaying one of his best calalogue poses, while on a winter camping trip in northern Sweden. Photo: Iain Gair

Snow shelters take different forms but have many commonalities.

They are a remarkably effective way of reducing heat loss to a cold environment.

In exposed, treeless environments, consolidated wind-blown snow allows us to cut blocks. This forms the basis of the classic igloo.

In the mountains we can dig into compacted snow to create snow caves and snow palaces (such as 27 mins 50 secs into this video).

In the forest, snow remains lighter and we need to transform and compact the snow ourselves before digging out a shelter. This forms the basis of another classic snow shelter, the quinzhee.

These days if I’m hiking or skiing in the mountains in winter, I’ll be wearing a Gore-Tex, eVent or similar hard shell on both my upper and lower body. This type of breathable yet water proof shell also forms a good outer layer for digging snow shelters.

In the boreal forest in winter I tend to wear a larger more roomy double-layer Ventile smock.

Digging Snow Shelters Can Be A Warm And Damp Business

You get warm and somewhat wet digging snow holes or quinzhees. It’s not solely due to the physical action of digging either. As soon as you are out of the wind, heat loss reduces and you start to warm up. This is compounded once you are into a small enclosed space. If you are not careful, you can get sweaty and this puts moisture into your thermal layers of clothing which will later make you cold.

Equally, getting right into the snow, particularly when digging quinzhees, can get you covered in snow and damp from the outside.

If all you have is a hard shell then it can be useful to strip off excess warm layers as necessary, maybe even wearing only the shell and a thin thermal base layer.

I have found over the years, though, utilising some well chosen items of clothing for digging snow shelters can make all the difference between being damp and chilly afterwards or being warm and comfortable…

Gloves For Digging Out Snow Shelters

You’ll probably dig the snow shelter wearing gloves, rather than mittens but if you have mittens with separable outers, these can be worn over your gloves to keep them dry. In the boreal forest, my main mittens are leather but I also carry spare mittens with a breathable outer shell. As well as a second set of mittens being potential hand-savers if not life-savers, a breathable outer can be worn over finger gloves. I find this works really well for keeping my gloves dry when digging quinzhees as well as forming a great overlapping seal between my handwear and my shell layer.

Hestra Falt leather glove

My Hestra leather finger gloves worn under a breathable shell mitten are virtually dry after digging out a two-person quinzhee. Photo: Iain Gair.

Shell Layer For Digging Out Snow Shelters

When using my snow-walker style Ventile smock in the boreal, I also like to carry a small unlined windproof top, with highly snow-shedding material. The best I have found is the Paramo Fuera smock. It is light, relatively robust, provides good upper body coverage and does not ride up on the waist, sheds snow very well, dries rapidly and packs very small. This smock combines well with the Norrona Recon trousers I typically wear to provide a very functional, snow-proof shell.

Hat For Digging Out Snow Shelters

On any winter trip, from winter hillwalking in the UK to ski touring to snowshoeing in the boreal, I carry the very un-sexy but very comfortable Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap. The hard shell outer sheds snow well. The close fitting nature of the hat keeps snow out (great in howling blizzards too) and the fleecy lining is both warm and comfortable. It’s a very adjustable hat as well, being pulled right down to cover the ears and back of the head or worn higher up, releasing more heat when you are working hard.

A Great Combo Of Clothing For Digging Out Snow Holes and Quinzhees

Stripping down warm layers and donning the above items, provides a very snow-proof shell that also allows you not to get too warm. When you have finished, you can put back on your warmer layers and larger smock and your gloves are still dry.

Below are some clips from a detailed video on digging a quinzhee (yet to be released), which I’ve edited together to show this combination of garments in action….

In the video you can also see my friend Iain, wearing one of the Ventile Boreal Forest smocks, the fabrication of which was largely down to his efforts in trialling various designs and prototypes and our conversations with a respected manufacturer of Ventile clothing, who ultimately produced the finished garments for us. Wearing the Paramo smock while digging in the snow keeps this main, protective garment dry and free of snow.

Ventile smock, long

Iain in his double-layer Ventile Boreal Forest smock. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Paul Kirtley outside a quinzhee

The author having just emerged from completing digging out the two-person quinzhee snow shelter. Photo: Iain Gair.

Snow shovel with snow on the shaft of the handle

A snow shovel with snow encrusted handle. Nothing on my gloves though… Photo: Paul Kirtley

These three items – Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap, Paramo Fuera Windproof Smock and Hestra Seam Sealed Shell Mittens weigh very little and take up hardly any space. Particularly in the context of a winter snow walking trip, they add marginal extra weight and take up very, very little room. Yet the utility they provide is large. They are multi purpose garments which come into their own for digging out snow shelters. They allow me to keep my thermal layers, gloves and main smock completely dry, which alone makes them worth carrying. Over years of trying different combinations, these are the best clothes I’ve found for digging snow shelters such as snow caves and quinzhees.

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Winter Magic: Return To The Northern Forest

Fjelltur: A Norwegian Adventure

10 Bushcraft & Survival Skills To Try This Winter

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }


useful bit of information Paul. I know it’ll come in handy here in the Central Savanna River Area this coming winter LOL ‘;o)


Paul Kirtley



Dave Welsby

Great article Paul, as you know our canadian winters can get really bad. But we still enjoy getting out and enjoying the snow. I build a quinzhee with my son a few winters ago and made a video. But I’m sure yours will be of much higher quality and I look forward to its release!
Best regards
Dave ( welsby roots )


Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave,

Yes, you “enjoy” some good snowy conditions where you are.

Great that you are introducing your son to these skills. Lots of fun too.

Warm regards,




you are a natural model man ..gr8 pictures!

not something I can take on my bike…!,,

Take care and thank you




Paul Kirtley

Pretty hard to cycle in deep snow too Jean-Paul 😉


John Clarke


if anyone can make the Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap sexy….. !



Paul Kirtley

I’m not sure anyone can John 🙂 Great hats though…


Mark Jickells

Hi Paul,

Interesting article considering I’ve done no snow ops at all apart from those experienced as and when snow appears. Something I would relish I think. The knowledge…exciting!

ATB Mark.


Paul Kirtley

Yes, I really enjoy the snow/cold weather skills. They have such a direct and immediately discernable impact.

I reckon you’d enjoy them too.

All the best,



Gavin Henry

Great article and a very natural stance in every pic 🙂


Paul Kirtley

Cheers Gavin 🙂


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