When it comes to building shelters from snow, many people’s minds immediately turn to the igloo, a domed structure made of snow blocks, more correctly called an igluvijaq.
Igloos are not a forest shelter. They are a shelter suited to barren areas where the snow is tumbled by wind and compacted into windslab, from where solid blocks can then be cut.
Snow in the forest stays light, fluffy and uncompacted. You can’t cut it into blocks. So you need a different method to make a shelter from snow amongst the trees. This is the classic quinzee – also spelled quinze or quinzhee – again a Native American design.
Like an igloo, a quinzee takes the shape of a dome. Here snow is piled up into a mound and compacted. It is left to freeze, like half a giant snowball. It can then be dug into and hollowed out inside.
Igloos and Quinzees – The Traditional Context
Igloos and quinzees have been used by native peoples as suitable shelter solutions in different winter environments. The biggest delineation is between forest and tundra but there is more subtlety than this. Indeed, while quinzees are considered forest shelters and igloos tundra shelters, there are different types.
The following comes from information at the Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
The lifestyle of forest groups was one of mobility. The demands of the hunt were such that a family seldom remained in one place for more than a few months, and hunters required new housing almost daily. The snowhouse, in its various forms, was suited to this life because it was easily constructed.
The winter shelter of the Chipewyans often housed many people, their skin tents requiring 60 to 70 hides. Insulating snow was thrown up around the tent and spruce twigs laid on the ground compacted to form a comfortable floor. A fire was built in the centre and the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof.
Hunters constructed temporary snowhouses using their snowshoes to pile the snow. Leaving the mound to solidify, they continued the hunt, then returned to dig the interior until a small room was formed. Clothing was cleaned of snow before entering and the door was sealed with caribou skin.
The block igloo is the winter home generally associated with the Inuit, and although it was widespread, there were other alternatives.
Huts can be made from snow which has been flattened into drifts and frozen into a solid mass. Snow blocks are then cut from this with the snow knife.
In Autumn, the snow is not deep enough for building snow huts, instead the Netsilik Inuit construct a temporary ice house built of slabs, cemented together with wet snow. The roof is a tent, stretched by means of blocks of snow and tent poles.
The igloo was the one winter dwelling for the Caribou Inuit. Two men – one cutting blocks, the other assembling – can erect a house for six people in an hour. They are abandoned when they lose their insulating qualities, or when hunting and trading require the Inuit to move on. Suitable snow for building is found in the depressions with the use of a snow probe.
Blurring The Traditional Boundaries: Enter The Ice Box
Notwithstanding the above, there is a piece of winter camping equipment, named The Icebox Tool, which allows you to take uncompacted snow, create blocks from it, then build a snow shelter from them. It comes complete with an adjustable aluminium pole which allows you to set the correct radii.
So it was, we thought it might be fun to use this device to have a go at building an igloo-type shelter in the boreal forest.
Below is a photo record of what we achieved…
Ice Box Igloo vs Quinzee – Summary
Because the speed of construction of the Ice Box igloo was limited by the time it took each block to consolidate then adhere, we could not build this shelter as quickly as we could have built a quinzee in this environment.
I think at warmer temperatures, construction would have been faster. Warmer temperatures may well mean more moisture in the snow, creating a more sticky raw material for the blocks. Certainly, at higher temperatures there would be a greater ability to bond the snow together by compression. Compressing snow creates friction which raises its temperature but the colder the snow, the harder this is to achieve – just the same as it’s hard to make snowballs from really cold, dry snow. In the case of warmer conditions, we could have produced blocks much more quickly and thus constructed the shelter in a realistic time-frame.
As it stood, with daytime temperatures in the minus 15 to minus 20 Celsius range, we were unable to produce more than about half a dozen useable blocks per hour and in fact it took us several days to complete the shelter. It was not continuous work and this in itself meant it was harder to stay warm during periods of inactivity. I often went off to split firewood for 10 mins while snow froze sufficiently to remove the plastic former without the block crumbling.
That said, the shelter, once completed was a good one. We spent a night in it, with sleeping bags, bivvy bags and sleeping mats. It was a comfortable and enjoyable shelter, very quiet and with a lovely light filtering through the walls.
I recommend the Ice Box igloo experience if you have conditions favourable for making one. It was as comfortable as any quinzee I have built in the forest or snow hole I’ve dug out in the mountains. But if I needed to construct a snow shelter in the forest, I would stick to tradition and dig up a quinzee.