Snow Shelters: Why We Don’t Build Igloos In The Forest

by Paul Kirtley

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Igloo type shelter in forest

How viable is building an igloo in forest environments? Read on… Photo: Paul Kirtley

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.

Paul Kirtley digging out a snow shelter

I’ve built many quinzees. Here I’m finishing up digging out a one-man shelter as the light starts to fade. Photo: Paul Kirtley

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

Forest

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.

Tundra

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…

Assembing ice box plastic

Assembling the Ice Box device. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Ice Box ready to use. Note the aluminium pole to set the radius. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Starting with a ramp, leading up to the first full block. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Filling the ice box with snow to create blocks. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Making reasonable progress. We did find, however, if we compacted the snow too hard, we sheared the blocks. A firm but not too firm amount of compaction was required. This was the hardest part of using this device (or at least the with dry snow at minus 15 Celsius). Photo: Paul Kirtley

First full circle completed. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The wall was built steadily. We did have some mishaps though, with blocks crumbling or failing to adhere to other blocks once the plastic former was removed. Photo: Paul Kirtley

As we progressed with the shelter, we did get better at judging the right amount of compaction and pressure to apply. The snow temperature did mean we found creating blocks difficult, though. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Branded blocks. Photo: Paul Kirtley

With the sun going down and the temperature dropping, we found the newly created blocks were no longer maintaining their integrity. We were not able to compact the snow effectively enough to create melt-freeze bonding within the block. We called it a day and went back to our nearby Snowtrekker tent. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Continuing with the shelter at a higher temperature allowed faster creation of the blocks. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Packing the blocks at these high angles, really did require them to adhere well to the blocks underneath and to the side. Interlocking with the earlier blocks also required good integrity of each block. If one crumbled, we made slow progress. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The entrance trench and tunnel. Photo: Paul Kirtley

We were getting there though. And the shelter was starting to take shape. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Precarious times. Around this stage we did lose a few blocks, sliding off, smashing on the shelter floor. Photo: Paul Kirtley

We reached a stage where blocks were not staying in position. So I opted to utilise a trick I have used for patching quinzees. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Spruce boughs create a ‘gauze’ structure on which some snow can be placed, building up the snow cover.

Nearly there. The dome structure is now complete. We only needed to add a bit more snow to seal it. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Igloo type shelter in forest

The completed shelter. We had succeeded in creating a block igloo-type shelter deep in the boreal forest. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The entrance. Underneath the snow was the ice of a frozen swamp. The provided a good sliding surface to get in and out the relatively small entrance. Photo: Paul Kirtley

View from the inside. What look like gaps are in fact sealed, these margins are just letting more light through. Photo: Paul Kirtley

View from inside looking down into the entrance tunnel. We blocked (but not sealed) this with a daypack to limit cold air coming in overnight. Photo: Paul Kirtley

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.

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Bushcraft Take-Aways From The Manitoba Museum

Winter Bivvying – How To Stay Warm In A World Of Cold

Labrador Tea – Tonic or Toxic?

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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.

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristina

As a kid, we always pronounced it “quansit,” maybe a regional variation?

Reply

Paul Kirtley

In which region did you grow up Kristina?

Reply

Marcus Eistert

That’s cool, man!
This toy is a really funny Idea, and I am convinced, it will work perfectly in warmer conditions!
In the 70th and 80th i have been every year with my parents for skiing in Switzerland and Austria and the construction of quinzees and igloos was my favoured thing to doo in between the ski hikes. So I had been in the end an expert, well fitted out with the best survival and Innuit books I could get, and different tools. Unfortunately I had not a construction like this!
In my experience, so far i remember it well, i got the best results if the temperature in the sun of the day was higher than zero degrees, but in the evening, night and mornings lower, so the snow did not melt at all, but was sticking well together. In conditions like that your tool must enable you to build the igloo in one and a half day. Far better than a snow man in the garden, and if you come with that, Daddy is the super hero! A perfect toy to interest children in survival skills, and the life of people in other countries!
— But of course, you are faster with the snow shovel , if you find enough snow, and simply dig out a quinzee. And if you really want to sleep in it, that seems to be the better way.
But no fault , to introduce it to us, since ten minutes I can’t stopp laughing!
Thanks, Paul! An amazing idea!
( Unfortunately i got more than 20 years ago, some problems with the eyes, that I couldn’t see any more where i was going if I went downhill with high speed, so I stopped completely every skiing and playing in the snow, I didnt want do take the risk. But I assure you, I loved it! But in the moment it is here in Berlin a bit white too, so I am fine!
Apropos eyes: I am writing this here by using a smart phone, and the letters i write in here, are on my screen so small, that i have really problems to see, what I am writing. And I can’t change that. I can read very well, what is already written by you and others, but when I write a comment, the letters become, lets say too small for somebody who is older than twenty. Perhaps you find time to check that out and change it.
Cold regards!
Marcus

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Marcus, I’m glad this made you chuckle as well as bringing back some happy memories of the snow 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Liam Gadd

Interesting article Paul,

I’m struggling to keep up with all your content.
Myself and i’m sure many others are greatful for the time you put in to your blog, the ask Paul Kirtley chanel, and the pod cast… Throw in the identification masterclass which 3 years on I am still learning loads from, I’ve got hours and hours of content still to read and watch. All together it’s a fantastic source of information!

Again thank you for your time.

All the best, see you in august! I can’t wait!

Reply

Roman Favorskiy

Yes, let the tradition of winning! you have had the experience of heating these shelters? I would be interested in your experience. I read about an oil lamp kudlik very good reviews, and forward to the opportunity to try.
Warm regards,
Roman

Reply

Dave Howard

Hi Paul, I found this interesting, One benefit i think that this tool would have (for a complete novice learning to build a snow shelter, in favourable snow conditions and temperatures,) is that it maintains a constant diameter all the way to the top of the roof. It looks like good fun, it`s a shame we don`t get enough snow here to use one 🙁
All the best, Dave.

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James Foley

At the Frozen Butt Hand in Northern Minnesota this was attempted a couple of years ago. If I recall correctly, it didn’t turn out very good, due to the temps. I think it was around -20C for a high during the days. A quinzee is definitely the fastest approach for a winter shelter in the boreal. My boys had their first crack at building one last year and quite enjoyed it. Hopefully we’ll get another go at it this year if we get enough snow.

Reply

Richard

We used to put a wooden frame on the inside in the Rockies to ensure against the “wrong type of snow” and temperature changes and it was just often quicker though many of the traditional parts of the build still had to be used to make it effective.

Reply

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