An Emergency Winter Survival Shelter For The Forest

An Emergency Winter Survival Shelter For The Forest

Man inside a tree shelter with a fire
Staying safe in the winter with some basic knowledge and a simple shelter design. Photo: Paul Kirtley

When snow falls in the forest, you have multiple winter shelter designs to choose from. One of the classic northern forest shelters is a lean-to with a raised bed and a large long-log fire in front to keep you warm through the coldest of nights.

I’ve written about the classic northern forest lean-to shelter design before, along with my experience of using it to sleep out at minus 20 to minus 30 celsius. It’s a remarkable way to spend the night in the winter forest.

With snow on the ground, not only do you have the usual woodland shelter-building materials such as branches and boughs at your disposal, you also have the snow itself. The classic winter snow shelter of the forest is the quinzhee, also spelled quinzee or quinze.

Winter forest with fluffy snow
Snow in the forest stays light, fluffy and uncompacted but can be mounded up, left to freeze then burrowed out to form the classic quinzhee. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The Problem With The Classic Winter Survival Shelters

Lean-tos and qunizhees are highly effective classic shelters of the winter bushcraft and capable of protecting you from the harsh temperatures of long, dark, cold winter nights.

There is a problem though. Both types of shelter – the qunizhee and the lean-to – require some know-how as well as tools in order to build them in a reasonable time. Even with the right tools and some experience of building them before, each shelter will take multiple hours until it is ready to occupy.

What if you need to create a winter survival shelter relatively quickly? What if you don’t have an axe or a snow-shovel with you?

An Emergency Winter Survival Shelter Solution

Spruce trees are very well adapted to cold conditions. Their resin acts as like an anti-freeze, allowing them to keep green foliage year-round, even in arctic forests. They have a steep rocket-like, cone shape, which helps them shed heavy snow.

spruce tree in winter
Spruce trees have a tall, rocket-like cone shape. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The result of having thick layers of greenery which sheds much of the snow is much less snow directly underneath, in the shadow of the tree, than in the surrounding forest.

Add to this the tendency of branches to grow low down to the ground and you have the beginnings of a ready-made shelter under many spruces.

Less snow under a spruce tree
In the shadow of a spruce tree there is a shallower depth of snow. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

If the foliage is dense, sometimes you can just push your way into the middle of a tree and shelter there. In this case, though, it’s possible you’ll need to remove a few low branches inside in order to make a bit more room. A pruning saw is handy for this but even the saw on a Swiss army knife or multi-tool would be sufficient to efficiently saw off these small-diameter branches. If you need to, excess snow can be scooped out with your gloved hands or the foam back insert from a day pack.

A laplander folding saw hanging on a birch tree
A saw is useful for removing small diameter branches efficiently. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Once you crawl inside, you are effectively sitting inside a teepee shaped shelter, created largely by the tree. It will be somewhat sheltered from drafts as the depth of snow surrounding the tree will be greater than the depth under the tree. You will effectively be sitting in a snow hollow created by the shadow of the tree.

It’s not worth traipsing around for a long time trying to find the perfect tree. In many cases, you can very quickly find a reasonably good tree as a starting point then improve it.

You can easily add to what is already there by removing low hanging tree boughs from nearby trees and adding them to your chosen shelter tree. You do this by laying the branches in such a way as if they were hanging down from the tree itself, again creating that familiar conical teepee shape.

Again a small folding saw of some description improves efficiency but as before if you do not have a Laplander or similar pruning saw, the saw on a Swiss army knife or Multi-tool will do the job here as well.

If you thatch your shelter tightly enough, then you can even pile on snow to create more of a wind break. Piling up the snow might be the priority in some situations. In others it may not. If you plan to have a fire inside – see below – then you’ll need some ventilation.

Again, scoop out as much as you can of what snow there is under the tree. Whether you find a perfect shelter tree or have to create it, you don’t want to be sitting on the snow or the frozen ground. You will lose a lot of heat through conduction plus melt snow, introducing moisture into your clothing.

Much better to put down an insulating layer of spruce boughs to sit on. If your spruce tree shelter is large enough, you can even make a spruce bough bed. Remember to put down boughs on which you can place your feet too. Otherwise they can get very cold by losing heat via conduction through the soles of your boots into the ground.

Hollowed out area of snow under a spruce tree
Scoop out as much of the snow under the tree as possible. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Spruce tree emergency shelter starts to take shape
Fill in the gaps around the base of the tree with boughs collected from other nearby trees. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Spruce tree shelter
The shelter takes shape at the base of the tree. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
In a short while the shelter is well enclosed with additional material
In a short while the shelter is well enclosed with additional material. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Spruce boughs on ground to form insulative layer
The floor of the shelter stuffed with a good layer of spruce for sitting on. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Adding A Fire To Your Emergency Spruce Tree Shelter

If there is enough room in your shelter, then it is feasible to have a small fire in the shelter too. This can raise your spirits as well as help keep you warm. You can also melt snow for a drink. Be careful, however, not to melt snow into your clothing. Prevent this by brushing off snow from your clothing as much as possible.

Fire inside this type of shelter can be hazardous if it becomes too large. Green spruce foliage is easily dried out and becomes increasingly flammable as it does so. The resin inside also makes it highly flammable. Smoke can also be an issue, particularly if the shelter does not have sufficient ventilation or if you are burning damp or green wood. Carbon monoxide could, in extremis, be an issue if you managed to create an almost airtight shelter (unlikely with this open weave spruce bough construction, unless you managed to cover the shelter completely with snow).

When you collect green boughs from other trees, there will likely be some dead branches at the base of the trees too. These can be collected and set aside for kindling and larger fuel. Make sure you have collected plenty of firewood so you can keep a fire going for some time. That way, you don’t have to keep leaving the shelter for more fuel. Stack what you can in the shelter and leave another stack just outside if you need to.

Spruce tree lower branches
You’ll typically find a mixture of dead branches and green foliage at the base of spruce trees. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Dead, dry wood for kindling balanced on top of green boughs for sitting on
Dead, dry wood for kindling balanced on top of green boughs for sitting on. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

You may be thinking about the fact that when you are sitting in this type of winter shelter, you are sitting down in a dip, below the surface of the snow. You may be wondering if this means cold air will pool in the shelter with you. To an extent this is true, although it is somewhat alleviated by the car-port effect of having a roof over you, stopping cold air descending straight down on top of you.

That said, you would do well to avoid using a tree that is growing in a local low point such as a gully or a dip. Better to choose a raised spot, as long as it is not too exposed to the wind. The shelter in the photos was built several metres away from the bank of a river which flowed a couple of metres below the level of the ground on which the shelter was built. This ensured the coldest air locally would not be in the shelter but down on the river.

Shelter with smoke coming out of it
Shelter with a small fire starting to burn inside. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The shelter on its own is noticeably, well, sheltered. You feel protected inside. Sitting on a thick bed of spruce boughs is comfortable and pleasant. Once you light a small fire inside, you really feel the warmth – more so than an equivalent sized fire out in the open. Something of a convection current is set up inside the shelter and you get the benefit of some recirculating warm air as well as direct radiant heat from the fire.

Man lying down in front of fire
Now also benefiting from a fire. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Cosy inside a shelter with fire
Down out of the wind, on a bed of spruce boughs and benefiting from a fire and a roof over your head, this shelter is effective and relatively fast to construct. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

This design of winter shelter is appropriate to meeting the need of building something relatively quickly. It’s good for spending time resting up or sitting out bad weather. In more extreme situations, they make a passable overnight shelter without too much work or the need for an axe or a snow shovel. If you have sleeping kit, they make a good place to bivvy and then you don’t necessarily need the fire.

Down out of the wind, on a bed of spruce boughs and benefiting from a fire and a roof over your head, this spruce tree winter survival shelter is effective and relatively fast to construct.

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Surviving A Winter’s Night in the Northern Forest: How To Build An Arctic Lean-To

An Arctic Lean-To Revisited

COLD or COLDER: How To Dress For Cold Weather

29 thoughts on “An Emergency Winter Survival Shelter For The Forest

  1. Hey there Paul,

    Great blog post as always i really do enjoy reading them.

    Just a thought here, are you going to do any posts on wetter climates, i live in Ireland, i have found this environment challenging to say the least. What with the possibility of all four seasons in one day here, i have found the rain, dampness a constant problem when out and about. even with modern fabrics such as goretex. So i was thinking your ideas for this type of climate would be good for a blog posting/podcast in the future maybe.

    Thanks for all you do in bringing the outdoors to people.

    All the best G.Lamy.

    1. Hi Gilbert,

      Thanks for your comments. I like your suggestion and I do understand about operating in damp climates as I’ve spent plenty of time in northern temperate areas in wet, windy and cold conditions. These are the hardest for fire-lighting, much harder than in the northern forest in the depths of winter, where the air is freeze dried.

      Warm regards,


  2. Hi Paul,
    You mention in passing that the quinzhee is a Native American shelter. Do you (or your readers) know what tribe used them or the origin of the word “quinzhee”? I have been researching quinzhees and the only clear historical reference to them that I have found is in William Duncan Strong, “Labrador Winter” (1927-28). On page 126 Strong says “In older times a snow house was a mere burrow in a snow bank; this house idea is, I believe, a stunt of the present generation.” (See the discussion on Sarge Faria’s YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGgOmxF4yxc ). In contrast, I have found many historical references to shelters like the one you describe in this post. I would appreciate any information you could give me.
    Your readers might be interested in the painting entitled “A Winter Hunting Camp” by the Quebec artist Cornelius Krieghoff found at http://www.galerievalentin.com/art-du-canada/cornelius-krieghoff/, showing a large snow pit with a fire in it.
    I always enjoy your blogs and videos. Thank you.

    1. Hi there,

      I’ve also not been able to get the bottom of the word “quinzhee” but I have seen various references to this style of shelter being used in forested areas of powder snow (i.e. where windslab does not form).

      For example, the following is the text from a display at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, which I noted. Of particular relevance is the final paragraph:

      The lifestyle of the forest groups was one of mobility. The demands of the hunt were such that a family seldom remained in one place fro 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 build 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.

      Warm regards,


      1. I’m an old man in Indian country of Oklahoma, USA. The first time I came across this shelter description was in a book about the partazans fighting the Nazis, I believe it was in Yugoslavia. I was assigned to Special Operations in the US Army. We had a huge library concerning everything to do with escape & evasion, covert operations, etc. I read as many as I could, remembering as much as I could.

      2. Hi i lived for 4 days in one of these in norway with temps of -50 really good when done right. maybe its scandinavian invention

  3. great article Paul . It brought to mind Jack London’s short stories titled “To Build a Fire”, which did not end well for “the man”.

    1. Hi Harland,

      Yes, good reference. That story is a salutary tale. It should be recommended reading for anyone thinking of travelling in the north.

      Warm regards,


  4. Great Article Paul..In my youth spent many a winters day trouncing around in the bush here in Ontario. A big ole spruce tree, boughs weighed down by the snow, made a natural tee pee to crawl into, to get out of the elements. A few weeks I was able to spend time with my 13 year old daughter, out snow shoeing, sharing shelter and fire making knowledge with her. Making good memories.
    Chi Miigwetch

    1. Hey Marc,

      It’s really nice to hear from you. I’m glad this brought back some youthful memories. It shows the wide application of this natural shelter. It’s great that you have been able to share this knowledge – and some good times out on snowshoes – with your daughter.

      Warm regards,


  5. Hi Paul,
    As one of your newest followers, I need to thank you and your team for your good works. As one who lives and enjoys trekking throughout the north eastern U.S., I can say with confidence that the information you provide in your videos and blog are true and well tested.

    I particularly like how you encourage forethought, planning and practice. Good for the novice. And good for the pro.

    1. Hi Smead,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you are finding the information on this site informative and useful.

      Welcome again and please do keep in touch.

      Warm regards,


  6. Paul,
    The fire looked a little scary due to the proximity of the flames. A change in wind direction could be a problem. Would non having the fire farther away and using the coals as a bed or to warm rocks to use for heat make sense?
    Thanks for all the great information. I have used many of your techniques in my wanderings on the trail.

    1. Hi Pete,

      In cold conditions you need a fire to be close to get any benefit from it.

      Radiated heat obeys an inverse-square law, so if you double to distance away from it, you quarter the heat you feel.

      In cold conditions, “a step away” from the fire is where you need to be.

      With respect to using warm rocks – the ground was completely covered in snow.

      Warm regards,


  7. Dear Paul,
    Great article. I particularly enjoy your thorough coverage of important details. The excellent pictures illustrating what you are saying are really helpful.
    Alfred in Minnesota

    1. Dear Alfred, thanks for your kind comments. I’m glad you appreciate the detail.

      Warm regards,


  8. Hi Paul,
    (Hi Gilbert,)
    I also live in Ireland. Although I woudn’t leave here permanantly I do find the constant damp a bit of a drag at times. One thing I always have to hand when I am out and about is an army surplus poncho. It can keep the rain off on a warm day without making me sweat buckets, and easily converts to a shelter when the weather turns really bad. There is a large forest near my home, where I walk my dog daily, and I have sheltered under many a spruce tree during a heavy shower so I appreciate how they would work in a snow covered area.

  9. Thank you for the good laugh and pleasant memories. The last thing I expected was to find you descusing the first shelter my Dad taught me to use in the forest (I being raised in the Arizona desert, and he in Colorado).

  10. Paul Kirtley, this is for me one of your best posts ever! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise and knowledge, this could easily save anybody’s life one day.

  11. Excellent article. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Thanks for your clear thoughts on this shelter. This week i’m the snow covered mountains of poland, so it was nice to see your post today. Normally (in Holland) we don’t get a lot of snow. I think i’ll someday try this shelter without the snow, just extra branches.

  13. Hi Paul,
    I really like too much this post!!
    Here in the middle Italy we have much of beech and oak tree but some time there are White pine which are suitable to make that shelter….

    Many thanks for sharing us your experiences, I’m Learning.

    Warm regards

    Pierluigi Tucci

  14. Awesome Paul! A true “survival” shelter. It’s great that you mention adding the floor/bed of the shelter. I feel like too many people forget about that incredibly vital part of any shelter.

  15. Great Paul. This is what differentiates the fanatics from actual survivalists. You are on par with Bear Grylls, man.

    Keep this stuff coming.

  16. This is a superb article Paul. Great detail and tips. Plus the pictures really help show how its done.



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