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

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

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


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…

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?

16 thoughts on “Snow Shelters: Why We Don’t Build Igloos In The Forest

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

  2. 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!

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

      Warm regards,


  3. 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!

  4. 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,

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Wow. New one on me. I have built/dug/used both igloos and snow caves but that was a product of doing in Scotland. So all this forest stuff is both interesting and useful. Built quinzees but as experiments rather than for use. Great stuff

  9. In CO I was taught and then taught building quinzees. We often mounded and work hardened snow one weekend and then came back the next to dig it out. Or if building a base camp for a number of days piled one day. Slept under a tarp that night and dug out the next day. Due to the nature of CO snowpack – shallow. The bottom of the pack is nearly all unconsolidated faceted crystals which requires a lot of friction via jumping on it to get close to bonding. Other tips include piling up gear in the center to avoid having to dig so much out. Also, cutting stucks to 8 inches and pushing them into the surface of the mound so you don’t shave too much off when cutting the inside out. Most importantly, wearing as little under a shell as you excavate the inside, inevitably you get wet which becomes a nightmare to dry out. And dont forget to dig up into the center so the cold air can flow out.

    10th Mtn cabins are warmer, more convivial, extremely well made and a lot less damp. Maybe Im getting soft in my older age.

  10. We have an ice box where I work in Northern Finland. Every winter we build an igloo, there is always a new guide who is keen to build it. The novelty seems to wear off pretty quick. Not so much fun as everyone expects it seems.

  11. We have been using the Ice Box Igloo Tool for over 15 years professionally in Glacier National Park in all conditions. The Igloo Tool keeps the builder much drier than a snow cave. The forest helps keep the igloo shaded and slows deformation and settling. The key is mixing the snow on the ground. It takes some practice and the size of the igloo relates to the time it takes to construct. We highly recommend it. Glacier Adventure Guides

  12. The Boy Scouts of America has a merit badge for wilderness survival. One of the requirements is to make a quinzee and sleep in it overnight. Most scouts use wood sticks for reinforcement.

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