How to Build a Quinzee

How to Build a Quinzee

A quinzee is basically a hollowed out pile of snow that you can use for a survival shelter in the winter, or as a sweet fort in your backyard. It is not nearly as complicated as building an igloo, and can be completed with a solid afternoon’s work with two people. I have slept overnight in these structures while winter camping in northern Minnesota, and they can keep you relatively warm, especially if the temperatures outside are well below freezing. How to Build a Quinzee Step by Step 1) Determine the location of your quinzee. It will have an entrance hole, so it’s helpful to make sure that’s not facing directly into the wind. If, for example, you are going to build it on an island in the Boundary Waters like we did, you probably wouldn’t choose to build it on the edge of the island with the hole facing the frozen water. Find a nice sheltered area for your little hut. 2) Determine the size of your quinzee. This may depend on the area you have found, or you may have a larger area to work with. Stomp out the perimeter of your quinzee, then stomp down the center as well to make a sturdy base. 3) Pile up a heck of a lot of snow! You can build a quinzee with any kind of snow as long as you can pile up enough of it. The weight of the snow piled up will compact it into a structure that you can hollow out. This will be the most time consuming task, especially since eventually you may need to start carrying shovelfuls of snow over to your developing pile to make it large enough. Remove layers as necessary to avoid soaking through your clothes with sweat, especially if you do not have a change of clothes. Sleeping outside, even in the shelter of a quinzee, in the winter with wet clothes will bring you no good. 4) Once your pile of snow is satisfactory, take a break. Seriously! The snow needs time to settle, and you need a rest before hollowing it out. Try to give the pile at least a couple of hours. The process the snow goes through is called sintering, in which the points of the snowflakes are broken off through pressure, and the resultant rounded grains can fuse together into larger crystals. This is what allows you to build a shelter out of any type of snow, even light fluff. 5) After the snow has had a good chance to sinter, and you’ve gotten in a good meal or perhaps a short bout of ice fishing, it’s nearly time to hollow out the structure. Before you do, gather a quantity of sticks and break them into pieces that are roughly 1 foot long each. Jab these all over into your pile to use as guides. As you are hollowing out the pile, you keep scraping away at the snow until you reach these sticks, which are your indication to stop. 6) It’s finally time to hollow out the pile. If you haven’t already done so, choose where the entrance hole is going to be. Rather than having your entrance go straight into the hole, have it travel down first and then in. This may result in a somewhat snakelike movement on your part to get in and out of the structure, which really only makes things more fun. This will also allow cold air to gather in this little downward facing hole, and let the inside of the quinzee stay nice and cozy once it’s hollowed out. It’s best to do this process with two people – one person hollowing out the structure with a smaller shovel, and the other person removing the snow from the entrance with another shovel. This is also helpful in case the structure collapses while the hollower is inside. This is unlikely to happen, but if it does, you have a rescuer immediately available. Stop scraping at the walls once you are able to see your guide sticks. You will likely be able to see a bit of daylight through the walls as well. The thickness should be about 10 – 12 inches. 7) Once your quinzee is hollowed out to your liking, dig out a couple of small holes for air exchange. These should be about 1/3 of the way down from the top, and about large enough to fit your fist through. Time to enjoy your fort…ahem…quinzee survival structure. We had added the tarp the next morning to provide a shelter from the snow while we were eating breakfast. Spending the night in the...

How to Use an Emergency Fire Starter

How to Use an Emergency Fire Starter

Emergency fire starters are typically made with magnesium, and most have built-in blades or knives. Basically, you will first need to shave bits of magnesium off the fire starter with a knife onto some tinder. The flint from the fire starter is then used to create sparks, which should ignite the flammable magnesium as well as the tinder. From there, it’s your job to keep the fire going! Read further for more detailed instructions.   This emergency fire starter, for example, has a striker with one serrated edge rather than a knife. The serrated edge is used to shave off the bits of magnesium, and then the flint is struck with the other side of the striker. How to Use an Emergency Fire Starter – Detailed Instructions Before you even think about making your little pile of magnesium shavings, you will need to gather dry tinder and assemble it into a nice little airy pile in a location where you will want your fire to be. Your tinder could be anything from twigs to bark to fuzz from your clothing, and will be used as fuel to ignite larger pieces of burnable fuel. When you start to shave off the bits of magnesium onto the tinder, hold the starter at an angle above the tinder. Try scraping toward you rather than away to have greater control over where the shavings land. You should create a pile that is about the size of a quarter, and it should land directly on the tinder. Your emergency fire starter will also have a flint component. This may be on the same block as the magnesium, or it could be on a separate one. Use the blade portion of the fire starter to scrape down the flint in order to create sparks. Make sure you are once again holding the flint at an angle so that the sparks land on the flammable magnesium and tinder. Continue to strike the flint until the sparks have lit the fuel and started a flame. From there, it is your job to nurture the flame into a fire! Protect this little flame from strong wind, but do gently blow on it to encourage the flame to spread. Slowly add more tinder, and then progressively larger bits of fuel as the fire grows. Zippo Emergency Fire Starter Kit This fire starter kit is available at REI and includes a flint-wheel ignition and 4 waxed tinder sticks to help you get a fire going. It also helpfully floats in water and has a waterproof...

The Joys of Scat Identification

The Joys of Scat Identification

It would not be unusual to find me outside, taking photos of poop. Maybe poking through it with a stick. Whether you think it’s a disgusting practice or not, one can glean a lot of information from crap. Firstly, and most interestingly, it can tell you what kind of animal has passed by. Hunters, for example, get super pumped when they happen across certain types of dung (generally when it belongs to the species of animal they are hunting). Secondly, it can give you some clues as to what the animal was eating. The shape, color, and size of the droppings can change with the animal’s diet.  Sometimes it may be obvious what the animal was eating; you may be able to find seeds that you can identify, hairs, or bones. You may be able to tell if the animal has been eating a good deal of fruit. This is helpful if you’re trying to find that species of animal because you can look for the types of food it has been eating in an attempt to find it. Scat may also be able to give you clues about which direction the animal was traveling in. Sometimes animals may walk and poo at the same time, leaving a trail of “breadcrumbs” for us to follow, if you will. Or, if all the turds are in one pile, just bend down and touch your tongue to it to determine the direction of travel. … You didn’t really fall for that one, did you? You may be able to tell if the droppings are fresh. If it’s cold out, they could be steaming and indicate that the animal had passed by frequently. Or, they could be starting to deteriorate, indicating that the poop is not fresh, or perhaps that it has rained since the scat was deposited. Scat Identification Were you able to identify what kind of animal left the pile of scat in the photo above? Let me give you a hint – it was found in the Minnesota woods, in a mix of young growth and older growth forest. Here’s another hint. Take a look at the whitish tint a lot of the turds have on them. This may remind you of other animals that make whitish poop…birds! If you can’t tell the size of the droppings, they are about an inch in length. This indicates a larger bird. Ok, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ll let you off the hook. It’s Ruffed Grouse...

Camping Rain Shelters – Tips for Making Shelters when Camping in the Rain

Camping Rain Shelters – Tips for Making Shelters when Camping in the Rain

If you don’t camp very often, there is a chance you may never camp in the rain. For those of us that make a frequent practice of it, it’s pretty much inevitable. Sometimes it can be a cozy experience, if you happen to be dry; playing cards in the tent, cooking under a tarp, even sipping hot chocolate in your raincoat under a rock overhang. Note how each of these cozy situations involves being dry. Sure, running out into the rain to, say, make out in a downpour is great if you have a house or car to run into afterward. However, once you’re wet when you’re out in the woods, it can be hard to get un-wet. Best try to stay dry from the get-go. Here is where camping rain shelters come in handy. Staying dry when camping isn’t necessarily that hard, unless you have a tendency to be lazy. For example, put on your rain gear, including the hood. Add some type of waterproof boots. That kind of stuff does help. We once camped in the Boundary Waters for a week, and it rained basically every day. It was also rather cold for that time of year (July), with temps generally not exceeding 65 and dipping down into the 40’s every night. When we travel to the BWCA, we don’t bring a lot of clothes: a couple pairs of pants, a couple of long-sleeved shirts, etc. Generally just an extra pair of everything, with maybe some extra socks and undies (to help me feel more human and less like a feral forest creature). Anyways, with so few clothes and so many rainy days, we didn’t have much room for error. What it comes down to in that type of situation is stay dry, or risk hypothermia. Besides putting our rain gear on whenever we were exposed to the rain, we also created camping rain shelters. A tent is great, yes, for an easy-to-set-up and effective shelter, but you can’t cook in a tent. Also, you can’t go to the Boundary Waters and spend a week in a tent, that would be ridiculous. Tools Needed to Make Camping Rain Shelters A tarp and some rope or bungee cords are all you need to bring to make great shelters (or FORTS if you want to have fun with it). Other things that come in handy are sticks, canoes, trees, rocks, and some creativity. Your goal is to use the tools you have, and tools you can find to stay dry. Helpful Tips for Making Camping Rain Shelters Helpful tip: if you use a stick to prop up the center of the shelter as shown in our photo, put some kind of cloth around it so it doesn’t wear through the tarp.  Some key things to keep in mind are which direction the wind is blowing (make sure that side is blocked off or you will be sprayed by rain while you sit in your shelter), angle of the ground (set up on a slope the wrong way and you’ll have rivulets of water snaking through your dry patch of ground), and proximity to mosquito sources. Once we set up a shelter not far from our fire, and the wind was blowing just right to fan the smoke through our sheltered area, thereby keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Choosing an area with a level spot for cooking is helpful, assuming you are cooking with a camp stove. Finally, a good view is helpful. You may be sitting there for awhile. Blue Poly Tarp – 14′ x 12′ Here’s a basic tarp available at REI. This is the type of tarp that we generally use for making rain shelters. They fold up to be fairly compact and will last for many years if well cared for. MSR E-Wing Shelter This is more of a wish list item for me, we don’t own one. You can even use this shelter as your actual tent! If weight and space are a major concern on your trip, this is the type of item you might choose to bring with you for a rain shelter, a tent, or both. It has reinforced guy points and you can use a walking pole or ski pole to help set it...

Poison Ivy in Minnesota – a Plant that can Cause an Itchy Painful Rash

Poison Ivy in Minnesota – a Plant that can Cause an Itchy Painful Rash

Even if learning how to identify plants is not high on your priority list, it will pay off to learn this one. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is (as the name suggests) poisonous and can cause an itchy and/or painful rash in those that come in contact with the sap of the plant. Poison Ivy in Minnesota It is found throughout Minnesota, most commonly in wooded areas; it grows particularly well in moist, shaded areas. Along stream banks, on the sides of roads, along paths, and along fences are all common places poison ivy can be found. I often see it while walking on trails through the woods. The phrase “leaves of three, let it be” is useful to remember, however, many plants have leaves in clusters of three. Poison ivy is actually not an ivy at all, but a member of the Cashew (Anacardiaceae) family. The leaves are alternate and consist of three leaflets, which can vary in size and are noticeably shiny. It can grow as a vine or as a shrub. All parts of the plant contain a poisonous oil, called urushiol, that can cause an allergic reaction (urushiol is an allergen). The skin rash caused by poison ivy is called allergic contact dermatitis, and can look red, streaky, and include raised areas (hives), or fluid-filled blisters. The reaction can occur when part of your skin comes in contact with the oil, whether it came directly from the plant or not. This can occur through touching objects or clothing that has been in contact with the oil from poison ivy (careful doing laundry!), or even petting your dog after he has romped through a patch. The rash itself is not contagious, it can only be developed from touching the urushiol or something that has come in contact with urushiol. The rash usually occurs between 8 – 48 hours after coming in contact with the urushiol, but it may take up to 15 days to make an appearance, according to AC Gladman in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. Repeated contact with the plant over time may cause rashes to develop more quickly. Some people may be “immune” to the urushiol and not develop a reaction at all. I personally have come in contact with poison ivy many times, and have never had a reaction – but it’s always possible that I could react to it in the future. The rash can be initially treated by washing in cool water. Calamine lotion and antihistamines may help relieve the rash. Jewelweed, a plant commonly found in Minnesota, can be used to help sooth the itching as well – crush the stem or leaves and apply the juice to help relieve the itch. Severe cases may require treatment by a doctor. The absolute best way to avoid getting a rash from poison ivy is to have the ability to recognize it and avoid the plant itself. If you can’t avoid the plants, wear long pants, and socks and shoes. Be sure to handle any clothing or items that have come in contact with the plants with care...

Wild Edibles: Wild Plantain Tea

Wild Edibles: Wild Plantain Tea

Wild Plantain Tea Wild plantains are said to have an impressive variety of benefits, including use as a wound-healer, astringent, expectorant, diuretic, emollient, cooling, antimicrobial, antitoxin, antiviral, and demulcent. This common backyard weed is high in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and vitamin K. Wild plantains can easily be used to make wild plantain tea.   I had heard that plantain tea tastes unpleasant, but I found that it is actually mild and earthy. The leaves can be steeped either fresh or dried. To make fresh plantain tea, grab a small handful of washed plantain leaves and steep them in boiling hot water for 3 – 5 minutes. To dry the leaves for tea, use a dehydrator, or bake the leaves on low in the oven for about an hour, and crush them. A tea infuser can be used to keep the dried leaves from needing to be strained from the tea. I do not use any sweetener in the tea; the herbal taste is very subtle and pleasant. This plantain tea (infusion), can also be used as a soothing wash for rashes, sunburns, windburns, or wounds. For more information about this plant, view this article about wild plantains. There are many common wild edibles throughout the United States, and when identified properly, can help to make a great meal while backpacking. The book below, available as a digital download from REI, is a great resource for backpacking food ideas. FalconGuides Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ – Enhanced Digital...