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.

how to build a quinzee

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.

boundary waters quinzee in the making

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.

quinzee Minnesota

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 quinzee was MUCH warmer than spending the night in a tent in the winter, which we have also done. It felt somewhat moist in there, although none of our stuff got too wet. A night of two people breathing in the structure also helped to form an ice layer on the walls.

roughing it in the quinzee

Oh, it was a rough night sleeping on the air mattress. It took some time to blow it up, but provided a nice cushion for sleeping on. We would never carry the weight for a summer camping trip, but since we dragged everything in on two sleds we had plenty of space for luxuries.

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