Surviving in the wild: How to build a snow trench shelter (or just a really cool snow fort)
A worthwhile skill to learn before you find yourself out in the cold
If you ever find yourself in a winter survival situation, or just want to make a really nifty snow fort, you'll want to try this DIY.
It may seem counterintuitive, but snow is actually a great insulator, and with the addition of radiant body heat or a candle, you can create a comfortable microclimate in a very small snow trench. Similar to an igloo or quinzhee, this snow trench takes a fraction of the time to build making it a worthwhile skill to learn and a desirable option when time is limited.
What you'll need:
- Conifer boughs
- A minimum of 15 sticks for roof ribs – 4-7 ft in length
- 4-6 sticks for snow block braces – 1 ft in length
- Snow shovel or similar digging tool
- Warm clothing and sleep system
*NOTE: This is an emergency style survival shelter, and is meant for short-term use with an effective cold weather clothing or sleep system. Never enter a winter environment without the appropriate clothing and equipment
Here's how to do it:
- Pile snow chest high and double the length of your body in a location with ample amounts of snow. The pile should be a minimum of 4 ft wide.
- Pack down the pile with a shovel or similar tool and let it harden for 1-2 hours (the time required is dependent on the outside temperature). While your snow pile hardens, collect all of the remaining materials to complete the shelter.
- Collect a minimum of 15 strong sticks, 4-7 ft in length for the shelter's ribs/roofing.
- Collect 4-6 sticks, 1 ft in length for snow block braces.
- Collect ample amounts of conifer boughs to cover the entire roof, entrance and sleeping platform.
- With all of the materials collected and the snow pile hardened up, choose the end/side of the shelter with the least amount of exposure to the wind and elements. This will become your entrance.
- Begin excavating snow from the centre of the end that you chose for the entrance, leaving equal amounts of snow for walls on either side. The walls should be at least 1 ft thick. Sheer, vertical cuts into the snow will help prevent any loose snow from being brushed off and falling on to your sleeping platform.
- When excavating snow from the pile and creating the trench, place the snow in a nearby location, as it will be used later to insulate the roof and patch any holes.
- The entrance of the shelter should be dug directly to the ground if possible, creating a 'cold sink' and tunnel. The cold-sink is the lowest part of the shelter. It gives the coldest air a place to accumulate. The entrance and tunnel should span a minimum of 2 ft in length before reaching the sleeping platform.
- With the entrance and cold sink tunnel excavated, begin to carve out the sleeping platform – keep in mind the size of the sleeping platform should be slightly larger than your height and width. The sleeping platform should be a minimum of 1 ft higher than the entrance and cold sink. Carve the entire sleeping platform flat and let it harden while you work on the rest of the shelter.
- Using your digging tool, shorten the entrance walls. This creates a smaller door which is more likely to keep the elements out and provide a smaller micro-climate to heat.
- Using your digging tool, flatten and level the side walls to allow for the stick ribs to be placed securely.
- Starting at the back of the shelter, begin to place the rib sticks closely together across the snow walls to create a strong base.
- Once you have covered the shelter with the base rib sticks, place a few longer sticks lengthwise over top – this will help brace the conifer boughs and heavy snow.
- Place the collected conifer boughs on top of the base roof structure. The boughs should be piled on at a minimum of 2-3 ft thick and cover the entire roof.
- With the main roof covered in boughs, turn your attention to the entrance/cold sink and place the remaining rib sticks until you reach the end of the shelter door – creating a roof structure over the entrance.
- Using the collected 4-6 sticks for snow block braces, lean them against the entrance rib sticks and the top of the base roof, allowing you to place snow blocks over top of the opening without falling through – this section does not need conifer boughs as it's above the cold sink.
- Place snow blocks over the open section and gently rest them on the brace sticks.
- Place more conifer boughs over top of the entrance rib sticks and snow block area. These too should be 2-3 ft thick.
- With the roof and entrance foliage complete, begin to shovel snow onto the roof and side walls, covering the boughs and covering the entire shelter in snow.
- With the outside of the shelter complete, place the remaining conifer boughs inside, on the sleeping platform. This will raise your body off of the snow. Do not place these boughs until the exterior is complete as falling snow can end up covering the boughs, which could result in wet clothing.
- Place a bunch of conifer boughs or a snowball in front of the entrance to help block out the elements and trap in precious body heat.
- A vent hole can be added but is usually not necessary.
- The addition of a candle inside can not only help heat the shelter, but is also an indicator of oxygen levels - if the candle goes out, or cannot be lit, there is a lack of oxygen in the trench and venting needs to be added.
(When using snow as a shelter material, always exercise caution. Leave a visible indicator outside of the shelter to mark your location for other parties to find)
Zachary Gault is a Canadian wilderness-skills instructor and naturalist who specializes in the skills of Bushcraft, Self-Reliance and Sustainable Wilderness-Living. For more information, checkout his website and Instagram.