If winter seems to be dragging on for you and your family, consider a different outdoor activity — try building a quinzhee.
Quinzhee — the word is of Athabaskan origin — is a sort of snow house built for survival purposes, for winter camping, or just for fun. With all the snow this winter you could probably build one in your backyard. Unlike the igloos built by the Inuit of the North, a quinzhee doesn’t require hard, packed snow as it doesn’t use snow blocks, and you don’t build it up, but hollow it out. All that is needed is enough snow to make a pile, and there is certainly enough of that!
Begin by shovelling up a big dome-shaped pile of fresh snow, or older snow as long as it is not already hard. How high your pile is will depend on how much snow is available and whether you want to be able to sit upright in it, but try to make it at least 1-1/2 metres high. The next step is the easy one — waiting for the snow to crystallize and harden. In an emergency, two or three hours will suffice, but it’s actually better to wait overnight — a two- or three-day project with children.
Then it’s time to start hollowing out the pile. Begin by digging in from the bottom and hauling away the snow. It’s better if you have a second person to help with this. Dig down as close to ground level as you can, as this will increase the warmth inside. Make an oval- or round-shaped room inside the pile, but watch that you don’t break through the ceiling or walls. To help prevent this, take a few twigs or pieces of wood about 20 to 25 cm long and push them from the outside here and there through the top and sides. If you reach a twig as you are hollowing, you’ll know you should stop. If the ceiling or walls start to look translucent, that will also tell you they are thin enough and you should stop digging. Generally the lower walls should be thicker than the ceiling.
If you’d like to make a quinzhee, but aren’t keen on all that shovelling, here’s a couple of other possibilities. If your roof has been cleared off of snow, there’s probably a good pile of the white stuff in your own yard. My husband and I tried that last winter after he’d shovelled off the roof, and the next day the pile was in fine shape for quinzhee making. About the same time, neighbouring teens also dug out a quinzhee at the end of our street where the snowplow had pushed up a big pile of snow. Theirs was bigger than ours — but neither they, nor we, tried overnighting!
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Sleeping in a quinzhee is a possibility, however. Quinzhees can be helpful if someone gets stranded, such as a snowmobiler whose machine breaks down, or a skier caught in a snowstorm. In these cases a shovel wouldn’t be available, but a tree branch or a ski could be used to heap up the snow, and then later to hollow it out. Once the quinzhee is dug out and has people inside, the temperature will usually stay above freezing especially if it has been dug down to ground level, unless it’s very cold out.
For overnight stays in a quinzhee close off the entrance to keep body heat inside. Use a backpack or even snow to block the entrance, leaving a small air hole, or make a small air vent in the roof. Evergreen branches on the ground for a mattress would help, too. If you’re building the quinzhee at home where you have a candle available, light one inside the dome and let it burn for an hour or so. This will help freeze the snow on the inside, and glaze the walls.
Quinzhees aren’t long-lasting structures, but building them can be an interesting outdoor activity, and in an emergency, they could be a lifesaver.