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Side view through bank

What is a Snow Hole?

A snow hole is a winter alternative to camping. You will require snow shovels, a big bank of snow and plenty of time to dig a decent snow hole, but the result should be a solid, spacious, comfortable shelter which can protect you from bad weather better than a tent. You need to be capable of navigating a walk to a safe place in the dark if things go wrong or it doesn't work out.

A snow hole is not the same as an emergency shelter in the snow, which should take about 20 minutes to dig. You should allow roughly 1.5 hours per person sleeping to dig a snow hole, but this can vary depending on the snow conditions.

Danger: Drifting in the night can block the entrance and cause asphixiation. Be alert and keep checking through the night on a watch system. In very bad conditions you may have to check and dig out the entrance every half hour. You can't afford to be lazy with this, tempting as it is once you are warm in your sleeping bag.

Choosing a Site

You need somewhere where the snow builds into big drifts (usually on a lee slope for the prevailing winds). Re-entrants or streams with steep sides are ideal. You will need the drift to be at least three meters deep and three meters thick to build a proper snow cave. It is best to test the depth with an Avalanche probe before you start digging otherwise you could waste a lot of effort.

One problem is that when snow is only very high up, there are only a limited number of easily accessible good snow holing sites and they can get busy. When I was at the example above there were some shelters already dug, and we our own - but for groups coming in after us there wasn't really any space left. Other times you start digging and uncover an existing cave.

If there isn't enough snow for a snow cave, you could try a Quinzee (shovel up).

View from front
shaded areas = blocks placed later

Digging the Cave

Here we outline one design which may have to be adapted depending on the snow conditions and other circumstances.

Before you start, strip down you warm layers and put on your waterproofs. You will get wet digging, so it is advisable to have dry clothes to change into. You will have to work hard for at least 3 hours, so keep yourself fed, watered, and warm. Don't take long breaks - dig hard and then relax when all is finished.

First dig two doorways about 1.5m apart. Dig forward into the bank a door about 6 ft high and 2-3 feet wide. The idea is to give yourself enough space to dig whilst standing up (digging on your knees gets you wet, aching and cold). You can fill in the top of the doorway later with large blocks - this works best if you create an arrow head shape in which the blocks will sit.

Plan view

When your doorway is far enough into the bank to have created a reasonable roof above, dig sideways towards the other door and meet. You then have a corridor in which you can stand in and dig the raised sleeping area. You will progress quicker, and with less effort if you cut the snow out in larger blocks - isolate a line above and below with the shovel and then cut blocks out. With a little planning of the blocks, brain over brawn will save you a lot of effort.

Make it spacious enough to sit up and cook in. when you have 1/4 of the sleeping area left to dig, you can start to back fill one of your entrances. Don't call a halt too early - you are aiming for something palatial, not a student hovel.

Dig some cubby holes in the wall to put candles in. Finally, smooth off the roof and walls as much as possible to prevent drips - first gently with your shovel, and then with your mitts. You can also carve a small trench round the sleeping area for water runoff.

Other Tips

  • Try to move the snow as few tmes as possible - the more times you have to move it, the more work you are doing, so think about your system.
  • Take plenty of fuel for melting snow and keep hydrated. Coleman white gas is safer as it gives off less toxic fumes.
  • A very good thermarest (or karrimat), warm sleeping bag, and bivvi bag are essential.
  • Stick a pole through from above to create a chimney for ventilation when cooking.
  • Place poles in the snow to mark your hole so people don't walk over it.
  • Build a wall around and above your entrance hole to minimise drifting blocking up your entrance in the night.
  • Have all your tools and bags inside the hole during the night. You can put the axes in the wall as hangers.
  • Run a rope between multiple holes so you can find each other.
  • If you go out to do night nav, leave a glow stick to help you locate your hole when you come back. And make sure you know exactly where you are on the map before you leave!
  • Take a spare headtorch and plenty of batteries.
  • Plastic shovels break. Metal ones don't.
  • Put your boots and water in your bivvi bag overnight to prevent them from freezing.
  • When you get back you can apparently sell your snow hole location on ebay to someone who can't be bothered to dig one1!

Other Info

I'm sure you're all capable of googling more for yourself!

Happy snow holing! Franco
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Page last modified on June 28, 2010, at 11:49 PM