Winter Overnight Shelter Building

Each year in late February the Mountain Adventure Skills Training (MAST) crew ventures into the backcountry with all the needed supplies to spend the night in the snow, except for one piece of equipment is left behind: a tent. Mid-winter weather can be variable, having had a cold snap of -35 nights only a matter of days prior to this overnight adventure. The purpose of this trip was the learn how to build different types of snow shelters for both emergency, and base camp uses. Many were apprehensive, but figured that there was no way we could leave being more cold or wet than survival week in October. (Please refer to “Survival Blog” for all the soggy details)

Each person built their own shelter, and there were plenty of styles to go around. Some opted for a simple snow trench, which is essentially no more than a long narrow hole in the ground with a ramp leading in and a tarp as a roof. Personally, I do not like the idea of snow above my head so I opted for this type of shelter. When I entered my little cave, much to my surprise it was notably warmer inside than out. I slept so soundly I struggled to get out of my toasty sleeping bag when my watched buzzed “time to wake up.” The trench is a quick and easy way of making an emergency shelter.

Others opted to build tree well shelters. This is a shelter built by taking advantage of the already naturally occurring hole beneath a large tree whose branches prohibit snow from fully solidifying around its truck. These branches and bows also allowed for an insulated roof that only required some tweaks and twigs to complete the structure. An advantage to a tree well shelter is that there are tree wells everywhere and they can easily create a space large enough to shelter multiple people in an emergency. Another advantage is you very much feel like a forest gnome when you emerge through your door of bows, smelling of fresh spruce.

In between emergency and base camp shelters, some people who are braver than I, chose to dig a snow cave. Much like the ones many of us engineered as children, they were small but sturdy holes dug into the deeper layers of snow and opening up into a larger space. Depending on the size of the cave and effort put into making it comfortable this could be either a single, or multi night option.

Arguably the best option for a base camp shelter was the “quinzhee.” A quinzhee is a pile of snow that is shovelled into a mound, allowed to sit and harden, then hollowed from the outside in. With skill and care these can be made into large, sturdy and warm shelters for multiple people to use for multiple days. Although they take the longest to build, they can be well worth the effort if you wish to set up home in the snow for a few days, or to return to multiple times in your own secluded area of the mountains.

Similar to the quinzhee, was the attempted igloo. A few students were keen and wanted to give a try at building an igloo, one of whom ended up sleeping in the half finished structure with a tarp as a roof (and she was warm!) The igloo is similar to the quinzhee in shape and size, the difference is the igloo is made of carefully cut, placed and balanced blocks of snow. The powdery Fernie snowpack does not create ideal conditions for pulling perfect bricks out of the ground. The igloo was given a good attempt, and in the end was a neat partial structure to learn from.

Mixed in with shelter building we also learned about winter fire starting and maintaining. A deep pit was dug and a fire started in the bottom. We watched as the heat melted the pit even deeper, food was cooked and gloves were dried by its welcoming flame. On our ski out in the morning we ran through an avalanche practice scenario to farther hone in our transceiver locating skills.

Overall the night was far more comfortable and warmer than many of us had initially expected it to be. We finished the trip with a MAST version of “MTV Cribs” as we showed off our little snow homes to our classmates before demolishing them and touring back to the resort.