Chances are you do not possess the magical powers of Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen.” She can control snow and ice to create an ice fortress out of thin air during a quick three-minute musical number.
The rest of us can’t do that, but we can build a snow cave, which can be useful for a number of things.
It is a structure that can be built for fun, just another way to enjoy the snow. Some are built as an even more extreme method of camping. Or in dire situations, one could be used for survival should someone find themselves in a winter storm needing shelter.
“I would say that anybody who is going to be recreating in the backcountry during the winter should be versed in winter survival, avalanche safety training,” said Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Nathan Garibay, who helps with search and rescue. ”Effective and safe shelter building and instructions, whether it’s snow caves, should be an important part of survival training.”
It is important to have the proper tools before starting. A shovel is necessary, a saw is helpful and the universal “10 Essentials” of camping and hiking are …essential. Completing a snow cave can take multiple hours to accomplish and takes effort , making proper clothing all the more important while digging and moving snow.
“Anytime they are building a shelter would be to manage the layer of themselves,” Garibay said. “Once you are wet, from snow rain or sweat, your body has a hard time regulating heat.”
The first thing is to find a safe location with at least 5 feet of snow before starting to dig. It is suggested to notify someone where you are going beforehand, should an emergency happen.
Having snow that is packable rather than powdery and dry is better suited for cave building. If the snow is not deep enough, shoveling a large mound of snow to create more depth before digging is helpful as well. Building into a steep snowbank is an ideal spot to start digging.
Once a location has been found, next comes building an entrance. To be able to move easily, the entrance should be a foot or two wider than your body. Once an entrance has been built, then comes building a tunnel, at least 5 feet long. Survivalcommonsense.com points out that too small of an entrance makes it more challenging for diggers to remove snow.
Next comes removing the snow and creating an area long enough for each person to sit comfortably and to lie down and wide enough to fit all the gear. Garibay suggests keeping all gear inside the cave in case you have to dig yourself out and to help prevent collapses.
Ruggedfellowsguide.com suggests digging up into the snow so that the main area is above the entrance hole to help keep cold air from entering.
Once enough snow has been moved out and a cave begins to form, it is time to start smoothing the cave into a dome, which prevents the dripping of melted snow from soaking gear and people inside.
It is important to create multiple, diagonal ventilation holes in the rounded ceiling to prevent carbon monoxide buildup.
To keep the shelter warm, all that is needed is a lit candle while closing off the entrance to the cave.
If the plan is to stay in the cave overnight, carving out a raised sleeping platform will help even more with keeping warm because the heat will rise while the cold air falls to the floor. Building the sleeping platform higher than the entrance will keep the shelter warm as well. Then you are able to close up the entrance to the cave.
Still, make sure you are prepared before constructing a cave in the snow.
“You need to know what you are doing before you go,” Garibay said. “Pick a location, do your research and manage your clothing layers so not to get overheated.”