A quinzee is a type of snow shelter usually constructed in the earlier part of winter when snow levels are relatively low and snow is still unpacked. Since snow caves require high snow drifts and igloos can only be made when snow is hardened and has a crust, the quinzee is often the only option left to avid outdoors people needing to spend a night outdoors. They are much warmer than tents, although clearly not as portable.
Quinzees are rather unremarkable looking things. You can view a picture of one at http://www.call-wild.com/quinzee.html, but it looks very much like a pile of snow, so you don’t really need to bother. A quinzee can hold 1-3 people comfortably and if built properly can maintain an inside temperature of around -3 degrees Celsius even when the outside temperature is well in the -40’s.
To build a quinzee you need a number of things other than the obvious. A large shovel for each person as well as a smaller, rounded shovel for the more intricate work involved in carving out the inside is necessary. You will also need about 5 or 6 dozen (the more you can manage the better) 9-12 inch (30-45 cm) sticks. These should be relatively thin (twigs are best).
If you are already outside and building snow shelters, chances are that you are already dressed properly. In the small chance that you aren’t and have decided to attempt this craziness after reading this node, make sure you are. The best thing to do is layer your clothing. As you shovel snow, you will become extremely warm and need to remove layers to prevent over heating and dehydration (this is as common in extremly cold temperatures as in very warm, since your body is working twice as hard to maintain core body temperature). When I built a quinzee a few years ago, I found myself working in a t-shirt after the first 20 minutes even though it was minus 20 degrees. Cotton is never recommended since it retains moisture and is impossible to dry in cold conditions. Always invest in polypropylene clothing for anything that is going to be next to your skin. It makes all the difference in staying warm and dry. Waterproof clothing is also important, since you will spend a considerable amount of time sitting and lying down in the snow when constructing your quinzee. Gortex is a great investment.
The first part is the easiest, but the most strenuous. You simply start piling snow into a mound. The base should have a diameter of about 2 meters if it is to hold 3 people. Always mound the snow into the center. As the mound gets higher, this will begin to cascade down the sides to fill out the base. This is much like building a sand castle. You can, at intermittent points, climb onto the quinzee and using your body weight, help to the pack the snow in. However, unless the snow is extremely fluffy, this is not necessary since the weight of the structure should do this on its own.
Keep piling up snow until you reach a height of about 1.8-2 meters. Between three relatively active people, this should take about 2-3 hours. You might want to wait about an hour before you start digging out the snow from the center. This is a great time to measure out your sticks to the required length, have lunch or just to take a break. Remember to replace the layers of clothing you removed earlier since your body temperature will fall rapidly in the cold when you stop work. Always put on more layers BEFORE you get cold. It is easier for your body to maintain core temperature than to warm up.
Before you start digging out your quinzee it is vital that you mark the depth of the walls. For optimal inside temperature, the walls of the quinzee should be 9-12 inches or 30-45 cm wide. It is going to be difficult to gauge this from the inside, so this is where the sticks come in (I know you were wondering what the hell those were for). Push the sticks into the mound, aiming them at an angle towards the center. Spread them all over at 20 inch or 60 cm intervals. When you are finished, your quinzee might resemble a porcupine. In the process of carving out the inside, you will hit the inside ends of the sticks. This is how you will know when to stop and will prevent you from cutting out a hole to the outside. If you do this there is little you can do to repair the damage and must be avoided at all costs.
Once your mound is ready start at the base of the quinzee and begin by scooping out snow in the shape of a doorway. This should be just big enough for you to enter on your hands and knees or even a bit smaller. The smaller the entrance the less cold air will be able to enter. It is easiest to have a partner at this point, but if you are alone, you will have to periodically move the debris away from the shelter.
It is recommended that you build small walls to act as windbreaks away from the entrance.
When you have a dug out a tunnel the length of about half your upper body, begin to slope upwards. When you enter the completed quinzee, the sleeping area should be located above the doorway, since this will allow the coldest air to flow downwards and out of the quinzee in the night.
Continue to dig out the quinzee, with your partner scooping out the debris. This is very exhausting work at the beginning because of the awkward positions you must maneuver your body into. When you hit the ends of the sticks you placed earlier, stop digging and try to smooth out the walls as best as possible. This will prevent the condensation from dripping on you at night. Condensation is actually a vital process in the making of the quinzee into an airtight structure as a thin layer of ice crust develops on the ceiling. It is also vital that you poke a small ventilation hole at the side of the structure to allow air to circulate.
When you enter the quinzee for a comfortable night’s sleep, block the doorway with your pack. You should have a tarp to cover the floor as well as thermal sleeping pads to keep your body away from direct contact with the snow. It is possible to cook inside the structure, but not for extended periods of time since you might be tempting fate. You wouldn’t want to melt your house to the ground, would you?
Source: Personal experience with reminders from http://www.call-wild.com/quinzee.html