Introduction: Build a Better Quinzhee Hut

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A quinzhee hut is a type of temporary snow shelter, as distinct from more permanent ice-block igloos, that was historically used in survival situations by Native Americans, Scandinavians, and others living in cold northern latitudes. Traditionally, the builder would create a mound of snow 4 or 5 feet high, allow it a few hours to settle and conglomerate, then hollow it out to create a small cavern or snow hut for shelter from the elements.

In real survival situations this ancient method is tried and true, but for the enterprising modern snow-architect there are a few tips and tricks that can turn a quinzhee from a crude temporary shelter into an awesome winter-long snow fort that'slarger, sturdier, better lit, and faster to build.

Step 1: Materials

To build a modern quinzhee hut you will need:
  • Snow, and lots of it!
  • shovels, rakes, and hand trowels
  • some shish-kebab skewers (or straws, twigs, etc.)
  • large plastic trash bags and twisty-ties
  • spray bottle of water
  • cake pans
  • and more water
It sounds like an esoteric list of ingredients for a snow fort, I realize, but years of building these every winter has gradually improved our method to be as fast and efficient as possible.

Step 2: Choose a Location

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You want to build your quinzhee where you have access to lots of undisturbed snow.  Once you've found your spot, sort of trample the snow in a circle to demarcate the boundary of your future quinzhee.  Make sure it's large enough to get cozy.

Step 3: Inflate and Bury the Trash Bags

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I know what you're saying. "Why inflated trash bags in a snow fort?"  Well the answer is simple.  Traditionally, after spending tons of time and energy to create a snow mound, a person would then spend even more time and energy just to hollow it out again.  You'd be moving all that interior snow twice.

We've learned over the years that if you inflate trash bags with air, pile them up in the center of your quinzhee, and then bury them with snow, you save yourself a lot of time[*]. When it comes time to hollow your snow mound out, you just pop all the trash bags and 'oila!' your quinzhee is hollow. No need to spend hours chiseling snow out by hand.
  1. Inflate your trash bags like a balloon (but please be careful putting plastic bags near your face, and maybe don't let children help with this step).  Then use a twisty tie to secure the mouth of the bag, followed by a quick knot to be double sure it's airtight.  It can take some practice, you'll probably make a few duds before you get quick at it.  Our quinzhee took about 25 trash bags.
  2. Place your trash bags in a pile and begin to bury them in snow.  We've found it works best to go layer by layer, otherwise they are liable to shift and move around a lot.
  3. Once your snow mound is about the size you want it, throw a bit more snow on top and around all the sides, just to make sure the walls are thick enough structurally.  Then use the back of a shovel to smooth out the edges, it you're into that sort of thing.
[*] NOTE: The trash bag method works best with powder snow.  Powder snow surrounds and covers the trash bags without popping or moving them around much, which is ideal.  Icy, wet, or chunky snow is heavier than powder snow, and often will just push the bags out of the way, making the method almost useless, unless you are really, really careful.  If you only have access to chunky, heavy snow, maybe save yourself frustration and skip the bag step, and just make a good ole' fashioned snow mound.

Step 4: Prepare for Excavation

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Before you begin excavating your quinzhee there are two important steps to accomplish.
  1. First you must take straws, or sticks, or shish-kebab skewers, and poke them into your quinzhee mound every couple of feet.  The reason for this is: when you are inside hollowing or smoothing out the interior wall of your quinzhee (even with the trash bag method you'll do some hollowing) you'll have a guide to how close you are to the exterior of your walls.  When you see a straw poking through the interior wall, you know your wall is 8-12 inches thick, which is perfect.  This way you'll avoid making your walls too thin, or worse, punching a whole in the side or roof of your hut.
  2. Secondly, spray the exterior of your quinzhee with water from a spray bottle, to help it freeze and consolidate more quickly.  This step isn't strictly necessary, but it can't hurt.

Step 5: Hollow Out Your Quinzhee

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I won't bore you with too many details on this step, since I'm sure you can figure it out!

Just cut a doorway, and begin pulling out trash bags (or if you skipped the trash bags, prepare to move a lot of snow!).  You'll want to do a bit of interior smoothing in any case because the trash bags don't create a perfectly shaped interior cavity.  This is when you want to switch to hand trowels, rather than full blown shovels.  Remember to use the straws or sticks as your guides to wall thickness.

note on size and safety: This is not our largest quinzhee ever built using this method.  A few years back we made a 6 foot tall quinzhee shaped like a turtle, with four feet, a tail, and a head for the entrance.  It was awesome, and so large you could almost stand up in it; it could fit 4 adults laying down.  Sadly it collapsed with everyone inside because we got a bit overzealous with creating windows and side pockets in the walls, ruining the structural integrity of the dome.  This brings me to the topic of safety.  Never build a quinzhee alone, and never build one so large that the weight of the snow above you could crush or immobilize you if it collapsed.  Snow can be incredibly heavy, especially when wet, and you could easily suffocate if you became buried.  The Wikipedia page on Quinzhees recommends always digging them out while on your knees, so that if it ever collapses you will have an air pocket beneath your chest and lungs.  Sorry to add a serious note to the generally fun topic of snow forts, but safety is key after all :)

Step 6: Adding Ice Windows!

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Adding windows to your quinzhee is a great way to spruce it up. (Not to mention that great lighting will raise the property value of your your snow real estate :-)

First fill your cake pans with twice boiled water (for crystal clear ice) or tap water (for expediency's sake) and set them outside to freeze overnight.  Our temperature was hovering around 31 degrees, so I just set them in the freezer instead.

Once frozen, run them under cool tap water until they are free from the pans, and now your windows are ready to install.  Just cut a few window holes in your quinzhee and pack them in (but be careful to not ruin the structural integrity of your dome!) 

If you have the time, crystal clear ice windows are the coolest, and really make your quinzhee shine.  We just used cloudy normal ice, but as you can see from the photos even cloudy windows are surprisingly great at lighting up the interior space.  I guess ours are more 'sunroof' than 'window'.

Step 7: Final and Most Important Step!

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That's it you're done!  You have a professional grade quinzhee hut.

After all that time in the snow, enjoy a delicious mug of hot cocoa. You deserve it!

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Feel free to post photos of your own quinzhee creations if you build one.  Let us know how it worked out.  Happy winter!

Comments

Wyattr55123 (author)2013-03-21

The water method may make it sturdier, but it will also make the thing colder. I would never cheat when building a quinzee, because when I build them I will be sleeping in them, and I don't want to risk my safety on some might I say lazy, twenty first century methods. If it ain't broke, and has worked for thousands of years, why fix it.

KevinE49 (author)Wyattr551232016-01-26

If you've really actually slept in one, you know that this will happen naturally anyway. Just the moisture from your breath/sweat/etc will eventually turns the interior walls into ice after a couple nights.

rosey gillespie (author)2016-01-18

This is an excellent idea for family activities - or for families with growing kids. Mybe Instructables should form another channel for these kinds of things. Family oriented together -activities. Thancks for sharing.

Cats Science Club (author)2014-01-11

Love this! I only wish I saw it a week earlier.

nicwitzke (author)2012-12-18

Thank you for this FANTASTIC 'ible. I have been looking for some detailed, down to earth instruction on how to build a snow fort/Quinzhee hut. This 'ible was just what i needed.
(Now i just need it to snow)

Glad you liked it. It was a lot of fun to make. I hope you get some snow!

Thanks, we just got some snow, and I went sledding at my friends winery/grape orchard and were pulling each other behind their MULE (all terrain vehicle). The snow was good, but not enough to make a quinzee hut.
Happy Holidays!

Lorddrake (author)2012-02-08

now if only it would snow here I can try this out.

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