Quinzee: the Snow Fort That Could Save Your Life





Introduction: Quinzee: the Snow Fort That Could Save Your Life

Have you ever wanted to escape the constraints of the indoors, while sleeping like Han and Luke in The Empire Strikes Back? The Quinzee is a fantastic way to stay warm in the winter, you can build it with any age of child and have a ton of fun. You can also use one to survive the night in a winter emergency.

I have been sleeping in quinzees every winter for the last 8 years and have built at least 10 in that time. Despite my initial doubts I have found them to be far warmer than any cabin, way more fun to build, and much more rewarding to destroy!

Follow through these steps to learn the best way (in my experience) to build one of these fantastic snow shelters on your own. You can adapt these to snow banks or any survival situation.

First, Some safety notes:

  • Shelters can collapse! Do not leave someone alone in the shelter!
  • I am NOT a survival expert, use your own judgement whenever you do anything!
  • If you are new to this, have a warm building nearby as a backup. There is no shame in going inside if you are too cold.
  • Keep a small shovel or trowel inside incase the snow outside piles up.

Step 1: Tools

To start you'll need a shovel, or two. If you have a larger group then you could get different people to bring different shovels.

I have found a wider shovel is useful for making the larger pile, and a skinnier shovel to get snow on top. Trowels and small shovels work well inside, so do gloved hands.

You can make do with any shovel that you have.

Step 2: Making the Pile

To start you should make a huge pile of snow. You can get your diameter by lying on the ground. The largest quinzee I have built slept 6 people. I would always sleep with a minimum of two people in the shelter. After you've established the length and width you need it to be (add about a foot for wall width), you can mark the outer limit in the snow with a shovel.

Once you have your outline you are ready to go! Begin piling snow until it looks like the large mound above. This can take a lot of snow (seriously), it will need to be 4-6 feet tall for an average shelter. If you have a large snow bank you can just skip this step and use the existing pile of snow!

Once you have a full pile of snow, get several sticks about a foot long. Shove them into the shelter mound leaving just the end showing. These sticks will be your guide for ensuring the wall width is thick enough. When you start hollowing the inside, these guides will be the difference between success and collapse.

Step 3: Letting It Sit

This is the most important, and easiest, part. All you have to do is ignore the pile for about three hours. I would recommend a snowball fight, tobogganing, a movie with hot chocolate, or any combination of these.

By letting the pile sit it compresses the snow and makes it much more stable when you go to dig it out. The longer it sits the stronger it will be. When it is done, it will have sunk by as much as 1 foot from its original height.

If you are using a pre-formed snowbank, it has likely sat there for a while already so you can skip on ahead to the next step!

Step 4: Digging It Out

This part is the most fun, especially for the kids!

First, you want to chose your door location very carefully. Find the side that points away from the wind (or else you will be VERY cold) and start digging it out.

Be careful not to make the entrance hole to big. The larger the hole, the more heat will escape. You can generally use a toboggan or shovel as a door to block the hole, so constrain your opening to that size.

Once you are inside the mound it can take a while to dig out. Eventually there will be enough room inside for a friend to help you dig. Taking shifts also works very well.

If you hit the end of one of your sticks, stop digging there! That means that you are very close to digging through the wall. And finally, only dig out as much as you need to be comfortable. You will be mainly lying down in here so keep the ceiling low, the smaller the space the more concentrated the warmth.

Step 5: Interior Decorating (Candling and Moving In!)

Maybe not decorating in the usual sense... Once we have hollowed out the shelter, we need to smooth off any jagged parts of the ceiling and floor. This will allow any condensation to run to the edge of the shelter, rather than driving onto you as you sleep.

Now we can carefully remove the twigs from the shelter, this will look a bit nicer, and provide plenty of small ventilation shafts!

Once the twigs are removed we can add a lit candle in the centre of the shelter.

This process is called candling. It's not essential, but is recommended for a safer night out. We leave a candle in the shelter to melt a thin layer of snow. This layer re-freezes as ice, reinforcing the structure. This will add strength to the shelter (and a bit of warmth).

Once you have let the candle sit for a while (the longer the better) then you can move it out of the way. I normally keep it on a shelf of snow to add even more heat before bed (though it can sometimes be a bit too much).

You can add a tarp, mylar sheet, or other cover for the floor. Then put down a sleeping pad and your sleeping bag to complete the shelter!

Step 6: The Finished Shelter

You are now ready to crawl (or stomach slide) your way in. Pull your makeshift door closed, hop into your sleeping bag, blow out the candle, and enjoy a comfy warm night in the snow.

If you did it right you'll have an impossible-to-beat story to tell at school or work the next day! If you didn't, you can do it again just as soon as you get warm!

To reiterate, some safety notes:

  • Shelters can collapse! Do not leave someone alone in the shelter!
  • I am NOT a survival expert, use your own judgement whenever you do anything!
  • If you are new to this, have a warm building nearby as a backup. There is no shame in going inside if you are too cold.
  • Keep a small shovel or trowel inside incase the snow outside piles up.


If you want to do more stuff like this, checkout your local Scouts! They offer programs for youth from ages 5-26 (in Canada and most of the world). It's a ton of fun and they are always looking for more volunteers.



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    19 Discussions


    2 years ago

    We teach our Scouts that since warm air rises, the ideal entrance should be lower than the sleeping platform. That way the internal heat trapped within does not leak out when whatever kind of 'door' you used is opened. This is not always possible if you're dealing with just a thin snowpack on top of the ground, and it does make excavating the interior more difficult. This is probably not necessary for mild winter temps, but we've been glad we did it in Western US mountain elevation valleys on clear sky nights. Also, we have used conifer branches stuck into the exterior to keep the vent holes open during nighttime snowfall. Place them so that they arch several inches above and over the vent holes since they will accumulate snow.

    3 replies

    It made my day to hear that a Scouter had read this! I know there are many variations (including, and I hope to try this, very large ones with fire pits). I would imagine that the branches make the shelter more visible to rescuers if you where stranded as well.

    Hi Matt, I have built a large one. I left a central one foot thick wall in place to support the center of the wide span of the roof, but did cut a window in the wall. The bottom of that window sill created a shelf for an electric lantern, and we also cut smaller cubbyholes into the wall for other items and built a raised nightstand next to the sleeping platforms just so we could say we did it. Lot of work, but it yielded some rare backcountry luxuries.

    I'll bet you could build a large one with a small fire pit by making a wider chimney hole that turned a right angle as it exited the roof. this would create a short horizontal flue to let some excess heat and the smoke to escape. Easiest way to do that might be to just stick a right angle steel flue from Home Depot into the chimney hole and cover it with snow where it protrudes from the roof. Make sure you burn dried wood to keep the smoke down. If your fire pit is not on the ground, maybe get a beat up shallow stockpot from a Goodwill store and put a short grill rack in the bottom of it to help air circulation for your fire build. Gotta somehow insulate your fire pit from the surrounding snow so you don't melt your floor. A small amount of flame should suffice since you don't want radiant heat to melt your previously glazed walls or roof. Curious to see how this works out.

    This winter I'll have to talk some Rovers into a winter camping trip! Maybe see if we can get a few variations going.

    Thanks! When I wrote it there wasn't a lot of snow left. It might get an upgrade this year!

    i live in the caribbean so i (obviously) can't do it here

    buy mayb u cd do one with sand?

    1 reply

    That would be really neat to try! Let me know if it works (and be careful of course).

    Eventually, but the snow and ice are remarkably good at staying up.

    Over time, yeah, but when the snow is less than freezing (< 32 degrees F) it won't melt very fast(though sunshine will make it heat up)

    Whenever there's enough snow to do it, I love building these. Depending on the snow, the walls don't have to be very thick. The stick-guide idea is great. Usually, my guide is when part of the wall becomes translucent (light shines through it), that's less than a foot. The one I built just this past Christmas was made that way before letting it settle (though I did smack the snow all around the pile with a shovel to pack it a bit) and neighborhood kids were climbing and sledding off of the top of it before it was 3 hours old and it held up. I found that lee-side door was the most effective, too.

    My son almost wanted to sleep inside it, but we thought better of it. Maybe next time.

    1 reply

    It always amazes me (and our new guys) just how much these can take! When make these with the scouts we can have anywhere from 10 small children to 7 grown teens/adults safely on top. If you're going to sleep in it make sure to have a couple of people (especially for kids) for heat as well as safety.

    I have only one consideration for this - having the entrance on the lee side, or opposite of the wind, can and does allow much more snow to build up in the case of a snowfall. Look at hills, they usually have large drifts on the side away from the wind. . Otherwise great instructable!

    1 reply

    If you make it with some other orientations for the door let me know how it goes, we had one really cold night a couple years back and got settled with the lee side design. I'd love to hear what adjustments you try!

    Great work! I also build quinzees each year. Something I have done in the past is burry empty barrels in the centre of my quinzee. This saves time when hollowing it out. Be sure not to use more than 2-3 barrels so you avoid jeopardizing the structural integrity of the shelter.

    1 reply

    That is rather genius. I haven't taken barels with me before but I definitely will this year!