Introduction: Let's Make a Snow Fort! - Building a Quinzhee

About: Hey there! My name is Chris and I live in Massachusetts. I have been a teacher since 2006 and love the fact that I have the opportunity to bring real-world, hands-on skills to my students. I love learning new …

2" of snow

1/10" of rain

36" of snow

1/4" of ice

2" of rain

12" of snow

Welcome to winters in the Northeast!

I love playing in the snow; building sledding luge courses, kamikaze sledding through the woods, snowball fights, and snow shelters... Why is it that so many people complain about it and yet live in a place where it is guaranteed to happen for a long stretch of the year? You can start to feel cooped up in the winter, especially in a classroom all day. I am pretty sure my students begin to feel the same way (actually, I am certain of that). What better excuse to go outside and play in the frozen water-flakes that fall from the sky? One of my favorite lessons is building a type of snow shelter with my students called a quinzhee. I started using quinzhees as shelters about thirteen years ago when I went on back country ski trips in the white mountains of New Hampshire. With -20 degree nights, a 0.5 mm thick tent isn't going to provide much insulation from the elements. Although, snow is cold (and needs to be so the water stays in its frozen state) it is also super insulative due to the high percentage of air trapped within it. Fresh snow can have up to 95% air trapped in it, and although compacted snow will have less air trapped in it, there is still a fair amount available. This is important because air is an excellent insulator. This is why we use fiberglass insulation, it traps air and adds to the insulative qualities of our walls. With a 12" thick wall of snow surrounding you, frigid air will be hard pressed to get in and hot air will be trapped in. In comes the quinzhee, well not really that easy, it takes a lot of time to build one, but they are a blast.

I have been building quinzhees with my science classes for a number of years. Usually when the weather cooperates with us and allows us to have at least a few days to enjoy our hard work. We had an early arrival of snow this year and got 24" dumped on us so I thought it was a perfect opportunity to take a day to teach kids about the ideas of radiation, conduction, and convection all the while having fun playing in the snow.

The basic idea behind a quinzhee is that you build it in lieu of making snow blocks if the snow is not very packable (like you would do for an igloo). The big down side of building a quinzhee is that it is energy intensive and requires a whole lot of snow piling, a bunch of waiting, and then a whole lot of snow removal. Feels a bit counterintuitive to pile snow and then just remove it, but it does work great. There are some hacks out there to help alleviate the massive piling of snow, such as using a 2x4 and plywood structure and a tarp to hold up the middle and decrease the amount of snow needed... or using some old tent poles and a tarp to make the interior dome and pile the snow around that. I like the idea of doing it this way since it has that "oh crap I am stuck in the woods and I am going to freeze to death" appeal to it since you only need some way to scoop the snow up and out. So here they are, the basic steps:

1 - There's snow pile like snow piles - Pile snow up about 6-8' high and 8 - 10' wide, don't bother really packing it down tight, but pat it down a bit

2 - Now that you are all sweaty and hot how about we... - Wait for a couple of hours while the snow "sinters" where all of the different temperature snows meld together in one harmonious pile of frozen flakes. You will get cold, so might as well go out and ski a bit or tromp around in the woods, build a fire, begin construction of a cabin, tap some trees, whatever suits your fancy, just don't get cold!

3 - Stab, stab, stab! - Put in your measuring sticks to make sure that you will have relatively even wall thicknesses around the shelter.

4 - Can you dig it, I can dig it! - Now you start digging out the structure until you hit the tips of those marking sticks.

5 - Ice, ice, baby... - Burn some candles, or start a mini fire in there to start melting the interior just a bit so that it ices over and seals the deal.

6 - Pass out - You're tired, eat, drink, sleep and hope that you wake up!


To build a quinzhee (quinzee) you will need:

  • Snow, at least 10" on the ground is adequate
  • Shovels, preferably the type that have a decent scoop to them, and no metal edges if possible
  • Sticks, about 20 of them per quinzhee, each should be between 12 - 16"
  • Lots, and lots of energy!

Step 1: You're Going to Need Some Shovels...

I sent out an "all call" to parents to borrow shovels before starting our quinzhee building day. We got a lot of shovels, all shapes and sizes, but we found that the traditional scoop shovel with a relatively narrow mouth (compared to many others) and a deep back really did the best in scooping up the snow en masse. We had about 30 total shovels that were used throughout the day by my students and only one fatality... of a shovel, a shovel (it was a little red one, may its days be filled with fluffy snow in a better, snowier place).

I broke the kids up into four groups in each class and gave them a specific quinzhee to work on. And so began the work of many hands, or at least a few hands since some of the kids decided that it might be more fun to watch other kids work. Future managers of America look out!

Step 2: 1 - There's Snow Pile Like Snow Piles

First step was to have each group in my first class begin the process of piling the snow up into as big of a pile as they could muster. Some of the groups were pretty darn efficient at this while others had mediocre at best results. I think I ended up piling two quinzhees worth of snow my self, but what a great work out! The first class was able to get the snow almost completely piled for the initial sintering but there was a bit more that had to be added. By the end of the second class of the day we had quinzhees that were a respectable height and diameter, at least they (the middle school kids) could fit into them. My prep was third period so it worked out to let the quinzhees sinter for a while before the next step.

Step 3: 2 - Now That You Are All Sweaty and Hot How About We Just Sit in the Cold?

This is usually the part that kind stinks about quinzhee building. You pile up tons of snow, get hot, overheated, and sweaty, and then you have to wait two hours until the whole mess comes together into something that you can dig. Since I did this with each of my classes, I was the only one getting overheated and sweaty, but then again I was able to go into a heated building. With the real deal you don't have that luxury so it's important to make sure that you either keep moving about to stay warm or you build a fire. The video I posted is from about nine years ago. My then 16 year-old little brother created the video based upon an adventure we did up in the White Mountains (excuse his misspelling of Mt. Moosilauke... it's really a weird one to spell). You can see in the video that we opted for the fire in lieu of the moving around and then did our skiing mostly on the second day... well, I guess I wiped out, but there was still some skiing going on!

So, you waited two hours, now it's time to...

Step 4: 3 - Stab, Stab, Stab!

You'll need to collect some sticks for the next step. You'll need 20 to 30 sticks for each quinzhee. I prefer to use white pine branches since the pines naturally shed their lower branches and they are super easy to break off and break into the correct lengths. I sent out a few of my students (with supervision, sheesh) to collect the sticks and then we spent a few minutes breaking them up into 12 - 16" lengths. Don't get too anal about them being spot on, they are just a warning that the area is getting too thin for those lucky souls who get to dig out the inside! Stab the sticks (preferably with no one inside the quinzhee) into the shelter every two or three feet around and up and down, and that's about that. On to the next part where all of the magic happens!

Step 5: 4 - Can You Dig It, I Can Dig It!

I like to have the kids do this next part in groups of four. One student will begin with the digging out of the quinzhee and will slowly work their way into the shelter. Another student will remove the snow that the other student is digging out to the outside of the shelter. The other two are responsible for doing something cool with the snow that is dug out; make a wall around the quinzhee for future snowball fights, make a vestibule to enter into the quinzhee, build a snowman guard, whatever suits their fancy. This also allows the kid on the inside to take a break and for the positions to rotate. At this point the snow should be very well sintered so there is no chance for collapse unless some bonehead jumps on the structure while someone is inside, which I threatened them to no end about and put the fear of frosty into them!

The best shovels for digging out are small and agile and it's best to use the shovel to lever the snow out of place instead of actually digging it. I use the blade of the shovel to "cut" snow chunks from the interior of the shelter and then push them out with my feet or arms depending how deep I am in there. You keep digging until you hit the tips of the marker sticks without accidentally pushing the sticks out further. You are looking for the walls to be between 12 and 20" but honestly it depends on who you have digging it out and how much time you want to spend on getting it spot on.

Step 6: 5 - Ice, Ice, Baby..

One of the last steps is to smooth the entire interior of the quinzhee with your hands (gloves on of course) and then to decide if you want to ice over the inside. To ice the interior you can either burn a few small candles (look at the video I posted a few steps back and you can see that is what we decided to do). If you don't have any candles at your disposal you can either use a cook stove for a couple of minutes (don't stay in there of course, but you already knew that) or you can burn a small fire that will burn itself out but add enough heat to ice it over. It's best to build the ice coating just as the sun is setting and the temperature are dropping so that the liquid water freezes almost instantly creating the ice layer.

You should poke a couple of breathing / air refreshing holes near the top of the quinzhee so that the natural convection currents in the quinzhee will bring the CO2 laden air out and some fresh air in. You can also make a makeshift door using your hiking pack, skis, snowshoes, a friend who has been on your nerves the whole trip or even a friendly bear. This will help keep the cold drafts from blowing in during the night.

In that same vein, another thing you can do to keep things a bit cozier on the inside is to make your sleeping arrangements elevated above level of the opening by putting a channel either down the middle of the quinzhee or around the edges of it. This will give a place for cold air to sink while you are a few inches above it... at least in theory :)

Step 7: 6 - Enjoy Your Creation!

In our case we weren't planning on spending the night in our fantastic quinzhees. Instead we just enjoyed them upon completion and some of the students even came back over the weekend to add some more fixings to them and show their parents. This of course was before we got another 3" of rain and it warmed up to 50F and the quinzhees melted down like a sugar daddy on a dashboard in the summer. Guess we'll just have to find another snowy day to pile the snow, wait, dig the snow....

Happy building and happy winter!!