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The Snow Coffin - A Winter Shelter

by Peter Wiinholt

Where I live, in Ontario, Canada, the ground is covered with white stuff for up to six months of the year. In other North American locations the cold and snow of winter may dominate life for more or less time, but anywhere that winter plays a major role, people owe it to themselves to know about snow shelters.

Survival snow shelters are actually easier to build than their summer versions. As long as there is a reasonable amount of snow (instead of just ice or dry cold), the essential building ingredient will be available. Whether it be a car breakdown, a wilderness emergency or just a winter survival camping trip, being able to make an effective shelter from the materials at hand is a valuable and perhaps life saving skill.

The most publicized snow shelter is the quincey, made by piling up a mound of snow, allowing it to settle and then digging out the interior. For many years, as the leader of a youth group focused on wilderness skills, we struggled with the design of the quincey. During those years we had a range of experiences which highlighted every one of this model’s drawbacks which are listed below.

1.) Quinceys take a long time to build. Making a huge pile of snow is a lot of work, especially if you are using only a snow shoe or your hands. Then, for best results, it is recommended that the mound be left to settle for at least one to two hours. Finally, digging out the interior can often take at least another hour. Total time for building a quincey could easily top four hours.

2.) Building a quincey is an easy way to get hypothermia. The work of piling up snow into a sizable mound and then digging out the interior involves moving a considerable mass of snow. This is tiring work and would drain important energy reserves in any survival situation. It is hard to hollow out the inside without getting covered in snow. Furthermore, the body heat produced by the exertion melts the snow you are touching and as you overheat, you get soaked. Exhausted and with your clothing totally useless as insulation, you are now a perfect candidate for hypothermia once you have completed your shelter. I once had various groups of students build different models of snow shelters at an outdoor education centre. Members of the quincey group had to be evacuated to the lodge for precisely the reasons outlined above. They had produced a nice shelter, but they were drained, drenched and numb from the cold.

3.) A quincey is not a dependable structure. Sometimes in spite of being built very carefully, quinceys have a nasty habit of collapsing. This can have a lot to do with the quality of the snow you are using, temperature changes and the amount of care that is taken in not making the sides too thin. A collapsed quincey makes a poor shelter! Perhaps more importantly, being caught inside when it collapses can be fatal. I personally had the experience of digging inside a quincey at the time of its collapse. I was not hurt or suffocated, but I was totally pinned by the weight of the snow. I could laugh at the experience only because I knew that my colleagues were nearby and ready to dig me out. Had they not been there, I doubt that I could have freed myself. There have been several news reports in this area of children being killed in collapsed snow shelters, and this danger should not be taken lightly.

After many tribulations with the quincey, several years ago I decided to abandon it and look for a new design. After a few years of experimentation I came up with a design that eliminates the problems mentioned above. I have since seen similar designs in other sources, but this particular plan began with the idea of a Scout Pit (as taught by Tom Brown Jr.) and was then modified by trial and error experiences. My colleagues and I call it a snow coffin.

Step 1 - Choose a location for the snow coffin. It is best to have it on a slightly downhill slope, but a level surface can be used. Space is required for the excavation of a rectangle approximately 2 ft. by 8 ft., plus an additional area around it for the building up of the snow covering.

Step 2 - Dig out a horizontally level horseshoe shaped area wide enough for your body and about 2 ft. longer than your height. Use the excavated snow to build up the three sides of this depression. The top of the horseshoe is the head end, while the open side of the horseshoe is the foot end. Pack down the snow on the floor of the horseshoe.

Step 3 - If you have the resources and in the case of a real survival situation, line the bottom with evergreen boughs, logs or anything else that might insulate you from the snow and act as a cushion. This is most easily done at this stage, but can be done later if necessary. When practicing or survival camping, use an insulated foam pad instead of boughs to minimize impact on the natural environment.

Step 4 - Using the excavated snow and any other surrounding snow that may be necessary, build up the sides of the horseshoe and pack it down firmly. The final lip around the outside should be about 2 feet above the bottom of the depression. As with most shelters, size is very important. Larger shelters are more difficult to heat up. The final shelter should be just high enough so that you can turn over inside it. Try to make the connection of the bottom and the wall a 90 degree angle.

Step 5 - Form the foot end of the horseshoe to a bottle neck-like shape. The neck should be a little more narrow than the main part, but wide enough for you to slide through. This will be the entrance. The neck should also slope downwards. Ideally, the top of the neck should be level with the bottom of the main part of the shelter. This is why the shelter is best built on a slight hill. Otherwise it is necessary to have the floor of the shelter somewhat elevated so the entrance can be lowered deeper into the snow, with a large area dug out at the mouth of the entrance. This slope in the entrance way creates a heat trap and is the difference between an excellent and an adequate shelter.

Step 6 - Lay dead branches, sticks, boughs and any other reasonably straight supports across the top of the shelter. A criss-crossing of sticks, branches and live evergreen boughs should minimize holes in this roof, so that it can support snow. (In a practice situation a tarp or plastic bags can replace live material.) Make sure you cover the entrance way as well.

Step 7 - Begin to cover the structure with snow, carefully at first so as not to have the snow fall through into the interior. You can start with chunks or sheets of hard snow. Once the snow accumulates it will settle and support itself. Cover with about 1 to 2 feet of snow, being sure to adequately encase the seams and corners. These are the most common areas of heat loss.

Step 8 - Using a branch, poke a ventilation hole about the diameter of a broom stick at the head end of the shelter. Fashion a door from lashed sticks, a snow ball or your pack. (Just remember that a snow door may freeze solidly, making your exit more challenging.)

A completed snow coffin.

Note that the door on this one is rather large. Normally, you would make the door just large enough to crawl into the snow coffin.



I have slept in a snow coffin shelter such as this and have had melting water drip on my face while the temperature outside was below -30 degrees Celsius. Melting water and humidity are a problem if the temperature is significantly above freezing, but such is the problem with all snow shelters. The dome shape of the quincey may minimize this difficulty, but humidity is still a huge factor. The best way to solve the problem is to allow more ventilation so that the temperature stays within a few degrees of the freezing point.

The snow coffin is an excellent emergency shelter to protect you from the chilling winds or icy temperatures of the winter months. Certainly, the more snow there is, the easier it will be to construct, but it can be adequately done with as little as a foot of snow on the ground. In addition, it does not have the drawbacks of the quincey.

1) A good snow coffin could be made in one to two hours (depending on practice and available resources).

2) The entire snow coffin can be made while standing outside of it. At no point do you have to crawl inside it to work. Also, a smaller mass of snow has to be moved to complete the construction. It is a one person structure and can easily be made by one person, -even a child.

3) Properly made, the snow coffin cannot possibly collapse, meaning that it is a more dependable and safe structure.

If you know that the resources are present, and there is no danger of a sudden thaw, being able to head into the wilderness without a tent is a wonderfully independent feeling. Snow shelters are superior to tents in that they are wind proof and will retain heat. If you have a lot of snow, several snow shelters can be built in a circle or semicircle with a wind break wall connecting them and a campfire in the middle. You can sculpture your entire campsite out of that white stuff. This model was achieved through innovation and experimentation. There are many other additions and adjustments that can be added. Go to it, and enjoy the marvels of winter.

But always practice and proceed with the utmost respect for the environment. In an emergency situation, use whatever materials are necessary. Otherwise, be kind to nature and its resources.