Unless you are a scout who grew up in the northern regions of America, chances are you might not know what a snow cave is. However, if you are an outdoor enthusiast who doesn’t let a little bit (or a lot) of snow get in the way of your adventuring, snow caving is something you should know how to do for survival reasons.
But first, what is a snow cave?
A snow cave is similar in purpose to an igloo, but under the right conditions is much easier to build. Snow is obviously cold, at about 32 degrees Fahrenheit, however, the outside winter air can register as far below that temperature especially with wind chill, so creating a shelter in the snow will keep you from freezing to death if you’re camping (or lost) in the snow.
A tent, of course is the camper’s go to for shelter and it’s convenience and little weight is why outdoor enthusiasts love it. However, if you are in the wind and snow, a tent does very little to insulate you and you could easily freeze, especially if you are camping on your own.
Digging a cave in the snow will trap the heat radiating from your and your fellow campers bodies and will keep you toasty even when it is well below freezing outside.
So here’s how to do it.
1. Find a Sloping Hill
It’s necessary for you to dig into a slope when you are excavating a snow cave, which is usually not a problem because most people camp on mountains. If you are in a flat area it might be a good idea to try to erect an igloo-like formation instead. From your slope you will start digging straight into the side of the mountain or snow bank.
2. Dig The Hole
You are going to want to start digging the hole straight down in the ground and dig until the high side of the slope is about to your chest. This will ensure that you are digging far enough down, but not too far down.
3. Dig A U Bend
Now, from inside the hole, you will want to dig from where your feet are straight into the side of the slope. You will want to dig in for about 3 feet in this direction. Then you will dig up to make the inside taller and create a kind of shelf on the inside of the hole. There should be about a foot of snow as the ceiling of your snow cave. Make it wide enough for about two to four people. If you have a large group of campers, make a few snow caves rather than packing everyone in one.
This u bend acts as the u bend in plumbing for sinks and such. For a sink, a u bend will allow movement through the pipes, but it will trap unsavory smells from coming up the pipes and leaking into your home. For snow caves, the u bend tunnel will allow some movement of air circulation, but it will keep you safe from the wind that will freeze you if you don’t dig the bend.
The ceiling of the entrance to the cave should be below the floor of the shelf to ensure the wind doesn’t come in.
Once the space has been cleared out, try to smooth the ceiling as much as possible. You can do this by just taking your gloved hand and smoothing all the bumps and rough edges of the snow down. As you radiate heat into the snow cave, a small amount of snow will start to melt and smoothing the ceiling will cause the water to drip down the sides instead of straight down onto you.
If you have a walking pole or a ski pole with you, use that to poke a hole or two into the ceiling. If you don’t like carrying these kinds of walking sticks with you, find something similar like a long, thin stick or a tent rod if you were planning on tent camping and are using this shelter for safety reasons. It may seem like a completely insignificant hole, but it will be enough for air to circulate for you while you are sleeping.
To set up your sleeping arrangements, make sure that you are not sleeping straight on the snow or you could still freeze. Even with the warm air radiating from your body, you could still freeze sleeping straight onto the ice and snow. If you have a sleeping pad, that is the best option to sleep on top of, but if you are lost and don’t have all the right equipment to make you comfortable, then sleep on anything you can, your backpack, a tarp, even your shoes.
If you worry about your snow cave collapsing on top of you, this is actually not that big of a deal. The ceiling should only be about a foot from the surface of the snow, so you really can just stand up if it should happen to collapse on you.
In fact, if you have ever been snow caving before, you would know that they are actually quite difficult to collapse and take a bit of effort to do the next day. You should always collapse your caves before you leave for safety reasons. You don’t want some other hiker to come along and potentially get hurt by falling into a snow cave.
Snow caves are an important skill to learn for emergencies if you were ever to get lost. In fact, if you are ever planning hiking in the winter in snowy areas, it is a good idea to practice with a group before you go out exploring.
If you are lost, here are some things to keep in mind:
Snow insulates sound. If you are keeping warm in your snow cave and there is a search party looking for you, you will absolutely never hear them unless they are shouting right into the entrance of the cave. Make a kind of flag out of a colorful piece of clothing or cloth and tie it to the end of a stick to put outside your cave. This is always a good practice anyway, so that other hikers don’t step on your cave.
You can survive on water. The good news about being lost in the snow (and there’s not a lot of good news) is that you can live off of water for more than three weeks before you starve, and you have plenty of water if you’re snow caving. It is better to stay where you are in an insulated snow cave with a flag outside than to go wandering around in the cold.
Have you ever slept in a snow cave? What are your favorite tips and tricks?