LEWISTON — Sick of the snow? Who isn’t. But if we are going to be covered in the white and fluffy stuff we might as well have a little bit of fun with it, right?

That’s pretty much the notion behind Winter Man Cave 2.0.

In a way, it’s a sequel to an effort a few members of the Sun Journal staff completed way back in 2007 when we constructed the first Winter Man Cave in an effort to fight cabin fever and lash back at the elements that had us snowbound early that year.

That version featured some ice slab windows, a working chimenea, built-in beer coolers, a bit of bench seating, a classy blue-tarp roof and, of course, a television that we ended up watching an AFC playoff game on. Don’t ask me which game, and don’t ask me why we weren’t electrocuted – we just weren’t.

Revisiting the concept this snowy February, Sun Journal photographer Daryn Slover and I struck out to one-up ourselves and stretch the concept. We wanted a true snow cave that was going to be all snow – roof and all.

Having spent some time winter camping, with training in mountain travel and rescue, and with enough hours in the cold to have sufficiently numbed the common out of our sense, Daryn and I were up for the challenge.

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King-sized quinzee

Let’s begin with a critical aspect of this endeavor: safety. You don’t want to be buried under a mountain of snow in your quest of fun. Keep these thoughts in mind:

— Don’t make the roof more than a foot or two thick. For tips on doing that, read on.

— Even a foot or two of packed snow falling on you can pose risks, so don’t let children play in or around a snow cave without adult supervision.

— There are a ton of additional tips and information online, such as these instructions from the Appalachian Mountain Club for snow cave building with kids: http://tinyurl.com/mh2ue2v. Check them out.

To achieve our new-and-improved version, we modeled Winter Man Cave 2.0 after a classic snow survival shelter known as a quinzee

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Unsurprisingly, Boys Life magazine’s online version has one of the best four-step instruction guides for building a quinzee out there. Online go to:  http://tinyurl.com/d3befk

Matt Heid, author of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Equipped Blog, also has a great entry on building a quinzee he posted in January. 

“If you’re working with others on this project, take turns digging out the pile while others clear away the snow being pushed out the entrance from inside,” Heid writes. 

This is a key step, and Daryn and I found the person doing the cleanup on the outside could easily keep pace with the guy doing the digging out on the inside.

The other thing that you will quickly figure out is the temperature on the inside of the quinzee is easily 10 to 20 degrees warmer than on the outside, especially when you are generating body heat by digging and shoveling. If you’re doing this in the backyard, getting sweaty is not a problem, but if you were doing this for survival, it’s highly recommended you monitor your activity and shed outer layers to avoid getting wet and sweaty, which can be dangerous in cold and windy conditions.

Having a variety of various-sized digging tools is also key; we started our project with a small collapsible shovel, the kind you might keep in the trunk of your car, but as our interior space became bigger we were able to use full-size snow shovels.

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We also used mountaineering ice axes, and found that a steel edging spade was handy for shaping the interior walls without being too bulky to maneuver.

In a smaller quinzee, a steel or plastic garden trowel can also be useful, Heid notes.

Daryn and I super-sized the basic quinzee design by a factor of about 2.5, added a circular Hobbit-hole door — but made it round enough for even the most round Hobbits to squeeze through — and settled on a comfortable crouch-in-it size instead of a stand-up version. 

Sinter city

The first stage of WMC 2.0 (Winter Man Cave 2.0) involved shoveling a full house roof’s worth of snow into a pile in the backyard. Daryn did that part. We then let “the pile,” which we affectionately dubbed it, “sinter.”

For you science geeks or molecular engineers, the fact that snow sinters is kind of the cool part. It essentially means the snow crystals, the ones that fall naturally from the sky, are literally broken by shoveling them into a pile. This changes the molecular structure of the snow itself, allowing it to bond together more solidly under its own weight. In nature, wind — if you’ve ever seen a wind-packed slab of snow — is a primary contributor to sintering. That, gravity and the magic of science create a different, more compact snow than what falls from the heavens.

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Another example of sintering: that heavy pile of snow the city plow leaves at the end of your driveway – usually right after you just got done digging it out.

In a big pile, it can make for some hard digging near the bottom. As Daryn and I worked to carve out the inside of WMC 2.0 we also discovered we could mine out big irregular chunks of snow that had sintered nicely together.  

This effect allowed us to rather quickly, about 2.5 hours in total, hollow out a cavity about 5-feet tall, with a footprint of about 8-feet-by-8-feet inside the approximately 7-foot-high pile.

It’s recommended that you keep the walls thicker than the roof, and keep the roof at about 12 to 18 inches thick. You gauge this by using marker sticks or stakes about 18 inches in length — or ski poles if you’re in the outback — pushed into your pile of snow before you begin the hollowing out process. 

We used ours to mark the perimeter and top of the cave so when we hit the stick on the inside we knew how close we were and that we should stop digging.

Then we added a couple of holes to the roof, at angles, to allow for ventilation.

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Expect shrinkage

As the snow continues to sinter and settle, the size and head space in a snow shelter will slowly decrease. We dug our snow cave out on a Monday morning and by Friday it had lost about 8 inches of head space clearance. Changes in temperatures and additional precipitation in the form of new snow or rain can also contribute to a slow but steady shrinking of the interior space. Nothing to be alarmed about, but good to be aware of and to monitor.

If you try this at home, which we recommend, we also recommend you make sure you allow your dome-shaped pile to sinter for at least two solid hours before trying to tunnel into it – 24 hours is even better, but you don’t want to put it off until April.

Snow caves don’t last forever. Time and shrinkage take their toll. So do thawing temperatures. If your snow cave has softened and you feel it’s no longer safe, smash it to ensure it won’t become a hazard.

And if you’re pressed for time or don’t want to worry about a roof, snow forts — featuring sides and an open roof or tarp top are just the thing. Safer, faster and less adult supervision.

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Seven tips for digging your own winter cave safely:

1. This is a project that should be supervised by adults.

2. See rule 1. Children should also always be supervised when playing in or around the quinzee.

3. Work as a team. This is a project for at least two people. There is safety in numbers and if one person is digging on the inside, one should be on the outside, not only to help with snow removal but to assist in case of a collapse.

4. Aim to keep your walls as thick or thicker than your roof — with your roof no more than 1 to 2 feet in thickness — and create a dome-like shape to the interior of the quinzee. This will ensure a more stable structure.

5. Build your own pile and do not use a pile made by a snow plow. It is especially important to not dig anyplace where you could be plowed in by a driver who doesn’t know you are in there.

6. Location, location, location. Building your own pile also allows you to pick the location of your quinzee. We recommend a spot you can easily keep an eye on in your yard and one that isn’t easy to access by unwanted guests or possible vandals.

7. Include a vent hole. While the door opening should give you enough ventilation, it’s a good idea to have an additional hole in the roof of the structure between 2 inches and 4 inches in diameter that allows exhaled breath to escape and helps keep fresh air flowing.


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