You’re in a snow-covered, bitterly cold environment and the temperatures will drop much further overnight. You need some sort of shelter but there’s nothing but deep snow everywhere. You can build a shelter out of the snow itself; everyone knows Eskimos (Inuit) live in igloos right? Well, an igloo is made from blocks of ice or hard-packed snow being built up into the shape of a shelter. Igloos are a lot of work. What you want to build is a Quinzee—a snow cave that you can make all by yourself.
Look for an area where the snow is already as thick as possible—the more snow that’s naturally there, the less you will have to add yourself. You need to compact the snow down so it will support its own weight later on—you can’t make a shelter out of loose powder. Stomp around and use your shovel or entrenching tool to make the snow firm around an area about 10 feet long and 4 or 5 feet wide. To make one big enough for two people, double the width and make your compacted area 10 feet square.
With the snow compacted under your feet, start heaping more on top. You want to build up a mound of snow that’s going to be big enough for you to lie down inside later. Here’s where the tools you have with you will make a huge difference. Doing this is easiest with a huge snow shovel, but in a survival situation, you aren’t going to have one of those. You might have a smaller shovel like an entrenching tool, if you’re lucky. A snowshoe can make a decent shovel in a pinch, but the bottom line is that you need to move a lot of snow to make a shelter, and if you’re trying to do it with your hands be prepared to take a lot of time and effort.
As you build your snow mound, keep your own physical condition in mind. You’ll warm yourself through the exercise needed to do this, but if you break a sweat you are endangering yourself. In cold weather, being wet is your enemy, and once you stop exerting yourself your wet sweaty clothes will leech warmth from your body. Pace yourself! When the snow mound is between seven and eight feet high, you want to compact it down a little bit and place several sticks about a foot deep into your mound from all sides of it. Then leave it alone for an hour and a half so the snow can “sinter” or harden up under its own weight. You can use this hour and a half to rest from the exertion of building up the mound and take care of your body’s food and water needs. When the snow has hardened somewhat it is time to start digging a tunnel into your mound. Make the entrance small enough that you can barely crawl through it. Once you get your tunnel a few feet inside the mound, start hollowing it out. You’ll know when to stop because you’ll hit the ends of the sticks you placed all around the mound earlier—this helps make sure that your walls are thick enough to prevent a collapse.
Keep hollowing out your mound until there is enough space inside for you to lie down and have some air around you. If you have any sort of bedding with you like a ground mat or sleeping bag, you’ll obviously want enough room inside for those as well. If you are in a survival situation and don’t have any of those things, try making a makeshift bed of pine needle branches. Anything that keeps you off the cold, snowy ground for the night will be a huge help. You now have a quinzee shelter which will keep you out of the wind and moisture and will reflect your body heat.
The only danger to sheltering in a quinzee is the threat of collapse. If your walls and roof are about a foot thick (thanks to your stick measuring system), the shelter won’t collapse on its own. However, animals and even other people can walk on the quinzee at night, not recognizing that you are huddled inside. This is very likely to cause the shelter to collapse, which would be a really unhappy way to wake up. If a collapse happens, don’t panic, you’re only a foot of snow away from freedom. You should be able to get out without even using any tools once you realize what happened.
Some folks will light a candle inside to pre-heat their shelter before crawling in. If it’s very cold and windy outside you can seal off the entrance with a backpack, more branches, or even more snow, but make sure that there is some sort of opening to the outside world, because you’ll need a steady supply of oxygen while you shelter inside. There’s not much extra room in there, and a quinzee that’s completely sealed off can kill you through carbon monoxide build-up and lack of oxygen. If you feel the need to completely seal off the entrance, then go ahead and make a small “smokestack” vertical vent up through the roof. If you’re like me, you may be skeptical about how warm a shelter made of snow could possibly be. I was surprised to find that folks often break a sweat while sleeping inside a quinzee and wake up with damp clothes on, so experienced quinzee campers will often strip down after a little while inside.