This chapter explains how to build different snow shelters in the Antarctic,
as well as the relative merits of each type of shelter and the time required
to build each type of shelter. The choice of shelter to build will be
dictated by the local snow conditions.
If a camp is occupied for several days, it's a good idea to build a
snow shelter for an emergency shelter (just in case). A snow shelter can
be used also as a toilet shelter.
10.1 Snow Quarry and Block Cutting
Before you build a snow shelter, identify an area you can use as a quarry
to cut snow blocks. The quarry site and the method of cutting blocks are
important for the success of most shelters.
In many areas of Antarctica, the snow conditions are perfect for cutting
out snow blocks. However, some areas such as the Siple Coast, may have
sugar snow or powder snow. In these areas, your quarry will have to be
stomped out and packed down (ski and boot packing works well), and the
snow will have to be allowed to sinter (freeze solid). This can take up
to an hour before the snow is solid enough for block cutting. On sea ice
or on hard frozen glaciers, snow drifts that contain good block-cutting
snow can sometimes be found.
The snow conditions may change in just a few feet in your quarry. You
may run into an ice layer or a sugar layer that will affect the quality
of your blocks. If this happens, try cutting the blocks at a different
orientation (horizontally versus vertically or try cutting deeper in the
quarry or simply moving over a few feet. Probe with your saw or axe for
the right consistency. Don't panic if you don't have a snow saw. You can
produce good blocks with a shovel--even an ice axe will work.
Keep the quarry close to your shelter; don't double the effort. If cutting
blocks for a tent wall, the quarry excavation makes a great spot for your
tent site. Blocks can be cut out of the snow shelter site (i.e., the snow
trench can be the quarry).
Try to cut your blocks the same size. Put one aside for a model. Rock-box
size blocks are preferable for most projects except roofs.
10.2 Snow Walls
* [See figure ³SHELTER1²]
Snow walls provide wind-free areas for cooking and for community "lounging."
A snow wall should be built around mountaineering tents. (Note: Snow walls
are not necessary when using Scott tents.) This will keep the tent from
blowing away in gale force winds, decrease wind chill, and reduce tent
Snow-wall blocks should all be the same size, and each block should
overlap the gaps in the course below it. Rock-box size blocks are preferable.
10.3 Snow Trenches (1/2 to 2 Hours)
A snow trench is a good, quick, simple shelter. The snow must be deep
and soft enough to shovel to an adequate depth. If an ice layer stops
shoveling progress, snow blocks can be stacked to increase the effective
depth of the shelter. A trench can be a quick or "hasty" shelter in an
emergency, or a cavernous, comfortable abode complete with sleeping benches
and snow-block A-frame roof.
10.3a Trench with Snow-Block Roof
1. Choose a site with soft enough snow for digging. Mark an outline
in the surface just slightly wider than your shoulders and 6 to 7 feet
2. Excavate the trench by cutting out blocks with a snow saw and/or
by shoveling (blocks for the roof can come out of a separate quarry area).
It's critical that the top of the trench "hole" be just slightly wider
than shoulder width -- just wide enough to work in. If you make the trench
too wide, you'll have a very difficult time roofing it in with snow blocks.
The trench should be waist-deep to arm-pit deep depending on the snow
conditions and the desired comfort for the inhabitants. If hard snow or
an ice layer prevents you from digging to an adequate depth, build up
the depth by making a wall around the excavation with large, stout snow
3. When the trench is deep enough, sleeping benches can be carved out
of the sides of the trench. Be careful not to dig too close to the surface
or the snow will be too weak to support the roof blocks.
4. Roof blocks can be either laid flat across the trench or set up in
an A-frame style, which gives more head room. Roof blocks leaned A-frame
style can be staggered to support each successive block. Don't worry about
gaps or holes, these can be filled in later with snow chunks. Good dimensions
for roof blocks are approximately 18" x 5" x 30". More importantly, let
common sense and snow conditions dictate what size blocks to cut
5. Finish the shelter by "chinking" the gaps with snow chunks and shoveling
loose snow over the roof.
* [See figure ³SHELTER2²]
10.3b Trench with Tarpaulin Roof
A trench with a tarpaulin roof is the quickest shelter you can build.
This is very important in an emergency.
1. The size of the trench you dig is dependent on the size of the covering
and on the support items used to span the trench. Support items could
include skis, ski poles, bamboo flags, rope(s) stretched tight, etc.
2. Span the trench with support items, cover with a tarp, and anchor
the edges of the tarp with snow blocks or heavy equipment.
Improvise with trench coverings. A trench can be covered with a tent
fly, skidoo cowlings and covers, Nansen sleds, sled tanks, plywood, pallets,
cardboard, plastic, etc.
3. Shovel a light skiff of snow over the tarp to add extra insulation;
too much snow will collapse the tarp.
* [See figure ³SHELTER3²]
Trenches make good frozen-food coolers. They also make good toilet sites
(preferably not in the same trench).
10.4 Snowmounds/Quinzhees (2 to 4 Hours)
Snowmounds (also known as quinzhees) are among the easiest snow shelters
to build. All you need is enough surface snow to shovel into a big pile
over duffels or packs or equipment. The tunnel entrance is then dug in,
the gear removed, and the shelter hollowed out and enlarged.
1. Pile equipment in the deepest patch of snow available. Avoid unnecessarily
flattening the site.
2. Starting well away from the equipment pile, shovel snow into the
center of the site, burying the pile of equipment. To increase the mound's
strength, pat the snow down as you proceed. The buried equipment must
have a minimum of 2 feet of consolidated snow covering it. Probe all around
the mound with an ice axe or ski pole and shovel snow on any thin spots.
3. Dig into the mound on the downhill side, or away from the wind, to
form an entrance. Dig down first and then back up into the shelter to
create a cold air sump. The entrance should come up right near the wall.
Be careful not to tunnel into the central sleeping area as this will waste
4. Another temporary entrance dug opposite the main entrance and dug
in at ground level will speed up the hollowing-out process by as much
as an hour. This hole should then be blocked up after hollowing out is
5. The equipment in the pile should be pulled out of the entrance(s),
the inside of the shelter should be hollowed out carefully, and the floor
dropped to increase the inside area. When you begin to see blue light,
the walls are the correct thickness: about 12 inches thick.
6. A vent hole the diameter of a tennis ball should be poked through
the ceiling before operating a stove inside the shelter.
The diagrams on the following two pages illustrate how to build snowmounds/quinzhees.
* [See figures ³SHELTER4² and ³SHELTER 5²]
10.5 Snow Caves (3 to 4 Hours)
A snow cave requires a sloping snow surface and snow that is well compacted
but soft enough to shovel. Wet or unconsolidated snow is liable to collapse.
Given good conditions, a snow cave will provide roomy and comfortable
1. Dig an entrance tunnel about the diameter of a car tire that extends
at least 3 feet into a drift.
2. Scoop out a platform at a level above the entrance tunnel to form
a cold air sump. The platform should be centered on the entrance tunnel
and should be long enough and wide enough for all occupants. Remove excavated
snow through the entrance. After scooping out the platform, hollow out
a ceiling of a reasonable height.
3. A vent hole the diameter of a tennis ball should be poked through
the ceiling before operating a stove inside the shelter.
* [See figure ³SHELTER6²]
10.6 Igloos (3 to 5 Hours)
Although igloos are by far the hardest shelter to build on a first-time
effort and should not be attempted in an emergency, they are wonderful
shelters to spend time in. They are warm, roomy, and aesthetically pleasing.
1. Choose a quarry site for your snow blocks. Snow should cut out firm
with an even consistency.
-Avoid blocks with a "curd-like" texture.
-Avoid blocks with a shear layer.
-In loose snow, the quarry area may have to be stomped out and allowed
to set up
2. Scribe a circle in the snow near the quarry site.
-Maximum diameter: 6 feet (widen it later).
-Leave a center marker (ice axe or tent peg).
* [See figure ³SHELTER7²]
3. Cut out the snow blocks.
You'll need 50 to 80 blocks.
Calculate the ideal block size as follows.
(Use SMC saw as a ruler):
Total saw (length)
1/2 saw (width)
blade length (height)
* [See figure ³SHELTER8²]
4. Lay out the first flight of blocks.
-Cut the sides of each block so they point to the center.
-Cut a spiral from ground level of the first block until
the last 4 or 5 blocks are full size.
-The top spiral cut must point toward the center marker
(at ground level). Use your saw as a "sight/straightedge."
* [See figure ³SHELTER9²]
5. Continue laying blocks over the first flight. (All the blocks
are now full size.)
*[See figure ³SHELT10²]
Each flight of blocks is stacked slightly
closer to the center.
Remember that side cuts are toward the
Level off the top layer, using your saw as a
straight edge to sight toward the center at
* [See figure ³SHELT11²]
This brings the igloo progressively toward the center, which eventually
The top edge of each flight should be smooth, with non
bumps of steps.
6. One person needs to stay inside the igloo with a saw and a
small shovel, helping place each block.
-Don't chink the blocks to make them fit.
-Only the block you're working on needs to be held in
-As you build up, gently tamp the previously laid blocks
in toward the center. This locks the blocks together.
-Never push out on the blocks; this unlocks them.
* [See figure ³SHELT12²]
7. The last block should be cut as a tapered "cork." It is lowered to
the person inside the igloo, who can cut the sides until it drops in snugly.
The person inside the igloo then should dig down into the snow at the
base of a wall and tunnel over to meet the entrance tunnel being dug by
a person outside.
-Keep the entrance close to the wall to avoid using up
sleeping area in the igloo.
-The entrance should be lower than the sleeping area to
create a cold sink.
8. Hollow out the floor space in the igloo to increase the sleeping
area. Chink and shovel snow over any gaps in the blocks.
* [See figure ³SHELT14²]
10.7 Crevasses and Bergshrunds
Crevasses and bergshrunds, in emergency bivouac situations, can provide
shelter which can be augmented by chopping out ledges. The utmost care
must be taken to ensure the safety of you and your companions in such
a dangerous bivouac. Although these shelters are very cold, you will be
out of the wind if you choose a suitable site.
Section 11: Tents.