The snowmobilers were stuck in the waist-deep snow and lost in a blizzard. They tried to walk out. By morning, one was dead, and the other had severe frostbite.
The happened in 2007, about 15 miles from my home. It’s easy, in hindsight, to point out mistakes people have made, and we can never know all variables. But in that case, the ability to make a shelter may have saved a life.
by Leon Pantenburg
One really important backcountry deep snow survival skill is knowing how to make a shelter. A snow cave can save your life, but if you don’t have the time, tools and know-how to build one, you’re wasting your time.
Don’t depend on a snow cave for your emergency shelter. You are much better off packing a sleeping bag and tent with your survival gear.
Building a snow cave sounds simple, and according to some survival manuals, easy to do. Reality is a lot different.
There is a lot to know about these shelters. Probably the best place to start is by reading “Snow Caves For Fun and Survival” by Ernest Wilkinson. This book gives a practical approach to the subject, and I highly recommend it. Wilkinson’s snow cave construction technique is discussed here.
But there are some considerations about snow caves to think about before you desperately need to build one! You can’t just dig sideways into a snow drift.
- You will have to remove between two and three cubic feet of snow.
- The snow will packed and not easy to remove.
- You will need proper tools to make the job easier.
- The idea is to avoid getting wet and cold while working on the shelter.
Here are some tools to take along:
Block cutter: Boy Scout Troop 18 here in Bend, OR, has several snow block cutters, and these work really well for building igloos and caves. They look like cutting boards, being about 12-inches by 18-inches. A thick handle on top allows shoving them down and pulling them out of the snow after cutting a block. They are easy to make.
Machete or snow saw: Nice to have. You can miter and trim blocks more easily to make them fit in a snow shelter. The machete can also be used to cut branches or boughs to be part of the shelter.
Shovel: Necessary. Always take some sort of shovel along when cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling. If your machine gets stuck, you might be able to dig it out. You will also need the shovel to help clear out loose snow from inside the shelter, and to dig the cold well and fashion the sleeping benches.
Sled: I like to take along a small plastic toboggan, like kids use on small hills. I use it to carry my gear, and it works superbly for moving snow blocks. One person can use the block cutter (This griddle would work well – just heat it up and wax it.) to excavate sideways into the snow bank, placing the blocks on the toboggan. Another worker can slide the blocks outside, which eliminates handling and reduces the chances of getting wet.
Insulite or closed cell foam pad: This item should go along on every snow outing. It provides a place to sit or lay upon without losing heat to the ground. It is also great for kneeling upon when excavating the interior of the snow cave.
Long burning candle: It’s surprising how much heat can be generated inside a snow shelter with one candle. But the best use is for lighting. It gets dark early in the winter, and once you get the cave built, some light will be really appreciated.
Snow Claw: This handy shovel can do a lot of different tasks, from cutting blocks, to shoveling, to serving as a snow anchor or as something to sit upon. It’s light, compact and easy to stick in your daypack.
Deck of cards: Strictly optional, but you may end up spending a very long, dark night in the shelter. Playing a familiar game will go a long way toward dispelling fear and panic.
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