www.RogerWendell.com
Roger J. Wendell
Defending 3.8 Billion Years of Organic EvolutionSM
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Snow Cave Entrance
My snow cave entrance...
Snow Caves

Knowing how to build a snow cave is an essential backcountry and mountaineering skill. Although my little page should point you in the right direction I strongly encourage you to thoroughly study other sources as winter survival can become a life and death struggle at times...

 

 

Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for my page on climbing and mountaineering...
Ten Essentials Click Here for the Ten Essentials - Don't leave home without 'em!
Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for my page on backcountry survival...
Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for my page on skiing...

 

(Click on any of this page's "Thumbnail" images for a larger view)

Although I've built a few snow caves over the years I'm not an expert and strongly recommend you research the subject as much as possible before relying on one for your survival. The nights I've spent in snow caves were warm, peaceful and quiet. Despite such comfort, they take a lot of energy to build and can be dangerous if they collapse on you or there isn't enough oxygen. Also, constructing them can get you really wet - both from the melting snow and your own sweat, so be careful to avoid hypothermia!

Snow Cave Drawing by Roger J. Wendell
(Click on this drawing)
Anyway, the main idea is to build a dome-shaped structure, beneath the snow, with the entrance lower than the "living" or sleeping area. The low entry keeps colder air "pooled" lower than where you're at thus creating a warm "bubble" in the living area of the cave. A flapping tent, during a storm, might keep you 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the outside air. A well built snow cave, on the other hand, can maintain a constant temperature in the low 30s - definately much more comfortable than a tent!

The snow cave's interior dome shape not only strengthens the structure but allows condensation and meltwater to run down along the walls and not on you! I also recommend punching a few breathing and ventilation holes through the roof area with your ice axe or ski pole. You can deplete the oxygen inside a snow cave so make sure you have air flow!

The pix below were taken by Kevin Friesen and I for a snow cave I dug near Mills Lake in Glacier Gorge at Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. We started on February 18, 1996 with Kevin having to leave for a commitment back in town that night. Despite a huge storm rolling in I was quite comfortable and fell sound asleep inside the cave. Luckily I woke up, sometime after midnight, to find my six foot cave entrance completely filled-in with fresh snow! Not a good sign as I'm sure the oxygen level had dropped considerably, despite the holes I had punched through the roof (they, too, were filled with blowing snow).

Kevin Scouts the Site
Kevin scouting a site
Roger Starts Digging the Snow Cave
I start digging
Self-portrait of Roger and the Rain Gear He Wears to Dig Snow Caves
Roger's rain gear

So, I usually try to dig into the side of a drift or "hill" of snow. Sometimes, depending on the situation, I'll actually walk across the roof to ensure structural integrity. At other times, when a hillside or drift isn't available, I scoop-up all of the surrounding snow into a big pile nearly the size of a garage. After it sits or "settles" awhile (the process of allowing the snow crystals to interlock with each other is called "sintering') I then start digging into it. Of course there are all kinds of ways to cut blocks of snow to create an iglo but that's not something I've yet tried.

Something I've also not tried is cooking in a snow cave (or even a tent for that matter!). Again, it's the old oxygen depletion problem that I mentioned earlier so I recommend cooking outside the cave on a small platform to keep the stove from melting through the snow. A windshield, for your stove, is also an obvious necessity as well. I also never use candles unless its for some emergency situation - snow caves become quite warm and comfortable with just human body heat so there's no need to artificially warm things up!

Roger Digging Down
Digging Down
Looking out the Snow Cave Entrance
Looking out the entrance
Roger's Snow Cave Bedroom Gear
My snow cave bedroom

Obviously staying warm and dry is the key to a succesful night's sleep in a snow cave! Although the cave's interior dome can be quite warm, for reasons I've explained above, you can still lose a lot of body heat by sitting on a snow bench or leaning into an icy cave wall. Soooo, a thin insulated-type mattress or pad will keep your body from losing heat through the snow. A water-proof ground tarp helps keep my gear and other body parts from resting on ice and snow as well.

Finally, winter camping (and the use of snow caves) requires all of the low impact, safety, and preparedness techniques you use during the summer and then some! Winter can afford all kinds of new sights and experiences not to mention the complete solitude and a remote feeling you'll get during blizzards and white-outs - all the more reason to be extra prepared and extra careful!

Roger J. Wendell, 2005

 

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A Different View:

"Just below the col, in a 15-dgree slope, we dug a snow cave to serve as advance base camp. Eventually enlarged to accommodate an entrance vestibule giving onto twin elevated 'bedroom' shelves, the cave, in which we spent many a day and night, would prove a gloomy place. Outside, in the sun, the temperature often rose into the mid 40s, but inside the cave, it was always 16 degreees Fahrenheit, thanks to the eternal cold of the subarctic."

- David Roberts, in his book On the Ridge Between Life and Death (a Climbing Life Reexamined)
This passage was from page 128 where Roberts is describing the start of a climb up Alaska's Mount Hunter

 

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Books:

 

References:

 

Avalanche Safety:
Avlanche danger is real and present in the backcountry - know what terrain
to avoid before you start looking for a place to construct that snow cave!

AIARE Level 1 Avalance Training sponsored by the CMC

CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Snow saw
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Digging a snow pit
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Digging a snow pit
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Digging a snow pit
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Avalanche compression test
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Avalanche compression test
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Avalanche beacon search
CMC AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Training at Berthoud Pass, Colorado - 01-21-2012
Avalanche beacon search
WARNING: Avalanche safety is serious business - you need to undertake a lot more study and training than simply looking at these pix or watching a few videos on the internet! This particular set of pictures and video link is from a very small portion of the AIARE level one training session that I attended through the Colorado Mountain Club. I encourage you to contact the Colorado Mountain Club, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, or other credible and accredited organizations to find out how you can participate in similar training.

 

YouTube Logo Click Here for one of my YouTube videos during an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche training session sponsored by the Colorado Mountain Club...

 

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Arrow Pointing Right Click Here for red, pink, and "Watermelon Snow" at the bottom of my Snow Day page...

 

Links:

  1. 10th Mountain Division
  2. 12ers
  3. 13ers
  4. 14ers
  5. AIARE - The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
  6. Alpine Resuce Team - Evergreen, Colorado
  7. American Avalanche Association
  8. Antarctica
  9. Bear Safety
  10. Camping
  11. Climbing
  12. Climbing Photos
  13. CMC Colorado Mountain Club
  14. Colorado Avalanche Information Center
  1. CORSAR - Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card
  2. High Altitude Medicine Guide
  3. Hiking
  4. Leave No Trace - Center for Outdoor Ethics
  5. Lightning Safety
  6. Margy's Hut
  7. Skiing
  8. Snow Day
  9. Survival in the backcountry
  10. Ten Essentials - Don't leave home without 'em!
  11. Travel
  12. Travel Two
  13. Walking Softly in the backcountry
  14. Waypoints

 

Warning! Climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing are dangerous and can seriously injure or kill you. By further exploring this web site you acknowledge that the information presented here may be out of date or incorrect, and you agree not to hold the author responsible for any damages, injuries, or death arising from any use of this resource. Please thoroughly investigate any mountain before attempting to climb it, and do not substitute this web site for experience, training, and recognizing your limitations!

 

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