How to build an emergency shelter in a blizzard

snowshelterEmergency Situation

You’re out for a winter hike in the remote White Mountains of New Hampshire, and you’re overtaken by a blizzard. As the trail gets buried in snow, you become lost. It’s freezing. The wind is howling … at least, you hope it’s the wind. It’s a whiteout. What should you do?


First of all, check the weather before leaving home next time. In a situation where you cannot safely find shelter in a blizzard, your best (and perhaps only) survival strategy is to hunker down in a snow shelter until the storm subsides. Most blizzards blow themselves out in less than 24 hours, so you’re not likely to starve to death. Your main concern is shelter from the cold and wind.

Your goal is to quickly build a utilitarian shelter that will protect you from the elements and won’t collapse.

This type of basic snow shelter is called a quinzee. When building a snow shelter in a storm, it’s important to act deliberately but not rush. Your enemy is cold, and if your clothing becomes saturated with sweat, hypothermia might result.

First, begin piling up snow. Make as large a mound as you possibly can, at least 6 to 8 feet high. If you have a shovel, use it. If not, you can push snow with your hands or use dead wood on the trail. The mound must eventually be dome-shaped so the base of the walls supports the weight of the roof.

As you pile up snow, it’s critical to continue to pack it down, which will reduce the chances of the shelter collapsing as you hollow it out. If there is older snow around you, mix that with the freshly fallen snow. This will help the snow to sinter, or harden. Allow the pile to sinter for as long as possible before digging it out, at least 30 minutes.

Next, begin to dig. The entrance should be on the downhill side. Crawl into the hole, remove the snow from inside and begin to hollow out the mound, removing snow as you go. The outer walls should be at least 1 foot thick, and thicker is better. You can approximate the thickness by sticking a branch of the proper length into the mound from the outside. When your digging reaches it, you’ve achieved the proper wall thickness.

Dig a hole at least 6 inches in diameter at the top of your shelter to allow carbon dioxide to escape. Keep it clear of snow. The entrance to your shelter can be closed with snow or blocked with a backpack to keep out snow and wind.

Once you’re done digging, put on dry clothing if you have it available.

There are varying theories on what the floor of your shelter should be. If you can dig all the way to the ground, leaves or dirt are good options. Some experts recommend creating “snow beds” with a trench in between that vents to the outside, which elevates your body and allows the cold air to exit below. This step is optional.

You should have enough body heat in a small shelter to stay alive without additional exertion. Be certain your air hole in the roof is clear, allowing a vent to the outside.

Once the storm subsides, exit the shelter and seek help.


  1. The hole at the top lets outside air in. It does not let Carbon Dioxide out.
    The Carbon Dioxide is heavier and will be at the bottom. If the portal to outside is above the floor height CO2 can build up in the lower area. A much larger problem will occur if the portal is sealed. Then the CO2 has no where to go.

    Snow is a pretty good insulator beacuse it has a large amount of trapped air. Same reason your down jacket works. Granite conducts heat 80 times more efficiently than snow. Leaves are ok because of the air pockets, but dirt is a good conductor of heat.

      • There either needs to be a way for some air to leave from the bottom of the shelter, or more common, the sleeping is done on ledges. Sleeping above the floor places you high enough you are safe.
        The same rules for not cooking inside apply to snow shelters. Easy way to die.
        There is a good write up somewhere on a group in Washington who were caught in a white-out on Rainier. They made a hole in the snow and all climbed in. The hole to get out kept getting smaller. One small girl got out, lived, but with serious frostbite. Most others who were stuck inside after hole to outside was covered died from asphyxiation. The snow was falling fast enough that any holes were covered. Analysis afterwards showed that the leader should have turned around at beginning of trip. Whole thing would have ended alright.

        Hopefully someone in the group is carrying a tarp. That will help with making a shelter. As someone posted below, a trench is quick. Tarp can be the cover.

  2. “Tree pits” are good to use too – just watch for branches above which may be volatile in high winds. Watch out for the advice of “walls at least a foot thick”. Though thick outer walls are good, the danger is that people tend to under-dig these dug-out shelters, leading to piles of snow several feet thick above them which may be prone to collapse and suffocation. (This is usually caused when digging out things like existing snowbanks that have been plowed in). I would be careful to make sure the snow ABOVE you is a foot or THINNER, as to minimize risk of suffocation or entrapment if collapse should occur

  3. A quineze should never be a survival shelter. Plying up snow, allowing it set, and digging it out takes several hours at a minimum. By then you are dead.
    A better survival shelter is a trench which takes 3/4 hour.

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