Scouting magazine Exit Reader Mode

How to build an emergency shelter in a blizzard

Emergency 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.