Emergency Snow Shelters – Snow Trench

Emergency Snow Shelters – Snow Trench

Our friends at NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) have put together a great safety tip for snow activities. Casey Pikla has demonstrated to us how to make a snow trench if you get caught unexpectedly outside and need to bunker down for a while.

Walking, skiing, or snowshoeing in a winter wonderland can provide some of the most serene and enjoyable of backcountry ventures. But what happens when that leisurely outing turns into an unexpected night out?

Luckily, the winter environment comes with its own building material: snow! Here’s the quick and easy on a few emergency snow shelters that can protect you from old man winter in a pinch.

How to build a snow trench

General Considerations

  • (1) Safety: This is the top priority on any backcountry outing. When constructing an emergency snow shelter, safety means ensuring that you select a good spot for your abode. Steer clear of potential avalanche slopes, cliff bands, or any other objective hazards. If you’re in need of an emergency shelter, things have gone wrong. No need to make them worse.
  • Speed: If the temperature is falling fast and the weather is progressing from bad to worse, you need a shelter that can be constructed quickly. Thirty to 40 minutes, tops. There are a plethora of snow shelters that will keep you cozy, but many require hours to build.
  • (2& 3) Build Your Quarry First: Once you’ve located a suitable locale for your shelter, get busy work hardening snow. Work hardening involves stomping out an area of snow where you can then quarry snow blocks. If you have skis or snowshoes, wear them while you vigorously stomp out a six-foot-by-six-foot area. Work hardening vastly increases the strength of the snow through a process known as sintering. Building a quarry first means that while you’re digging out your shelter, your snow blocks have more time to sinter. When you’re ready, you can cut your snow blocks with a straight-edge shovel, the tail of a ski, or a snow saw if you have one. Quarry snow into three-foot-by-two-foot-by-six-inch blocks.

The Snow Trench

This can be one of the quickest shelters to construct. It consists of (surprise, surprise) a trench dug in the snow. Dig a trench that’s six or seven feet long, two feet wide, and about three feet deep. (4 & 5) Then arrange snow blocks over the top in an A-frame. Beveling the top edges of the blocks helps them fit together. You can fill any gaps with loose snow. Cap one end with a block and leave the other open. Place your feet at the capped end. To make entry and exit easier, you can carve out steps. Cover the open end with your pack, leaving some space for ventilation.