Welcome to the BWCAW blog of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service!

See our websites at ElyOutfittingCompany.com and BoundaryWatersGuideService.com.

We are a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter, Quetico outfitter, and guide service in Ely, Minnesota. This Boundary Waters blog shares photos, stories, humor, skills, and naturalist insights from guiding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Most entries are from our founder and head guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He is the Boundary Waters Blogger.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Building a Quinzee Snow Shelter

The dogsled camping group this week is game for just about anything. I really like their eagerness to try new things.

Today the whole group joined in to build a traditional snow shelter called a quinzee. The above photo shows our finished product.

A quinzee is made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. It is much warmer than a tent, and can be used for winter camping, survival, or just plain fun.

Quinzee construction is a somewhat time consuming and labor intensive process. Here's how.

Shovel a pile of snow six to ten feet high and long enough for two or three people to sleep side by side. A big scoop shovel works well. The below photo shows Fran, a guest from the United Kingdom, scooping snow for the quinzee.

Ideally flip the loose snow over as you shovel it to mix snow of different temperatures. Don't pack it down. Instead, once it's piled, let it sit for a few hours. A process called "sintering" occurs that makes even light fluffy snow firm up while you wait. The below photos show's Fran's husband, Gareth, putting some final scoops on the mound.

Before you walk away from the pile, insert a couple dozen ten inch long sticks into the walls and ceiling areas of the mound. These will be your guides to stop digging out the interior so you don't go through the walls when digging it out. That's what Jen (Minneapolis) is doing below.

When you return to hollow out the inside of the mound, be ready to get wet. You will be working up a sweat shoveling out the snow and working on your hands, knees, and belly getting coated with snow that melts and soaks your clothes.

Start by digging a door on the downwind side. Make it just big enough to crawl through, and then start hollowing out the inside. It helps to have one person inside scooping snow toward the entry, and another person scooping it aside.

As you hollow out the interior, dome the ceiling and smooth the interior snow to prevent dripping. When you hit the gauge sticks you inserted, stop digging in that area. This will ensure your walls are about a foot thick. Be mindful that a smaller space will be warmer and that room to sit up but not stand is adequate. You also may elevate a couple sleeping platforms so the coolest air sinks down and out the entry.

Adequate ventilation is also important. Make a small vent hole in the ceiling and keep it clear. You may put a pack over the entry, but don't seal it too tightly.

It's a good idea to bring a tarp for the sleeping platforms and floor, to help stay dry.

While building and using your quinzee, you will also want to use some precautions. Build the quinzee with someone for safety. There is a danger of collapse if you hollow too far through the walls, or someone walks on top. If you hollow out the inside while on your knees rather than your back, then you have a better chance of digging yourself out in the event of a collapse. Finally, keep a digging utensil with you as a precaution while inside.


Though it takes time and effort, a quinzee ensures a warmer night in our winter wilderness. It also makes for happy campers, like Charles and Catherine from New York City, above.

3 comments:

Jorge said...

Whew! Makes me tired just reading this!!! I'm off to the hot tub....

Z said...

Jason,

This is a great description. Your post reminds me of the quinzee you built in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness several years ago.

GregE said...

I spread a tarp on the flat floor of my quinzee before I put my gear and sleeping pads/bag/to keep me off the snow when changing clothes or pulling items out from my pack.

Using LED head lamp or a LED little lantern provide light at night.

Excavated snow becomes a curving trench in front of the entrance reducing wind at the door.

The shovel I use is a collapsable polycarb "life-Link" with a that works GREAT!