We were sitting around talking with a friend who was out with a group snowmobiling. His snow machine broke down, and he was left alone for hours as the rest of the group went on without him. What if something happened to the group and they were not able to come back to get him before dark? So, while waiting, he built a snow cave – just in case he did have to spend the night.
A group of skiers came past the ranch several years ago. We were not terribly impressed with their preparations, as they turned around and left the mountain early because, I kid you not, they did not remember the poles for their tent. I wonder why you would choose to sleep in, and haul around, a tent when you could sleep in a snow cave. There is no shortage of snow here most winters.
OK, so, what is a snow cave?
For us, the skill of building one is a matter of necessity. Exposure could kill us. For anyone who spends time in the back country in the winter, it’s a safe and relatively warm shelter that can be fashioned out of nothing more than a shovel and a bank of snow.
For those who may not know, or who haven’t considered this, a snow cave is a cave dug out of a snow bank or drift that serves as a remarkably comfortable emergency shelter. Anyone who intentionally camps in winter – or any one who spends time in the back country in winter where spending the night out could happen – should know how. Rather than waiting for the emergency to happen, know how ahead of time. Head out there, find a big drift, and get shoveling!
Although I’ll be sharing our personal experience of snow caving with you, I highly recommend THE book on the subject, written by the remarkable Ernest Wilkinson, entitled, “Snow Caves for Fun and Survival.” Bob had the honor of working with Ernie for years, and learned this skill from him first hand. So our snow caving techniques are based on Ernie’s teachings.
Although I knew the importance of snow cave building, knew it was a skill that up here especially, could save my life, I was still scared to spend the night in a hole in a snow bank. The only way to alleviate my fears would be to do it. So we did!
We spent the afternoon building a most luxurious snow cave – large enough for the three of us, and two of our dogs. In this bank of snow, we spent the night. And much to my surprise, believe it or not, I will actually use the word “cozy” to describe our night in the snow cave.
When we woke in the morning, after a great night sleep, I was warmer and more comfortable than waking in the high country in summer. Mind you, even in July, mornings in the high country are often below freezing, and the movement of the air freely flows through the tarp under which we usually sleep, making for a quick chill as you worm your way out of your sleeping bag to quickly get dressed… The snow cave was far more comfortable.
To build a snow cave, the process is simple: you open up a hole in the side of a snow bank or drift, large and deep enough to comfortably sleep. As Bob told me, when you are digging, think more like “mine tunnel” instead of “rabbit hole.” Rather than digging in through a small hole to clear the interior cavity out, you open up a larger hole in the front, large enough to comfortably work and be able to easily shovel the snow out from the cavity. The most common design for the interior is a curved roof, and a sleeping bench about 18-20” inches above the “floor” – this allows the warmer air to circulate around you, and the cooler air from the “door” to stay in the trough.
When the interior is completed, you build back the front wall with the blocks of snow you initially carved out of the bank. As you are rebuilding the front wall, be sure to mark the bottom of the cave with a stick or something visible from where you will be working. When the wall is completed, you then excavate your doorway just above that stick. This way you are able to have a small and low entrance to your snow cave. You’ll need something like a back pack or sleeping pad to close off the door at night.
One of the most important considerations in digging the cave is that it’s physically hard work, so take it easy, slow down, and be extra careful not to sweat. Peel off layers so that your clothes are not damp, and do what it takes to remain dry. If we or our clothes are wet when the sun goes down, that’s a certain way to get chilled; and an absolute, positive avoidance for survival in the mountains in winter.
Inside the snow cave, the temperature remains above freezing from body heat alone, and there is no air movement to create chill. So with warm, dry clothes, a hat, and a good moderate weight sleeping bag laid out over an insulating layer made from a bed of boughs, or straw, or sleeping pads, sleeping is remarkably comfortable.
Since we were not intending to use the cave a second night, we brought in our camping stove and got coffee going in the morning. (Do not do this if you intend to use the snow cave a second night.) Although this was a great way to make breakfast, the heat from the stove melted and then sealed off the ceiling of the cave, which would block the necessary breathing air flow that a good, regular mid-winter snow pack provides.
My recommendation is to please read Ernie’s book, and try it! Try it before you are ever in a situation where your life may depend on it. There are many activities you can practice for winter survival, and Ernie covers many of these well. But you don’t have to just think of it as survival. You can think of it as fun. And really, digging a cave in the snow and crawling inside, even if you don’t sleep in it, is pretty cool!
Having “survived” a night in the snow cave, I can say my fear of them is gone. It was a simple process, remarkably comfortable, and actually quite fun. I wish it would be this easy and rewarding to face all of my other fears…