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How to build a snow hole

Snow holes – I never quite got the point of building one during an expedition just for a practice run. To me it seemed like a bit of a faff if you didn’t actually need one.

So, when Jamie called out he had found the perfect spot for building a snow hole I couldn’t have been less excited. It was only 4km to get to the huts – surely, we’d want to crack on and get there as soon as we could.

It turned out, building snow holes just for the sake of it is absolutely worth it. You wouldn’t stop a child on the beach building their sandcastle or digging a big hole, would you!

Of course, I am grossly disregarding the serious side of it. When it comes to winter skills, learning how to build a snow hole is one of the firm basics as they are the ultimate protection from the cold and bad weather. You are protected from the elements and the hole quickly warms up with the heat from your body. Also, a Hilleberg Keron 3 is about £1000 – a snow hole is free! Although, when the Beast from the East ‘blessed’ us with a good amount of snow, a business-minded Scot listed his homemade ice cave on Air BnB for £50 per night…

But, on the sunny day when we built our snow holes into the side of a well-consolidated snowdrift, it was a lot of fun. Like with the sandcastle or big hole, or main aim was to make it BIGGER! We would have happily spent all day there if Jamie hadn’t stopped our ‘Grand Designs’ ambitions.

What you need

The good thing about travelling with a pulk is that you can take a lot of stuff. Hence, we had all the equipment we needed for building a good snow hole.

Snow shovels

Should be part of your avalanche equipment anyway. They have an extendable shaft and are quite light.

 

 

 

Snow saw

How to build the snow hole

This is in an ideal world. If you are in a situation where you haven’t got the luxury to spend time looking for a well-suited snow-holing site or you cannot find one, then you’ll have to improvise and perhaps you are better off building a snow pit.

So, first of all – find a good area of spindrift or any mountain slope where you can start building your snow hole. You want the snow to be firm and not too wet and deep enough to excavate a large hole. If you hit rock or ice half-way through that’s no good.

This is what a good site looks like:

You start with a Christmas tree shape which you cut away into the snow. This means that the sleeping area, the large rectangle at the top, will be above the entrance (effectively, the Christmas tree trunk) so as to trap warmth. As you are digging, be careful not to damage the sides of your entrance way.

Usually, it works best to split the work between a digger and someone who clears away the debris in front of your hole and makes sure the entrance area remains clear. The Clearer also looks out for big blocks of excavated snow which can be later used to seal off the entrance area.

The aim is to expand the hole to the top and sides as you gain more depth. A good technique for taking out big blocks of snow at once is to drive the shovel into the snow, marking a square, and then breaking or levering away the area in the middle. Once the area inside is large enough, two people can get in and dig out more snow. One person can cut deep squares into the snow with the snow saw whilst the other person levers them out with the shovel.

If you are happy with the size of the snow cave, you can start finishing it off. Make sure the floor of the cave is level, evening it out with the snow saw and shovels. Then smoothen the edges of the ceiling and walls. Our hole was large enough to comfortably fit three sitting people. The last thing to do is seal off the arch at the entrance with large blocks of snow cut into shape and placed on top of each other (see picture). Leave the ‘tree trunk’ below clear – this is your entrance way. Sure, it will require crawling on your belly to get into the cave, but it also means that warm air will be trapped in the top of the snow cave, warming up your sleeping area.

Now it’s time to make yourself at home. If you are spending the night, you can take time to make the hole even bigger and better and perhaps carve out some snow sculptures like in the Ice Hotel if you are artistically inclined!

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