Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Snow Coffin: An Emergency Ice Shelter

Winter is coming soon. I’m fortunate to live in Western Washington which is bathed year round by a warm tropical current, but less than an hour’s drive from my house, you can walk a trail or make a wrong turn on a country road and find yourself in deep snowy trouble. You may not even be trying to get out into the wilderness, but just traveling through. But out in the big between spaces like we especially have out here in the West, a navigational error or a sudden change in the weather can kill you quick. Every year people lose their lives because they are unprepared to make a mistake.

So what happens if you are caught out in a blizzard and can’t get to safety. Unless you really know what you’re doing and your survival skills are top notch and you are well-equipped with winter gear, hiking out is probably not a good idea. Shelter, then is your top priority. Other issues can be dealt with. Keeping a bug-out bag in the trunk or carrying a fanny pack or light pack with some basic emergency supplies is the height of wisdom, even if you're only passing through the wild country. If snow start’s really coming down, this ice, shelter could save your life.

You need to make shelter quickly, if the snow is piling up. You absolutely have to limit your exposure to wind and low temperatures. Wind and cold can lower your body’s core temperature dramatically. That happens and you are on your way to dead. Fortunately, you have a rather effective insulation available to you.

And, though it's called an ice shelter, it’s not made of solid blocks of ice.  I know about igloos and they make great hunting shelters and look great in books about Eskimos. You can even build fires inside them. But unless you’ve got a handy iced over lake and a big ice saw and a lot of help, solid ice isn’t very practical as a building material and then, there’s the whole finding enough wood and getting a fire started sufficient to heat all that space..

Snow, though not solid like a block of ice, makes far more useful shelter material. Even though snow is made up of ice crystals, it works better as an insulator than solid ice. Between the flakes of snow there is air trapped. If you make blocks of snow, you can build a quicker shelter than with ice and it insulates better. Also snow is easier to form into blocks and wall than solid ice and you can create a shelter more quickly. Any kid who ever built a snow fort knows the basic principle.

Remember, you have only a few hours to create an ice shelter before you start feeling the effects of the cold.


  • Snow
  • Shovel, plank, limb or some type of saw if you have one in your trunk
  • Branches
  • Gloves and warm coat

How to Build It:

Snow coffin is a creepy name I know, but it describes this shelter quite vividly. This type of emergency cold-weather shelter is quick and reliable if you’re stuck out somewhere, the snow is piling up fast and it’s getting dark. You can always construct something roomier after the sun comes up tomorrow.

  1. Build this shelter on a downhill slope. It makes construction faster. Choose a slope that faces away from the prevailing wind, if you can to reduce your exposure while building your snow coffin.
  2. Dig a pit in the snow in a curved shape like a horseshoe about two to three 3 feet wide by eight feet long. Scoop out the middle of the pit and pack down the snow flat. The lower end of foot of the coffin should be narrower than at the top where it should be wider for your head and shoulders.
  3. If the weather is turning bad, you can jump up and down and stamp down the center. Try to get the floor done quickly so you can start work on the walls of your shelter.
  4. Make sure that the center area of the horseshoe-shaped depression slopes down hill. The head and shoulders end of the coffin or horseshoe shaped depression needs to be higher than the lower end. Your head will be on the high end and your feet on the lower end. Once it’s covered over, the cavity formed by the shelter creates a heat trap, trapping warm air as it rises.
  5. The legs of the horseshoe shape should come together so that the opening will be wide enough to crawl through and wider inside than at the entrance, further trapping heat.
  6. Pile snow around the outside of the depression, leaving an open space between the legs of horseshoe shape for you to crawl into the shelter.
  7. Start cutting out or forming blocks of snow and stacking them around the outside of the depression. You can even roll up basketball-sized snowballs and stack them like a wall. You can use loose snow like mortar to pack into the gaps between the snowballs. If you have a saw you can make nice neat blocks that stack even more efficiently.
  8. Keep building your wall until the wall is two to three feet high. The walls will also follow the slope and be higher up the slope. Make the angle of the walls as nearly 90-degree with the floor as possible.
  9. Find some straw, grass or pine needles, or other vegetation and cover the floor of the floor of the depression to insulate you from the snow so you don’t lose body heat from your back and lower extremities as fast. Don’t rely on your clothes to keep out the cold. Do this before you cover the shelter, especially if you may have to use it for a few days till you can get help.
  10. Now as quickly as you can, find some limbs – evergreen boughs work best because the needles provide cover. Lace them over the top like this. Create a grid of large branches across the walls to support the roof. Then add more layers using ever smaller branches and sticks and finally leaves. If you have a sheet of plastic, a tarp or something impermeable to keep out melting snow and wind, lay it over the top. Try to block up any holes around the edges where wind can seep through
  11. Once the roof is in place and pretty well enclosed, then cover the whole thing with about two feet of snow. Block or snowballs or packed snow will help keep loose snow from dropping down inside while you are making your roof. Cover the entire structure with two feet of snow.
  12. Now, you want someplace for moisture to escape the shelter or your clothes will get damp from the moisture of your breath collecting in an enclosed space. With a stick or sharp implement, poke a two-inch diameter hole in the roof. Find some sort of tube to push through the hole for ventilation. You can use a rolled up newspaper, cardboard or cut the ends out of a soda bottle and push it up through the hole to create a controlled vent. This allows excess warm moist air to vent up out of the shelter and at the same time pulls fresh air inside so you don’t suffocate.
  13. Find a log or create a flap to block the door by your feet. You want some air coming in, but you need it to be easy to open. You’ll need to check the opening at your feet to make sure it doesn’t freeze shut and trap you inside or get buried by the blizzard.
  14. One your shelter is ready, get your survival supplies, water, tools etc. and crawl inside the shelter headfirst. Your feet will be downhill near the door. The space will not be roomy, but your own body heat should keep you warm enough with the snow acting to insulate you against more frigid temperatures outside.

The thing about the snow coffin shelter is that it can be made entirely working from the outside. That way you don’t have to waste energy crawling in and out to finish it. The roof should be solid, the snow well-packed and the supports secure before you crawl in. The snow coffin is a one-man structure, or if you have a companion, it can be enlarged easily to accommodate two people. Just use longer heavier sticks for that first roof layer. Snow is heavy. Over engineer. Use heavier branches than you think you’ll need so your roof doesn’t collapse on you.

If you have time you can build a fire as shown in the picture by the opening at your feet. This will funnel warm air up into the shelter and keep your feet from developing frostbite. If you keep your feet warm it will help keep the rest of you warm too.

A snug and reasonably warm snow coffin can be made in a couple of hours. Be energetic. Don’t try to get fancy (you can do that later). For now you want to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. Keep your head. It's what's in your brain that will save you, so keep your hat on and get warm as soon as you can.


  • You will probably want to take off your gloves and work with your bare hands at some point. PLEASE DON’T. Frost-bitten hands don’t work well for building shelters. Leave the gloves on.
  • Stay warm. For goodness sake, don’t pull off your coat. You need to keep your body heat up. You don’t want to have to warm up your body core. It’s easier to keep it up than it is to bring it back up and if you develop hypothermia, your brain goes wonky and you’re dead.
  • Mark where your snow coffin is. I like to make a humongous big arrow out of thick branches or green tree boughs placed up hill from the shelter and pointing at my snow coffin. You want the search parties to find you. You don’t want the snow coffin thing to be anything more than a bad joke.


Captain Dave’s Survival Guide: Shelter

Wildwood Survival: Snow Coffin

NASA Quest: Snow Shelters

Call of the Wild: How to Build a Snow Quinzee

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Coke in a Bottle on the Cheap

Have you ever noticed how, even though you can hardly ever find a Coca-Cola in a glass bottle in the store anymore, the bottled version is consistently used in Coca-Cola commercials. There's a reason for that. Coke just looks better in those hourglass bottles. My Sweet Baboo also is absolutely convinced they taste better in those glass bottles.

Now as a Dr. Pepper man, I can tell you that DP DOES taste better in those glass bottles. My grandmother used to bribe us to behave by promising us a bottle of Dr. Pepper if we didn't tear the house down when we visited. It worked like a charm and that's saying a lot given the ADD hellions we were. Of course DP in the glass bottles at least used to be made with cane sugar and the ones in the cans and plastic bottles is made with corn syrup. The taste actually is different. Now DP used to make Diet Dr. Pepper in glass bottles and it tasted better than the canned stuff, so my wife may actually have something there.

Here's a neat little trick for enjoying a decadent soft drink experience in spite of marketing people deciding to deprive us of Coke in bottles. We true-blooded Southern Americans will not be denied! When we want a Coke, this is what we're talking about!

So, I tried this little experiment for myself and found that I agree with her. It's the bottle!  My experiment was simple.

  • Coca-Cola (or any other soft drink for that matter.
  • Old-fashioned Coca-Cola bottle. You can still rarely find them in stores. You can also buy them in the old-fashioned wooden cases at antique stores. Well worth the price, I'm telling you.
  • Small funnel
  1. Clean bottle thoroughly
  2. Use funnel to pour Coke into the bottle. Tilt the bottle and pour slowly so it doesn't bubble over. If you pour it straight in, it will bubble over and you'll lose half your drink.
  3. Now lift that bottle to your lips and marvel at how much better it tastes in that cold glass bottle.

You don't have to use Coke. I sometimes pour Diet A&W Root Beer into the Coke bottle and it does taste better. It feels decadent.  If you want to be really cool for a party you can save up a couple of dozen bottles for a party.  You can even find these little plastic caps that fit on the bottles to retain their fizz after you pour them up. Won't last as long as the original sealing process, but it will help the bottles retain most of the fizz during your event. Nothing as delicious looking as a bunch of those bottles stuck in a mound of ice in a bit old tub of ice.

And hey, who doesn't need a little decadence once in a while.

© 2016 by Tom King

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How to Get a Hyper Toddler to Go to Sleep

Eliana "Jellybean" Blackburn & Tom "Poppy" King
Youth and Energy vs Age and Brains
Reprinted and revised from original Facebook post:
Do you have a child or grand-child that just won't settle down and give it a rest. Is the kid reducing you to a loose pile of exhausted loosely connected bones and aching muscles every day?  Well I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be that way. There's a semi-old saying that "Age and craftiness beat youth and energy every time."Here's how it works. 

Our recent pint-sized houseguest, Eliana Blackburn has some kind of internal thermo-nuclear internal reactor or something. She doesn't seem to ever wear out and HATES to sleep! Her parents look like they've been holed up in the Alamo under an 18 day cannonade without relief. To say they look haggard would be kind.

But this week, Eliana was in there with an old geezer who raised ADD kids and worked with ADD kids as a teacher, rec therapist and day care director and is pretty danged ADD his own self. The secret to wearing out a two year old is to understand this fact. Two year-olds have all that energy for two basic reasons.
  1. A two year-old can sit down whenever they are tired. And they sit down quite a lot. 
  2. Grownups do not have that luxury. What we do is use those few moments when the two year-old is resting to get our other work done, so we wind up working twice as hard as the two year old.
Jellybean drops the leash
So don't do that! The first secret is to keep your toddler from taking those quickie rest breaks over a sustained period of time. If not permitted to settle in for a quickie rest period, they DO get tired and surprisingly quickly.

So, Smart Grandpa Strategy #1 - I take her for walks. I have to take a walk every day anyway, so I use this time as a way to wear down the little darling. Here in this picture, she is "helping" walk the dog. I highly recommend enlisting the aid of a dog. Not only do they need exercise, but they are quite willing to exercise toddlers as well - two birds with the same bit of rock. It should here be noted that Eliana at age two was not terribly good at dog walking and Daisy was about as energetic as she was. Therefore, Jellybean would drop the leash ever five feet or so. And, because it's one of those auto-retract ones, she had to chase the leash and the dog around till she recovered the handle. The dog likes to veer off to smell every bush, rock and fire hydrant along the way, which meant a short, energy burning tug of war between Daisy and Jellybean. So by the time we have walked a mile or two (yes I said a "mile") I, who am used to it am quite refreshed. Eliana, who has been chasing the leash and struggling with the dog, has walked a lot farther than I did. About halfway around the block, Eliana was pretty well beat and beginning to fade.

Jellybean retrieves the leash
I, however, am an unmerciful caregiver where the energy expenditure of two year-olds are concerned. They are not permitted to sit down and cry, I don't pick them up and with the great outdoors to absorb the sound and my trusty mp3 player with earbuds to dull the temper tantrums down to a manageable level, we kept walking. Eventually, she began to droop.

Smart Grandpa strategy #2 - Be jovially hard-hearted.  Do not give in to the temptation to pick up the child when they start to whimper. I find that exhortations of "Good job, kid!" and "Hey we're almost home!" along with vague promises of tasty treats will keep a two-year old engaged longer. Eventually they will start to drop down in the road every ten feet or so and cry. At first, pretending not to notice will cause them to give chase to you to make sure you can see the tantrum they are putting so much energy into, thereby burning even more energy in the pursuit. Sometimes, if the child is given to tantrums, allow them to throw one. This also burns energy. You can respond to this by saying kindly, "Are you tired sweetie? Well, me too. Let's hurry and get home so we can sit down and rest, okay?" This confuses the child. You seem to have agreed with her, so she follows you on foot. This often keeps them going another few hundred yards before they realize you are not carrying them.

Always enlist the assistance of a dog
wherever possible.
Smart Grandpa Strategy # 3 - Enforce carrying discipline.  Eliana began to give up the struggle to stay awake. You could see her head bobbing mid-tantrum. She was pretty worn out, so I finally offered to carry her, but NOT till we topped the last hill toward home. She came running to me to be picked up (thereby burning more energy). I got in another good ten yards before she caught me. Then, I told her I'd carry her if she put her head down on my shoulder - the proper place it should be if she was too tired to walk. She agreed, and I picked her up. Of course she had to test my resolve on the head position rule at least once. She raised her head to look around and when she did, I asked, "Are you ready to get back down?"  When she saw I was starting to put her down, the head went back down on my shoulder like a shot.

Once she had settled against my shoulder and became still, then, ten feet down the road, she was snoring softly in my ear. She slept for 5 hours! I, on the other hand, got my snooze done in half an hour. Age and craft beats youth and enthusiasm every time.

Poppy is still the master!

© 2016 by Tom King

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Jazz Up Your Birdhouse With Some Birds

One of the collection of front porch birdhouses my wife hung from the eaves attracted a hive of hornets. After I  So I plugged up the holes with some of that green styrofoam floral block cut to fit in the holes. The only problem was that we didn't get birds anymore. So we bought some.

Stuff You Need:

  1. You need a staple gun and some 1/2 to 3/4 inch staples
  2. You need some fake birds. 
  3. You need some bird houses

Where You Can Get the Stuff You Need:

  1.  Staple gun and staples can be obtained at the hardware store if you have a male person about the house who is worth a flip, just look in the garage or the tool box on the back of his pickup.
  2. The "Everything's a Dollar Store" or almost any one of those dollar stores or arts & crafts places have them. I  bought 4 nice little birds made with real feathers and only paid a buck a piece for them.  They come with a spring clip on the underside where the feet go.
  3. If you are a proper householder, you should already have a birdhouse hanging about somewhere. If not, Hobby Lobby and Michael's probably have some good starter birdhouses.

How to Mount the Birds:

  1. Find a nice spot on the wooden birdhouse and tap in a staple. Leave a gap so that the space between the staple and the perch or roof of the house or wherever you mount the bird is wide enough for the clip on the bird to slide through.
  2. Clip the birds to the staples on the houses. 
  3. Voila' you've got birds that don't poop sitting on houses that aren't full of hornets.
How cool is that?

© 2016 by Tom King

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Boats & Floaty Things: The Homemade Canoe Stabilizer.

It's coming on springtime and time to get out on the water in the old canoe; perhaps to do a little fishing.  A canoe, by it's very nature is an unstable platform for fishing. In fact, any activity that involves a lot of moving around heavy equipment, standing or climbing into and out of the boat in deep water. Canoes are not good platforms for scuba diving and they definitely are not the best watercraft to stand up in and wrestle with an active trout, pike or other large fish, unless, of course you like being pitched headlong into cold water while weighted down with fishing gear. My whole life, I would hear news reports almost every other weekend of the fishing season of sheriff's department divers searching the lakes, rivers and bayous for some fisherman's water-logged corpse after he'd fallen overboard from some unstable boat. 

If all you have is a canoe, however, there's good news.  An easy solution to the instability of a cone was invented centuries ago by the Polynesians. The Pacific Islanders for millennia only had coconut palms and other skinny trees from which to hollow out boats for themselves. Skinny trees do not make for stable watercraft and the sea is a wild and wavy place. So these clever folk created outriggers for their sea borne canoes to increase their stability. There are a lot of commercial outrigger setups that are available for canoes, but they can be relatively expensive, especially if you're only using the canoe for fishing rarely. Here's an effective solution. It's not terribly stylish, but it will keep you from drowning yourself while fishing by making your boat less tipsy.

The trouble is that canoe-based fishermen may forget, in their excitement to get out there and hook themselves a lunker, that the water is still cold. Fall in and hypothermia may get you before you can get to shore, particularly if you're wearing a heavy jacket, boots or are loaded down with one of those vest with all the pockets and you have a lot of led sinkers stuffed in a few compartments.

Here's what you need to make this.


  • Zip ties
  • PVC cleaner
  • PVC cement
  • Knife
  • Hacksaw


  • Styrofoam swimming “noodle” with hole in the center
  • 12 feet of 1 inch heavy duty (stiff) PVC pipe
  • Two 1 inch PVC “T’s”
  • Two 90 degree 1 inch PVC elbows
  • Two large u-bolts. They should be wide enough to fit over the center thwart of your canoe and long enough to clamp the thwart and 1 inch pipe together
How to put it together:

  • Measure and cut the pipe - Measure the width of your canoe at the center thwart (the one you will
    Crossmember with elbows cemented in place
    clamp this rig to.  Add enough length to it so the pipe extends 12 to 18 inches beyond the gunwales of your canoe.  If, for instance, your canoe is 22 inches wide, add ag least 24 to 36 inches to the width of the canoe and cut the pipe that long. The reason for giving you a range is so you can adjust it to your own preferences. A shorter outrigger pole is less stable, but more stiff, so it flexes less when you are standing in the boat. The longer length will make your outrigger more tip resistant, but less strong and more prone to flexing. If you want a longer outrigger that is more stiff, simply buy a heavier gauge pipe. You cold even use a light metal pipe of the sort used in electrical conduit, but it will significantly increase your cost and may not help that much.
  • Once you've cut the pipe, cement the two 90-degree elbows to ends of pipe so that both openings.
    Crossmember with down pipes and T's in place
    When attached both elbows will need to turn downward.  The cementing part is easy. Clean the ends of the pipe and the insides of the elbows with PVC cleaner. Spread the pipe glue on the outside of the pipe and inside of the elbow and push them together.  The cement will set pretty quickly.
  • Cut two 4" to 6" pieces of 1 inch pipe and glue them to the open ends of the elbows so you have both pointing the same direction (downward when the rig is in place).

  • Now glue the two PVC “T’s” to the end of the down pipes so that their openings are perpendicular to the cross pipe.  The openings should be parallel to the sides of the canoe.
  • With a knife, cut two 24 to 27 inch long pieces from the Styrofoam swim noodle.
  •  Slit the noodles lengthwise so the cut goes halfway through to the hollow center of each noodle.
  • Now you'll need to cut four pieces of pipe so that they are 12 to 14 inches long. Measure and cut
    Noodles wrapped over perpendicular pipes
    the pipes so that with one stuck into each of the openings of the PVC T's will equal the same length as the piece of swim noodle that will be your outrigger's flotation.  
  • Cement one pipe into each end of the two T's.  Let the pieces set for ten minutes before moving the framework around.
  • Now pry apart the lengthwise slits in the Styrofoam noodles wrap them around the pipe assemblies attached to the "T's".  The pipe should settle down into the hole at the center of the noodle. You'll have to push the “T” down into the slit and there will be a gap there. You can trim around it with your knife for a close fit or just pull it tight with the zip ties. Your choice. When you are done you'll have two stiffened foam floats running parallel to the sides of your boat once the cross-member is clamped into place

  • Wrap zip ties around the noodles spaced evenly along either side of the “T’ joint to hold them in
    Zip tie close to T's then space along length of noodles

  • An easy way to streamline your outriggers and cut drag is to cut the bottom out of 12 ounce water or soda bottles.  With a screwing motion you can force them over the ends of the foam noodles. Once they are in place, wrap a few turns of duct tape around them to hold them in place. If you want something more permanent, you could drill through the bottles, the foam and the pipes underneath and run a small bolt through it all and add flat washers to both ends and lock washers to the nut side to hold it in place. I wouldn't go that far, though. I always keep some duct tape with the boat for repairs. If the tape gets soggy, just replace it. 
  • With your U-bolts clamp the cross member to the center thwart. I'd pad the thwart between the
    Bolt crossmember in place, Cover ends of noodles
    with soda bottles for streamlining effect
    bolt and the thwart to prevent scratching but that's up to you. An easier way is to zip tie the outrigger/stabilizer cross member to the center thwart with heavy duty zip ties and you’re ready to go. 
You may have to fiddle with duct tape or something to keep the cross member for rotating or sliding right or left. You could custom design some sort of over and under shaped wood mounting saddle for the cross member with bolts and wing nuts to hold it in place.

References for commercial resources:

Outrigger Stabilizers for Canoes and Boats: Castlecraft

Canoe Stabilizer: Sailboats to Go

Outriggers for Canoes: Easy Rider Kayaks

Dan’s Kayak

Canoe outriggers to stabilize your canoe: RM Specialites

© 2016 by Tom King