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