How to Build an Emergency Snow Trench Shelter

How to Build an Emergency Snow Trench Shelter

By Carley Fairbrother

Why Build a Snow Trench Shelter?

Imagine you are out for a snowshoe or a backcountry ski, and you get lost, or a storm makes travel too dangerous, or your friend gets injured. You need a shelter, and fast. Luckily for you, you are surrounded by one of nature’s most convenient building materials.

 

How to build an emergency snow trench shelter 1

 

Contrary to what your instincts might tell you, snow is a excellent insulator. While a snow shelter isn’t likely to get much warmer than 0° c, it probably beats whatever winter weather you are trying to hide from. Snow and ice shelters such as quinzhees, snow caves, and igloos have been used for millennia, and be rather roomy comfortable, but they also take a lot of time and energy to build.

 

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Trench shelters are quick, effective, and can be built in many different snow conditions. They are not, however, very comfortable. If you have plans to stay overnight in a snow shelter for fun, I would recommend a snow cave or a quinzhee (see video below for how to build a quinzhee). With the right tools in your emergency kit, and maybe a little practice, a snow trench shelter should take less than an hour to build.

 

Some Helpful Tools

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Mylar emergency blanket: I like to carry at least two with me, even in the summer. When wrapped around you, they will reflect your own body heat, preventing loss of precious heat. They can also be used to reflect heat from your fire, or can line the roof, walls, or floor of an emergency shelter. If you want to get creative, add tarp, signal, and fishing lures to a mylar blanket’s possible uses

Folding saw: This is a great addition to a winter emergency kit. Wood for making fires and shelters can be tricky since most of the dead wood is under the snow, and a saw makes collecting it a lot easier. You can make a trench shelter without branches, but they make building the roof and insulating the floor a lot easier.

Collapsible shovel: A shovel is a safety essential of you travel in avalanche terrain, but it can come in handy for any snow travel. I use mine to build a trench or a wall to protect myself from wind while I eat or rest. If you don’t have a shovel, bare in mind that it is important keep your hands warm and dry in a winter survival situation, so try to find something besides your hands to dig with, like a snowshoe.

Tarp: I carry a silicon 5’ x 7 poncho/tarp. A cheap alternative is to pack along one or two big, heavy duty garbage bag. An extra mylar emergency blanket could work too, though they aren’t particularly durable and could tear on a branch.

 

Get Building!

Step 1- Choose you Location

Choose where you want your entrance and what direction you want to lie. While sleeping with your feet close to entrance may keep you warmer, it will make for a slow exit if you need to get out quickly, so plan for your head to be near the entrance. You’ll want your entrance facing downwind, so take note of where any wind is coming from. A slight hill can make digging easier if the snow is deeper than six feet or so. Otherwise, find a level spot.

Step 2 – Break ground, err, snow

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Dig a three foot hole where you want your entrance to be. Ground is a lot warmer than snow, so dig to the ground of you can.

Step 3 – Dig your trench

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Now that you’ve gotten the right depth, it’s time to dig out the trench. It’s going to be up to your body to heat that space, so the smaller the better. Make it a little wider than shoulder width and around two feet longer than you body.

Pile snow up on the sides to make it a little taller (especially if the snow is less than three feet deep). If you have enough snow, pile it around the entrance as a windbreak too. If you get any big snow or ice chunks put them aside.

Step 4 – Lay the framework

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Skis and ski poles make fantastic roofs, but even with them, extra branches will make it more stable and easy to work with. The important part here is to work with what you have or what you can find.

Step 5 – Lay down the tarp

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If you have an extra emergency blanket, it could be a great addition here. Lay it down first. Try to spread your tarp so that the edges touch all the sides and secure it in place with anything you can find with weight; branches, ice blocks or packed snow will all work.

Step 6 – Bury it

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Fluffy snow provides the best insulation, but use what you have. When I was building this trench shelter, I found a good ice layer, so I balanced them on my frame until the gaps were filled in, and then buried it in fluffier snow.

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Step 7 – Add an air hole

Add a vent hole at the end or your trench by poking a stick under the tarp and wiggling it until it’s a inch or so in diameter. The entrance will probably provide enough air, but an extra hole for ventilation is still a good idea.

Step 8 – Insulate the floor

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It may seem like it would make more sense to put the floor down before the roof, but roof building knocks down a lot of snow, so you’d likely find yourself rebuilding the floor anyway. Lay down green fir or spruce bows, or whatever you can possibly find to add space between you and the snowy floor. I used a sleeping mat for this shelter because I didn’t want to damage the trees in my yard. After the snow is totally covered, lay down your emergency blanket. It works best with some space between you body and the blanket, so add another layer of branches. They will also help the blanket stay in place.

Step 9 – Get cozy

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Crawl in and fold any of the rest of the emergency blanket over you. If you have an extra, and it’s not in the roof, you can out it on top of you. Move you pack, or whatever else you can find, into the doorway to block the wind. Don’t make it airtight though; you need oxygen.

Never place the emergency blanket over your head. At worst, it could this cause suffocation; at best, it will cause moisture buildup that will keep you cold.

 

Some final thoughts

This could be modified for two people by making it wider, but still keep it as small as possible.. The closer you are to your friend, the warmer the both of you will stay.

As I mentioned, this is not a comfortable shelter. It’s hard to move around, or get in and out. Being alone in the dark, in a confined space, buried in snow is not something that I imagine a lot of people enjoying. Trench shelters do, however, get you our of the elements and give you something warm to lie on.

Another thing to remember is that no shelter will ever be the same. It will always depend on what you have with you, what your needs are, and what you can get from the environment. If you go into the backcountry in deep snow, it is definitely worth it to practice building snow trench shelters with the supplies you carry. The more you practice, the faster you will be, and the more ready you will be to improvise if need be.

Oh, and those mylar emergency blankets will never fold up again, so buy a few to practice with.

 

Watch Carley’s  short videos on this subject:

How to Build a Snow Trench Shelter

How to Build a Quinzhee

 

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44 thoughts on “How to Build an Emergency Snow Trench Shelter

  • March 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm
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    Pretty cool! My kids would love this however not sure I would ever want to be in the situation to need it 🙂
    Great useful post.

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  • March 28, 2018 at 3:26 am
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    wow! this was so thorough and helpful!

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  • March 27, 2018 at 12:28 pm
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    Wow! You’re superwoman! This is amazing! I’ve never actually thought about learning these type of survival skills but they’re so important! I often venture off the beaten path on short day trips but to be honest it never dawned on me how ill prepared I am for unlikely disasters until reading this post and noting all of the tools you walk with. I’ll definitely be better about it now!

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  • March 26, 2018 at 7:10 pm
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    Excellent guide for snow trekkers!! that igloo pic with the light glowing inside looks ultra cozy!! Great tips and post!

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  • March 26, 2018 at 9:33 am
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    This would be so useful for anyone planning to camp out on the snow. The step by step instructions thankfully leave no space for misinterpretation. I really enjoyed all of the photographs as well.

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  • March 26, 2018 at 7:35 am
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    The step by step instructions are very helpful! Thanks for putting such valuable information together for survival if it comes to it.

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  • March 26, 2018 at 5:39 am
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    WOW! What a fantastic idea – that igloo pic with the light glowing inside looks ultra cozy!! Great tips and post – Thanks so much for sharing!

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  • March 26, 2018 at 3:09 am
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    Wow excellent guide for trekkers in snow covered regions. Those tools look mighty useful and life saving. Such a great way to show how to do this, step by step.

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  • March 25, 2018 at 8:28 pm
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    I don’t go out in the snow ever but this was very interesting and helpful if there is ever an emergency while driving in the snow and might need this

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  • March 25, 2018 at 6:26 pm
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    We don’t get snow this far south but this is very helpful info!

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  • March 25, 2018 at 3:17 pm
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    I have to confess, I have never been skiing! Partly because we lived in the southern hemisphere in an area where we never had snowfall. I’ve always wondered how people survived being trapped in the elements and this seems like a really good way to do that.

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:54 am
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      I think that’s a pretty good reason for never skiing. I hope you get a chance one day (and hopefully you won’t need to build a survival shelter).

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  • March 25, 2018 at 12:24 pm
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    My friend is about to go hiking in Canada and I sent her and her husband this! They especially appreciated your final thoughts on how to make it bigger for two 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with us!

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:55 am
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      Thanks. I hope they find it helpful, but never have to build one (unless it’s for fun).

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  • March 25, 2018 at 8:59 am
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    This is so cool! Being from a very warm climate, I have little to no experience with snow–the closest I’ve ever seen to anything like this was building a snow “fort” on a trip to Maine as a little kid. This is definitely important knowledge for hiking in snowy conditions, though–I can see how it could be life saving if something goes wrong!

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  • March 25, 2018 at 8:18 am
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    Oh I am still dreaming about this, I first need to see snow in my life and the day I do that, I am sure I am gonna try this fun thing of building a trench as well. It seems like a thrilling experience to me, to build it and then stay a night in it. That igloo looks so so beautiful

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  • March 25, 2018 at 7:25 am
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    This looks a lot of fun & possibly life saving in some circumstances! I live in Dubai so no chance of snow 🙁 & even when back home in England it never snows as much as this to make a trench although I would love it!
    Great post, very informative!

    Reply
  • March 25, 2018 at 6:16 am
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    Wow this is so cool, I never knew this can be made by any normal person. I live in LA, so there is no chance of having a snow fall. But am surely gonna share this with my friends who live in Canada

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  • March 25, 2018 at 4:33 am
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    These are great tips for building a snow trench shelter. This might come in handy someday!

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:51 am
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      Well, I hope you never have to build one unless it’s for fun or practice.

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  • March 25, 2018 at 4:27 am
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    We never get snow where I live in South Africa so this is such a strange concept 🙂 But it is still very cool!

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  • March 25, 2018 at 1:54 am
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    Great blog post! Having read a couple of Jon Krakauer’s climbing books recently I had been wondering how they do this. I can picture it so much better now! Not sure if I’ll ever have to do this (I think I would get sooo claustrophobic!) but you never know.

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:48 am
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      I tried sleeping in one once to see how it felt. As soon as I turned out my light, I started hearing things outside. In a tent, I would be able to convince myself it was my imagination, but in the trench, I panicked. All I could think of was a cougar at my door and no way to escape. Luckily, I had a warm cabin 100 m away, so I slept there. Hopefully, I’ll never have to sleep in one.

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  • March 24, 2018 at 10:59 pm
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    This was so informative- I hope I never need to use this knowledge lol but I’m glad I have it just in case!

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:49 am
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      I hope I never need it neither.

      Reply
  • March 24, 2018 at 7:02 pm
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    This is a great step by step instructions on how to build a Snow Trench Shelter. I’ll share this to my friends who love camping and hiking.

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:49 am
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      Thanks! I hope they find it helpful!

      Reply
  • March 24, 2018 at 6:34 pm
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    An adult sophisticated house but, with use and a purpose! Where I live we don’t get a lot of snow but I grew up building little houses in the snow. I love this. It’s so useful and resourceful.

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:43 am
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      I really like practicing my shelter building. It’s a pretty good excuse to build a fort.

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  • March 24, 2018 at 6:32 pm
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    oh my gosh you are awesome. That looks so fun!

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:42 am
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      Practicing winter survival skills is pretty much the same as fort building 😀

      Reply
  • March 24, 2018 at 5:43 pm
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    I normally would say I do not have much call for this in the United Kingdom. However, this is the worst winter I can recall in over thirty years and I think I might have to take some notes! I have even taken to having skiwear in my car so some extra gear to make a snow shelter would not hurt

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:40 am
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      I have a few friends there. It was a great year for snow lovers, not so much for everyone else. A shovel in your car is pretty handy in winter. I’ve used mine to dig myself out of a snowbank a few times.

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  • March 24, 2018 at 4:29 pm
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    This is such a useful and informative post! Honestly I never thought of ever building a snow trench, but you just never know. 🙂

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    • March 26, 2018 at 12:36 am
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      Hopefully, you’ll never need to, but it’s fun to practice.

      Reply
  • March 24, 2018 at 12:27 pm
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    Passing this on to my husband! He loves to do all the fun (but scary to me) winter activities and I always worry about him getting stranded!

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    • March 24, 2018 at 8:07 pm
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      This should be great for him. I saw that someone in the comments for the video said they’d had to use one a few times.

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  • March 24, 2018 at 12:05 pm
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    This is such a useful and informative post! Honestly I never thought of ever building a snow trench, but you just never know. I also learned something new about snow being an excellent insulator than people think. I’m still a big wimp in the snow and freezing temperatures, but I won’t forget this post anytime soon!

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    • March 24, 2018 at 8:09 pm
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      It’s such a fast and simple shelter to build. I hope you remember this but never actually have to use it.

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  • March 24, 2018 at 11:08 am
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    My sister took lessons for such a thing and my dad nearly freaked out when he heard she was going to be sleeping under the snow! I find it fascinating!

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    • March 24, 2018 at 8:13 pm
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      Good for her. It’s a lot of fun to practice shelter building.

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  • March 24, 2018 at 3:51 am
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    These instructions may come in handy for me someday, especially if I decided to travel to a mountainous area. Great post!

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  • March 24, 2018 at 2:52 am
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    this is so cool.. love the step by step.. not sure if i will find myself in a situation where i will need a snow trench but definitely a good to know.

    Reply

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