How to Build a Quinzee (and Stay Warm Outside no Matter the Temperature)

Last week the temperature hit -52 degrees Celcius with the windchill. Despite the extreme cold warning, three friends and I decided to sleep outside.

We had been planning to build a quinzee at Meadow Lake Provincial Park prior to the temperatures plummeting. We felt prepared to go through with our winter adventure despite the cold (with several back-ups and emergency plans).

Although it was -40 outside, the interior of our quinzee was warm enough I could comfortably sit inside in a long-sleeved shirt. We made it through the night with no issues which reinforced that just because it’s winter and cold doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the outdoors.

*I’m not saying everyone should go out and do things in extreme temperatures. But I genuinely think if you’re prepared with the right clothing and gear, getting out in the winter is just as much fun as in the summer.

(I swear the trick is wearing ski pants!)

For those interested in adventuring outside in the snow, here is my guide to successfully building and sleeping overnight in a quinzee.

What is a Quinzee?

A quinzee is a temporary outdoor shelter that’s a mix between a snow fort and an igloo. A quinzee is built by shovelling loose snow into a pile and hollowing it out to form an interior room that will protect you from the elements and can be used to sleep in overnight.

What You’ll Need

1. 2 shovels
– 1 large shovel per person, a scoop or snow shovel works best to build the snow pile
– 1 small shovel, an avalanche or car shovel is easiest to carve out the inside of the quinzee

2. A tarp
A tarp is a quick and efficient way to help remove snow from inside while carving out the quinzee

3. A candle
A couple of tealights or a few taper candles help “glaze” the interior as well as add warmth and ambiance

4. 24 sticks, 12-18 inches in length
Sticks poked through the quinzee helps determine wall thickness while carving

5. Sleeping Gear
A thermal blanket, insulated sleeping mat and cold-weather-rated sleeping bag will keep you warm in the quinzee.

6. Change of clothes
While building the quinzee you’ll likely work up a sweat. Once complete, it’s important to change out of any damp clothes and into warmer gear

6 Steps to Build a Perfect Quinzee

A quinzee isn’t difficult to build but will take a few hours to put together. Make sure you have enough time during the day to build one or bring a headlamp if you’ll be working into the night.

When constructed properly and in consistently cold temperatures, a quinzee can be slept in for numerous nights.

1. Mark a Spot for Your Quinzee

Decide where you’ll put your quinzee – in a camping site, your backyard or on a lake.

Make sure there is enough space to build a quinzee big enough for the number of people who will be sleeping in it. Build it at least 6-8 feet tall and 8-10 feet around for 1-2 people.

Mark its location by stomping out the snow in the area you’ll be building the quinzee.

2. Pile Snow

Shovel snow from the surrounding area until it’s big enough to fit the number of people in your group (with a wall thickness of at least a foot).

When shovelling, flip the snow to make sure it mixes well.

3. Add Sticks

Collect a couple dozen sticks that are about 18 inches in length. Poke the sticks through the quinzee every few feet to a depth of at least 12 inches. When carving out the quinzee, these sticks will be your guide when marking wall thickness.

*This is an important step to ensure consistent wall thickness and stability so it will not collapse.

4. Let the Quinzee Sinter

After you’ve piled the snow, let it sit and sinter.

Sintering is the process of compaction through heat and pressure. By mixing the snow in a pile, the energy from the disturbance melts the particles of snow and refreezes it into a cohesive mass. (Wet snow will bond more quickly while colder and dryer snow will take longer).

Let the quinzee sit for 90 minutes to 2 hours. While you wait, make a big fire to stay warm. It’s also a great time to eat a meal and drink some hot chocolate.

5. Carve out the Quinzee

Start by carving out a small door. Keep it as small and low as possible. Not only will the entrance likely widen as you continue to dig, but keeping it small means you’ll have less cold air coming in throughout the night.

Carve a short tunnel into the interior of the snow pile and then eventually widen out and up. Keep an eye out for the sticks to know how deep the walls and ceiling are.

Digging from the small tunnel to the wider part of the quinzee can be a bit tricky – you’ll likely be laying in the snow while hollowing it out. Keep your hood up to stop snow from falling down into your jacket.

Carving a quinzee is easiest when there are at least two people to help. One person carves out the inside of the quinzee and piles the snow onto the tarp. The second person remains outside the quinzee and pulls the snow-laden tarp out and dumps it away from the entrance. This has been the fastest and most efficient way to carve the quinzee in my experience.

Make sure to keep the lowest part of the quinzee near the entrance. Inside the main area, leave a section of snow built up as a raised sleeping area. This allows cold air to sink and keeps you warm.

Once you’ve finished the interior, smooth out the walls into a dome shape. Remove a couple of the sticks and leave the holes as ventilation for fresh air and to release carbon dioxide.

You can add decorations to the interior of the quinzee by carving out small shelves for candles or stringing up twinkle lights for ambiance.

6. Glaze the Interior

Light a candle in the middle of the quinzee on the floor to “glaze” the interior for 15-20 minutes. Not only does this warm the inside, but it adds to the strength and stability of the structure and prevents water from dripping on you while you sleep.

If built correctly, there should be no concern of the quinzee collapsing.

Final Tips

* Don’t leave the candles burning when you’re not inside
* Cover the door with the tarp when sleeping. It keeps warm air inside the quinzee overnight and stops a draft from entering
* At night, wear only a thin base layer to stay warm in your sleeping bag. Wearing too many thick layers traps humidity and makes you feel cold. Trust me – it seems unnatural to wear so little in the snow but you will be warmer for it.

Have you built a quinzee before? If you have any tips or suggestions to add, leave them in the comments below!

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