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Digging Out a Snow Cave

Wear layers, keep the door small, depth check often and don't sweat—you'll get cold.

by John

SNOW CAVES — While you can use almost anything to dig out a snow cave, aluminum avalanche shovels work the best.

Digging out a snow cave is hard labor and you’ll want to rest often, bring some food and water and avoid sweating. It will take about 3-4 hours if you have all those who are sleeping in it helping to dig it out.

If you piled the snow you are digging into, wait at least 2 hours for the snow to settle and harden.

To speed up the digging process, you will want to have at least 3 people: one carving, one depth-checking and one to clear carved snow out of the doorway.

Article continues below

MORE CAMPING ARTICLES

Building a Snow Cave
Choosing a Snow Cave Location
Piling a Snow Cave
Sleeping in a Snow Cave
What is a Snow Cave?
Winter Camping Tips

Begin digging by making a door about 24-30 in. wide and tall. Keep the door small—you can go wider (and put snow back when you are finished), but don’t go higher because it will be difficult to pack snow on the top of your door. Go no more than 3 feet high or wide so you can cover the door to keep the heat in.

If the floor will be sloping, put the door at the lowest part of the cave. This will allow the coldest air to naturally flow out.

Mark the desired wall thickness (depth) before you start carving it out. Traditionally, a snow cave is poked all around the outside with 18 in. sticks to mark how thick the wall will be so the inside digger doesn’t get disoriented and accidentally make a window. These days it’s hard to find that many sticks so we usually use a ski pole with the basket (sometimes called “the plastic thingy”) removed.

To speed up the digging process, you will want to have at least 3 people: one carving, one depth-checking and one to clear carved snow out of the doorway.

Begin digging by making a door about 24-30 in. wide and tall. Keep the door smallyou can go wider (and put snow back when you are finished), but don’t go higher because it will be difficult to pack snow on the top of your door. Go no more than 3 feet high or wide so you can cover the door to keep the heat in.

If the floor will be sloping, put the door at the lowest part of the cave. This will allow the coldest air to naturally flow out.

Mark the desired wall thickness (depth) before you start carving it out. Traditionally, a snow cave is poked all around the outside with 18 in. sticks to mark how thick the wall will be so the inside digger doesn’t get disoriented and accidentally make a window. These days it’s hard to find that many sticks so we usually use a ski pole with the basket (sometimes called “the plastic thingy”) removed.

If you use a ski pole, you may still want to put about 4-6 sticks in the very top of the ceiling (about 2 feet apart) before you start digging. It will be difficult (and dangerous) to get on top after you start digging.

The depth-checker will insert the ski pole from the outside into the cave wall where the carver is digging and the carver will shave off sections of snow a few inches thick until they hit the tip of the pole. Insert the pole every 2-3 feet around the outside of the wall.

The base should be the thickest part of the snow cave (2 feet), the walls should be about 18 inches thick and the ceiling should be the thinnest (12-18 inches).

For the carver, be prepared to get wet because the inside of the cave will get very warm. Avoid sweating by wearing only a thin, light waterproof layer on top and bottom as your outer layer. It’s also nice to have a jacket with a hood.

For safety reasons, it is better to carve from the top down and remove weight from the ceiling before you carve out the bottom. A heavy ceiling that is unsupported could collapse.

Smooth out the ceiling to prevent dripping and if you are digging down to the ground, leave a few inches of snow as insulation.

For the person cleaning the carved snow out the doorway, be prepared for a long and boring couple of hours. The easy part is carving and the hard part is getting the snow out of the cave.

You can spare your back muscles if you have a lightweight, long handled shovel. Start by throwing the snow far away from the door so when you are tired you can just dump it near the entrance. Building a short wall on each side of the door will help block the wind if there is any.

Next go to Sleeping in a Snow Cave