Among all the many bad outcomes you can encounter in a survival situation, one that is most likely to kill you and other members of your group is simple exposure.
Exposure to the elements, particularly cold weather, is one of the single deadliest threats in any outdoor survival situation, far more than any exploratory mishap, animal attack, or poisonous berry.
Accordingly, every prepper who encounters harsh seasonal conditions or lives in an area known for extreme cold and snowfall must take it upon themselves to provide for their shelter no matter the situation.
When it comes to cold weather survival in areas that receive considerable winter precipitation, the snow cave is a classic and nearly foolproof option.
Snow caves can be excavated anywhere you have deep snow to work with, though tall drifts of snow or serious snow accumulation on a hillside is going to be your best bet.
With a little bit of effort and some insider info on design and reinforcement, your snow cave can easily provide comfortable shelter for three or four people for days at a time.
We will give you the scoop on this time-honored winter weather survival shelter in the rest of this article.
Snow Cave Usage and History
Most peppers are by now familiar, at least in theory, with a variety of improvised and primitively constructed shelter options.
From the humble lean-to to the surprisingly sophisticated teepee, improvised shelters come in all shapes, all sizes and make use of all sorts of materials in their construction.
The snow cave is unique and that it only requires, technically, one resource to make: snow. If you want to get really technical, it is constructed by the removal, not the addition, of snow.
Snow caves have been employed around the world by people for millennia, anywhere there is a considerable accumulation of snow.
Travelers, hunters, and survivors of mishaps great and small have all had to rely on snow caves when other shelter options would involve too much work or resources that they didn’t have.
And its absolute simplest, a snow cave is little more than a tunnel leading into a bank of snow.
In fact, it is so simple that even animals make use of snow caves for burrows and maternity dens.
Snow caves offer people sheltering in them many advantages, not the least of which is that they provide excellent insulation and also considerable protection against wind, particularly when you have the option to locate the entrance in such a way that it will not allow wind to readily enter.
Snow caves are so efficient they will keep the internal temperature around 30° F even when the outside temperature is 40° below zero!
That’s amazing considering the shelter is made from the same cold stuff you’re trying to save yourself from!
For those who know what they are getting into, a thorough understanding of snow cave theory and construction techniques can allow them to forgo completely the carrying of tents or other man-made shelter options in lieu of tools that will more easily allow you to complete a snow cave wherever you are.
Snow caves are unique in this regard and they serve just as well as dedicated, purpose-made temporary habitation as they do emergency shelters when other options have failed.
Elements of a Snow Cave
Like any shelter, snow caves are composed of recognizable elements that work in concert to provide structure, insulation, and protection from the weather.
The following are features that are typical of any snow cave installation, and you should be sure to use the following guidelines when constructing yours:
Big or small, all snow caves are made by excavating snow out of a large drift or other accumulation.
This is in contrast to other snow shelters like the igloo which are constructed of snow that has been compacted into useful shapes for building and is typically situated above ground level.
Your snow cave should be cited in a place that is generally safe from any falling objects, be they trees, a snow slide, rocks, or anything else.
The entrance tunnel allows ingress and egress from the snow cave and is also excavated first in order to begin construction. Tools should always be used for efficiency and safety (see Frostbite, below).
The entrance tunnel should only be as large as necessary to permit movement in and out, in order to provide better insulation, and if possible, should be situated so that prevailing winds do not come blasting into the interior of the snow cave.
If needed, protective baffles can be constructed around the entrance to provide better protection against wind.
The entrance tunnel itself should be between 4 feet and 6 feet long to provide adequate protection and insulation.
The walls of the tunnel should be compacted as they are excavated to begin forming the rigid shell of the cave itself.
Generally, the main compartment or chamber of the snow cave will be located somewhat higher than the entrance in order to allow cold air to seep down and out of the occupied chamber.
A basic snow cave will be large enough to permit anywhere from 2 to 4 people to rest comfortably, depending on whether or not they are lying down. Larger snow caves are possible, but are more challenging to excavate and reinforce.
Like the walls of the entrance tunnel, the walls of the chamber should be tamped down to pack and reinforce the snow. Walls should be a minimum of one foot in thickness on all sides.
Benches are a sort of slab made of snow that will allow occupants to sit or lie down.
Depending on how large the chamber is the benches may be excavated from the walls of the chamber and shaped or maybe placed using loose snow. The benches should run down either side of the chamber, not down the middle.
The roof of the snow cave is only as high as necessary to permit access. Warm air rises and should be kept as close to the occupants as possible, necessitating a low ceiling.
The interior of the snow caves roof should be sculpted in a dome shape to provide the best possible strength over the widest area. The roof in particular must be carefully shaped and reinforced to prevent collapse.
In ideal conditions, cold air should seep down and out of the chamber through the entrance tunnel.
If this is not possible or better protection against cold air accumulation is desired, a pit or trench can be dug in the middle of the chamber that will allow cold air to sink and accumulate.
This will help keep the rest of the chamber warmer and the occupants more comfortable. The pit also serves to provide a bit of a standoff from the ceiling in case a stove or small fire is needed.
Good ventilation is essential in a snow cave, especially when it is going to be occupied for a long time or if any combustion is taking place inside or near the entrance.
A couple of small ventilation holes should be drilled in the walls or the ceiling to allow gases out and fresh air in.
These holes must be monitored to ensure they do not close up with additional precipitation or condensation.
Chances are if you have enough snow to create a snow cave, and reason to occupy it, more snow will be coming.
You should mark the entrance of the snow cave with a highly visible, tall object that can easily be seen so you can always find your way back to the cave entrance if you or someone else leaves it.
Additionally, make it a point to mark the perimeter of the cave using similar objects so that someone does not accidentally walk over the roof from above; this will guarantee a cave-in.
That’s all there is to know about the elements and construction factors for snow caves.
As long as you use some care in situating and constructing them your snow cave will be a shelter capable of keeping you and other members of your group warm no matter how blisteringly cold it is outside.
Snow Cave Hazards
Snow caves are an effective survival shelter and are highly recommended for cold-weather environments.
Despite this, they do entail certain hazards, more than typical improvised or primitive shelters. Make sure you read over the list of hazards below so you can learn how to mitigate or avoid them.
I have not overstated the case concerning how insulating snow caves are, but nonetheless the interior is still nothing less than frigid.
They are only warm compared to the outside environment! For that reason, you must have other methods at hand for raising your body temperature.
Winter clothing must still be worn, and many adventurers or survivors will depend on a small fire placed in the pit to help warm the interior.
Going without proper clothing or sleeping bags means you are still likely to fall victim to hypothermia in your snow cave!
Also, building the snow cave requires significant exertion, and sweating during the build can dramatically raise the risk of hypothermia. Work in shifts or trade-off with partners to prevent this.
Frostbite is a significant hazard when you are forced to construct a snow cave using your hands instead of tools.
As mentioned above, tools should always be used, but when you are forced to keep your hands in contact with snow, even if you are wearing gloves, you drastically increase the risk of frostnip and eventually frostbite.
This is particularly dangerous when constructing a snow cave because your hands will go numb and lose all sensation well before the greater symptoms of frostbite begin to set in.
By the time you know you are in trouble, the damage can be substantial, and it will be too late.
Snow caves are vulnerable to collapse when they are constructed improperly or when too much weight accumulates upon or impacts the roof.
Even a comparatively sturdy snow cave is still fragile and excess snow accumulation, falling debris or the ill-fated steps of a person who does not know the snow cave is there can collapse the entire structure, bringing it down on the occupants and potentially entombing them in heavy, wet snow.
It should be possible to dig your way out, but suffocation is a hazard. Always pay close attention to what you are doing when you are constructing your snow cave to ensure it is as durable and sturdy as possible.
Icing is a phenomenon that occurs in snow caves typically when they are occupied for a long time, at least several days.
The higher internal temperature, combined with moisture from respiration or perspiration, leads to a thin glaze of ice forming on internal surfaces. This icing slows or stops the movement of air through the snow and reduces ventilation.
Though not a major hazard so long as air holes are kept open and the entrance tunnel is clear, it must be accounted for by continual maintenance.
Carbon Monoxide Buildup
Whenever camp stoves or small fires are utilized inside or near the snow cave the combustion byproducts will include carbon monoxide, a deadly toxin that will readily poison people if it is allowed to build up.
Once more, this is not a major hazard so long as ventilation is maintained, but this occurrence will prove deadly if the entrance tunnel and vent holes are closed up by snowfall when the occupants are sleeping.
Many victims of carbon monoxide succumb to its effects while they are asleep, so if there is any doubt that this may occur leave someone on watch and sleep in shifts for safety.
Believe it or not, many snow cave-induced injuries arise in the construction phase. The typical usage of ice axes, picks, shovels, and other tools in conjunction with slippery conditions and awkward footing leads to all sorts of mishaps.
The last thing you need to deal with in any survival situation is a self-inflicted injury, so make sure you pay attention to what you are doing and always use best practices with any tool. You don’t want to have to limp in out of the cold!
The snow cave is a minimalist shelter that has been utilized for time and memorial to good effect by people who are living or surviving in snowy environments.
Providing outstanding insulation, excellent protection against wind, and capable of being built using the minimum of tools and additional resources the snow cave is one shelter option that deserves a place of pride in every prepper’s bag of tricks.
Make sure you brush up on your snow cave knowledge and theory so you can minimize its disadvantages and take advantage of its better qualities.
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