What’s a quinzhee you ask? A quinzhee is a snow cave constructed from a hollowed-out pile of snow that can be used as a winter survival shelter or a fun way to spend a winter camping trip. The word quinzhee and its design originate from indigenous people of the Northern United States and Canada. Believe it or not, snow is a great insulator and quinzhees stay pretty warm (About 32 degrees to be exact!). Invite a few friends to spend the night with you, and you might find the quinzhee downright cozy.
What is the difference between a quinzhee (also sometimes spelled quinzee) and an igloo? While both structures originated from indigenous people and use snow as insulation, there are some key differences. Traditionally, igloos were built in barren areas where hardened snow could be cut into sturdy, solid blocks to form more permanent structures, while quinzhees were a forest structure that utilized the light and fluffy snow on the forest floor and could be built daily while on the move.
You can build a quinzhee with your troop as a stand-alone activity, or you can incorporate it as part of an overnight or camping trip! (Psst—spending a night or more in a quinzhee counts towards your Every Girl in a Tent patch.) Now that we’ve covered the “what” of quinzhees, let’s dig into the “how.”
How to Build a Quinzhee
- Shovels (ideally, one per person)
- 10 sticks, approximately 12 inches long each
- Stomp down an area the size of your desired quinzhee to make a hard, packed “floor.” If the snow is deep, you may want to shovel some snow away or use snowshoes to compress the snow more evenly.
- Using the shovel, make a large snow pile on top of the packed area. The larger the snow pile, the larger your quinzhee. It should be taller than four feet if you want to be able to sit comfortably in the quinzhee when you’re done. This will take some time.
- Wait at least an hour and a half for the quinzhee to “settle.” This allows the snow to go through a process called sintering, where the crystals compact and become a solid mass. If the snow is powdery and fine (not sticky), wait 2-3 hours. Time for a hot chocolate break!
- When the snow has settled, punch sticks through the snow pile in various locations. You want the sticks to be about ten inches in and to poke out of the quinzhee a couple of inches. The sticks will serve as your markers to ensure that you don’t dig too far from the inside.
- Start the hollowing process by digging an entry tunnel with a shovel.
- Continue to hollow out the inside of the quinzhee. You can also use tools like pots, snowshoes, or your hands and feet to scoop snow. It’s helpful to take turns with this job!
- If you start to see light shining through the snow, dig more carefully and keep an eye out for your guide sticks.
- When your quinzhee is hollowed, carefully poke 2–3 fist-sized holes in the ceiling/sides of your quinzhee to let fresh air in and carbon dioxide out. Do not skip this step.
- Personalize your quinzhee by creating snow shelves or by constructing a wind block outside of the door by creating a snow wall a foot or two away.
- When you are done using your quinzhee, collapse it. Leaving a quinzhee can present a safety hazard if someone else comes across an old, no longer structurally sound quinzhee. And, as always, it’s best to Leave No Trace.
General Quinzhee Safety Tips
- Quinzhees have the highest risk of collapse while being hollowed out. Watch for your guide sticks and don’t skip step 3.
- Quinzhees will last about three nights in good (cold) weather conditions. Build a new one if you notice the center sagging or the snow melting.
- Don’t sleep in a quinzhee if it’s warmer than 32°F outside.
- Never build a fire or cook with a stove inside of a quinzhee.
Check out our previous In the Loop winter camping post for more tips to help you feel confident, safe, and warm on your winter adventures. And if you do end up building a quinzhee this winter, be sure to share your story with us—we’d love to see!
McKayla Murphy – McKayla is a program resources specialist at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and a minor in dance. McKayla is passionate about racial equity, critical media studies, and art education. She enjoys dancing, trying new food, and seeking adventure (including winter camping and travel). Staples in McKayla’s life include dark chocolate, her hammock, and plenty of reading material.