Snow caves are neither fast nor easy to build. They are by no means the preferred snow-based shelter solution for daily travel, or even for stranded, emergency shelter. The builder must have a shovel-—preferably a large one-—and be equipped with basically waterproof clothing, especially pants, as he will spend a great deal of time kneeling and sitting in snow while constructing the cave A snow cave’s only merits are protection from wind, and relatively, from extreme cold. Properly built, it will maintain an internal temperature slightly above freezing no matter the outside temperature. This, from occupant body heat, perhaps aided by a candle or petro stove. If such artificial heat sources are used the interior of the cave must be absolutely smooth along its interior ceiling or else drips from any bumps above will soon wet out everything inside.
Every snow cave I’ve built saw extended use time-wise. Otherwise they are not worth the trouble and the preparation beforehand to construct. I eventually developed better alternatives, which we will discuss later.
Snow trenches, on the other hand, are quick to create and don’t pose such a hazard of getting soaked while building. If the snow cover is deep enough they can even be “kicked out”. As I always carried an avalanche shovel on backcountry ski trips I could always make more sculpted trenches; I could create a good deep trench in relatively shallow snow simply by shoveling snow onto the sides of the trench, increasing its depth that way. Once the desired depth is achieved a tarp “roof” can be placed over the otherwise open top, securing it on the sides of the trench with packed snow over branches, skis, etc. (I typically used a featherweight Space Blanket for the roof; the weight was so minimal the thing could be justified as always-in-the-pack. Sitting up height was always a good gage for depth of the trench. A single man trench would be about thirty inches wide and about seven feet long. The foot end could be blocked with snow, just not completely. It’s a good idea to build the trench slightly downhill and dig a sump hole at the foot so that cold air won’t pool as much in the living area. A good trench is not as warm as a snow cave but it’s a lot warmer than “outside”. I’ve even built trenches for two occupants.
One such occasion was in about 1971 or 1972. The location was Colorado, and the month was early May. The snow pack was deep. The weather was balmy; my friend Mike and I were running klister as ski wax…it was that warm. The snow was easy to shovel and so my friend and I decided to build a double wide trench Nice and deep. We covered it crosswise with both our Space Blankets, packed snow onto our skis holding the Blankets securely (we thought) along the edges of our Super Trench and settled in for a nice supper and libations. Then off to sleep. It was so nice weather wise we were turned into our bags in our skivvies.
I awoke in pitch dark with a clammy weight against my face. What?! Mike woke up about the same time, and freaked out. He thrashed at the pressing weight, and tore away the Space Blanket roof-—which was now right on top of us-—thus allowing hundreds of pounds of deep deep snow to engulf us. It engulfed us, and every speck of our gear. Heavy snow was everywhere. (An epic three foot spring blizzard had hit our location, a total surprise, and collapsed the roof of our Trench, despite the packed snow and skis we had used to secure it. There was just too much of the stuff.)
And so we had to exit our bags, while at the bottom of this pile of snow, getting thoroughly wet in the process, and dig around for our flashlights and most important of all-— a fire starting kit! Otherwise, we were dead men. (It was plenty cold now as well.) Shaking like aspen leaves we did manage to find a light and a fire start kit, as well as a few snowpacked garments and our boots (!!!) and sloshed over to a rock outcrop above the snow and managed to get a fire going. And that dear readers saved our lives. We fed that blaze the rest of the night, eventually getting warm enough to go over to our wrecked Trench and dig out our gear. Then dry it out. By noon the next day we were bone weary but relatively solid-—situation-wise. So we started out for the trailhead Along the way we found a couple in much worse shape than we were. The young woman was suffering from hypothermia. Full blown case. We weren’t done with this ordeal after all. Mike was co-owner of our survival school and we both knew what to do. We took turns huddled with the poor girl in sleeping bags till we could begin to get hot liquids down her. And we got another fire going. (The couple had no way of building a fire, having ignored winter adventuring Rule One.). We saved another life, not just our own.
So. Snow trenches have their limitations too. They are warmer than tents though, and eventually I solved the cold tent problem. But not yet, as our story of winter sheltering continues….
I want to direct attention back to my disastrous sleeping bag collapse while traversing Yellowstone Park on skis. By the third night of performing isometrics in my flat bag with temperatures of forty below in the cold tent I was just about done for. So we got creative the next night. We got busy with our avalanche shovels and dug clear to ground level in a largish circle. We dubbed our creation a Snow Kiva. And we built a big old fire smack dab in the middle. Then commenced building “benches” a couple of feet off the ground around the fire. Rigged the tent as a kind of awning over the fire, for reflectivity and as protection from falling snow. And got thoroughly saturated with warmth, Warmth such as only FIRE can produce. We slept on the benches. We lounged on them We relished our situation We were at last off Expedition and actually Living!
I’ve been building snow kivas ever since. Attendees at our Colorado winter rendezvous will often experience one; we don’t have to resort to one since I “brought the fire inside the tent” so to speak, but kivas are still a treat-—seeing the stars, experiencing the fire’s warmth, the relative protection from wind. And if conditions get too bad we can always head back over to that gloriously warm tipi Next time let’s explore the history of my developing man carryable heated shelters. The advent of Kifaru Tipis and Stoves.
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