Arctic Winter Shelters – The Snow Grave

The snow grave or snow trench is perhaps the easiest and most practical of all natural shelters in the Arctic.

It is fast to build, requires little in the way of materials and tools and will get you out of the biting wind fast.

This shelter can be built in the dark, which is a near constant companion in the winter and the act of building it itself will warm you to some extent.

Essentially, you need to dig a grave in the snow then lay some pine boughs in the bottom for insulation.  This is all.

It is not a warm shelter but it is perhaps a “less cold” shelter.  It is true that cold air sinks and will sink into your snow grave or snow trench but it also protects you from the wind.  It is probable that the cold air filling your snow grave will be less cold than the wind chill introduced by being exposed to the wind.

It helps to have a snow shovel of course but you can dig this with gloved hands, a bowl, a plate, or any other digging implement that you can think of.

The important things to note are:

  • The hole should be just large enough for your body and kit to lie down in without touching the sides or ends.
  • Dig all the way down to the ground and get rid of as much snow from the bottom as you can
  • This shelter can be constructed one handed should you have an injury preventing the use of one arm
  • The pine boughs should be about 4 fingers deep once compressed as a minimum.
  • You cannot have too many pine boughs, the more you have the better
  • The bottom of a hill is not the best location due to katabic wind but almost anywhere else is fine.

Being prepared and organised in this shelter is important.  Getting out of your +35 degree sleeping bag into -35 degree cold is a painful experience, literally.  The way to do it is quickly.  You get dressed inside your sleeping bag and put gloves in before you get out.  Putting an ungloved hand in the snow to support you as you stand up is very painful.

The faster you get up and out of the snow grave the better, you want to be up, out and moving within a few minutes in order to not suffer too much from the cold.

If you have to spend a second night in one of these shelters and you have the time, build a raised sleeping platform off to one side by compacting some snow and dig the side out a bit more so that you can have a fire next to you while you sleep.  This will be a a huge improvement but will melt the surrounding snow, creating water and ice but as long as you have plenty of pine boughs underneath you, your should remain dry and warm.

Having a fire in snow grave shortens it’s life but is the only realistic way to spend the night if you have no sleeping bag.  The same can be said for any other natural arctic shelter in winter.

If you do not have a sleeping bag or blanket, you must have a fire.

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