Winter Shelter Building (Quinzee)

This is an article we wrote in the past but is so pertinent right now!

Maya and the Great Outdoors
A Daddy-and-Daughter’s Quest for Adventure, Knowledge and Fun in NATURE.

Winter is a magical time full of wonder! Animal tracks abound; coyotes and owls call, interrupting a profound silence; and the moon glistens off the snow. This is a time of slowing down and going deep into ourselves.

“I am Maya Grindrod and I’m nine years old. When my dad and I were out snowshoeing one day I asked, how do the animals live out here when it’s so cold? How did people live out here with all this snow? What if they got lost, what would they do?”

“Well Maya, remember those little tunnels we saw in the snow?” I asked.

“Yeah, I saw some earlier and the entrance was surrounded by ice.” replied Maya.

“That’s right! You have a keen eye; ice was only around the entrance not the tunnels itself. When we get back from our hike, let’s that’s look it up.”

We discovered that snow is one of the best insulators and that the ice at the entrance was formed from the body heat and breath of the animal inside the den.

There are regions in North America where the snow pack is not deep enough to consider igloos, a more permanent shelter, and so the natives of the region developed a snow shelter that could be thrown up quickly as a temporary shelter. While on tracking and hunting expeditions, instead of bringing heavy gear like tents and lots of hides in order to make shelter, they created quinzees from snow which they could just leave when they were done with it. An experienced person can make quinzee in less than an hour or two.

So one day after getting some fresh powdered snow of about half a foot, Maya and I (her dad) went into the forest to build a quinzee. It was still snowing, and Maya agreed that building a quinzee would be more fun than shoveling the deck. Below are the steps we did to create our quinzee. We also video-taped our experience, which includes many important tips, more information that would not fit here. Visit to view the video.

Step 1: With any shelter, it’s important to have the materials you need, so one of the most important steps is what, Maya? “Location, location, location.” We brought shovels and found in a shady spot. A sunny spot can work too, but the snow shelter will melt quicker. If we didn’t have shovels we could have used our snowshoes. When we found a location, we had to look for hazards, such as broken trees limbs and dead trees that could fall where we would be building.

Step 2: We created the size of our shelter by standing in the center of the area and drawing a circle with a walking stick.

Step 3: We threw up snow into a pile about a foot high and then packed it, and kept throwing and packing until we reached the height and dome shape we wanted. (We also ended up throwing snow at each other during the process; a fun way to keep your child shoveling.)

Step 4: We turned our quinzee into an animal. “This is the porcupine phase,” stated Maya. “It’s a local mammal covered in quills. We covered our snow dome in sticks.” Find straight pencil diameter sticks between 12 to 18 inches long and place them all over the shelter about one to two feet apart.

Step 5: Take a break and have some hot chocolate. It’s not an actual step but you do need to wait for about 30 minutes or more (depending on the snow conditions) for the snow to settle, a process called “sintering” where ice crystals begin to bond to each other. If you wait too long, ice will form and the quinzee will be more difficult to carve out.

Step 6: Next we carved out the inside of our quinzee! “So what are all the sticks for Daddy,” asked Maya referring to step 4. “Well Maya, as we are removing snow from the inside, how do we know how to judge the thickness of the walls of the quinzee?” Maya carves and hits the tip of stick. “Oh, I see the tip of the stick. and another one.” “As you’re moving snow and see the tip of a stick, don’t dig in any further; this guarantees that your walls will be as thick as the length of your sticks.”

Important tools for carving – you can use your gloves, a pot and even a grain scoop. The best thing to use is a compact shovel with a short handle. When Maya was inside she was using her whole body; her feet, her hands, and even her head. She was covered in snow!

Caution: When carving out a quinzee, keep in mind that this is a snow dome not a tunnel. Make sure to carve out the sides and top evenly. You don’t want a heavy top that might collapse in on you. And it’s always a good idea to have a buddy to pull you out if you need it.

Step 7: When we finished carving, we stepped back and admired our hard work. “Wow, we did it!” exclaimed Maya. “Can we bring a candle and a sleeping bag out here?” Maya and I went back to the house and came back out when the moon was up. We walked quietly through the woods to our quinzee. Maya got down on all fours and scrambled in. “Okay, give me the sleeping bag and the candle.” Maya made a little nest and we lit the candle, laying in the darkness. “Did you hear that? Daddy, that was an owl,” whispered Maya loudly.
My heart brimmed with pride and joy. Here we were having some quality daddy-daughter time; hanging out together in a quinzee we built and listening to the sounds around us. Life can be this good!

Frank Grindrod is founder and owner of Earthwork Programs, a local business since 1999. Earthwork Programs is dedicated to teaching people earth skills such as nature awareness, tracking, wilderness living skills, survival, and earth philosophy. Earthwork Programs is also recognized as a Nurtured Heart™ School. His daughter Maya is an adventurous nine year old who is the creator and star of the series, “Maya and the Great Outdoors”. Visit Frank and Maya and Earthwork Programs at Immersed in Nature, we reconnect you with the earth.