The Life-Saving Snow Cave

snow-cave-pairWintertime is the hardest time of year to survive. In essence, everything our ancestors did, was to prepare themselves to survive the winter. Even the celebration of Thanksgiving reflects that, as the Pilgrims were actually holding a harvest festival, thanking God that they would have enough food to see them through the winter. Considering that they almost didn’t make it through the previous winter, that’s not all that surprising.

There are two basic things that make winter a difficult time to survive. One is the lack of food that can be harvested from nature and the other is the need for shelter. Without adequate shelter, it’s impossible to maintain body heat and survive.

While there are lots of different types of shelters that can be used, you usually are limited by the materials available. Those can be hard to find, when covered by a thick layer of snow. But then, in a pinch, you can make a shelter out of that snow. It won’t exactly be toasty warm inside, but it will be warm enough to keep you alive.

Snow caves are for use when the temperature is below freezing. They are based upon the principle that heat rises and cold drops. So, you are able to keep the temperature in the snow cave above freezing, even while the temperature outside drops. Like I said, it’s not toasty warm, but it’s warm enough to survive.

To build a snow cave, you need to find a nice deep snow bank or build one yourself. Better to find one that’s pre-existing. The entrance is the critical part. It must slope uphill, causing the floor of the snow cave to be above the top of the door. This is critical, so give yourself a few inches extra of space to ensure that your floor is high enough.

You can either dig the snow out or pack it to the sides of the tunnel, whichever works best. Try to pack at least some, as that will help make the cave stronger.

Once the entrance is done, start working on the cave itself, being careful to keep the floor above the top of the entranceway. Once again, you’ll want to pack as much of the snow as you can, especially on the floor and roof. Remove what can’t be packed. If you make a mound a couple of feet in front of the doorway with it, it will help hide the entrance and block it from the wind.

The cave itself needs to be long enough to lay down in, and about three feet high. This is a shelter for sleeping in, not for living in. So, you want to have enough room to lay down comfortably. Your pack, assuming you have one, can go by the door, helping to block any air movement caused by the wind.

The one danger with a snow cave is that it can collapse, especially if a person or large animal walks over it. That’s not very likely if you build it in a snow bank. But the possibility exists. Always sleep with your head near the door end, so that you can more easily dig your way out, in the event of a collapse.

No matter how cold it gets outside, it will be 32 degrees inside the snow cave. Your body heat might be able to warm it up a degree or two more. You could also light a candle inside, but that would mean having to have an air hole, to ensure sufficient oxygen. The problem with that, is that it will allow cold air into the snow cave, so you’re ultimately better off without it.

You also want to block off the entrance, at least somewhat, to prevent wind from blowing in. Brush, bark or a tarp can be used for this. Place a ground sheet under you, on the floor of the cave, and if you have a foam rubber sleeping pad, be sure to use it. The foam makes excellent insulation, protecting you from direct contact with the snow.

With a good winter sleeping bag, you should be as warm in the snow cave as you can be just about anywhere. It will definitely be warmer than a tent, due to the insulating value of the snow. In fact, other than a well-insulated cabin, this is about the warmest shelter you can find in the wild.

The igloos of the Eskimos worked under this same principle. That’s why they have to crawl through the entrance. Inside the igloo, there is a shelf all the way around the perimeter, which is where they sit and sleep. A fire in the middle of the room provides heat, warming the inside. With a fire, the inside of an igloo can reach about 38 degrees, before it starts melting the ice.

So there you have it, an emergency shelter that you can make in the wintertime, which will help ensure your survival. Just make sure you don’t overheat and start sweating while you’re digging it out, or when you stop, that sweat could freeze, causing hypothermia. Better to work slowly or to take your coat off so that you’ll be a little bit cold, rather than overheat.

Tricks like this will help you to be ready for anything. That’s really what survival is. Until next time, keep your powder dry and your survival gear close at hand.


Dr. Rich

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