Yes, building igloos is exciting, it’s kind of « the thing to do » if you can’t go camping (because there is snow everywhere). Or just because you don’t feel like spending the weekend in a crowded ski station.
Whatever your knowledge of igloo building is, and whatever you might have heard about it … let me tell you something. It might be disapointing.
Building an igloo is not difficult. Anyone can do it !
That does not make it less interesting, cool, relaxing and exciting.
So it’s not one of those things that is limited to some super experienced alpinists. Still you will have to choose a terrain free of any risk of avalanche of course. If you don’t know how to asses that risk, you might need some help, or you just make sure to be in a wide flat open space with no slopes around you at all.So now that we are all on one page, let me tell you something else.
It’s hard work.
Well it depends actually of the snow conditions, but let’s say you can apply the following thumb rule for your planning :
For 2 people, you need between 3 to 6 hours to build a comfortable igloo.
For every additional person you can increase the estimation by 1 hours. So 3 people 4 to 7 hours, 4 people 5 to 8 hours. For more than 4 people you might consider making 2 igloos. You will see why if you read until the end about the risks.
So what makes the difference between 3 or 6 hours ? The type of snow.
Eventhough you don’t have to be an alpinist, you must still know a bit something about snow. There is powdery snow that behaves like sugar if you shovel it, and there is wet snow that sticks together, soft or hard. The only way to really know what snow you have is to go on the spot where you want to build your igloo, dig out a cube of at least 40 x 40 x 40 cm, and check if you can handle it without it falling appart. Literally you take in your hands, you should be able to lift it turn it around etc. Of course i twill break a bit – it’s snow, not ice.
By the way this brings me to a question I was asked many times : No, you don’t build igloos with ice. I mean, of course, you can. If you leave in lapland and owe a ice axe and saw, you might wanna dig into a frozen lake and build a house igloo and live in there. But this is something completely different to building an igloo in a normal european winter in a snowy landscape.
Those snow igloos you usually build for one night. If it’s below zero during the day you might also stay a second night, but if it’s warmer during the day, especially if the sun shines, the walls of your igloo are very likely gonna become too weak.
Now, how to build an igloo ?
So once you have your spot, preferabaly in a flat part where a lot of snow accumulated, you can start drawing the outline. You have to measure the snow height :
If it’s more than a meter and your snow is wet, you can build the best igloo.
Let’s start with this one, and late I explain you what to do if you don’t have those perfect conditions.
For the perfect igloo, you draw a line on the ground of the size of the area you want to have inside as sleeping area. Then you start digging this area out, and position the blocks just outside that line. Blocks could be small or big, that depends on you and your showel. Smaller blocks, more work, less heavy. Bigger blocks, less work but heavier to lift.
So basically you build the walls with the snow you dig out of the inside of the igloo. You leave one surface of 50 x 50 cm in the middle to make sure you can step on it at the end, to fix the roof. After you have made the first row of blocks all around you, you will start the second row, and make sure it’s more narrow, this is : it starts going inwards, with a slight angle. As much as your snow allows it.
The more the better.
Only once you have digged as deep down as you can, and build up the walls as high as you possibly can from inside, you can start digging out the entry area. Yes, of course you need an entry ! But now that you have build the walls already 2/3 you can finish the roof from outside without problems, because the ground is still high. If you would have used the snow from outside you’d be quite annoyed, because you wouldn’t be able to reach the top …
So the entry you dig as low as possible, trying to make a U underneath the wall. It’s no big difference if you have a high or low entry, maybe 2-3°C. What will make a big difference is how large an dlong it is. Especially if it’s windy. I mean that’s common sense … just try to make it as deep and long as possible and not more than 1 meter large.
The final part is to get the roof up there.
It doesn’t matte how you do it, but you will have to fill that hole if you don’t wanna be cold. Easiest is if one person is inside, and one outside. If you hold the blocks long enough against the existing wall, and you stuff the hole with snow, it will magically hold after 30 secondes or so.
That’s it ! Just roll bring in your backpack and all, and you’re done. If you’re both good with your showel, you are done in 3 hours.
If you have less than a meter of snow depth or if your snow doesn’t stick, you will have to make a huge snow pile first, and then carve it from inside. This technique, which name I don’t know yet, if much much more time consuming. I have experienced it once, on a igloo bulding workshop organised by the non-for-profit organisation mountain wilderness. Thanks to them, and the mountain guides involved, I was able to learn this technique, that requires quite some more calculations. If someone is interested I could write a post about it ?
What about the risks ?
There are a couple of things that can go wrong but not all of them are bad. Some are. Let’s start with this.
If your igloo is very big, and has a lot of weight on the top, and it’s above zero that night, the snow might end up burying you. This is something you want to avoid, because laying under 60 cm of snow is like in an avalanche. You might have a bit more air, but you might still not be able to move and get anyone to rescue you.
Sorry for scaring you, but this is a real risk, although I have never heard of anyone in that situation. You just don’t build a big flat igloo if it’s too warm and there is no one else around to check on you.
Secondly, you might lack oxigen. This is why you never ever cook inside an igloo. Never. You can cook at the entry. Even if there is a strom. (But them why would you go build an igloo anyway ?!)
You also make holes into your walls if they are 60 cm thick. If you made a perfect igloo, the walls are probably more like 20 cm and full of holes anyway.
What is the most likely to happen is that you will be cold. Haha … I slept in 5 igloos and was cold 3 out of 5 times. The good news is, it doesn’t really matter. You have a good night anyway, and when you get out of the igloo after 12 hours in your sleeping bag, you are usually quite fit. Just because of all the physical effort you’ve done the day before to do the igloo, and all the fresh air, and the stars, and the camp fire, and the rum, and, and, and, …
No, seriously, don’t be surprised if you don’t sleep much. Your face might be cold, your knees, you feet, what ever, something will wake you up anyways. It’s ok. You’re still gonna feel great the next day.
What happens if you are really really cold ? If you shiver all over ? Well you might have a fever. Or you forgot your sleeping bag.
Here is what you need to not be cold and have a good night sleep :
– 2 camping mats one above each other
– For a forecast of minus 5°C : A sleeping bag with comfort temperature minus 5 (minus 15 for girls!)
– All your technical clothes (merino wool or other) dry and worn on yourself inside the sleeping bag
– warm shoes that like to be in the snow all day
– Your wet jacket and skipants outside of the sleeping bag, maybe on it to add additional insolation
– A bottle with hot tea that you put close to your feet (you will love having some half warm tea in the morning)
– Something to cover your neck, your face and your head at night
One more thing : Building igloos in the sun is absolutely awesome, you can do it in t-shirt, drink beers, dry your sweat, while getting tanned. Building igloos at night is NOT fun. So better get up early and finish early so you can go get wood, make a huge camp fire (far away from the igloos !) after cooking yourself a well deserved meal, laugh and drink.
And when the night comes in, you can simply stare at the millions stars, warm your feet on the fire, and crawl typsy into your ready made bed.
That’s how it should be !