Building a snow trench hotel

Doug Williams

When you are in the great outdoors snow hiking, skiing or having any other kind of snow adventure, the knowledge of how to make a shelter can be lifesaving. In the case where someone with you gets hurt or night begins to fall while you’re far from any infrastructure, you may need to make use of some emergency shelter building skills. Unless you have some experience building igloos, a snow trench could be the next best thing in an emergency.


Snow cave – Author: Laurel F – CC BY-SA 2.0
Snow cave – Author: Laurel F – CC BY-SA 2.0

As you are outside in the snow, the one building material you need will be plentiful. However, a snow shovel will also be very useful. You should be sure to pack this in your bag before you leave.

An aluminum shovel, which is lightweight but robust, would be the best choice and a fold up version would be the easiest to pack. It is probably one of the most useful items to include in your backpack.

A snow saw and a tarpaulin would also be wise to include as they could prove vital in an emergency situation. With the saw, you will be able to cut blocks of compressed snow which you will be able to stack and create a makeshift wall or use them to construct a “roof”.


Choose the location for the trench you will be digging carefully. It should probably not be under trees which have snow covered branches, which could dump heavy clumps of snow onto your ‘roof’. Another thing to consider is the possibility of an avalanche, so a flat area or slope where that is unlikely to happen is better.


To get your trench just right the snow needs to be deep enough for someone to lie in unexposed. The snow should be at least three feet deep. Compressed snow will be safer to dig into.

Digging a hole in the snow
Digging a hole in the snow

Start by making an outline of the area you plan to dig. This should be six or seven feet long and approximately three feet wide. As you excavate, cut the snow into blocks which can be utilized to construct the ‘roof’. The space you dig should fit one person, bearing in mind that the smaller the space the easier it will be to warm it up with body heat.

With the blocks, you can create an A-frame type of roof structure by leaning blocks against each other across the trench. Use a block to close one end and, after climbing in, use another to close the entrance or block it off with your bag.

You will need to ensure that there is enough ventilation by leaving a hole in the wall, in which air can circulate. Asphyxiation could really spoil your adventure!

You could also use branches to build a ‘roof’ over your trench. If you have a tarpaulin with you, this could be stretched over the space and it could be secured with piles of snow around it. You will need to consider the possibility, however, of more snow falling and causing the tarpaulin to collapse in on you. You could find yourself buried in no time. Make sure that you don’t put yourself in extra danger, as a collapsed construction could really be a problem. Especially if you are already inside.

Snow cave – Author: TKnoxB – CC BY 2.0
Snow cave – Author: TKnoxB – CC BY 2.0

With a bit of practice, you will be able to construct a serviceable shelter quite quickly, even in just half an hour with the right tools. It will not be five-star accommodation but it could be the difference between life and death.

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fmssolution is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival