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Shelter is one of the most important elements of survival. It’s one of the three things necessary to ensure that we don’t lose our body heat, the other two being clothing and fire. When cold, wet weather comes, having good shelter can make the difference between life or death.
Making The Most Of Your Environment In The Wild
But finding adequate shelter in the wild isn’t always easy. There are sometimes when the terrain and vegetation just don’t cooperate with you. While you can always build a shelter, you need to have adequate materials to work with. What if you don’t? Imagine that you’re somewhere where there are few trees to work with. What do you do then?
I’ve been in that situation and I live in a part of the country where there aren’t too many trees. I’ve also been above timberline where there aren’t any. However, I’ll tell you what there is a lot of in the wintertime… snow. You can count on finding lots of snow up there, usually heaped into huge drifts by the wind.
Ideally, we all have some sort of shelter with us if we find ourselves in such a situation. Notwithstanding, when you’re in the high country in the wintertime, the temperature can drop incredibly far and fast after sundown. A tent really isn’t going to provide a whole lot of shelter. This is true even if you do have a high-quality sleeping bag.
What you need is a shelter that can’t drop below freezing. That may not seem all that comfortable to you, but take my word for it. 32°F above zero is a whole lot more comfortable than 20°F below zero. If you happen to have a lot of those snow drifts I was just talking about, you can make yourself a shelter that won’t go below 32°F. In fact, it might even be as warm as 35 or 36°F.
The Secret To The Ice Cave
Before talking about how to build ice caves, it’s important to understand the principle they operate under. In other words, we need to understand how being inside something made of snow and ice can be warmer than being out in the open air. The secret is that ice and snow won’t get any colder than 32°F or 0°C. It can’t and that’s physics.
Remember back in elementary school science when you learned that heat rises and cold drops? Well, that’s an important part of making this work. We need to use that principle of thermodynamics to ensure that the temperature inside the ice cave can’t get below 32°F.
Here’s the key. The top of the doorway to enter into the ice cave must be below the floor level. If it is, the relatively warmer air inside the ice cave will stay there. This air will keep you from freezing to death. But if not, if your doorway is too high or the floor of the cave is too low, the cold air from outside will enter in and the relatively warmer air will escape.
Build Your Ice Cave Like An Eskimo Igloo
This is the same principle that the Eskimos use in making their igloos, which are also made out of ice. The entryway to the igloo is flat with the floor of the entryway being at an equal height to the floor of the igloo. Then, they build a shelf all around the inside of the room, which is higher than the top of the entrance. So, while the floor might be cold, the area around the shelf stays at 32°F.
A very well-built igloo will take this a step further and make the entrance dip down. It will dig down into the packed snow to create a tunnel and this will keep the top of the entrance closer to the floor level. This strategy helps with the overall effect. You can even build an igloo where the entire entrance is under the ground level, providing the best possible heat retention.
Digging The Ice Cave
The first step in digging your ice cave is picking an appropriate snow bank. You need one that is deep enough to give you the vertical height needed for your entryway and the sleeping chamber itself. The second thing is that it needs to be packed with snow so that when you start digging out the cave itself, the roof of the cave doesn’t collapse on you.
Start at ground level, digging out the entrance. You’ll want to go in a foot or two, keeping the floor level, before starting to angle it upwards. That will give the entryway a thick enough wall to help ensure that it stays in place and doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Once inside, start angling upwards to get to the level of your sleeping chamber.
As much as possible, you want to be packing the snow rather than digging it out. Specifically, you need to pack it down to strengthen the floor. Be careful about packing the snow up, as you could break the overhead and destroy your efforts. If you do, you’ll either need to repair it from outside by piling more snow on top or start over in another spot.
Making The Sleeping Chamber In Your Ice Cave
When your entryway is far enough above the ground so that you are above the top of the entrance, you can start making the sleeping chamber itself. Once again, you want to pack snow as much as possible. But if your snow bank is firmly packed, you’ll have to dig some of it out. Just be sure to not allow the floor of the cave to get too low. If necessary, bring more snow in or take more from the roof and put it on the floor to build it up.
You don’t want to make your sleeping chamber any bigger than necessary. Basically, you’re looking to make something about the size of a one-man tent. The lower you can keep the roof, the warmer it will be as the heat from your body will rise.
Insulation And Finishing Touches In Your Ice Cave
You will also have to have some sort of insulation between you and the floor of the cave while sleeping. Hopefully, you will be someplace where you can get some pine boughs or other foliage to make a bed. Direct contact with the snow will draw off your body heat faster than the air will. For this reason, if you have a blanket or sleeping bag, it’s actually more useful below you than above you.
One last little detail – if you have any candles, they can be used to warm the inside of the snow cave. You can safely raise the temperature inside to about 35°F or 36°F before the snow will begin to drip inside. That’s something you don’t want, as the cold water dripping on you will destroy the insulating value of your clothes and could lead to hypothermia .
You may also enjoy reading an additional Off The Grid News article: Hunting 101: Tracking And Finding Animals In The Snow 
Do you have any other tips about how to construct ice caves in a survival situation? Let us know in the comments below.