Building a Quinzee in PA National Park
My friend Ashlyn over at The Lost Girl's Guide to Finding the World has been wanting to sleep in a quinzee all winter long - but for one reason or another her plans always got stymied. She thought she was running out of weekends this winter, but surprise, it's the middle of April and winter still isn't over! Since we both work freelance, we were able to take off on a Tuesday for a little mid-week adventure.
We pulled into the park office around noon last Tuesday, chatted with the woman working about the snow conditions and the best place to set up camp for the night, paid for our camping permits (less than $5 a night in the winter!) and headed over to Paignton Bay Campground. We chose this site because it gets less sun (meaning more snow was remaining) and has an enclosed camp kitchen (even though we didn't end up using it at all).
We did a quick walk-through of the campground when we first arrived, looking for a spot with lots of snow that was also sheltered from the wind. We found the perfect location and stopped for a quick lunch break before we threw on our rain gear (it reached +4 that day) and started digging.
For those of you who don't know, a quinzee is a hollowed out pile of snow - a lot like the tunnels you might have made in the snowbank on your lawn as a child. There are three main steps to building one:
Pile up the snow. It's safest to shovel it yourself rather than using a drift or snowbank that you find so you are sure of the integrity of the snow. As you shovel, throw the snow high in the air to help break it apart and allow air pockets to form. This is important to make sure your structure is strong enough to last the night without caving in. Our location had a few feet of snowfall covering the ground, but because it was so late in the season it had icy layers from various melts. To be safe, we dug out a hole in the snow the size of our desired quinzee first and then piled it back up in that space. This whole process took us about 3 hours, but we did stop quite often to talk and take pictures. The size of your mound will depend on how many people will be sleeping in it and how much space you want to move around - but remember, the smaller it is the warmer it will be.
Insert measuring sticks throughout the snow pile and wait. These sticks should be about 18" long and will act as an important guide when you start to hollow out your mound. The snow needs to sit for 2-3 hours to allow it to harden and become strong enough. This process is called sintering.
Hollow out your quinzee! This is the fun part. Start by making a small entrance just large enough for you to squeeze through, and as you get deeper you can begin to dig wider and taller as well. It can be tricky to remove the snow as your digging while also keeping your entrance as long and narrow as possible, but this will help keep you warm at night. We tried a few different methods for removing the snow, but it's fun to be creative and try out new ways yourself. We started by using a tarp to pull the snow out but as the cave got deeper we had one person inside pushing/kicking it to the entrance with their hands and feet and the other on the outside shovelling it completely out of the way. Eventually we started to reach some of our measuring sticks and decided that we were happy with the size of our home for the night. Another indicator to watch to make sure your walls aren't getting too thin is the amount of sunlight penetrating the snow. As we didn't begin hollowing our quinzee until 7PM, we couldn't rely on sunlight and had to be sure we were making use of the sticks. The final step before your quinzee is ready to be slept in is to remove a few of the measuring sticks, leaving behind small holes for ventilation. This will help both moisture and carbon monoxide leave the cave and be replaced by fresh air.
The cave of our quinzee was approximately 6½ feet long, 5 feet wide, and about 3 feet tall, depending on the spot. It took us 4 hours to hollow it out, but we also stopped often to warm up by the fire, cook and eat dinner, and watch and photograph the northern lights.
Before we went to bed we both got changed into completely new clothes to make sure we wouldn't catch a chill from any sweat or snow in our clothing from when we were working. Though it was only -10 outside, we wanted to make sure we retained as much heat as possible while we were sleeping. We layed down a large tarp folded in half and then a reflective blankets before our Therm-A-Rests.
Ashlyn had a better sleep system, with a sleeping mat with an R-Value of 3.4 and a synthetic sleeping bag rated for -27, so she graciously agreed to sleep next to the door. I had an extra ground sheet from my winter tent below my mat that only has an R-Value of 1.8 and then slept in a -5 women's down bag inside a -5 men's synthetic bag. I didn't find myself cold while I slept, but I was wearing wool socks, leggings and track pants, a marino wool shirt with a thick wool sweater overtop, fleece mitts, a balaclava, plus a toque, and was also using my 100g PrimaLoft jacket as a pillow. Though we blocked the door with a tarp and my backpack, cold air was still making its way onto Ashlyn, so she wore wool socks, fleece lined leggings, a marino wool shirt, toque and buff, and a soft shell jacket with a moderate activity rating to -23 to keep warm.
My sleep wasn't great, but it wasn't any worse than a typical summer night in a tent. I stayed warm and was as comfortable as you can be when you're not in your own bed. We went to bed around 1am and got up at 9:30 only to stay wrapped up in our bags for another hour and a half. Eventually we climbed out of our cave, cooked breakfast over the fire, and packed up to head home. Before we left we wanted to test the strength of the quinzee and were amazed that we were able to jump up and down on top of it and it didn't cave in.
Ashlyn and I both had such an awesome time building and sleeping in our quinzee. It made for the perfect getaway with a good mix of adventure and relaxation. We spent hours chatting by the fire, setting up fun photos, and just being goofs while also trying something completely new for the both of us. If you're wanting to have your own quinzee camping experience, there might still be time to fit it in this year - just call the park ahead of time and make sure they've still got enough snow!