Snow shelter offers basic way to experience winter camping

By Pam Christensen

For most women, Valentine’s Day means flowers, candy and a romantic dinner out. My Valentine’s Day this year was spent in our backyard snow shelter.

That’s not just a pile of snow––it’s a snow shelter, suitable for winter camping and built by the author’s husband, Ralph Christensen. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

That’s not just a pile of snow––it’s a snow shelter, suitable for winter camping and built by the author’s husband, Ralph Christensen. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

On a recent trip to Lansing for a Library of Michigan Board of Trustees meeting, Ralph, my husband, and I were discussing our “bucket lists.”

Ralph had heart bypass surgery in August 2012, and this has changed his perspective. Rather than make a bucket list and say, “Someday before I die,” he is making his list and trying to get to each item as soon as possible.

After completing my official duties in Lansing, we traveled to our hometown of Ludington. We both grew up in the picturesque city along Lake Michigan’s shore. It has experienced a brutal winter this year, and we wanted to compare the snows to those we remember as youngsters. No trip to Ludington is complete without a trip to Ludington State Park.

At the park, we found several groups of hearty winter campers. Some of them had tents, but the majority were sleeping in hammocks sheltered by tarps. All the sites had a roaring fire located near the tent or hammock and campers were huddled around the fire.

The interior of the snow shelter was actually pretty cozy, with camping mattresses and blankets. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

The interior of the snow shelter was actually pretty cozy, with camping mattresses and blankets. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

One of Ralph’s bucket list items is a winter campout. This is not so much a new experience for Ralph as a way to re-create fond memories he has of winter campouts as a Boy Scout. I have heard about the camping trip where it was so cold the eggs froze. The boys had to peel the frozen eggs in order to put them in the pan for cooking. Ralph also experienced a blizzard while camping in the mountains of Montana while elk hunting in 1980.

These adventures had all been experienced in canvas tents. For his bucket list, Ralph wanted to try building a snow shelter and camp in that. We discussed ways to conquer this bucket list item. I suggested he try building a snow shelter in our backyard. If he could get a shelter built, we would spend at least one night “camping out” in order to see what would be needed for a real woods experience.

We are not camping novices. While our recent camping has been done in our twenty-four-foot travel trailer, we tent camped in the early years of our marriage, and have made two trips to the Minnesota Boundary Waters to experience wilderness canoeing and camping.

Snow shelter builder Ralph Christensen works to create a door for his snow shelter, which also has a tarp roof and Styrofoam insulation flooring to keep it warm. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

Snow shelter builder Ralph Christensen works to create a door for his snow shelter, which also has a tarp roof and Styrofoam insulation flooring to keep it warm. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

Ralph’s experiences as a Boy Scout and hunting enable him to take on this type of adventure with little effort. He is a natural in the woods, and can adapt to almost any situation, but most of our camping has been done in the summer months. I have never camped in the winter, but I was willing to give it a try.

We returned home from Ludington, and Ralph set about building the backyard snow shelter. There already was a pretty impressive pile of snow located in our backyard, the result of repeated snowblowing and shoveling. The area was well packed to a depth of thirty inches.

Ralph scoped out the area and set four 6 foot 2 x 4s at what would become the corners of the shelter. The next step was to build the walls. At this point he started to shovel snow from the interior of the snow shelter out to the exterior walls. This placed snow from inside the shelter on the outside where it was needed.

Ralph estimated an interior floor dimension of 8 feet by 6 1/2 feet. This would give us space for our inflatable air bed and a small perimeter around the bed for walking and to provide space away from the cold snow walls. Once the exterior walls were built and firm, he hollowed out the interior of the shelter to these dimensions.

A wooden frame to support the door of the snow shelter became necessary during the building process. Some snow builders even craft furniture in their shelters. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

A wooden frame to support the door of the snow shelter became necessary during the building process. Some snow builders even craft furniture in their shelters. (Photo Courtesy: Pam Christensen)

An Internet search for snow shelters gave him ideas about how to construct the shelter. As the snow sat, it would settle and harden. Unfortunately, the snow was too fluffy to use to form a roof on the shelter, so Ralph decided to build several 2 x 4 supports to run across the top of the snow shelter sides to support a tarp.

Several people he knows from work also have extensive snow shelter experience and they were willing to give advice. I would get daily reports on what Ralph was going to do next or what modifications he was going to make to improve the comfort of the shelter.

Building the shelter took about a week. February 14 was designated as the day to move into the shelter. We would spend the evening in the shelter despite the fact that temperatures were predicted to be just above zero. I was thankful this experiment was going to be conducted in our backyard rather than a remote winter camp. If worse came to worst, I figured I could take refuge in the house, or at the very least, take a hot shower in the morning.

Ralph’s planning extended to the outfitting of the shelter. We rummaged in the basement and found three metal coffee cans to use for pillar candles. These would provide light in the shelter, and hopefully, some ambient heat.

During his winter campouts as a Boy Scout, they used newspapers as ground insulation. The cold and moisture from the ground would just add to the discomfort. Building a barrier between the ground and the camper is a good idea for comfort and warmth. Ralph planned to place a piece of Styrofoam insulation board on the bottom of the shelter on top of a tarp placed on the snow floor. I advocated for a one-inch thick sheet of insulation, Ralph thought a thinner sheet would suffice.

The Styrofoam board did work, but a thicker sheet would have been better. Of course, there is a difference between pulling a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of insulation out of the garage versus carrying the same sheet into the woods.

On top of the Styrofoam, Ralph put our air bed. I had my doubts about the air bed, because we have used it in cold weather, and the air inflating the bed immediately gets cold. Ralph thought it would work if we had enough insulation between the ground and the bed and us. If you are going to try snow shelter camping, I can assure you that using an air bed is a bad idea.

The air bed did get cold, and we deflated it soon after settling in for the night. Deflated, it worked quite well as a barrier from the cold and moisture found in the ground.

Over the air bed went two Thermarest mattresses we use for backcountry camping. A flannel quilt went between the Thermarests and our sleeping bags.

If we were going to recreate this adventure in an environment other than the backyard, we would purchase new sleeping bags. The bags we have are rated at twenty degrees. They are perfect for summer Boundary Waters canoeing and camping, but not as warm as we should have for winter camping. They were improved by the addition of our Hudson Bay wool blanket, another quilt and one more wool blanket. Winter-rated bags should be used, especially in a wilderness camping situation.

What our sleeping bags lacked, our Under Armor sleeping attire made up for. Ralph and I both wore thermal underwear tops and bottoms, fleece shirts and wool socks. Ralph wore a stocking cap on his head, and I wore a fleece hooded mask that left room for only my eyes, nose and mouth.

This gear was a necessity considering the temperature was five degrees with a wind chill of minus thirteen. Despite the cold, I comforted myself with the thought that the U.P. 200 and Midnight Run mushers were out in the weather, not in a comfy snow shelter.

Ralph had tried to find something that would predict the temperature difference between the snow shelter and the outside. In order to determine this, we brought a thermometer into the shelter to monitor the temperature during the night. Our high temperature was seventeen degrees. The flickering candles provided a warm glow inside the shelter and may have helped our body heat increase the temperature.

After spending the night in the shelter, I could see why winter travelers camping in an unforgiving environment might bring the dogs into the shelter for added warmth.

We made our move into the shelter about 9:30 p.m. After about a half hour of getting settled, and deflating the air bed, we fell asleep. Ralph woke at midnight and fell back asleep. I slept very well, and didn’t wake until 6:00 a.m.

The conditions were much more comfortable than I expected. The tarp rustled in the wind, similar to the sound of the leaves on the trees during a summer camping trip. The flickering candles added a warm glow to the walls of the shelter.

We spent one night in the snow shelter. Ralph has been fighting a cold, and he decided he didn’t want to chance another night in the show shelter right away. I was game to stay again, but not by myself.

After our first night in the shelter, snow has covered the tarp roof, and made more of an igloo of the structure. This may improve the insulation of the shelter and make it even warmer on subsequent visits.

One must for an enclosed shelter is to create a ventilation hole, so moisture can escape the shelter. Our tarp had a few ventilation holes in it, so this was not a consideration before the snow formed an airtight roof.

I also have done some research on my own and found suggestions for warming the sleeping bags with water bottles filled with hot water. This seems like an easy thing to do in our backyard. In a wilderness setting, boiling snow can serve this purpose and be used the next day for drinking water.

For future snow shelters, Ralph will form the door to the shelter last. He left a space for the door when he started carving the shelter out of the snow and then found it was too difficult to pack snow back into the door area. Many of the snow shelters in reference materials show a hollowed out door similar to that in an igloo.

Ralph ended up building a door frame out of two by fours, making a header and then filling in the gaps between the door frame and snow with insulation board scraps. He then used a scrap piece of plywood for the door. The door to the shelter looks like an afterthought.

We have decided on our next snow shelter visit to increase the number of candles and add a few more shelves to hold belongings. These are easy to place, just shove a thin piece of board into the wall of the shelter, wherever you want a shelf.

With a bit of advanced planning, shelves made out of snow, could be built into the sides of the snow shelter. Some shelter builders even make sleeping platforms and seating out of snow.

The Valentine’s Day snow shelter experience was phase one of this bucket list item. We plan to spend more time in the shelter and make improvements as we go.

Maybe next Valentine’s Day we will spend the night in the woods in a snow shelter created and improved as a result of our backyard snow shelter experience.

– Pam Christensen

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