In the far north, during the season of long nights and fierce storms, there is no better place to tell the traditional myths and riddles meant to pass the dark time than a well constructed igloo. The windfree dome, lit by a simple lamp, is a vision many of us aspired to as children. When the snow finally did come each winter, our humble facsimiles of these time-honored shelters kept us happy and busy for hours.
Today the snow shelter has fallen under the domain of winter outbackers, survivalists and rescue personnel. The traditional methods of building these shelters have been revised for terrains and latitudes different than their origins. But the immense satisfaction from building our own sanctum amidst the challenges of winter has not changed since our childhood when we pitched snowballs from our misshapen forts.
Building the Igloo
Igloos are the hardest type of snowshelter to build on a first time effort, but because of their warmth, roominess, and aesthetic appeal, they are wonderful to spend time in.
You’ll need a snow shovel and an aluminum snow saw, or a carpenter’s rip saw, 14-20 inches long
Borrowed from the term rock quarry, snow quarry is the site you choose with deep, compressed snow. Your quarry may be the same area over which the igloo is to be built and then forms the floor of the igloo. In most areas removed from the far north or high elevations, snow falls without compacting sufficiently for blocks to be cut, but that can be remedied. Tramp an area for your quarry with boots, snowshoes or skis and allow it to sinter (freeze nearly solid). This may take up to an hour. Keep the quarry close to the intended site of the igloo.
Dig a hole or trench to stand in so you can reach the underside of the first blocks to cut them free. Beware of ice layers, where the snow has thawed and refrozen. These layers make the blocks fragile. Sugar snow, which has a texture just like the name, also makes poor blocks. The most efficient block size will be one you can carry that holds together.
When building with snow blocks, each block must be trimmed and shaped after it is cut from the quarry. Once blocks are cut, begin construction in an upward spiral, unlike traditional masonry. Block shape depends on the position in the spiral where it is to be placed. Blocks near the floor are almost rectangular; near the top center of the dome practically triangular. Blocks can be of various shapes as long as they are cut to similar heights, upper length narrow, and underside arched. Continue spiraling up the igloo. Set the final blocks from the inside.
Shovel snow onto the igloo and gently pack it into the holes and crevices from the outside. Protruding edges on the inside should be carefully trimmed to prevent dripping when the inside temperatures climb above freezing.
The entry is a tunnel into the snow that enters the igloo ideally at floor level, so that one climbs up onto the floor when entering. This traps heat in the igloo. Don’t forget to open a vent high on the igloo wall, especially if you will be cooking inside.
Curing and Customizing
Cut out benches, sleeping platforms, and cooking areas. Carve out shelves and alcoves for candles, utensils. After a night or two of use, the warming on the inside and subsequent refreezing will cause the walls to become very strong. Keep your snow shovel inside so you can easily dig your way out in the event of a big heavy snow during the night.
Unlike the castle built from sand at the beach, an igloo can last as long as the winter allows until finally left to melt into a memory come spring thaws.