When leaves fall from trees, temperatures drop below freezing and snow covers all your surroundings, natural materials for 3 season emergency shelters become scarce. If thrust into an emergency bivouac with minimal gear, you may need to construct a shelter capable of keeping you warm, dry and out of the elements until day break. You may be comfortable in the woods most of the year but now winter is bearing down and you have limited time to save yourself. You may know how to make debris huts, lean-to shelters and wikiups but even if substantial evergreen boughs can be found for roofing, they alone do not insulate efficiently or block Mother Nature’s wind and cold for a comfortable night’s rest without a fire. Winter cold can cause stress, anxiety and fear but it doesn’t have to if you can construct a quincee. This write up will help you learn how to provide shelter for yourself and others in the most extreme situations than can cause even the most experienced outdoors people suffer exposure-related injuries, and even death.
The first step in constructing a quincee is identifying a good location for one. As with any shelter, try to determine the direction of the prevailing wind. You can place the door anywhere or make two doors if you have the time. Unlike most 3 season shelters where the door is created first, the quince’s door is dug out towards the end of construction. Luckily, the quincee’s dome shape effectively dissipates powerful winds and the snow construction muffles the sound. Snow insulates well because it contains trapped air. In fact, a water bottle can be stuck inside a pile of snow, buried overnight and in the morning it will not be frozen. Hopefully you won’t be frozen at the end of this construction! To start, I always pace out my quincee’s outer dimensions. Taking 1.5 strides or approximately 8 feet, I pace out a square to mark its placement. Once I determine the placement, I place my poncho on the ground with my pack over it. Granted, you may not have a poncho so this step is optional if gear is not available. I cover over my pack with snow and create a “dead man”. I will eventually hollow out the quincee and the pack will create a space that will limit the amount of hollowing out I have to do. Again, this step is optional but it does help. With multiple people and gear, the hollow can be fairly large.
After your pack is placed in the center of the paced out outer dimensions, you must start shoveling snow on top of everything. This next step is very exhausting and can cause you to sweat profusely. You must consider this next step will require many calories and calories out must be replaced with calories in. Do you have extra food or water? Hopefully you do. On average, this step can take anywhere from 1 hour to 3 depending on digging/shoveling tools, physical fitness and snow conditions. If you don’t have a shovel, you can use the frame sheet from a backpack, a large cooking pot, a doubled over closed foam sleeping pad or your gloved hands. If you have over a foot of snow on the ground, it doesn’t take too long. With less snow, you may want to consider another option like a thermal A-frame lean-to. Think standard lean-to with snow on top of the shingled evergreen boughs.
At 6’ tall, I try to make the mound of snow I’m piling up about shoulder height or approximately 5’ high. From time to time, you must pack the snow down, especially if it is powder. This may seem counter productive but loose snow will collapse and it is very disheartening to work hard piling up snow for it to fall apart towards the end of the construction. My favorite quincee snow is somewhere in between powder and wet slush. If you can imagine the perfect snow for making a snowball, you can envision the snow I love using to make this type of shelter.
After your mound of snow has been piled high and repeatedly compressed, you must wait at least an hour before hollowing it out. I usually use this time from rest to hollowing to find a large armful of 12” sticks. These sticks will be used for depth gauges in the snow. Once a large armful has been collected and an hour or so has passed, start making a pin cushion out of your mound of snow. There is no rhyme or reason behind technique here. Simply place them all around the mound and make sure they go straight in towards the center. You will look for the ends of these from the inside when you start hollowing it out. Once all sticks are inserted, you can begin hollowing out your mound of snow. WARNING: THE NEXT STEP COULD CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH. Make sure you do not get wet when laying in the snow digging out your living space. If you have a trash bag or .99 cent disposable poncho, you have a great barrier from the wet snow. If your clothes get snow on them, brush it off repeatedly. Don’t get soaked! You probably won’t have a fire to dry your clothes and you need them to keep you warm throughout the night. In the past, I’ve built quincees by digging a trench out of my mound of snow, laying boughs over the trench and covering it with more snow. This traditional quince depicted here was made with nothing more than snow.
You should dig until you reach your buried pack. You’ll see it peeking out at you and you should pull it out. This hollow space is usually enough already to sneak inside. However, for more comfort, continue to dig. You can now use your poncho as a snow removal device. You can pile snow on top of it and drag it out. You could also use it to cover yourself as you crawl inside and out over and over. When you are digging it out, make sure to avoid digging past your 12” index sticks as it may cause your shelter to collapse. Also, what works best for me is shaving the inside of the shelter when I’m not directly under it. I personally don’t like snow falling down the back of my neck. At this point, you are almost done but you must finish your shelter the correct way. Before you bed down for the night, you must create a depression for the cold air to collect in. As most people know from early junior-high science, warm air rise and cold air sinks. That’s why you want to be in a slightly elevated area while you’re sleeping while the cold air is sinking into the depression. Believe me, even just a little small amount can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your sleeping comfort in such rigorous conditions.
The way I usually do this is by digging it approximately 12” to 18” by 18” wide. Warm air rises and cold air sinks. Don’t sleep in the lowest point of your shelter; stay somewhat elevated for more comfort. Also, make sure your sleeping platform is level. A couple years ago, my platform was tilted a bit and my left side of my body slipped into the side of the shelter the entire night. I wasn’t in pain but it wasn’t comfortable. Needless to say, my rest wasn’t great that night. Also, make sure you smooth out your ceiling. Jagged ceilings become places for melting snow to drip water on you. Smoothing out the inside of your shelter lets the melting snow run down the inside of your quincee’s walls and away from your face. Whether you cut a ventilation hole in the roof is up to you but I only find it necessary if you decide to burn a small candle inside or if you are entirely enclosed with snow on all sides. As a general rule, I always make my door somewhat porous by using my pack, a large chunk of snow or evergreen boughs. Never, do I make my door air tight.
Once your shelter is completed, you can rest in it in reasonable comfort. On average, the snow will insulate you and bring the temperature on the inside of the shelter up considerably. It might even be a balmy 40 degrees! It has been said the act of building a winter shelter is what keeps you alive, not the shelter itself. Sure, the snow trench and thermal A-frame are quicker but I believe the quince to be one of the most durable, strongest (in some respects) and long lasting shelters you can make. This shelter took me 3.5 hours to build. Despite my experience, the process can be long and difficult and you must have the wherewithal to judge if you can and should build one. As previously stated, the quincee is a long-lasting shelter capable of staying upright for days, weeks and even months. The dome is a strong shape that lasts. This can be seen in the use of arches throughout history in coliseums, palaces, and other large structures where significant weight has to be supported. This concept is no different other than its scale. If done right, after a little practice, you’ll have the knowledge to protect yourself and gain shelter where others might not have a chance. Every bit of information you collect along the way in your life can be that slight edge you need to turns steers the course of fate toward survival.
A quincee is a shelter that can be constructed for an extended stay in the wilderness or just for fun with your kids in the backyard. They are fun to build and are easy to practice, just find your nearest snow bank if you don’t want to shovel! When Mother Nature brings its worst winter weather, you can rest assured you have the skills to survive it. Adding the knowledge of quincee construction to your wilderness skills repertoire will certainly make you a more capable WOODS MONKEY!
Kevin Estela has extensive outdoors experience serving both as a whitewater guide, and as a survival instructor for the Wilderness Learning Center in Chateaugay, New York.