How to Build an Igloo

Or for the less committed, how to build a snow cave or fort ... because when life gives you snow, make snow things.

Wintry scene with snowy trees
Smitt / Getty Images

From simple snow forts to intricate igloos, there’s something undeniably satisfying about forging a structure using materials exclusively supplied by the winter sky. If you find yourself with an abundance of snow and a hankering to go out and build something, here’s where to start.

Construct a Quinzee


Guillaume Capron/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The word quinzee (or quinzhee) comes from the Athabascan language family and refers to a freeform snow-dome cave made by hollowing out a mound of snow. It differs from snow forts and igloos in that one doesn’t need to make snow bricks.

1. Make the Mound

Shovel snow into a small mountain 7-8 feet in height and wide enough around to suit your needs. It is important to mix snows of different temperatures to cause it to harden—as you pile snow into the mound, flip it over like you’re tilling soil to help it mix.

2. Let Sit, Then Dig

The mound needs to sit for about 90 minutes to harden; consider this your hot cocoa break. Once the mound feels pretty solid, begin hollowing it out. If there is a downhill side, that’s where the entrance should be. As you dig, start at the top and work your way down, smoothing out the ceiling and walls as you go. Walls should be 1 to 2 feet thick, poke a measuring stick out to check thickness. You can create benches or beds inside by digging trenches in the floor of the snow.

3. Take Care
Make ventilation holes to prevent suffocation; also note that quinzees can collapse from poor snow condition, increase in air temperature, failure to let the mound harden enough, or from people clambering on top!

Fashion a Snow Fort

Snow fort

haven't the slightest/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Is there a snowball war in your future? If so, a snowbound stronghold may be in order. Here we’ve elaborated on the basics as described by Popular Mechanics.

1. Lay Out the Floor Plan
With a shovel or broomstick, trace the outlines of your fort; this may just be a wall to provide cover from incoming armaments, or it may be a four-sided structure, depending on how much snow you have.

2. Prepare the Bricks
You will need a mold to form the bricks—a bucket, plastic boxes, or even an ice chest. Look for moist packing snow rather than powder, which will not hold together as well. If you are stuck mostly with loose, powdery snow, seek out wetter snow closer to the house or landscaping that will be warmer and wetter. Pack the container with snow, and use a yardstick to loosen the edges to release the bricks when you’re ready.

3. Build the Structure
Line up bricks along the outline, spacing the bricks a few inches apart, then stack the next layer staggering the edges in the same way that bricks are laid. The gaps between bricks should be filled in and packed with snow. Since this is a fort, you just need to build the walls and not worry about a roof.

4. Ice the Walls
Finally, dump buckets of cold water over the interior and exterior walls, working from the bottom up so as to prevent a collapse. As soon as the surface freezes, you are ready for a full-fledged snowball skirmish. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Build an Igloo

Inuit women building an igloo
Inuit women building an igloo in 1926. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

This structure is the most complicated of the three and takes some effort. Instructions here are for the most basic of igloos.

What is an igloo?

An igloo (also spelled iglu, and also called an aputiak) is a temporary winter dwelling of Canadian and Greenland Inuit. The term igloo, or iglu, comes from Eskimo igdlu, meaning "house," and is related to a town called Iglulik, and the Inuit people (Iglulirmiut,)—both on an island of the same name. 

1. Source Your Snow
Break out the snow saw or knife and find a good source of dry, hard-packed snow, from which you will cut large snow blocks. Ideally, the blocks should start out at about 3 feet long, 15 inches high and 8 inches deep, according to "The Complete Wilderness Training Guide,” and will decrease in size. Smooth the edges of the blocks.

2. Get Building
Mark out a circle in the snow and start placing the snow blocks in the circle, staggering the blocks like conventional brickwork with each new row. Blocks should get smaller as you work your way up, and shape them so that they lean inward to create the dome. The blocks should work in a way that they hold each other up. You may need to support the structure with sticks inside until the dome is complete to prevent collapse.

The last piece will be the center of the top. Find a block that is larger than the hole and shape it to fit very snugly. Then cut out a door with your snow saw. Pack loose snow into all the cracks and crevices and smooth out the interior walls. Finish by digging a tunnel to the door and cover with an archway of more snow blocks. And don’t forget to poke ventilation holes in the structure to prevent suffocation.

Snow glamping location
A luxury snow dwelling to aspire to, pictured above, located in Finnish Lapland.

Romain Cloff/Flickr/CC BY 2.0