Backyard Campout in the Snowcave

sledding on the snowcave

After three more hours of carving we deemed our latest snowcave to be habitable. The inside dimensions were about seven by ten, and my son could stand in it. The temperatures started in the teens and dropped to about eight, at the lowest.

One of the major challenges of camping with kids is sleeping. Many of us make the classic novice mistake of enforcing regular indoor bedtimes. At home it’s a simple process – tuck them in, close the door, then go downstairs, put on a movie and bust out the ice cream. I think I was twelve when I realized that 1) my parents didn’t have a bedtime, and 2) a person could have ice cream more than once a week, even every day.

sleeping in the snowcave

Outdoors, without an actual bed or bedroom, the kids aren’t fooled. After stuffing our faces with candy, s’mores, and cocoa, we usually compromise on bedtime – a couple hours later for them, and a couple earlier for mom and dad.

Unfortunately, in this case with all the sleeping-pad sledding, my daughter was exhausted by about 7:00 PM, so she didn’t get to join us. Major bummer, because she had actually expressed some interest – impressive, for a three year old. So, we had a nice campfire with our neighbors and then packed out the sleeping gear and hit the hay, aka snow, around 9:30 PM.

Another Snowcave

Huge snow bankIf our first quinzee were an RV it would be a popup tent trailer – functional, but cramped and drafty. Today we upgraded to a class A motorhome with popouts. To build a class A quinzee you need a massive pile of snow, and to add the popouts, i.e., additional bedrooms and den, you need multiple connected piles. I think the snow cleanup crew had just such a cave suite in mind when they plowed our complex this week.

Super quinzeeThe photo doesn’t quite do it justice. I’d say it’s ten feet tall, twenty wide, and maybe thirty front to back – the grand teton of snow banks. The problem with quinzee construction in a week-old snow mound is the ice. After two hours of hacking and carving I was spent, so my son took over for about two minutes, but we ran out of light. The campout will have to be for another night, to his dismay, and mine.

For some reason my daughter, who’s three, isn’t so jazzed about sleeping with a few hundred pounds of snow looming over her. In response to an invite my wife said, thanks for the invite. Sleeping on the snow, in a cave, in the cold, a hundred yards from our apartment… seems silly. But it’s not. It’s awesome.

Snow Tunnel Sled Slide

snow tunnel sled slide entrance

As with the quinzee, we took advantage of a large and very well placed snow bank outside our apartment. After about 30 minutes of carving and molding we had ourselves a snow tunnel sled slide. It was like Splash Mountain at Disney Land, minus the water, and the Disney Land, plus some snow. So it was more like Splash Mountain and the Matterhorn combined.

The kids took turns playing the abominable snow man, bombing huge snow clods from above. Obliterating us in the face was probably the best part for them.

snow tunnel sled slide side

snow tunnel sled slide exit

As you’ll see in the video, the kids weren’t sure what was happening – maybe they were passing through a warp zone? Who knows. To be sure, I had to peek and caught my face on the arch going down. Twice. It’s not a warp zone.

Campout in the Quinzee

Last week my son and I built a snow cave, more precisely a snow hut or quinzee, in a massive snowbank near our apartment building.

digging the snowcave    snowcave

Then, we spent the night in it!

snowcave    inside the snowcave

We had been waiting for a low temperature of at least ten degrees, and Tuesday was the mildest forecast we could find – it never went below fifteen, with most of the night in the twenties. A neighbor had started the entrance to the cave and we finished the excavating in about an hour, with dimensions just large enough to hold our air mattress.

snowcave mattress    snowcave mattress

Our supplies:

  1. A lot of snow – In our case, a parking lot, plowed by a backhoe. The snowbank was at least eight feet tall and maybe twenty wide.
  2. Shovels – We used a regular old digging shovel to break the snow free, and a small flat snow shovel to scoop it out.
  3. Air mattress – You’d think it would be colder than a regular sleeping pad, but the air makes for nice insulation.
  4. Sleeping bags – My son was in a Kelty Mistral zero degree adult bag, with synthetic fill. To keep him from squirming out (a problem on our last campout) I cinched the drawstrings around his neck and head. And to keep his toes warm I folded the bottom half up as an extra layer and tied it in place (empty sleeping bag space is cold space). I was in a Lafuma Warm n Light twenty degree down bag.

We both slept like babies, toasty warm from 10:30 PM to 5:30 AM. However, the mattress had deflated slowly through the night, and I woke up feeling more like Benjamin Button. It was a great time – definitely worth the trouble, especially for my son. Every night since he has asked if we can go “camping.”

Some notes:

  1. If it’s your first attempt with a kid, plan the campout close to home so you can abort in an emergency.
  2. Use a snowbank or drift if possible, otherwise budget at least three hours for completion.
  3. Building a quinzee from scratch you’ll want at least a six foot mound – one to two hours of shoveling. Aim for wall and ceiling thickness of at least a foot.
  4. Any ice crystal precipitation will do. All the shoveling, mixing, and tossing will get even the most powdery snow to harden, or sinter, once it’s piled.
  5. Start the entrance downwind, and keep it as small as possible.

Next time we’re trying an igloo.