One of my favorite things to do in the winter is build a snow cave. Even if the snow hasn’t quite hit the ground in your neck of the woods, it’s never too early to get prepared for this fun activity.

Snow caves are not just for the curious or bored. They can be lifesaving shelters in the backcountry, and knowing how to build one is an invaluable tool for an outdoorsman to have. It’s a lot of work, but the result is quite satisfying, and you get a quiet and relatively warm place to sleep.

Typically, it takes 2 people—each with a shovel—at least 2 or 3 hours to build a snow cave. Before you start digging, though, use a probe or a long branch to make sure you won’t be digging into a rock. You’ll need lots of snow to work with, a site that’s level and if you live in avalanche country, make sure you’re not at risk.

Once you’ve found a good spot, use your shovel to make a large pile of snow. Dig the tunnel that leads into the cave so that it slopes upward. This will ensure that any cold air stays low.

Next, you’ll need to hollow out the interior of your snow cave. Make sure to make the cave large enough to accommodate everyone in your group, and keep the base about 2 to 3 feet thick. This makes for a sturdy foundation.  You’ll also need to make it large enough so you can sit up inside, but not too wide. Snow is heavy and needs to be supported properly. Making the cave too wide may cause your cave to collapse on itself. Haul the interior snow outside with a sled.

When you get the cave’s interior hollowed out, then it’s time to smooth out the roof so you don’t get drips on your sleeping bags. I’d also lay down a waterproof tarp on the floor for good measure. Finally, make a ventilation hole in the roof to avoid the risk of suffocation. You can use a branch, a ski, or a trekking pole to do this; it doesn’t need to be large.

Bonus Tip: Put a backpack in the doorway at night to keep your snow cave warmer. Be sure to make the backpack easily removable, though, so you can get out quickly if you need to.

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