Snow-holing

Mountaineer sitting up inside snow-hole (Image courtesy of John Armstrong, Glenmore Lodge)

Making your own bed and then lying in it is part of the fun of enjoying the outdoors, and can be a crucial survival technique.

In deep snow conditions, building a snow-hole is an option as long as you know what you are doing and have prepared carefully. Deep snow implies deep cold, and the risk of avalanche is another serious factor.

Unlike igloos, a snow-hole is typically dug into the snow. It will take 2-3 hours to complete.

The Cairngorm Ranger Service helped the Out of Doors radio team to learn the skills required for spending a night under snow. Qualified instructor Heather Morning is a mountaineer who has taught winter skills and snow-holing for over ten years.

See pictures from their expedition and other people's in this gallery.

The Out of Doors team go snow-holing

If you want to have a go yourself, you must find a safe way to try it out, based on a realistic assessment of your own outdoor expertise.

It is vital that you prepare by acquiring all the skills, equipment and information for spending a night in the Scottish mountains in winter. Under no circumstances should you plan a night outdoors in winter without expert supervision or taking a course which will give you the skills to keep you safe.

Here are some other points to think about.

What you need

Heather prepared this additional gear list, to be used over and above standard winter mountaineering kit:

  • Avalanche probe and avalanche transceiver
  • Shovel
  • Headtorch with spare batteries
  • An extra pair of outer gloves - you will soak one pair while digging your hole
  • Sleeping bag and sleep mat
  • A high quality waterproof and breathable bivi bag is the best way to keep your sleeping bag dry
  • A change of clothes in which to sleep

Location

Mountaineer beginning to dig snow-hole  (Image courtesy of John Armstrong, Glenmore Lodge)

You don't have to do as much digging if you build on a slope. But there are very serious factors to think about in choosing a safe site.

  • What is above you? Is it, or might it become an avalanche or melt risk?
  • Which direction is the wind blowing from? Is it forecast to change? The entrance to your snow-hole could become buried.
  • What will you do if the temperature rises? There is a risk of the snow-hole slumping or collapsing. Do not go snow-holing when temperatures are above freezing.
  • How can you make your snow-hole visible to other people?

Temperature

A roof of snow offers much more insulation than the fabric of a tent. Even so, you are still going to be in contact with freezing surfaces.

  • Your sleeping bag should be rated down to at least -10C (14 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • A full length, four season sleeping mat (inflatable or closed-foam) will help prevent cold feet.

Building a snow-hole is hard work and will likely make you hot and sweaty. Take care you don't chill while your body readjusts afterwards.

Moisture

You might be warmer than in a tent but you need to work out how to stay dry. Your snow home is certain to drip as the surfaces around you melt.

  • Make sure your sleeping bag is protected or at least will keep its insulation when damp - in this regard, synthetic fillings are generally better than down.
  • Think about all the rest of your clothing, to minimise having to get dressed in clothes that are already wet.

Air

Candles and stoves are both potential sources of lethal, odourless carbon monoxide gas. It mixes readily in air - sleeping on a raised ledge makes little difference to the risk.

Think about ventilation, especially while cooking, and be aware that a headache, dizziness or blue lips could signal a lack of fresh air.

Professional guidance

If you still feel this is an activity you'd like to try, have a look at the Mountaineering Council of Scotland website to find out about courses led by qualified guides who will make sure your experience is safe, cold, and fun.

Have you tried snow-holing in Scotland? Would you like to try it? Or do you think it is too dangerous? Add your comments below.

Page first published on Friday 6th February 2009
Page last updated on Wednesday 11th February 2009

Your Views

George Rankine
I first snow holed in 1964 when I was at Glenmore Lodge, and then did so many times both when instructing students (in the same area as your presenters} and in the Cairntoul area where we used it as a base for climbing in the corries. The secret was to make it as luxurious as possible, with the occasional steak being consumed, washed down with a glass of wine! The same hole could be used for quite some time, as of course the snow seemed to last quite a bit longer in those (far off..) days. Much more comfortable than either igloos (which tended to collapse) or tents.

Dave Aberdeen
Good article was looking forward to see much more pictures. It’s on my list of things to do. Must try and build one this year, in case I need to build one for real.Planning on building a proper Igloo using a snow saw. Just hope that the snow has had time to consolidate and harden up.

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