Making a snow cave is hard work, but it can also be a fun way to spend some time in the winter backcountry of Japan’s mountains. Oh, it can also save your life.
Tips from The Pig
Chose a good spot with plenty of snow that’s not in or under the path of a potential avalanche or on top of a frozen river, stream or lake covered by snow. Also, be sure not to dig your cave on a route other backcountry skiers or trekkers might use. FLASHBACK: A few years back I went out in the backcountry of Hokkaido for the weekend deciding to make and use a snow cave on that trip. Everything went well. I made a good cave but not very deep and had a good night’s sleep, but in the morning I heard a sound and suddenly I had a guy with his skis on top of me and yelling his head off. He had gone though the top of my cave.
Be sure to bring the right clothing (quick drying layers) and, before you start digging your snow cave, take off a layer of clothing. A lot of people start digging and 10 minutes later start overheating and sweating which wastes a lot of energy, and you need all the energy you can get.
Take your time and don’t rush if you can. Be sure to share the work and don’t forget to drink water and/or eat something to keep your strength up in the cold. Again, saving energy by not overheating.
Make sure your snow is suitable to make a cave. You may have to pack it down with skis or snowshoes.
To begin your cave, first make an entrance about 50 cm. deep and 70 cm. square, slightly up off the ground so it’s easier to get the snow out from inside your cave. The entrance should be big enough to get in and out, but not too big, or it will let all the warmth out.
Start making the main “living” space for you or your group. It’s a good idea to have some kind of insulating under you, such as a pad or mat. You’ll spend a lot of time digging on your stomach or knees, so this will help keep you warm.
Smooth the inside of the roof to stop drips with your hands or a shovel. Also, smooth out the inner dome walls as much as possible.
Dig a small hole in the floor of your cave, near one of the walls, about 30 cm. long and 15 cm. wide and 15 cm. deep. Believe it or not, this will help keep you warm. Cold air sinks.
It’s important to make a hole in the roof of the snow cave about an inch wide. Make sure it goes all the way through. You need a ventilation hole or you and your group could suffocate, which would not be a good thing.
If you can, it is a good idea to carve sleeping benches into your cave. Try to carve the benches about 50 cm. or higher off the floor. This again will help keep you warm and above the cold air.
If possible, try to cover the floor with mats or pads for insulation.
If melting snow starts dripping, compact it with snow to try to stop the dripping.
Once finished, block the entrance with a backpack or snow, but keep a hole for air.
Once you have finished digging your snow cave, you will be very warm, or even hot, but you will cool down real fast, so have the layer you took off dry and ready to put back on.
Never light a fire or use cookers in a cave because of the carbon monoxide. People die every year from cooking in caves and tents due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Practice. This is the best advice I can give you about digging a snow cave. Go out and practice building a cave at your local park or your back yard. Don’t wait until your butt is on the line to do it.
Choosing whether or not to build a snow cave, and how you do it, depends on a lot of things: weather, snow condition, your and your group’s condition and fitness, but I hope this makes it easier and helps keep you safe and warm this winter.
—Word from The Bush Pig